“Was it Over When the Drones Bombed Pearl Harbor?”

"It's not delivery, it's deceptive."
“It’s not delivery, it’s deception.”

After months of patient progress the drones reached their targets. Over the span of a few weeks they silently arrived at their pre-assigned loiter boxes (lobos) in the many harbors of Orangelandia. Having been launched from inconspicuous commercial vessels in major shipping lanes, the transit time was shortened by a good month. Yet for the few who knew of the operation, the anxious waiting was plenty long enough. The policy makers monitored the gliders’ headway via secure satellite datalinks and assured themselves that the operation, sold as a precautionary measure, was warranted in light of heightened tensions with Orangelandia.

As the weeks passed tensions only increase. Orangelandia declared its claimed EEZ closed to all foreign military vessels and threatened to sink any violators. After making good on its promise in a naval skirmish against a neighbor with rival claims to an island chain, Orangelandia was given an ultimatum by the U.N. Security Council* to stand down. With no sign of the occurring, the policy makers decide it’s time to act.

——

Darkness falls in Orangelandia. Satellites command the gliders forward. They drift further into the harbors, their targets are naval vessels they’ve monitored for days. The sailors on watch see and hear nothing more than what they attribute to the usual debris floating by on a moonless night. The gliders release their payloads – smaller drones that specialize in climbing the hulls of ships. After clamoring aboard the weatherdecks, the small machines avoid the sealed doors of the ships’ airlocks and feel out the superstructures, their goals the exhaust stacks for the ships’ engines and generators.

On a few ships at anchor the drones encounter humming engines and generators, beckoning the heat-seeking drones. Burrowing past the louvers the drones drop down through ducts and move towards the ships’ mechanical hearts. As the heat of the exhaust on the active vessels melts the drones’ exterior sheathing, thermal-triggered explosives carried in the drone cores detonate, delivering mission kills and rendering the ships immobile for weeks-to-months of critical repair. On the inactive ships it takes longer for the drones’ schematics-recognition features to determine the stacks’ location but the outcome is more devastating. The drones are able to move further into the exhaust system’s interior, detonating once progress is blocked, and increasing the likelihood of destroying the engines or generators themselves. Within the span of a night the majority of Orangelandia’s in-port fleet is crippled.

My other drone is a Reaper
My other drone is a Reaper

The above passage is of course a piece of fiction, and not very good fiction at that. But it doesn’t have to be. The technology to enable the scenario exists and will become more sophisticated and cheaper in the coming years. This is also far from the only way to imagine a “Drone Pearl Harbor,” as slightly different capabilities hold the potential to impact the way an attack could play out.

Decision points

In developing a concept of operations for a stealth drone attack the ability to give the execute order is a sticking point. The technologically easiest course of action would be to simultaneously make both the decisions to set up for and to execute the strike at the beginning of the decision cycle, launching the drone operation as a “fire and forget” (or rather “fire and wait patiently”) strike. Yet few policy makers will want to make an irreversible decision far in advance of the impact of the effects. The decision to attack Orangelandia may be correct in the context of the 7th of the month, but not the 21st. One needs only remember the desperate attempts to recall the nuclear-armed bombers of Dr. Strangelove to grasp the concept.

However, any attempt to move the “execute” decision point later than the “set up” order, as I did in my example, faces technical hurdles. A direct transmission signal requirement would make the drones vulnerable to detection and possible hijacking or jamming. Using broadcast signals to transmit orders and obscure their location means leaving the drones even more susceptible to hijacking and jamming as Orangelandia could constantly emit signals to that end. Similar vulnerabilities exist when the drones are given reporting requirements, so an informed balancing of the need for one- or two-way communication and concerns over the exposures those needs create is necessary.

Variations on a Theme

The above scenario was played out against a generic surface ship. Other types of naval vessels have more accessible points of entry; and the job of penetration is made easier at less-stringent damage control settings that leave hatches and air locks open. Additionally the ways, means, and follow-on considerations of a drone sneak attack are also variable, but can be roughly broken down into fouling attacks, as in the scenario above; direct attacks; and cyber-attacks.

