By Samuel Bendett, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)
June 17, 2021
The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology has proliferated globally, resulting in myriad uses, both military and civilian. With the steady rise in non-military uses comes the potential and dangers of this technology’s misuse. Presently, the Latin America (LATAM) region is home to major energy and extractive industries infrastructure, port, and logistics facilities, as well as competing and overlapping geopolitical causes and rivalries — and all can become potential targets of a growing list of belligerents.
Following the growing UAV use by LATAM militaries, many non-state actors and groups, such as drug cartels, criminal organizations, non-state armed groups, terrorist organizations, political and opposition groups, started to adopt UAV technology to further their own goals. Over the past several years, there have been high-profile incidents involving unsanctioned drones that threatened political, military, and economic targets around the world.
In recent years, Syrian, Iraqi, Russian, and U.S. forces — and their regional allies and partners — came under attack from small commercial drones that were turned into combat UAVs by the Islamic State group (IS). Often, the drones were simply rigged by IS to drop grenades from low altitude. These and many other examples demonstrate that both commercial and military drones present a challenge that forces governments and the private sector to adopt counter-UAV (also known as C-UAS, or counter-unmanned aerial system) technologies to defend their interests. Elsewhere around the world, oil and gas installations along with civilian airports are being targeted by more sophisticated combat drones.
Back in 2016, drone industry analysts and observers predicted that as UAVs began to proliferate across LATAM, counter-drone measures would be developed domestically or imported as a result. Selling and promoting C-UAS systems could be a relatively low-cost/high-return policy for Moscow, and its progress in developing and using C-UAS systems merits a closer look. Today, Russia is one of the major hubs for developing such countermeasures, building on its decades-long experience in electronic warfare (EW), and its military experience in Syria. In the midst of this global C-UAS race, Russia could solidify one of the leading export positions in this rapidly growing field. With a mounting array of potential threats posed by UAVs across the region, LATAM can be a potential destination for Russian anti-drone exports. Such a policy could further strengthen Russia’s position in the region, by combining the sale and transfer of counter-drone technology and training with ongoing weapons exports.
Drone dangers specific to LATAM
The unsanctioned/illegal UAV use across LATAM has been growing over the past decade. In November 2017, Colombian Police seized 130 kilograms of cocaine and a drone used by narcotraffickers to allegedly send cocaine shipments to Panama. While drug cartels using drones in Colombia is a relatively new phenomenon, this tactic has been used by Mexican cartels since at least 2010.
The US-based publication Small Wars Journal noted the steady adoption of UAVs as “the perfect mule” that involves less risk to drug trafficking organizations than aircraft pilots or maritime operators who could be captured and interrogated. Using drones is a cheaper option compared to the costs associated with using humans in trafficking and transportation. Drones are also cheaper than building and using drug tunnels, semi-submersibles, vessels, and submarines. It is also possible that aerial drone use by drug cartels in LATAM could increase, especially if cartels develop models that can carry added weight and fly longer distances at lower altitudes.
There are recent examples of such UAVs adopted by the Azerbaijan and Chinese militaries that converted older Soviet An-2 passenger and cargo aircraft into drones. More specifically, a US-based drone expert noted that if scaled up, this technology would also allow the cartels to operate at lower costs compared to traditional methods. According to U.S. government officials, cartels are indeed looking for alternative transport methods. When the threat of potential attacks and assassinations by drones is also added to the list, the need for a C-UAS defense becomes apparent.
Russian C-UAS technology
Currently, Russian defense companies are manufacturing a range of C-UAS systems to counter multiple threat levels. Many Russian C-UAS systems are small and portable, and are relatively inexpensive, enabling their potential export to LATAM. For example, Stilet is a short-range shotgun-like system that can fit in a backpack. It resembles a hybrid of a gun and an assault rifle that neutralizes the drone within line of sight via directional antennas. Another example is called the REX. It jams GPS, Russia’s GLONASS, China’s BeiDou, and Europe’s Galileo geospatial signals within a 3-mile (4.9 kilometers) radius, disabling drone’s navigation. REX was modernized in 2019, presumably based on the Russian experience in Syria, where a number of C-UAS systems were tested.
Another system that is primed for export is Stupor, a C-UAS “rifle” used by the Russian military in Syria. Such simpler technologies cost only several thousand dollars each, potentially making them easy to market. Russia’s larger C-UAS systems already protected the 2018 Soccer World Cup, and the country’s defense industry is already marketing a range of systems to domestic customers like oil and gas companies. Russia also begun to market its C-UAS solutions abroad, to former Soviet states, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. Along with newer C-UAS technology, Russian military has decades of experience dealing with aerial threats via anti-aircraft and air defense systems and weapons, many of which are undergoing daily testing in Syria. It’s likely that Russia may provide additional C-UAS training with such air defense technologies to its partners in the region.
Russia may have several advantages, as well as challenges, in exporting its technologies to LATAM. First, the region is primed to start using C-UAS technology, considering the growing number of current and potential threats posed by unsanctioned or illegal UAVs. Moreover, the extensive energy, transportation, and public venue infrastructure across the region could also be targeted, with the cost-to-result ratio skewed squarely in favor of the attackers.
Second, Russia maintains a number of key partners in the region that could potentially acquire Russian C-UAS technology. Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are Russia’s closest partner nations in LATAM, and Moscow is eager to expand its export portfolio to other countries in the region. Russia could build on existing regional ties to convince potential customers that its systems can tackle regional problems. For example, in 2017, Russia opened a counternarcotics training center in Nicaragua. Given the growing threat of illegal drones in the region, Moscow could train the participants in C-UAS efforts, while at the same time marketing its growing list of technologies and solutions.
Third, Moscow would be willing to offer its systems even to customers that are currently at odds with each other. For example, Russia sold weapons to both Armenia and Azerbaijan that were locked in conflict since 1992. Some of these weapons allowed Azerbaijan to overcome Armenian resistance in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. In early 2021, Russia made a deal to sell arms to Pakistan, which remains an adversary to India, Russia’s long-term weapons importer. At the same time, Russia may build on existing military-to-military relationships in offering C-UAS training to current air defense units across the region.
Presently, Moscow has a stable footing in LATAM via decades-long exports to many countries. As Russia builds on its ongoing counter-UAV development efforts, it would be primed to enter LATAM’s emerging C-UAS market, considering this technology’s relative cost-to-outcome ratios. It would also be important to monitor how this market is developing across LATAM, noting specific regional preferences in the procurement of Russian or other systems.