Tag Archives: Security

Maduro Drones On

Wearing full regalia to mark the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard on August 4th, President Nicolas Maduro became the world’s most prominent target of a drone strike. The scene was typical of the farcical government theater Venezuelans have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years since Maduro’s charismatic mentor, Hugo Chavez was elected President. The small explosion occurred while Maduro was addressing a massive assembly of soldiers, firefighters, and police; seven of whom were wounded when two drones approached and dropped their ordnance near the procession.

In a speech the following day, Maduro blamed the attack on the former President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a claim Santos bluntly repudiated. Though Maduro is accustomed to droning on against foreign interference, those claiming credit for the attack, a previously unknown group called “Soldiers of Flannel”, identify themselves as patriotic Venezuelans. They blame Maduro’s incompetence for the exploding economic crisis that is pushing millions of Venezuelans into desperation. Though some would like to write off the incident as a parochial Latin American squabble, the drone-delivery of explosives is a growing global security threat that simply cannot be ignored.

The "Soldiers of Flannel" claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.
The “Soldiers of Flannel” claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivarian Devolution

Though Saturday’s drama may seem remote to those outside Latin America, Venezuela is in the midst of an exploding humanitarian disaster. This is not hyperbole. Some 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the hyperinflation and scarcity that has plagued their economy since 2014. Conditions are at the point that international humanitarian actors supporting affected Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere claim newborns in Syria have lower mortality rates than those in Venezuela. Once the richest nationality in Latin America, Venezuelans both at home and abroad suffer from malnutrition, crime, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking as the crisis — and their desperation — intensifies. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime increasingly relies on repression and violence to maintain control. A patronage system guarantees military and police loyalty but is coming under escalating stress from an inflation rate that may exceed 1 million percent by the end of the year.

At these rates, it is difficult to imagine Maduro will be able to sustain this system, particularly in the face of the rapid collapse of oil exports. For years, the state oil company, PDVSA, funded the socialist economy set up by Hugo Chavez; but as PDVSA demands for control of production grew to pay the rising costs of Chavismo, international oil companies began to cut their losses. Beginning with the American firms, the oil majors shut down their Venezuelan operations, taking their expertise and equipment with them and leaving a lasting impact on the economy, currency, and security of the country. Something will have to give in order for conditions to improve and Saturday’s drone strike suggests the security situation will further deteriorate long before the economy stabilizes.

Drones On Target

Saturday’s attack on Maduro, though of little significance in real terms, marks the first notable proliferation of non-state, drone-delivered explosives outside the Middle East. Though the attacked wounded seven members of the Bolivarian National Guard, Maduro was unhurt and he and the generals surrounding him responded stoically enough to preserve their machismo. What alarms security officials around the world about the incident however, is there is no real way to defend against this rapidly proliferating technology.

Drone technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Improvements in battery capability enabled this leap, driving down costs and giving smaller drones more range and power. Though state militaries were the early drivers of drone technology, they focused their research and development efforts on larger platforms that somewhat replicated capabilities of manned aircraft. Private hobbyists and commercial interests such as Amazon pushed demand for smaller devices and drove innovation faster than militaries were capable of doing. Not surprisingly, the commercial utility of drones as a delivery device has military implications as Mr. Maduro discovered on Saturday.

Maduro's security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.
Maduro’s security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.

Keeping up with technological advancement is not the only policy challenge drones represent. In most parts of the world, airspace is only regulated above 3000 feet above ground level (AGL). Below that level, there are very few regulations and almost no laws governing air traffic. Even in those instances where governments made steps to address this gap, enforcement remains an administrative and technical headache. There are very few requirements for registration or licensing, and that’s just the start. On the extreme end of the spectrum, traditional defenses against air attack, specifically fighter aircraft and surface to air missiles, are almost completely ineffective below 3000 feet AGL. This is especially true in urban environments. Though one of the drones that attacked Maduro was reportedly shot down by an alert sniper, it crashed with its deadly payload into a nearby apartment building, setting fire to the structure and forcing an evacuation. The incident highlights that even effective defenses may cause unintended harm.

Technological solutions are no more promising. Countermeasures range from systems that jam guidance inputs, to others that launch netting to capture drones, to trained birds of prey. Clearly the defense sector is struggling to establish a workable industry standard. Detection is a different problem that has more obvious solutions but integrating them with countermeasures and backing that up with effective legislation and enforcement is the biggest challenge of all. If there is a silver lining associated with the dramatic attack on Nicolas Maduro, it is that his misfortune may actually raise enough alarm at a high enough level to make a difference. When it comes to drone defense, the Soldiers of Flannel said it best: “…it’s only a question of time.”

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Thanks to Kirby Sanford for consulting on flight rules and airspace control measures. Kirby is the author of Bolivarian Devolution and Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom on The Affiliate Network.

Securing Trade and Transportation

The horrific bombings in Brussels on 22 March – and the attacks in Paris and Ankara that preceded them – make it very clear the security situation in Europe will remain unpredictable and fragile for some time to come. In responding to these threats, some nations have enacted measures to restrict the transportation of goods and people. Many more nations will do the same.