In a fouling attack, the drone payload would be used to achieve a mission kill against a critical piece of shipboard equipment. The drone would need the ability to locate that piece of equipment through some type of sensor – visual, thermal, chemical, etc. External targets, such as a ship’s propellers, would be the easiest to target. The benefit of a fouling attack is that the payload could be a small explosive, limiting drone’s size, likelihood of detection, and propulsion requirements for a trans-oceanic voyage. It could even be the drone itself, outfitted with special equipment or configuration options to inflict the maximum damage on the piece of critical gear. As an example imagine a piece of corrosive wire wrapping itself around the same hypothetical propeller. Again, the execute order in this type of attack could be withheld until very late in the decision-making process while the glider drones do “circles of death” in their lobos.

In a direct attack the glider drone would carry a weapon payload designed to inflict maximum kinetic damage. Such an attack would require less sophisticated targeting internal to the drone and could be used to attempt to disable a large portion of the ship’s crew and/or sink the ship. As with fouling attacks, direct attacks would be easier to conduct once the glider was on station and could incur the same delayed-decision benefits, the increased explosives requirement would increase the drone’s size and detectability.

We're gonna need a bigger fly-swatter.
We’re gonna need a bigger fly-swatter.

In the last type of attack, a payload drone would find a way to penetrate the ship and access the ship’s industrial control systems (ICS), which operate things such as the ship’s main engines, to introduce a Stuxnet-like virus. Such drone would need to be small enough to fit through minuscule spaces or blend in during the process of crew traffic opening and shutting airlocks. The drone would also have to be the most advanced to successfully navigate around the ship unseen and interface with ICS through diagnostic, patching, or external monitoring ports. Such a drone could delay the policy-maker’s execute order until well after infection, potentially expanding the decision timeline until well after the drone has achieved its mission and the vessel has gotten underway. This delay would come at the cost of the very difficult task of being able to transmit the final execute order to the newly infected ICS, so the decision to infect the systems would more realistically have to be paired with the decision to execute virus’s programming. On the plus side, a cyber/drone sneak attack could potentially disguise the source of the attack, or even that an attack has occurred, unlike the other two types of attack, providing policy makers with further options than simply a kinetic attack.

That these courses of action are possible says nothing of whether executing any of them would be wise. The risk and potential repercussions of each course of action is as varied as the ways in which such an attack may occur. This is one reason I have attempted to draw out the effects different technologies have on moving the decision points. But possible they are, so it would be wise to both think of ways to take advantage of the options as new tools for policy makers, and think of ways to defend against them that don’t rely on weary roving deck watches. A few defensive options that come to mind include more stringent damage control settings in port, a thorough examination of the vulnerability of vessels and shipboard access points to drone penetrations, detection systems for drone penetrations, drone SIGINT detection and jamming, and possible external hardening of berths. But this is probably a good jumping off point for another post and your thoughts.

Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.

The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.

*So no, Orangelandia is clearly not China, a veto-wielding member.

ComBot: A Rose by Any Other Name

After his brush with stardom, he’s really let go.

Our present-day pilotless platforms have been branded “drones” to their detriment. The word communicates a lack of adaptability or agency. For an increasingly automated fleet of machines, it denotes monotony and mindlessness: the droning of engines as a Predator lazily loops above the mountains, observing friend and foe alike. “Drone” is inappropriate for an ever-expanding suite of devices with greater close-in roles in combat. An AlphaDog, an EOD bomb-disposal bot, the DARPA Crusher, and the Battlefield Extraction Assistance Robot (BEAR) are not “drones.” To better describe our new combat compatriots and better comprehend their multitudinous uses and designs, let us properly christen our autonomous allies.

ComBot is the accurate alternative to “drone.” An obvious combination of Combat and Robot, it describes our soon-to-be automated assault associates in an easy-to-digest term. The name has a practicality lacking in most military monikers. It is not a shoe-horned acronym such as Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) pronounced “see-wiz” rather than “ki-wis” or “cue-z”. What layman would ever think of a high-tech Gatling-gun when they hear “CIWS”, or a pilotless aircraft when they hear “UAV”? However, the wordplay of ComBot makes the backing concept immediately recognizable. A rose by any other name may be just as sweet, but people abandoned the term horseless carriage for a reason; let’s update our language to match the concept.

Matt Hipple is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy. 

