The UAV Threat from Iraq
It is widely known that the United States is using unmanned drone aircraft over Iraq. These aircraft, called UAVs, fall into two categories: Information collection and weapons delivery. They have the obvious advantages of not endangering a pilot, and significantly lower unit costs than manned aircraft capable of undertaking the same tasks. The disadvantage is that these aircraft are unmanned, and thus do not have the flexibility of manned planes.
During Secretary of State Colin Powell’s recent address to the United Nations Security Council, he said, almost in passing, that Iraq has developed UAVs with the capability of overflying neighbor states, and that it has tested their ability to carry and disburse aerosol agents. Powell also noted that Iraq could ship disassembled UAVs to the United States where they could be assembled and used against our citizens.
On Feb. 24, 2003, Fox News broke a story out of the Pentagon that Iraq has fully developed UAVs with sophisticated Global Positioning guidance systems. To further complicate the situation, Fox quoted from unnamed intelligence sources that these GPS-guided Iraqi UAVs are known to contain electronic maps of U.S. cities.
This is not a trivial revelation. My own investigation reveals that a typical UAV like the ones Secretary Powell discussed can be disassembled into components weighing about 20 pounds or less. It is entirely possible that Iraq already has shipped hundreds of these potential weapons into the United States.
Since the individual components are so small, packages containing the dissembled components of a UAV can easily be shipped by various routes, through various organizations, hop-scotching around the world on their way to individuals inside the U.S. – individuals dedicated to our destruction.
Even now, hundreds of these potentially deadly small aircraft could be sitting in garages across the country, waiting for the right moment to launch their deadly payloads. One obvious launch event would be the commencement of hostilities against Iraq.
The typical UAV can be launched from a back yard, since it needs less than 20 feet to become airborne. With a wingspan of about 3 feet, once airborne it is virtually undetectable, even on radar. Its relatively low noise level will blend in with the city sounds of everyday life. Once in the air, unless you happen to look directly at it, a UAV will not be noticed, even while it is distributing its deadly payload.
The first indication that something is wrong will be when many people in a localized area start getting sick, if biological agents are disbursed, or start collapsing in large numbers, if nerve agents are disbursed.
UAVs can be stored as components anywhere, impossible to detect. They can be assembled in a garage, or even on a living room floor. They are virtually invisible after launch.
There are two weak links in the chain of events that can lead to UAVs disbursing their deadly payloads over U.S. cities. One is the shipment phase, where they are not directly in the hands of terrorists. The other is their GPS guidance system.
We have the ability to shut down our GPS satellites, and we can shoot down those not belonging to us. These actions can absolutely stop the UAVs, since they rely upon electronic maps and GPS. Unfortunately, so do many of our guided weapons. Should we take this step, we will limit our own ability to strike Iraq effectively.
We also have the capability of degrading the civilian available information transmitted by our GPS satellites so that the information available to the UAVs is unusable. That is, if they are using this information, instead of that transmitted by someone else’s satellite. Without effective guidance, the UAVs will simply fly aimlessly until they run out of fuel. Of course, they still can disburse their deadly payloads, but will have no control over where it happens.
In these scenarios, however, the entire global commerce will be disrupted, since nearly everything that moves in today’s world is dependent upon GPS in one way or the other. If our very existence is threatened, we can take this step, but otherwise, we probably won’t. Since such a step must be preemptive, we will never know until it is too late whether or not we should have gone ahead.
During shipment, these deadly weapons can be distributed in innocuous packages as part of the billions of pieces of mail and packages transported and delivered all over the world every day.
The big problem is that, in all probability, Iraqi UAVs already have been distributed to terrorist cells worldwide. While it is theoretically possible to intercept future shipments, those in place will remain undetectable until they have accomplished their deadly task.
Realistically, we must assume that Iraqi UAVs are already in place, and must take measures to limit their potential damage. This includes making available to the general public appropriate antidotes to their potential biological and chemical toxins.
On the other hand, we cannot ignore the possibility that shipments are currently underway. We need to institute an immediate crash program to inspect packages in the U.S. Postal Service and those carried by private carriers. Insofar as is possible, we need to backtrack packages already received, in order to determine their contents.
It’s a big job, but if we don’t do it, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens – you and I, our children, our friends – may face painful death within hours of our initial attack on Iraq.
Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor