Securing Specialist Flights: Challenges in an Overlooked Sector

Securing Specialist Flights: Challenges in an Overlooked Sector

The aviation world is changing rapidly around us; we are more reliant than ever on the transportation mode for tourism, business and logistics. Yet the world also now has the largest amount of unregistered aerial vehicles in history, ranging from unmanned drones to helicopters to private fixed wing aircraft, let alone microlights and hot air balloons. The numbers are rising, and control is becoming increasingly challenging, as the influx of vessels is proving to be both a blessing and a curse. The potential for danger within this uncontrolled area of aviation is a subject requiring authorities’ attention before the next catastrophe. Zvi Neuman presents ideas on how to cope with the challenges ahead.

We humans have a tendency to ignore what we cannot resolve. We all share this structured defence mechanism as it makes it easier to focus on things we are already working on and helps us to maintain a steady course on our current missions. Today, aviation security has its fair share of headaches with the current rise in terrorist plots against the commercial aviation sector. Perhaps, however, this is a blinkered viewpoint.

An attack against an airport or on an airplane is still considered, in the eyes of the public, to be more impactful than an attack against any other form of public transportation. We, as passengers, are conditioned to think that airports and airplanes are sterile, safe environments. In the air, we are in the hands of the pilot and physics. We are not the masters of our own destiny and have no control over the situation; if, for example, a bomb should detonate, the likelihood is that all on board will die. On the ground however, we have the potential to escape; in the midst of an incident, the majority do usually find their way out of danger (e.g. by running or hiding) or are fortunate enough to be out of range of the effects of a blast or shooting.

We struggle to deal with the threat of a terror event posed by yet another situation over which we have absolutely no control, be it by contamination of the food chain or municipal water supplies, pandemics, cyber threats or, as is our focus here, that emanating from the unregulated sectors of the aviation industry.

The level of security today in commercial aviation is at a very high level in the Western world and even in developing countries. From a first-hand review, I must praise some countries in Africa that present a better security infrastructure and management than some countries I have travelled to across Europe. Adhering to ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) standards is proving to be adequate and provides a fair level of security for commercial flights across the world. Unfortunately, however, there is a sector in aviation that has been neglected and overlooked, a sector that is becoming so much part of our daily lives that we cannot envisage what would happen if that sector were to be manipulated to perpetrate a terrorist attack against our societies.

The Neglected Child

Drones, helicopters, and aerostats are all part of the aviation world. They are around us every day, and every year their spread and usage increases. The skies are becoming crowded with uncontrolled, unregistered potential means for realising a terrorist plot. For the purpose of this article, it is worth separating manned and unmanned vehicles before we dive into a thorough review of the subject, as this will dictate the challenges of each field.

While the ownership of a manned aerial vehicle is not an option for the majority of the population, it is not as exclusive as it used to be, with light aircraft costing less than US $1,000,000 (approx. GBP £750,000). It is therefore no wonder we are seeing more activity in the sky. This activity presents some threats that are rather overlooked by authorities. When we review how the September 11th attacks initially began, we remember that two of the terrorists took flight lessons in the United States. True, much has changed in the US since those events with regards to background checks, but let us look outside of the Western world; who is inspecting and verifying backgrounds in developing countries? After all, there are many locations where you can land an aircraft in the middle of the jungle without anyone knowing who the crew is, what they are transporting and where the aircraft is heading to. It is in the developing world where this exact problem is being exploited by drug lords and terrorist organisations, thereby fuelling global conflicts.

Imagine a scenario where a fleet of aircraft take control of a country’s airspace and go about their business uninterrupted by that country’s non-existent air force or air defence systems. This is a story that is entirely factual. It happened on 19 October 1978, when the Rhodesian air force took control of Zambia’s air space in order to conduct counter-insurgency operations. In fact, this is a scenario that regularly occurs in several locations in the world; unmarked aircraft traffic drugs, weapons, and minerals in and out of countries uninterrupted, posing a double threat both in terms of illegal activities and the potential for conducting a terrorist attack using those aircraft against civilians.

Ill-equipped military and corrupt officials provide drug lords and terrorist organisations in the Americas and Africa with a clear opportunity to conduct their activities, and to even further increase the potential for terror both on the ground and in the air. The problem today is that the abundance of aircraft is almost impossible to control, especially in struggling developing countries. Corruption and an incapacity to handle the threats lead to uncontrolled traffic in the skies. In addition, a lack of information on transported goods, routes and ownership of aircraft creates a regional risk to neighbouring countries, which become exposed to terror attacks by aviation or by an aerial vehicle.

