For the first time on Wednesday, the Pentagon acknowledged that ISIS has access to remotely piloted aircraft — after destroying one in the group’s arsenal.
But so far, the U.S. not worried about the kind of escalation that could come with the Islamic State building a fleet of unmanned aircraft — and says there are no signs of ISIS “building a drone fleet.”
U.S. Central Command, which is manning point in the coalition operation targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria, said Wednesday that an airstrike had taken out an ISIS drone near Fallujah. It’s the first time a coalition airstrike has struck a drone manned by ISIS, said U.S. Army Capt. John Moore, a CENTCOM spokesman.
Moore described how the airstrike targeted the drone, which CENTCOM believes was unarmed. He said it was observed flying for about 20 minutes, after which point ISIS members placed it in a vehicle. Reports indicate the strike destroyed both the drone and the vehicle.
“We don't have any indication that ISIL is building a drone fleet,” Moore told Fusion in an email. “It is reasonable to believe that much like civilians use drones for a myriad of reasons to include observation and recording of events, that ISIL too uses the technology for similar reasons.”
Speculation that ISIS has been using drones first popped up last August, when the group released a propaganda video including overhead surveillance video that was thought to be shot by drone.
Experts have painted the potential of ISIS building a fleet of drones as a major form of escalation on the battlefield. In the video last August, it became clear that ISIS used the drone to film a Syrian air base near the Raqqa province in Syria. It served as a source of planning for an eventual attack on the base, though it wasn’t clear if ISIS was able to use the drone for any real-time surveillance.
It could mean that drones, technology still primarily confined to states for the purpose of warfare and counterterrorism, are now being used sophisticatedly by terror groups. Experts also warned about the potential for ISIS to rig small “civilian” drones into improvised explosive devices.
“Although it appears to represent the use of some sort of off-the-shelf drone technology, this certainly represents a technological advance for ISIS that could improve its situational awareness,” said Eric Larson, a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation.
“This bears continued close monitoring for evidence that ISIS is planning to convert its drones for remote attacks.”
But, he said “ISIS would probably face some challenges” converting the type of drone destroyed on Wednesday into a weapon.
“It likely could be quite limited in terms of the explosives payload it could carry,” Larson said. “Moreover, ISIS also would need to develop sufficiently reliable timing and triggering mechanisms to ensure that an attack drone would explode at the moment when it hit its target. This would require some experimentation and testing. Acquisition or development of a drone that could fire missiles like the U.S. Predator would seem to be well beyond ISIS’ capabilities at present.”
The Pentagon said it’s not concerned about ISIS’ drone capabilities. Along with the help and training of U.S. military advisers and the support of its war planes and drones, Iraq security forces are expected to lead a major offensive in April or May to retake the city of Mosul, which was captured by ISIS during its sweeping advances last year.
Don’t expect ISIS’ unmanned aircraft to play a big part in that campaign.
“It is reasonable to believe that much like civilians use drones for a myriad of reasons to include observation and recording of events, that ISIL too uses the technology for similar reasons,” Moore said.
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.