The recent attacks against Saudi oil facilities by approximately ten unspecified drones has me thinking about their growing potential in future near-peer, asymmetrical, or civil war scenarios. By leveraging its effect via ultra-precise placement, a cheap COTS drone with a small grenade can do as much or more damage as a major world power’s long-range cruise missile carrying a one-ton high-explosive payload. Unlike a cruise missile, a small drone can be flown, for example, under an ordnance depot warehouse roof to alight exactly upon the most vulnerable spot, measured in inches. In the recent Saudi attack, a swarm of drones launched from an unknown distance have crippled that nation’s ability to export petroleum products, leading to international economic consequences. The small size of attack drones and their global availability makes them especially attractive to non-state actors, or to nations (Iran in the Saudi case) who wish to arm proxies with effective weapons while maintaining deniability. In the current Saudi (or a potential United States civil war scenario), with Balkanized ethnic or religious groups mixed across the battle space, it will always be possible for an enemy guerrilla team to get within drone-launching range of their targets.
The Saudi drone attack reminded me of this story from 2017:
Kaboom! Russian Drone With Thermite Grenade Blows Up a Billion Dollars of Ukrainian Ammo
A single grenade-carrying drone set off one of the largest explosions in recent memory.
Video Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MpwEZ_9VLD8
“A drone carrying a grenade infiltrated an ammunition dump in Ukraine, setting off an explosion that caused an astounding billion dollars worth of damage. The incident points to the growing use of drones in wartime, particularly off the shelf civilian products harnessed to conduct sabotage and other attacks. Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service, the SBU, believes that a drone carrying a Russian thermite hand grenade caused a series of titanic explosions at Balakliya, a military base in Eastern Ukraine. Amateur video of the incident posted on YouTube shows a raging fire spewing out of control artillery rockets, and an explosion and shockwave that sent civilians nearby reeling. One person was killed in the attack and five were injured.
“The drone is believed to have carried a ZMG-1 thermite grenade. Thermite, a combination of iron oxide (rust) and aluminum powder. The stuff burns extremely hot and easily could have gotten through wooden crates to detonate the munitions inside. The ammo dump is just 60 miles from the Russian/Ukrainian border, where fighting recently took place. According to PM contributor David Hambling writing at Scout Warrior, it’s not the first time military bases in Ukraine have been hit by drones. A similar attempt to blow up the Balakliya base took place in December 2015, when drones dropped 14 grenades. The fires were extinguished by Ukrainian servicemen, and one grenade, a ZMG-1, was recovered.
“In October 2015, an attack on an ammunition depot at Svatovo destroyed 3,000 tons of explosives and damaged 1,700 nearby homes. Two other attacks on ammo dumps took place in February, and another facility was attacked in March.
“Guerrilla groups, terrorists, and perhaps even governments worldwide have rapidly weaponized consumer drones, effectively turning hobbyist devices into lethal weapons capable of killing. In 2016, two French Special Forces soldiers were injured and two Kurdish fighters were killed by an exploding ISIS drone. ISIS has conducted numerous drone attacks during the Mosul campaign and terrorism experts fear weaponized drones could spread outside conflict zones.”