Understanding the Threat Posed by COTS Small UAVs Armed with CBR Payloads

  • N. R. Jenzen-JonesEmail author


Commercial off-the-shelf unmanned aerial vehicles are becoming a powerful force-multiplier in asymmetric conflicts. These platforms have been readily adopted by both state and non-state actors for a variety of military tasks including intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, reconnaissance, and increasingly for direct strike missions. This chapter provides an overview of the evolution of these platforms, and discusses their use for the deployment of conventional munitions as well as chemical, biological, and radiological payloads. The chapter highlights factors that determine the effectiveness of such non-conventional attacks, including agent properties, target characteristics, and methods of delivery. It then describes factors that constrain the acquisition of CBR agents by non-state actors, as well as other barriers to a successful CBR attack using COTS small UAVs. Whilst these platforms have significant advantages over traditional ground-based CBR delivery vectors such as precision, access to targets, difficulty of interception, optimised dispersion, reduced risk of detention, anonymity, and a demonstration of ‘modern’ capabilities, their utility is limited by, amongst other factors, UAV characteristics such as payload size, range, and flight time. Governments, nevertheless, are adopting regulatory and technical control measures to manage security risks associated with the proliferation of these delivery vehicles. Manufacturers are also responding to real and perceived risk, integrating restrictions such as ‘geofencing’ and IFF systems into their products. At the same time, non-state actors have begun implementing steps to circumvent such countermeasures. On balance, although the threat of a CBR terror event using COTS UAVs remains lower than that of other attack modes, ongoing assessments of the feasibility of such attacks and of appropriate defences must remain part of the counter-terror dialogue.



The author would like to acknowledge the generous contributions of his colleagues at Armament Research Services (ARES), including Jerry Smith, Larry Friese, Sean Flachs, and Daniel Hughes. Mr. Smith, in particular, provided detailed analysis of the CBR threats outlined herein, drawing on his considerable expertise. Thanks are also due to those who shared their input and feedback on the condition of anonymity. All errors remain those of the author alone.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Armament Research Services (ARES)Newcastle upon TyneUK
  2. 2.Armament Research Services (ARES)PerthAustralia

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