Indonesia: Great Power on Australia’s Doorstep?

The following is the first cross-post of an article that originally ran on the site of our new partners at Security Scholar, an Australia-based security blog. First published last month, the relation of Indonesia’s future to Australian maritime security issues was reiterated with three recent hi-profile incidents of Australia-bound refugee vessels in distress in Indonesian waters. We look forward to learning more about the Australian maritime security outlook from our friends down under:

By Natalie Sambhi

Last month at the Australian National University (ANU) Professor Hugh White delivered a solid speech that lucidly and methodically explained why we, Australia, should be considering Indonesia with more care.

Projected to be the world’s fourth largest economy in a matter of decades and increasing in clout as a regional power, if not great power, Indonesia will be a force to reckon with, according to White. As such, many Australians will be forced to overturn their assumptions about Indonesia as a poor and weak country. White implored the audience to consider ways of redefining the bilateral relationship with Indonesia beyond third order issues like drug smuggling, people trafficking, border protection, and counter terrorism. Pointing to further evidence that the relationship was not as robust as Government would have us believe, White pointed to “fault lines” in the relationship caused by Australia’s involvement in East Timor’s independence which, for some time, severed diplomatic relations completely.

Against the backdrop of a shift in the strategic balance in Asia, and as Australia aligns itself towards the so-called “Asian Century”, White invited us to consider whether Indonesia would be an asset or an ally. In his view, Indonesia holds great potential to shield Australia from the threat of major powers in the region, if we get our bilateral relationship right. If we do, then we may start to think about the kinds of Defence capability that would complement the armed forces of Indonesia so that both countries could work towards a kind of “forward defence”.  White wrapped up his speech with five points to improve the relationship: 1) improve DFAT political reporting, 2) focus less on third order issues and more on China, 3) de-emphasise the role of aid in relating to Indonesia, 4) abolish travel advisories (as negative ones have tended to upset Indonesia), and 5) increase the importance of the bilateral relationship in Australian politics.

There are, however, a few extra elements in relation to Australia-Indonesia ties White might have explored in his speech (and I’m sure he would have, given more time), and I would like to take up three of his points to develop these further.

First, perceptions matter. In building his case for cultivating better relations with Indonesia, White used excerpts from Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s 2010 address to the Australian Parliament. In the address, the President underscored mistrust and misperceptions that beleaguered the bilateral relationship in the past. White referred to several parts of the address, but here I have selected the one I think is most salient:

I was taken aback when I learned that in a recent Lowy Institute survey 54 per cent of Australian respondents doubted that Indonesia would act responsibly in its international relations. Indeed, the most persistent problem in our relations is the persistence of age-old stereo-types—misleading, simplistic mental caricature that depicts the other side in a bad light. Even in the age of cable television and internet, there are Australians who still see Indonesia as an authoritarian country, as a military dictatorship, as a hotbed of Islamic extremism or even as an expansionist power. On the other hand, in Indonesia there are people who remain afflicted with Australiaphobia—those who believe that the notion of White Australia still persists, that Australia harbours ill intention toward Indonesia and is either sympathetic to or supports separatist elements in our country.”

It will take some time for these perceptions to erode. But it is equally important that we do not replace them with those that may mischaracterise Indonesia. Let’s take Indonesia’s democracy, for example. Lowy’s poll also states that “62% of Indonesians say democracy is preferable to any other kind of government and there is near universal agreement on three core democratic values – the rights to a fair trial, freely express yourself and vote in national elections.” How this is practiced, however, may be a different story.

A New York Times article warned that Indonesia is no model for a Muslim democracy, citing its mixed human rights record and lack of religious freedom as evidence. Admittedly, the case by the Human Rights Watch author comprises a quick grab of examples presented in highly emotional terms, but the take-home message is clear: Indonesia’s democracy is different. Sure it’s a no-brainer, but it may surprise us to learn the extent to which ethnic and religious criteria shape Indonesia’s elections. That is, Javanese Muslims have, historically, dominated politics and are perceived to be more viable candidates than their non-Javanese, non-Muslim counterparts. Given our Prime Minister is a non-religious, unmarried, Welsh-born woman, that a potential leader is discriminated against in ethno-religious terms is anathema to our political system should give us a moment’s pause for thought.

