History Lesson: Iraq’s Foil-clad Drones

By Arthur Holland Michel

On February 5, 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed the United Nations General Assembly in order to describe in detail the weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was supposedly developing in Iraq. This speech is now infamous, and the the inaccurate statements about Iraq’s nuclear and chemical weapons within it are a matter of public record. In that same speech, Secretary Powell made the remarkable assertion that Iraq was developing sophisticated drones to deliver these weapons of mass destruction.

“Iraq has been working on a variety of UAVs for more than a decade. This is just illustrative of what a UAV would look like,” Powell said, showing a photograph of a small unarmed drone. “This effort has included attempts to modify for unmanned flight the MiG-21 and with greater success an aircraft called the L-29. However, Iraq is now concentrating not on these airplanes, but on developing and testing smaller UAVs, such as this.” He went on, “Iraq could use these small UAVs which have a wingspan of only a few meters to deliver biological agents to its neighbours or if transported, to other countries, including the United States.”

Powell was not the only senior U.S. government figure to make claims about Iraq’s unmanned aerial vehicle program. In a speech the previous October, President George W. Bush said, “We’re concerned that Iraq is exploring ways of using these UAVs for missions targeting the United States.” The president explained that Iraq’s “growing fleet” of unmanned aircraft “could be used to disperse chemical and biological weapons across broad areas.”

A slide from Colin Powell's address to the U.N. General Assembly
A slide from Colin Powell’s address to the U.N. General Assembly


These public claims were based, according to U.S. officials, on intelligence analysis conducted by various agencies. A 2002 National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq’s weapons arsenal was partly declassified in July 2003 in response to growing accusations that U.S. government claims about Iraq’s WMDs had been fabricated. The NIE notes that Baghdad had “exceeded U.N. range limits of 150 km with its ballistic missiles and is working with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which allow for a more lethal means to deliver biological and, less likely, chemical warfare agents.” The report was referring to intelligence collected in June, 2002, that appeared to show that Iraq had exceeded a self-imposed range limit for one of its prototype drones during testing. An October 2002 report by the Director of Central Intelligence reiterated these claims.

During inspections of Iraq’s military systems, the U.N.’s Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission did indeed scrutinize the Iraqi drone program, and concurred with the U.S. assessment that the unmanned aircraft might prove to be an effective delivery system for chemical weapons. A March 6, 2003 report by UNMOVIC, Unresolved Disarmament Issues: Iraq’s Proscribed Weapons Programmes, noted that drones “are of particular interest to UNMOVIC because of their potential to deliver a weapon to a remote target. Even though some UAVs are small and can only carry a few tens of kilogrammes as payload, this could be significant if that payload is a BW agent such as anthrax. Indeed, Iraq has declared that in 1988 it considered RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] as a delivery vehicle to spray BW [biological warfare] agents, but said that it rejected the idea as the aircraft possessed at that time were too small.” The U.N. report focused on the L-29, a manned fighter jet that the Iraqi military had converted into an unmanned aircraft. Iraq had claimed that it had a range of only 30 km. and was designed for training purposes (not unlike the U.S. QF-16, which is also used for training), claims that UNMOVIC did not trust.

An L-29 photographed at Samara East Airbase Credit: Globalsecurity.org

The prospect of Iraqi unmanned aerial vehicles spraying chemical and biological agents over densely populated areas over the United States was widely reported in the media. But soon after the invasion of Iraq, as the tall stories of Iraq’s WMD arsenal began to fall apart, Powell’s and Bush’s claims about the scale and sophistication of Iraq’s drone program proved to be wildly exaggerated. In their speeches, Powell and Bush had neglected to mention that the capabilities of Iraqi drones had been a matter of debate in U.S. intelligence circles, according to the Associated Press. The Air Force, it was later revealed, had maintained that Iraqi drones were not capable of posing any real threat to the U.S., or even to the countries bordering Iraq. “We didn’t see there was a very large chance they [UAVs] would be used to attack the continental United States,” Bob Boyd, director of the Air Force Intelligence Analysis Agency, told the Associated Press, also noting that it was unlikely that Iraq was planning to use its drones to deliver chemical weapons, since there was little crossover between the two programs.

Indeed, in the final days before the invasion, Iraqi officials had displayed one of the military’s drones in an apparent effort to refute claims that these systems had any of the capabilities that U.S. officials claimed they had. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the drone had “‘God is Great’ written in Arabic along the fuselage and on each wing, with a red permanent marker.” The aircraft’s wings were apparently held together “with tin foil and duct tape, and two wooden propellers bolted to engines far smaller than those of a lawn mower.”

The L-29, meanwhile, was also found to be far less capable and reliable than originally thought. According to Globalsecurity.org, in a test at an advanced development stage in June 1997, the aircraft lost its communications link with ground crew and crashed. Engineers tried to solve the problem by bolting on to the drone a stabilization system from a Chinese cruise missile. This fix did not work. It also appears that the program could only have ever developed a handful of L-29 drones, since only a couple of dozen of the manned aircraft that it was based on were still in service in 2002. Furthermore, engineers had been unable to fly the aircraft more than 70 km. from the ground station (in the test in which the range limit of 150 km. was exceeded, the aircraft flew in circles over within a 70 km. range; the exceed “range” referred to by U.S. officials was therefore misleading).

A decommissioned L-29

Until recently, this anecdote from the leadup to the Iraq War was treated more as a curious sideshow to the more significant discussions around Iraq’s supposed nuclear program. But recently, it has taken on renewed relevance. After a U.S. spy drunkenly crashed his hobby drone into a White House lawn, many revisited the idea that even a rudimentary drone could be turned into an effective weapon. In theory, such a drone carrying a small amount of explosives could serve as an effective DIY precision-guided ordinance. The threat is being taken seriously. On March 18, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency will hold a hearing on this very issue. The Secret Service has announced that it will conduct a series of late night tests in order to figure out how to bring down small drones using signal jammers.

The cost of entry into drone warfare will someday drop to the point that a country with relatively few resources may indeed be able to develop drones that pose the kind of threat that Powell warned of in the General Assembly

But just as in 2003, when it comes to drones, there is still sometimes a gulf between fiction and reality, especially when it comes to indigenous military drone programs. The ongoing war in Syria has become a proving ground for various Iranian drones, the capabilities of which–just as with Iraq’s drones–are disputed. When Hamas announced that in July of last year that it had sent several drones into Israel for surveillance missions, the story grabbed headlines, but experts were quick to point out that, though they might sound impressive, Hamas drones were likely not much of a threat to the IDF. When countries like Nigeria and Ecuador claim to have developed capable military drones, it is worth pausing to consider whether or not such systems match both our expectations, as well as the claims that are being made about them.

While some commentators have warned that the proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles could pose a serious threat to international security, others have pointed out that the technical challenges are such that drones with anything approaching the capability of an armed U.S. Reaper drone, for example, are beyond the reach of all but a few of the wealthiest and most advanced militaries (satellites and other complex communications infrastructures are required to enable larger drone operations). The cost of entry into drone warfare will someday drop to the point that a country with relatively few resources may indeed be able to develop drones that pose the kind of threat that Powell warned of in the General Assembly, but in the meantime, we might look back at Iraq’s foil-clad drones and the excitement and anxiety they provoked as a cautionary tale: just because a country has drones, it doesn’t mean those drones are worth starting a war over.

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