Nick is a former British Army officer and open source analyst. He has a special interest in the conflict in Syria, social media, civil society, intelligence and security. Contact via Twitter: @N_Waters89
(The Conflict Arms Research (CAR) team, a non-governmental organization that records weapons and ammunition on the ground, has confirmed that the plastic tail fin mentioned in this article is actually molded. You can read it in this comprehensive multi-purpose paper CAR’s research results for improvised explosive devices.)
In the conflict between Syria and Iraq, drones proliferated throughout the battlefield. Whether used for filming propaganda, as an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) asset, or for command and control, drones are used by many groups to perform various tasks. The Mosul offensive escalated this drone warfare. The Islamic State (IS) uses drones equipped with a variety of different ammunition, sometimes combined with other assets to achieve lethal effects.
Armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) have been around for some time, and the most famous is probably the V1 flying bomb used by Germany during World War II. Modern drones, such as the Predator, have been armed since 2001. The development of civilian leisure drones, especially multi-rotor drones in the past five years, has made them reasonably priced, reliable, and widely available. The parallel development and miniaturization of civilian cameras and smart phones have turned these recreational vehicles into effective ISTAR platforms, and recently into weapons platforms.
IS is certainly not the first organization to use drones as an offensive weapon. According to reports, this video shows that Jund al Aqsa used drones to throw some improvised bombs at Syrian government forces in September 2016. Another video from August 2016 appeared to show that drones owned by Hezbollah were dropping MZD-2 submunitions. Since September 2014, Hezbollah has claimed to have this capability and was an early adopter of suicide drones and used them during the Lebanon War in 2006.
However, IS is the first to use a simple attack drone on this scale, and as we will see, it seems to be modifying the nature of existing ammunition on a large scale to be used exclusively for drone warfare.
IS seems to use a variety of different drones and release mechanisms, from under the wings to a simple cup holder. The basic plastic tube has been seen under the captured quadcopter, and it appears to roughly fit the size of a 40mm grenade, although the exact release mechanism is not obvious.
The basic cup holder mechanism on a partially disassembled drone (Image source: Mitch Utterback)
The basic cup holder mechanism on the captured drone. (Credit: Mitch Utbach)
This video seems to support this. According to reports, the video shows that the Iraqi PMU captured one of the modified drones, one of which was holding a 40mm grenade equipped with the drone.
IS released a promotional video (Video 1) in January 2017, which included multiple drone attacks. Notable among them is a flying-wing UAV, reportedly an 8X Skywalker UAV, which appears to carry two bombs at a time in an under-wing configuration. These seem to be posted at the same time in the video. It should be noted that the forward movement of this drone makes it a platform that cannot accurately deliver ammunition, and every combat attack depicted in video 1 actually comes from some kind of hovering drone.
8X Skywalker drone with x2 bombs hanging under the wings
Double release ammunition. Note that the wire loop on the side of the bomb is highlighted in red.
The wire loop seen on the bomb above is also obvious on the base of some other drone bombs. As can be seen from the same video, this shows a similar release mechanism:
Note that the coil is located at the bottom of the bomb, which was dropped from a hovering drone (source)
The following example is a still image of ammunition in video 1. It depicts 20 drone attacks that resulted in multiple casualties, usually with amazing accuracy, dropping bombs on tanks and even falling into vehicles through roof hatches. Even considering that the video will not contain many other unsuccessful attacks, this shows that IS has the ability to drop small bombs anywhere within the range of its drones with amazing accuracy.
Bomb 1-Appears on the X8 Skywalker drone. It seems to be a 40mm grenade warhead with some kind of extension and tail
Bomb 2-Notice the two fawn ribbons highlighted by the yellow arrow. These appear to be copper drive belts. Usually there is only one drive belt per wheel, so there are two. There seems to be tape between them, which may indicate that the two wheels are stuck together.
Bomb 3-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail
Bomb 4-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail, possibly a high explosive dual purpose (HEDP)
Bomb 5-Appears to be 40 mm, without tail. There may be x2 drive belts
Bomb 6-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail
Bomb 7-Unidentified ammunition with streamer tail
Bomb 8-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail
Bomb 9-Unidentified ammunition with a streamer tail. Low quality makes identification difficult
Bomb 10-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail
Bomb 11-Unidentified ammunition with streamer tail. The image shows two different shots of the same bomb
Bomb 12-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail
Bomb 13 – seems to be a 40mm warhead with streamer tail
Bomb 14-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail. The black band near the tip seems to be duct tape
Bomb 15-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail
Bomb 16-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail. Pay attention to the use of tape
Bomb 17-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail. Note that the use of tape is similar to No. 16
Bomb 18-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail. Note the same usage as the 16th and 17th tapes
Bomb 19-seems to show a 40mm bullet, clearly showing some kind of extension strapped to its base
Bomb 20-seems to be a 40mm warhead with a tail. Pay attention to the use of tape that you saw before
Checking video 1 and other open source resources, we can see that IS has dropped several different types of ammunition from the drone. The way they are deployed raises questions about what kind of ammunition they are. Many on the surface look like 40mm grenades, whether x53mm or x46mm, but these types of grenades are armed (rather than detonated) by the rotation and firing acceleration generated by the launcher barrel. None of the ammunition seen in video 1 seems to be rotating, and it is doubtful whether the acceleration of the falling can reach the force required to arm this ammunition. As we will see later, the fins seen on many bombs are straight and do not rotate.
