Who Attacked a Russian Military Base with a 'Swarm' Strike?
Olga Oliker, senior adviser and director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The National Interest that some of the Russian accusations seem excessive. “I would also point out that Russia’s statements run counter to the idea that Turkey, Russia, and the US want to be effective about deconfliction and crisis management in Syria,” Oliker said. “One hopes that in a crisis, all parties assume that the other(s) is(are) not trying to start/escalate conflict, and because of that, the system ‘fails safe’ and doesn’t escalate. So even if you wonder if the other guy is helping the group that just attacked you, you don’t immediately start with a public accusation. If the Russians—or Americans, or anyone else—is looking for opportunities to accuse the other party, the chances that the system ‘fails dangerous’ go up.”
Meanwhile, even if the Russians have some valid concerns about how the attackers obtained their weaponry, Moscow’s strategy of casting accusations in all directions is in part retaliation for what the Kremlin considers to be unfounded assertions made against it. “I would speculate that there was something about the precision of the targeting that made them think that the attackers had help of some sort,” Oliker said. “And, I think, a certain amount of general paranoia feeds this, too and as the U.S., Turkey, and Russia all support different parties in the Syria war, if any of the three is attacked by a Syrian group, they may naturally wonder if that group’s outside sponsor was somehow involved. More cynically, I suspect there may also be a perception that the Americans—and Ukrainians—accuse Russia of spurious—in their narrative—things, so turnabout is fair play. But it does seem a bit like grasping at straws at this point.”
A number of western analysts believe that Moscow may be underestimating the sophistication and technical expertise of modern insurgent groups—or conversely overestimating the difficulty of acquiring the technology to launch such an attack. The Pentagon predicted such a threat earlier in its Joint Operating Environment 2035: The Joint Force in a Contested and Disordered World document.
“It is actually surprising that this sort of drone attack has not already happened more often,” George Beebe is director for intelligence and national security at the Center for the National Interest—formerly director of Central Intelligence Agency’s Russia analysis—told The National Interest. “The technology is widely available commercially, and contrary to Russian assertions, the technical expertise required to mount this kind of attack is not particularly sophisticated and is fairly widespread. The U.S. made drone strikes a key part of its counter-terrorist operations at a time when few countries could match our capability, but we did so with seemingly little regard for what would happen when our state adversaries and non-state actors inevitably began getting their hands on the technology. The attack in Syria is a preview of what might soon be pointed at the U.S.”
Unmanned systems expert Samuel Bendett, a researcher at the Center for Naval Analyses, agreed with that assessment. Unmanned aircraft technology is proliferating rapidly and is no longer confined to military and intelligence circles. “Not ‘anyone’—but sophisticated UAV education and knowledge is spreading and more and more people are starting to get access to what was once very classified and proprietary data, including technologies that enable UAV flight and operation,” Bendett said. “Making a UAV frame is not that complicated.”
So while the Kremlin might claim that terrorist groups are not capable of building weapons of such sophistication, the world has entered a brave new era where almost anyone has access to devastating weapons. The threat will only continue to grow.
In that sense, Novikov is exactly on target, so to speak. “Such lethal drones can be applied by terrorists in any country, targeting not only military objects,” Novikov said. “To eliminate such threats, it is important to start addressing it today, and organize cooperation of all interested sides at international level.”
And indeed, it will take a coordinated global response to prevent these weapons from spreading further. The Syria attack may simply have been the start of a dangerous new era.
Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for The National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.