“…the Rhodesian air force took control of Zambia’s air space in order to conduct counter-insurgency operations…”

Aerial vehicles are not limited to engine-bearing craft. Israel has had its fair share of incidents involving civilian vehicles such as hot air balloons and gliders. A memorable event happened in 19871 when two terrorists used gliders to cross the border from Lebanon into the northern part of Israel. One flew off course, landed, and was killed by military forces, but the other killed six soldiers in a nearby military camp. This was not the first attempt to use civilian aircraft to execute attacks. Another incident from 1981 involved a hot air balloon attempting to cross the border – it was spotted by the radar systems and was shot down by air force jets.

A Boon and a Bane

Drones are all around us. Takeaway food chains want to deliver pizzas and big corporations want to deliver packages to us using drones; mail systems want to create a complete digital framework of postal drones inside cities to handle both deliveries and collection. Drones are here to stay, and their spread is becoming so wide it seems it will be the next technological revolution. We are no longer in the days when drones were solely for military and defence use. Drones are taking on different tasks in agriculture surveying, infrastructure management, private security and, of course, recreation. The estimation is that, in 2017 alone, more than two million commercial (private use) drones were sold around the world. Two million unregistered, uncontrolled flying vehicles that, as ISIL shows in its videos, are able to carry explosives and drop bombs. Without doubt a potential danger. People are no longer troubled by seeing a drone flying above a city these days, and with all the unenforceable laws being signed regarding drones in urban areas, we are likely to see many more of these around us. The US FAA estimates over seven million drones will be flying in US skies by 20202. That is more than 100 times the amount of projected commercial aircraft in 2020.

“…in 2017 alone, more than two million commercial drones were sold around the world…”

Drones may be able to deliver goods, but they are also able to carry explosives and drop bombs
Drones may be able to deliver goods, but they are also able to carry explosives and drop bombs

A recent report by the Israeli State Comptroller concluded that Israel has failed, like the majority of Western countries, in mitigating the risks posed by unmanned aircraft. No controlling agency exists nor does any process of licensing or registration take place. Authorities have had the luxury of handling only what we refer to as UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), which were scarce and required licensing due to their heavier nature of work. Today, with the influx of commercial drones (all its types) authorities are clueless as to how to handle the operators and aircraft, burying their heads in the sand and hoping all will go well.

A poster 'commemorates' a Hezbollah attack on northern Israel in 1987 in which terrorists,  Khaled Akar and Melod Najah, used gliders to cross the border from Lebanon
A poster ‘commemorates’ a Hezbollah attack on northern Israel in 1987 in which terrorists,
Khaled Akar and Melod Najah, used gliders to cross the border from Lebanon

A general loophole in legislation of drones and unmanned aircraft provides that such vehicles, which are used for recreational and sporting purposes not require any registration or licensing. A US $900 (approx. GBP £650) drone bought online is strictly recreational although it is known military forces and terrorist organisations use the exact same units for their own purposes. The main challenge to homeland security by these commercial drones is first and foremost the unknown factor of who can actually control them. The drones use civilian radio frequencies and are almost all made in China – so who knows where data from the drone is reaching or who will be able to take control over it if so desired? The US military has banned all commercial drone use until a proper privacy protocol is established.3

The possibility for hacking into drones and transforming them into weapons in the terrorist’s arsenal, is an authority’s worst nightmare. Imagine a fleet of 15 civilian drones going rogue and causing damage in streets, or gathering intelligence for an even larger attack. We’ve already seen counter-measures in which officials can take over a drone’s frequency and gain control over them – if ‘our side’ can do it, we can confidently assume ‘they’ can do it too. A horror narrative indeed, but what damage can a small rogue drone cause, without explosives attached to it? The answer is a fair amount of damage; it would, for example, be quite capable of taking a helicopter or an airplane down. In October 2017 a civilian drone hit and damaged a commercial flight in Quebec City, Canada. Luckily, no casualties were reported but the small commercial aircraft had to be towed in for damage inspection. On an almost weekly basis, reports emerge of yet another commercial flight having to perform emergency manoeuvres in order to avoid collision with a civilian drone. The damage potential of a single drone launching a terror attack within an urban environment is higher still. The common drone can carry approximately 1.5 kg – this would be enough explosives for a kill radius of 10 metres.

In 1987 British and Cypriot police arrested five people who threatened to disperse dioxin in the skies over Cyprus
In 1987 British and Cypriot police arrested five people who threatened to disperse dioxin in the skies over Cyprus

However, not all is doom and gloom. I do believe in the positive potential impact that unmanned vehicles may have in humanity’s future, but certain measures have to be taken in order to secure our skies and reduce the risk.

