Drones, Drones Everywhere

Arriving at his villa in the al-Mintqa al-Khadraa, or Green Zone international district along the Tigris River on Sunday, Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi was attacked by a “suicide quadcopter.” This was an improvised explosive device of a different and newly popular kind: a small, commercial-quality drone fitted with a cluster-bomb-like munition.

While most speculation about the thus-far anonymous attack has focused on the likely perpetrator—probably one of Iraq’s Iranian-backed militias collectively known as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces—and the politics—Hashd candidates were drubbed in recent parliamentary elections, winning just 17 seats in the 329-member legislature—the biggest import of the moment might be military and strategic. The assassination attempt may have been less than a complete technical or tactical success, but it’s a harbinger of things to come, things to worry a lot about.

The details of the attack remain hazy, but the basic facts are clear. It was launched from somewhere near the Republic Bridge, about two miles upriver from the Green Zone as the crow flies. Two or perhaps three drones carrying small IEDs were used; all but one were shot down. David Hambling’s analysis in Forbes is insightful: The Green Zone is heavily defended, not least in regard to drone attacks, benefitting from “some of the U.S. military’s most advanced drone jamming hardware. …The fact that the attack drones apparently avoided jamming suggests they may have been on a pre-programmed flightpath with no direct link between drone and operator to jam.” 

The munitions on the downed drones failed to detonate, but they reveal a certain level of sophisticated fusing: when the bomb is released, it spins a propeller-like apparatus that arms the device, which explodes on impact. This is often loaded into a cuplike holder that is, in essence, “tipped over” to release the munition. The bombs themselves carried what is known as a “shaped charge,” designed to penetrate armor or other protection rather than simply scattering shrapnel. 

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