Many 40mm bullets seem to have been modified in some way. The appearance of the No. 2 bomb, with two copper drive belts, even indicates that two 40mm bullets may have been connected together. Many people attach something to the bottom of the 40mm bullet. This is not just a tail, but it looks thinner and longer than the bullet itself. Bomb No. 19 shows this most clearly, although many bombs with tails also have this feature between the warhead and the tail. This middle part may be a design feature to overcome the problems found when equipping 40mm bullets, although this is an educated guess. The image below from another source clearly shows this middle part.
1. Tail, 2. Middle section, 3. 40mm warhead (source)
40mm bare. No tail (source)
There are several reasons why this ammunition is so noticeable. Although it looks like a 40mm HEDP bullet on the surface, like the No. 19 bomb, we see the presence of two copper drive belts, which are features that any other traditional 40mm bullets do not have. It also doesn't seem to have any tail or middle part.
As shown in the picture above, the bomb seems to have two drive belts, but no tail. It is worth noting that there seems to be a loop at the bottom.
Possible practice bomb (Image source: Seth Robson)
This clearly shows a plastic bullet, and there does not seem to be any type of bullet attached to it. Considering that the skills required to accurately throw small bombs may require training and practice, this seems to be some kind of inertia practice round.
Blue tape bomb with wires (source)
The picture we saw before again shows a warhead, which is attached with blue tape to some kind of middle part that fits the white plastic tail. The wire at the bottom of the tail is also worth noting, because most other bombs don't seem to have this feature.
This ammunition is unknown and may not be identifiable. It has been included.
40 mm round with parachute (source)
Here, we see what seems to be an experiment in which some kind of decelerating parachute is installed on a 40mm bullet. It seems to be unique.
40mm round with streamer and side line (source)
Note the highlighted side in the yellow circle instead of the line loop on the back, which indicates that the bomb’s release method may be similar to that seen by the X8 Skywalker seen in video 1.
Ball Bomb – Two different shots of the same bomb
According to reports, this picture is from the Islamic State’s operations in Anbar, Iraq, and shows a more ball-like ammunition with a red thread or possibly a fuze protruding from the main body.
This image is from a reported Islamic State attack in East Homs (source)
Please note that the bomb appears to be a grenade with fins attached to the base, indicating that the 40mm bullet is definitely not the only ammunition that has been modified.
Single bullet with ruler (source)
This picture very clearly shows the fins that we have seen so far connected to many other bombs. The seam on the stem indicated by the yellow arrow indicates that it was manufactured using injection molding, rather than 3D printing as suggested by some. The large numbers of figures seen in IS propaganda and captured by anti-IS forces support this theory and indicate that these tailplanes are being produced using cheap industrial technology.
The warhead also provides us with some clues that we can use. It seems to have a socket base, which can be inserted into the tail fin part. The structure of the warhead is also very strange. On the surface, it looks like a VOG 30 fuze, but it seems too big, which may make it some kind of mortar fuze. Its manufacturing quality also seems to be very low, which indicates that it may actually be some kind of IS-specific ammunition. This article written by The Wall Street Journal based on an excellent report by Conflict Armament Research shows that these are actually fuzes made by IS for mortars. There is even a photo showing that they are approximately 46 mm wide.
Pay attention to the basic safety pins (Image source: Conflict Armament Research (CAR))
Strangely, there does not seem to be any media showing that drones are dropping such bullets. These tail fins are obviously mass-produced because they are often shown in IS media, and the advancing Iraqi army seems to have captured them in large numbers.
Multiple bombs. Note that the tip of the fuze is the same as shown in the earlier images of CAR. From this angle we can clearly see that the fins are straight (source)
This picture helps to compare these bombs with 40mm grenade. (source)
These videos and still images hint at a large-scale weaponized drone program that has been testing and experimenting with various ammunition and modifications. This is in line with and supports other reports, such as the inspection of the ISIS drone program by the Center for the Fight against Terrorism. With only a few modifications, commercial drones can be mass-produced to deliver specialized ammunition. Existing ammunition, such as 40mm grenade, is being improved, and brand new standardized ammunition, such as 46mm fuze, is being manufactured by IS to fill this role. These modifications allow IS to drop these munitions from drones, usually with amazing accuracy, at altitudes up to hundreds or even 1,000 feet. The white tail fin part seems to be industrially produced and appears more and more regularly.
For example, these weapon systems have relatively little physical impact on the target compared to suicide-vehicle improvised explosive devices (SVBIED). However, they did convert the battlefield space from 2D to 3D, enabling IS to drop small bombs at their chosen location with surprising accuracy without warning. IS has used this type of drone to directly affect the tactical situation on the ground: In the excerpt from Video 1, we see that drone attacks are used to distract soldiers on the ground and keep them away from the greater danger of approaching SVBIED. The latter will detonate fatal effects.
This capability has the potential to have a significant impact on soldiers fighting ISIS on the ground, and they must now fully understand air and ground threats. However, the anti-Islamic State forces must be aware of this threat, and anti-UAV weapons have begun to appear in the war zone. The modifications we documented do not appear to be particularly advanced or difficult to achieve, although IS does seem to be good at producing its own weapons and ammunition. This shows that the proliferation of small armed drones is not a futuristic issue, but has become another part of the modern battlefield.
Thanks to Abraxas Spa, Veli-Pekka Kivimäki and PurpleOlive for their help in analysis and sourcing.
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