While terrorism will undoubtedly cost the global community many lives, barriers to free movement will also present severe economic consequences in billions of dollars in lost trade and development opportunities. In this way, the battle against terrorism is not just defined by suicide bombs and drone strikes, but also by the need to manage the flow of people and goods, and maintain economic growth.

Image Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/
Image Source: http://www.independent.co.uk/

The current situation demands politicians pursue the resolution of the conflict in a humanitarian and civilized manner. Threats must be addressed and neutralized, locally and regionally, in Europe and at the source. While there are short-term measures to be taken, we will, however, be at war for some time to come. The challenge will be to reconcile the security of borders with the need to minimize damage to economic growth for the duration of the conflict and enhance the resilience of the European trade system against disruption in the future.

Setting the Stage for Conflict

Uncontrolled immigration is a challenge for the European Union (EU).  Latest indications are that the million or so refugees and immigrants that have come to the continent in the past year have included terrorists as well as economic migrants. Though there is a clear need to differentiate between those that need help from those arriving with ulterior motives, the EU’s failure to act in unison leaves member nations no choice but to take unilateral measures to secure their populations. These measures take the form of border controls which will remain in place until the security improves, the stream of migrants abates and the EU adopts a clear immigration and asylum policy. Such a policy would allow an immigrant or refugee, legally allowed into one country, to legally travel to another EU country for pleasure or work.

Until then, trade will suffer. Cross-border commuters and trucks loaded with goods are already spending hours and days at crossings, costing millions of Euros every week.  With freedom of movement of both people and goods –  two of the four foundational freedoms of the EU – threatened, the EU must find methods to keep the borders controlled while letting bona fide European citizens and trade to flow unhindered. This is no small task and will require clear policies as well as some on-the-ground technical solutions.

Looking for Answers

Critical to the security of free trade is the construction of transportation corridors where pre-screened vehicles conducting cross-border travel have separate, dedicated lanes at the border for secure and unhindered continuous movement. These transportation corridors will enable Europe to create stable networks that protect its core industrial base and trade corridors. Such corridors could be created by the centralized management of transportation information regarding the goods being moved and the personnel transporting them.  Using existing technology, manufacturers, traders, and transportation companies could register their trucks with a central organization which would check the vehicle’s license plate against an encrypted registry. Today, police in some countries already scan license plates to search for known criminals; when a ‘hit’ occurs, the suspect is apprehended or followed.

With this registry in place, “accepted” vehicles then enter a virtual or physically secure pathway where their movement is monitored by GPS and national authorities can feel confident allowing them to pass unhindered across borders. In many places in Europe, limited access toll-roads already exist. Investment would be required on the part of nations to monitor flows in key corridors with cameras. Many transportation firms already follow their trucks with GPS systems, allowing for tracking of movements outside the supervised, segregated corridors.

Valuable information necessary for transportation security is already being collected by private corporations. Governments should implement similar technology in order to create virtual secure lanes of travel. Image Source: www.cshtransport.com
Valuable information necessary for transportation security is already being collected by private corporations. Governments should implement similar technology in order to create virtual secure lanes of travel. Image Source: www.cshtransport.com

All this information is already readily available. Transportation firms already have an abundance of additional data available such as the waybill, driver identity and other relevant documentation which can be biometrically linked to the driver, then stored and shared system-wide. The collection and integration of this information with automated camera systems that can match specific trucks against a planned itinerary in a secure pathway will allow national governments to supervise cross-border traffic with little hindrance, be alerted to unscheduled detours and other anomalies en route.

The Way Forward for Secure Transportation

None of these ideas are revolutionary; a model already exists for successful integration of this type of transportation data.  In the aviation sector, nations control registered movements within their borders and hand over verified movement to the next country as aircraft depart their airspace. Airline passengers that frequently cross borders can undergo a one-time intense background check and vetting process. These individual passengers, properly identified and documented, are then able to cross borders at airports based on biometric characteristics.

Clearly, this is a complex big-data exercise with some significant cost. Yet, if it can be done for aircraft, there is nothing preventing its implementation for ground-based freight and passenger traffic except the political willpower to execute.  It is time to extend this system-based approach to road-based border checkpoints. This transportation gap in the security matrix cannot be neglected any further.

Trade and free movement of goods and workers are critical interests for the security of all nations in Europe.  Currently, implementation of the appropriate measures to protect these interests are being lost in debates as politicians ride a wave of arguments tending towards protectionism and exclusion of immigrants. The authority to regulate interstate commerce resides with the governments of the European Union. For that reason, it is imperative that in the mire of political discourse, the need to build the critical infrastructure with the appropriate and available technology to restore trade and commerce receive ample attention and a unified response. Only by including transportation security in a complete threat analysis can we do justice to the complex task of intelligently and resiliently securing commerce and economies against terrorism.

Rein Westra Rein Westra is a former CEO in the public transit sector, and currently engaged in the development of web-enabled logistics IT services.  He is CEO of the The Hague Policy Group, an advisory firm focused on public policy  and strategy in trade and transportation, with particular concern for economic development and security.