Sunday, January 24, 2016

Drone Threats for Chemical Facilities

There was an interesting article this week over at about a British report on the potential use of drones by terrorist organizations. That report provides an interesting set of data about potential drone threats. It includes capability tables for a number of aerial (UAV) ground (UGV) and marine (UMV) drones. Unfortunately, there is no specific discussion about such vehicles and chemical facilities.

Activist Propaganda

Let me start off by saying that I know of only one ‘instance’ of use of a UAV ‘against’ a chemical facility. Back in 2010 Greenpeace made a big show using their small blimp to investigate chemical facility security. There was apparently no attempt made to overfly the facilities and the photographs published by Greenpeace were from another aircraft (almost certainly a helicopter) with the blimp in the fore ground and the facility in the background.

Smaller, more modern UAVs, will not have the same sort of visual impact that the Greenpeace blimp had. This means that they are unlikely to be used for propaganda type efforts. These more maneuverable UAVs are more suited to surveillance and data gathering. The use of onboard cameras and chemical detectors could be used by various environmental and environmental justice organizations to document chemical releases at chemical facilities. The use of UGVs and UMVs can certainly be expected to be added to this effort as they become more commercially available.

I would not be surprised to hear of the use of UAVs in civil disobedience actions where they could be employed to deliver paint bombs against transportation assets in and around chemical facilities. Paint bombs deployed against tractor or railroad windshields could serve to delay or disrupt chemical transportation operations.

UAV support of conventional civil disobedience operations is only going to increase. Aerial filming of the activity and the security/law enforcement response to the activity can be expected to be used for propaganda purposes for money raising and encouraging copy-cat operations.

Pre-Attack Reconnaissance

Because of the large number of relatively cheap UAVs available with onboard video capability, it is to be expected that there will be an increasing number of UAV’s flown around, over and through chemical facilities. While the vast majority of these will probably be flown by local activists for propaganda purposes or just busybodies looking to see what is going on, some will be flown by activists or terrorists (different objectives and ‘attack’ methodologies) gathering intelligence to support possible future actions.
Activist ‘attacks’ are typically civil disobedience activities designed to interfere with facility operations, particularly those associated with transportation activities. UAV reconnaissance would be used to identify critical activity locations, points of entry and routes between the two. Of particular interest would be areas to hang banners and choke points where a small number of activists could block vehicle movements. As UGVs become more robust and cheaper their use in these types of reconnaissance operations can be expected to increase.

The British report does a good job of outlining the experience of many terror groups with the use of UAVs for battlefield reconnaissance as well as command and control. Significant terror attacks on chemical facilities will almost certainly include pre-operational reconnaissance by UAVs.

This type of UAV reconnaissance will include gathering of the same sort of information that activists would look for, but in much greater detail. In many cases the reconnaissance effort will include looking for specific chemical storage and transfer facilities. If a vehicle born improvised explosive (VBIED) attack is intended, the best site for vehicle placement and routes to that location will be the primary focus. If smaller, more targeted IEDs are to be employed, then tanks, valves and transfer lines will be the recon objectives. In both cases, internal security measures and response routes for security forces will also be important.

For possible attacks against water-side facilities the use of UMVs is a possibility. The British report, however, shows that the current cost of such vessels is quite high and there are only a limited number of options currently available. This will change if there is an increase in hobby use of this type of craft.

The use of UGVs is even less likely. Because of the prevalence of spill containment dikes and multi-story buildings and pipe structures, only a very limited amount of ground level reconnaissance will be possible. Route reconnaissance for VBIEDs is one area where UGVs may be very helpful, but they are still more likely to be detected and intercepted.

Attack Vehicles

All three classes of drones could certainly be used to deliver explosive devices in attacks on chemical facilities. They have the advantage of reducing the casualties in the attacking force and could potentially be used to allow a large diversionary attack at a secondary facility to allow a more complicated attack to go unopposed at the primary target.

UAV’s have limited payload capability so they would have to be used in precision type attacks rather than area effect attacks. Placing explosive devices on the top of storage tanks or isolated pipelines are well within the capabilities of such vehicles.

UGV’s up to and including remotely operated cars (see the British report – pg 11 - for an actual incident of such cars being by ISIS) could deliver larger explosive packages to accessible areas within the facility. The payload is still going to be significantly smaller than the typical truck VBIED that have been used by any number of terror groups around the world.

The high-cost and relative unavailability of UMVs probably argues against their use for delivery of explosives in an attack in the near term. It must be remembered, however, that smaller underwater explosives are more effective due to pressure waves underwater.

Attack Support

As the British report notes, ISIS has been gaining proficiency in the use of UAVs for battlefield surveillance and command and control activities. The use of UAV’s in such roles in terrorist attacks has not yet been seen, but is clearly an activity that can be expected in the future. For ground based terror operations to seize or destroy a chemical facility, the ability to use UAV’s to watch responding security or law enforcement personnel will make for a much more effective terror operation.

The use of small explosive devices deployed by UAVs used to attack or disrupt such response could be used to allow the ground team to harden their position or more time to emplace their explosive devices.

Stopping Drones

There is very little that chemical facilities can do to stop drone operations near, over and in their facilities. In addition to the known difficulties in spotting and disabling UAVs in flight, there is currently no legal authority for chemical facilities to take them down, even if they are in the facility airspace. Currently the best bet is to deploy anti-drone netting to snare UAVs and prevent them from approaching critically vulnerable assets.

A more important security job, however, is the spotting and hopefully identifying UAVs as they approach the facility. This should be part of the facility anti-reconnaissance plan that is designed to detect a terrorist attack before it happens. Every employee should be required to report any UAV sighting at or near the facility to their supervisor and the security manager should consolidate such reports to be submitted to local law enforcement. All such reports should include the location of the siting, the type of UAV, the direction of approach and the direction the drone departed.

While little can currently be done to prevent UAV incursions, facility security managers need to take a hard look at their facility from the point of view of UAV attack vulnerabilities. Facilities need to begin consideration of measure that they can take to hide such vulnerabilities or prevent UAV access.

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