Weekly Recon - Islamic State's Military Innovations, Missing Drones, Belarus
Good Saturday morning and welcome to Weekly Recon. On this day in 1948, the “Pumpkin Papers” came to light. The House Un-American Activities Committee announced that former communist spy Whittaker Chambers had produced microfilm of secret documents hidden inside a pumpkin on his Maryland farm. Chambers had joined the American Communist Party in 1924 and at various times edited the New Masses and the Daily Worker. Chambers worked as a spy for the Soviet Union before leaving the party in 1938. The following year he joined Time Magazine. In August 1948, Chambers appeared before the House of Un-American Activities Committee and during his testimony claimed that Alger Hiss, a senior U.S. State Department official, was a spy. After a federal grand jury investigation of the cases, Hiss was charged with perjury. His first trial in 1949 ended in a hung jury. In a second trial in 1950 he was found guilty and sentenced to five years imprisonment. Chambers wrote about the Hiss case in his book "Witness" (1952). Whittaker Chambers died on July 9th, 1961.
ISIS’ Improvised Technologies Foreshadow Future Wars - Who needs an air force when you have vehicle-borne IEDs and cheap, commercial drones armed with explosives? This question is causing a pause in the halls of the Pentagon, as it rightly should. What costs tens of thousands of dollars in weapons, fuel, and operational costs for the U.S. military to do, ISIS is quickly learning to perform the same function with a couple thousand dollars invested in an off-the-shelf drone and explosives. On the ground, ISIS is making small investments into large numbers of vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIED) that offer the same pinpoint accuracy of air launch precision-guided munitions, but at pennies on the dollar.
In its ongoing defense of Mosul, the Islamic State has launched 632 (as of December 1) car bombs against assaulting Iraqi forces; a pace of 14 VBIED attacks per day. The vehicles are often difficult to stop because they are typically armored, and airstrikes pose too great a risk to civilians to target them. Much like a JDAM, the VBIED has a delivery system computer—a human brain—that can assess a continuous feed of visual data to change course. ISIS has been using non-local, typically Central Asian recruits to perform the grizzly task of delivering the explosives. The result has been sheer carnage faced by Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in the confined streets of Mosul. At least 1,959 members of the ISF were killed in the month of November.
Another new tactic for IED delivery that was heavily reported last month is the drone-borne IED, which garnered its first recorded kill by ISIS militants against Kurdish fighters. While this technique is still in its infancy, the U.S. appears to have the upper hand with its improving counter-drone technologies. However, as was the case with IEDs during the Iraq War, the enemy will adapt and overcome the countermeasures in time. The most startling thing about this tactic is that ISIS is mimicking the U.S. military’s multi-billion dollar drone program by using off-the-shelf hobby drones and plastic explosives.
ISIS has also been using off-the-shelf hobby-style drones to perform reconnaissance functions. They also serve as means for propaganda production, filming such things as massive explosions from VBIEDS to be used for recruiting and morale boosting.
While ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria, it is gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The lessons learned in Mosul will surely be applied to those locales, and the U.S. and its allies can expect to see them for years to come.
Furthermore, the U.S. would be wise to examine ISIS’ method of battlefield innovation in tactics and equipment. The group’s effective and rapid acquisition of inexpensive, off-the-shelf materials to create new weapons systems and tactics for their use is an interesting case study. These same ideas, when applied to autonomous systems coupled with superior U.S. ISR capabilities, could be of use to the military in future conflicts.
Missing Out on Drone Sales? - Jordan has been a close partner of the U.S. in the ongoing war against terrorism in the Middle East. In return, the U.S. has given the small kingdom sizeable military aide. What Jordan has not received from the U.S., however, are armed drones. That is not to say that they have not acquired them, however. In a turn eastward, Jordan appears to have acquired its own, armed drones, posing the question: did the U.S. miss the boat on armed drone exports?
A recent analysis by the Drone Center at Bard College reveals what appears to be a Chinese made CH-4, strike-capable drone at Zarqa Airport in Jordan. This not the only regional partner of the U.S. that is reported to be operating Chinese drones. That list includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq. Other countries that the U.S. has more tenuous ties with, Nigeria and Pakistan, are also reportedly operating Chinese drones. This goes to show that there has been an existing demand for this technology in recent years. The U.S. has refused to export it, however, because it sought to establish a rules-based system for the global sale of the technology with the goal of dampening global armed-drone proliferation. 48 countries signed that agreement in October.
Did the U.S. miss the boat? Perhaps not—U.S. technology is still superior to the Chinese drones, and will likely remain in high demand. China and Israel did not sign onto that agreement, and neither are signatories to a pre-existing missile testing agreement that limits the export of drone technologies. Erik Lin-Greenberg rightly argued at Lawfare last month that the new agreement is likely to constrain the U.S. defense industry’s ability to export armed drone technology, thus ceding the market to non-signatories. He lists the biggest threats to the U.S. drone industry as:
If Washington fails to export drones, even close allies may turn to more eager suppliers, which could have several negative national security consequences. First, allies may equate the unwillingness to export UAVs with waning U.S. commitment to treaties and other security agreements. Second, drones purchased from non-U.S. suppliers may not be interoperable with U.S. systems, potentially degrading the effectiveness of coalition operations. Third, the U.S. may lose both short- and long-term influence among states that turn to suppliers like China and Israel. In the short term, Washington may lose oversight over drone operations, potentially leading armed UAVs to be employed in ways that violate the law of armed conflict. In the longer term, new suppliers may attempt to chip away at Washington’s broader security sector influence in UAV-recipient states.
Russia in the State of Belarus - New numbers released by the Russian Ministry of Defense regarding scheduled MoD train shipments to Belarus for 2017 show something odd: an 8,324% increase in railcars entering the country. In 2016, Russian MoD reports that it sent 50 railcars to Belarus, down significantly from the 125 sent in 2015. The same graph alarmingly shows 4,162 planned railcar shipments to Belarus from Russia in 2017. What gives?
In 2013, Russia and Belarus held the “Zapad 2013” joint military drill. That year Russia sent 200 railcars into Belarus. In the years following the number of railcar shipments dropped. The increase in railcar shipments could signal a much larger drill planned for 2017; but a drill 20 times larger? A massive drill could be a retaliatory signal to NATO and the Baltics in response to the planned rotational NATO force that is scheduled to begin operating next year. Sputnik, a Russian state media outlet, reported the announcement of a Russian-Belarusian military exercise called “Zapad 2017” in October of 2015. That exercise will span across Belarus and Kaliningrad.
An Article from Belarus Digest, which shows a graph of the railcar data in English, contends that the logistics data signals the basing of Russian troops in Belarus. If this were the case, it would be a major provocation to NATO, the Baltics, and Ukraine. Though the article makes some alarmist assertions about a Russian overthrow of the Lukashenko government in Belarus, the numbers at least appear to signal the transportation of a large military contingent. 2,500 troops took part in “Zapad 2013.” Only 200 railcars entered Belarus from Russia that year.
Whatever is behind the data, the Russian MoD did not want it to remain in plain sight. The webpage hosting the data has since been removed. Balazs Jarabik, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment, confirmed the seeming authenticity of the webpage on Twitter before it was taken down. Was it signaling or disinformation? Time will tell.
The release of the data came just before Putin announced his new foreign policy doctrine, which is starkly anti-West/U.S. In the doctrine, it vaguely claims that Russia will expand its “strategic cooperation” with Belarus. It also came just before the beginning of NATO’s largest ever exercise in Lithuania, Iron Sword 2016.