Picture courtesy of usatoday.com

The Black Swan Is a Drone

The coordinated drone attack on Saudi oil facilities is a Black Swan event that is reverberating around the world like a meteor strike, awakening copycats and exposing the impossibility of defending against cheap drones of the sort anyone can buy.

The attack’s success should be a wake-up call to everyone tasked with defending highly flammable critical infrastructure: there really isn’t any reliable defense against a coordinated drone attack, nor is there any reliable way to distinguish between an Amazon drone delivering a package and a drone delivering a bomb.

Whatever identification protocol that could be required of drones in the future–an ID beacon or equivalent–can be spoofed. Bring down a legitimate drone, swap out the guidance and payload, and away it goes.  Or steal legitimate beacons from suppliers–the list of spoofing workaround options is extensive.

This is asymmetric warfare on a new scale: $100,000 of drones can wreak $100 million in damage.

If it’s impossible to defend against coordinated drone attacks, and impossible to differentiate “good” drones from “bad” drones, then the only reliable defense is to ban drones entirely from vast swaths of territory.

So much for the widespread commercialization of drones.

What sort of light bulbs are going off in the minds of copycats? It doesn’t take much imagination to see the potential for mayhem–and without sacrificing your own life.  Any highly flammable target is at risk of a similar attack: fully fueled aircraft, oil/natural gas tankers, trucks carrying fuels, pipelines, etc.

The range and payload of commercially available drones is limited. The big drones can fly hundreds of miles and carry hundreds of pounds of weaponry, but these can be targeted by radar and conventional ground-to-air missiles. So-called hobby drones skimming over the rooftops (or deserts or forests) are difficult to shoot down, especially if the attack is coordinated to arrive from multiple directions.

Small hobby drones may only carry 3 KG (roughly 6 pounds), but how much damage can 3 KG of high explosives cause?  The answer is “considerable” if the target is flammable, or lightly shielded electronics.

Larger commercially available drones can carry up to 20 KG or 40 pounds–more than enough explosive capacity to take out any number of targets.

Defense and intelligence agencies have no doubt war-gamed the potential for coordinated drone attacks, and the world’s advanced militaries are already exploring the potential for self-organizing “drone hordes” of hundreds or even thousands of drones overwhelming defenders with sheer numbers. The success of the oil facilities attack proves the effectiveness of much smaller scale drone attacks.

Put yourself in the shoes of those tasked with securing hundreds of miles of pipelines carrying oil and natural gas around the world. What’s your defense against drone attacks? A.I. or remote-operated gun towers every few hundred yards, along thousands of miles of pipelines?

It’s obvious there are no low-cost, effective defenses of thousands of miles of pipelines.  (Recall that the Saudis depend on seawater being piped hundreds of kilometers into the desert to inject into oil wells to bring the oil up to the surface. Taking out these water lines and pumps would cripple production, too.)

The only effective way to limit drone attacks is to ban all drones and institute a shoot-on-sight policy for all drones. But that will not negate the potential for coordinated drone strikes or drone attacks on remote facilities.

The mainstream media will be under pressure to downplay the consequences of this attack, but the cat is out of the bag: the Black Swan is a drone. What was “possible” yesterday is now a proven capability, and the consequences are not fully predictable.

By Charles Hugh Smith