While we, and others like the US, are turning to enthusiastically embrace the democratic character of our northern neighbour, it would serve us well to carefully appraise the challenges of Indonesia’s ongoing democratic development. This is not to say this is a bar to good relations; quite the contrary. Australia must make an effort to understand these challenges and know how to engage with them without being paternalistic. If Australia and Indonesia are to work closely together in the Asian century, a deep understanding of each other’s political systems and working with them is necessary.

Second, Indonesia will be more than a middle power, and even perhaps a great power. There has been much discussion on whether Indonesia, given current growth rates, could outstrip India’s position in the BRICS grouping. Despite this optimism, according to one commentator (and it’s worth reading Grenville’s post), there are still significant political challenges holding Indonesia back. For one, there appears to be no clear successor to President SBY, with current candidates ranging from former generals like Prabowo Subianto, to Megawati Sukarnoputri, to tycoons like Aburizal Bakrie. Building on the discussion above on Indonesia’s democratic practices, with speculation abound about the nomination of Ani Yudhoyono, wife of the Indonesian President and sister of the Indonesian Army’s Chief of Staff, one wonders about the state of nepotism there. I hope I’m wrong.

This threepart series in last week’s Jakarta Globe exposes the lack of military business reform in the country. Without robust systems of accountability and practices that encourage transparency and due diligence, Indonesia risks undermining its own developments. Reliable maintenance of the rule of law remains problematic. While Indonesia has made attempts to grapple with military reform and eradicate corruption, these articles show that the country still has a long way to go.

As Indonesia grows in wealth and in confidence, it will head down the road of becoming a middle power. But its ability to transform into a great power will be hindered by domestic political challenges, and thus an inability to translate its wealth into military capability commensurate with great power status.

The right kind of President—he/she who can best cultivate the country’s wealth from natural resources, maintain high economic growth rates, reduce poverty, spur reform, maintain Indonesia’s clout within ASEAN, consolidate territorial integrity and domestic security, among other wishlist items—will no doubt help Indonesia comfortably secure a place in the upper bracket of middle power status. But what happens when Indonesia’s future President comes from a cadre of military officers who served in East Timor and who might be Australiaphobic?

Earlier this week, Australia’s Ambassador to Indonesia, Greg Moriarty, warned of growing economic nationalism in the country resulting in investment conditions that are not necessarily in Australia’s interests. Let’s hope this trend does not continue.

Third, White stressed the de-emphasis of aid in the relationship. He stated that there is a particular psychology attached to the receipt of aid. While there are many people in Indonesia who live in poverty and need our help, it was no basis for the bilateral relationship or the lens through which we should see Indonesia. As White underscored in an interview last month, it leads Australians to treat Indonesians in a patronising manner. White’s suggestion that we redirect aid money towards sending 10,000 Australian students each year to learn about Indonesia is well-intentioned, but we’d be hard-pressed getting even a third of that number across the education system. But again, I hope I’m wrong.

As one blogger pointed out this week, language study comes from an interest in culture. But it also comes from repeated exposure to the other culture and repeated contact with people. That Indonesia features obliquely in popular soap operas is not indicative that it is part of our thinking. The solution to piquing interest in Indonesian culture will come with the sense that Asia is part of Australia. That is, as continental European faces are as commonly featured in mainstream media alongside Anglo-Celtic ones, familiarity with Asia will come with increased exposure: particularly newsreaders, politicians, business and community leaders, the actors in advertising campaigns, performers, and athletes. Exchanges are useful but they are usually led by travellers and students who are already willing to engage beyond Bali’s beaches. Perhaps Indonesian-Australians could lead the charge, perhaps change will come with time.

It has been 14 years after the fall of Suharto and despite the challenges that are still abound, Indonesia has transformed remarkably. I want to be optimistic about the future of the relationship between Australia and Indonesia, and I am in furious agreement with White about strategic and cultural imperatives that should drive this, but we must be wide-eyed about the challenges that lay ahead.

Natalie Sambhi is a Hedley Bull Scholar in International Relations and a Masters graduate of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the Australian National University. She currently researches and edits on a freelance basis, and is a contributor and co-editor of Security Scholar

Fostering the Discussion on Securing the Seas.

Skip to toolbar