Drone assassination attempt in Venezuela should teach lessons

By Patrick C. Miller | August 15, 2018

The attempted drone assassination in Venezuela of President Nicolas Maduro earlier this month raises important questions about what steps the U.S. should take to prevent similar attacks, according to Sarah Kreps, professor of government and international relations at Cornell University.

Kreps, an Air Force veteran and author of publications on drone warfare, says the democratization of drone technology enables its use by nearly anyone for psychological shock-and-awe tactics to terrorize the public.

“What is clear is that the cat is out of the bag,” she said. “Drones are here and they’re proliferating. It would be foolish for leaders to think that they aren’t going to be targeted. I imagine that measures are in place or being developed to counter drone attacks against high-level targets in government. If the history of warfare is any indication, the adversary will take the next steps to outwit those measures. In some ways, it’s a losing battle, but one we inevitably have to fight.”

Oleg Vornik, CEO of counter-drone company DroneShield, pointed to an incident in 2013 when a drone disrupted a public event and hovered near German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The incident turned out to be a publicity stunt, but he said the apparent assassination attempt on Maduro was the first known drone assassination attempt on a head of state.

“Sadly, the era of drone terrorism has well and truly arrived,” Vornik said. “Technological progress cannot be reversed, and going forward, the security of any asset whose perimeter is protected two-dimensionally on the ground will need to be also protected in the third dimension—from attacks from the air.”

Kreps said the Islamic State has embraced drone technology and has used it to strike military targets in the Middle East. However, the amount of sophistication employed for the attempted drone attack on Maduro demonstrates that those who want to use the technology for nefarious purposes will find new ways to do it.

“The counter-drone measures have responded, but it’s like a cat-and-mouse game,” she explained. “The mouse gets smarter every time. You can imagine a case now where someone has much more sophisticated technology, a motive to do harm and that this could actually have a lethal impact.”

Dedrone, another developer of counter-drone technology, released a statement saying that the attack in Venezuela was “a stark reminder of the power of drones as weapons.” The company said counter-drone technology is “critical to help provide warning of approaching, unauthorized drones and identify or apprehend the pilot.”

Kreps sees the potential of drone attacks in an even broader context. “One of the things difficult about counter-drone activity is the infinite number of soft targets out there,” she explained. “Drone technology is democratizing, and not just for non-state actors like terrorist groups, but also individuals—lone wolves or people acting as agents of groups.”

Unfortunately, Kreps believes that a successful drone attack against civilians will eventually happen. “To me, it’s just a matter of time,” she said. “You only have to be effective once to have a significant impact.”