“…in October 2017 a civilian drone hit and damaged a commercial flight in Quebec City…”

Regulation & Control

Of course, in no-fly zones there are regulations regarding sensitive infrastructure for both manned and unmanned aircraft – but how can they be enforced? What is happening to stop them?

Consider the threat of drones to other unregulated sectors of the aviation industry – such as to companies providing hot air balloon experiences or those enticing tourists aloft in hang gliders or microlights. As discussed before, those niche unregulated civilian vessels can be used to execute attacks on civilian and military locations – they are low cost, have low radar and thermal signatures, and they are usually found legally within civilian environments. Eliminating such a threat completely is somewhat wishful thinking, but minimising it can be a realistic goal. Implementing usage of buffer zones around civilian concentrations and military camps, where the activity of such aircraft is forbidden, is an elementary start to minimising risks. Once certain control and space is created between those – another possible step would be actually using interceptor drones, (‘suicide drones’) which already exist in the market to apprehend vessels that stray from their defined parameters of flight. Another option is obliging the users/operators to use automatic IFF (Identification Friend or Foe) or beacon systems to decrease the workload on control towers. Regarding aircraft that arrive from external borders, unfortunately the Western world will continue to have better capabilities for coping with such threats, as the only solution to apprehend external vehicles of these types is by preliminary detection using ground radars, and elimination using missiles, suicide drones or combat jets. These are four items that are rather scarce in developing countries. Once again, it seems the countries most affected by illicit use of those aircraft will be left with practically no solutions for external violations of their territories.

Hot air balloons might be used in an attack, but they are also vulnerable themselves to drones
Hot air balloons might be used in an attack, but they are also vulnerable themselves to drones

Like the threats themselves, the solutions available to manned and unmanned vehicles differ, as do the challenges associated with them. We already have certain technological systems that enable authorities to effectively control specialist manned flights and their associated threats in the sky. For example, the IFF that is in today’s environment is more of a recommendation to civilian aircraft than a requirement. A certain adjustment has to be made in order to better monitor the movement of aircraft on domestic and international flights. Aircraft should be installed with a mandatory upgraded IFF beacon that works at all times and is set with the specific information of the aircraft, its owners and flight. An aircraft that does not have this should be immediately considered a threat.

Another method to minimise the threats from these manned flights is to focus on the pilots. This can be done by creating a global database of registered pilots with special identity cards that have to be swiped and logged into the system via GPS in order to keep track of every aircraft movement. Military forces and big corporations using a large vehicle fleet are already using this system – drivers swipe a card before beginning to drive a car, providing authorities with the identity of the driver as well as the journey data. Tampering with the identity card system sends an alarm to the control centre. These are not fully guaranteed solutions, but they do enable more control over aircraft that are usually ignored by authorities, and especially in developing countries. Complete control over the aircraft and pilots will make it harder for wrongdoers, and will probably force them to go back to ground-based attacks to achieve their objectives.

“…consider the threat of drones to other unregulated sectors of the aviation industry – such as to companies providing hot air balloon experiences or those enticing tourists aloft in hand gliders or microlights…”

With regards to the unmanned sector, installing modified IFF (or any type of unique identity system) on drones could be a first positive step towards better enforcing order and minimising terror from the skies. Having a single registration agency with mandatory registration of each vessel and operator (from a certain sized vessel) will provide two important goals: the first would be minimising drone purchases as people will not want to bother with the bureaucracy of licensing and registration, and will simply give up on operating recreational drones. Second and more important will be the creation of a complete database of operators and unique drone IDs, providing better control and the ability to monitor each drone uniquely. A drone has been stolen? The owner reports the theft and that drone becomes logged in the system as a rogue drone to be apprehended using existing countermeasures and the mandatory IFF beacon.

Another solution that could be enforced is the provision of source code access to the local security agencies of a country by drone manufacturers. This may be considered a very extreme view, but would be necessary for authorities to intercept drones that have been hacked and mobilised with the intention of wreaking havoc inside airports or across a city.

Just as civil aviation has come a long way since the 1920s and created security protocols, specialist flights – and specifically unmanned flights – will have to create a system of security laws and technological measures to ensure safe and secure skies for us all. Personally, I would prefer complete, ‘big brother-type’ control over aircraft by the government, as I cannot seem to find a middle ground between complete liberty of operating vehicles (making prevention of criminal and terrorist actions impossible) and total government control and monitoring of every vessel – manned or not. I prefer the latter: less freedom but safer skies.

Zvi Neuman is an Israeli security consultant focusing in the fields of operational security and training, aviation security and national security planning. He shares his time between Israel and West Africa and is the chief operating officer of Arcturus Defense Aid. He can be contacted at: