A report released in August 2016 by the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO) at Fort Leavenworth, KS/USA, entitled ‘Terrorist and Insurgent Teleoperated Sniper Rifles and Machine Guns,’ is the first unclassified study to chart the development of 21 tele-operated weapons systems used by terrorist and insurgent groups. Unique in selectivity criteria, using open sources, only systems positively linked to particular insurgent groups and conventional forces were catalogued.
In the report’s introduction, authors Dr. Robert J. Bunker and Alma Keshavarz write: “The plethora of videos and photos on social media indicates that terror and insurgent groups are increasingly turning to improvised weaponry use on the battlefield. One emerging class of improvised weapon are remote-controlled sniper rifles and machine guns […] there is a level of sophistication and practicality of these groups to use what is available and create a weapon that can cause a great deal of damage.”
The report’s content, considered descriptive of an underreported operational threat by the sponsoring agency, notes that the use of remotely-operated rifles and machine guns can be traced back a single instance during the 2011 Libyan conflict. Bunker and Keshavarz make clear: “Some systems are more refined than others, equipped with cameras for example, but all have at least proven to be somewhat effective.”
Combining open source social media, Bunker and Keshavarz determined in 2012 that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took lead place in development and deployment of improvised remote-controlled rifles and machine guns,warning: “Other rebel groups as well as Islamic State [IS] and Al-Qaeda affiliates caught on quickly. In early 2016, videos and Twitter images surfaced of improvised weaponry developed by Iraqi military forces.”
Homemade remotely-operated rifle and machine gun systems are now used across Syria and Iraq.
Last April, a Euronews video posting showed an IS’ remote-controlled machine gun in Iraq. It was discovered by Kurdish forces while they were ambushed by the weapon, reportedly killing several while they responded, overrunning gun position by force. The video clip showed Kurdish troops explaining the weapon could be controlled behind cover, or in a bunker using a camera for an above ground view. Shown mounted on a movable base near the ambush zone, the weapon was purposely placed. Of questionable practicality, dogs were found tied to the weapon’s mount, in what appeared an effort to deter curious individuals. Although claimed to be a machine gun, after analysis the weapon in question resembles a Russian-made Dragunov SVD 7.62x54R semi-automatic sniper rifle, with stock and trigger assembly removed, likely to facilitate the use of a servo firing mechanism.
A similar system (perhaps the same weapon type) was identified in 2015 in Iraq’s Kirkuk region. According to a separate news report, this particular weapon was also detected by Kurdish forces. Described as a sniper rifle mounted on a welded steel platform with a powered traversing gear, a scope is wired to a computer aiming device. The forward assembly, barrel, and handguards, very similar in appearance to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, are connected to a computer by four long cables, controlling barrel elevation, gun rotation, trigger, and camera. The similarity of these systems is striking, from armament to colour. Appearing a year apart in social media and news reports after battlefield capture, it is reasonable to conclude these systems may be in production.
IS use of long-range, remotely-operated sniper systems has been detected on numerous occasions. In July 2014, a video linked to IS shows a fighter explaining how to operate what appears to be a .50-calibre sniper weapon with trigger and buttstock removed. Bunker and Keshavarz noted the weapon would have a very slow single shot loading capability due to a primitive breech reloading mechanism, perhaps indicating localised production. The video originated in Syria’s Madinat Ath Thawrah Region.
Free Syrian Army
Groups comprising FSA have been particularly active developing a range of remote infantry weapon firing platforms. Many are static while others offer a low level of mobility, typically suited to an urban environment. In 2013, two instances of remotely-controlled Russian PK machine gun mounts developed by FSA were noted in the FMSO report. In the first instance, the weapon did not appear to have a camera or sophisticated computer control attached, however, these items may have been specifically left out of the image. In the later July 2013 report, another remote-controlled PK machine gun is seen mounted to a remotely-operated base, this example has a camera attached to a scope; these are linked to control cables attached to a Sony PlayStation. The mount can traverse 360°, and elevate the gun.
In September 2013, videos originating in Syria’s Aleppo region show FSA forces with a remotely-controlled firing platform with a WWII-era StG-44 (Sturmgewehr 44) automatic rifle. According to Bunker and Keshavarz, the weapon is mounted on servo motors allowing remote control operation. A camera is attached to the rifle scope, wired to an LCD screen, providing, “longer range without the possibility of jamming or hacking.” A large number of StG-44s were captured from Syrian government stocks in 2012.
FSA operatives also configured an FN Herstal FN-FAL 7.62mm battle rifle on a remotely controllable mount. Amateur video posted on Live Leak shows FSA fighters using the weapon, basically linked by cables to a small, rather crude display box containing several control switches. A camera attached to the rifle’s scope provides targeting. The video shows the operator seated around a corner from the weapon, several metres away.
Another video appearing in August 2013 shows Al-Tawhid fighters displaying another FN-FAL battle rifle integrated with a less-sophisticated remotely-controlled firing mount. The FMSO report notes: “The small arm, what appears to be a 7.62mm FAL rifle, does not have a scope and camera interface making this at best an area fires type of weapon.”
Bunker and Keshavarz point out Iraqi Militia Forces or Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) supported by the Iranian government have also fabricated remote-controlled machine guns. One example was displayed on social media in February 2016. Discovered near Mosul, the weapon, a Russian-made PK light machine gun (7.62x54R) appears to have an attached camera connected to a small display screen.
Mobile Remote Firing Platforms
One of the first instances listed in the Bunker and Keshavarz report cites Daily Mail in the United Kingdom. In the vicinity of Misrata, Libya, around June 2011, rebel fighters, assisted by members who were engineers pre-conflict, integrated what appears to be a Russian NSV 12.7mm heavy machine gun into a large radio-controlled toy car. A camera attached to the car appears to be used for targeting and fire control.
In 2012, a group linked to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) posted a video showing off improvised weaponry capabilities. A tri-wheeled, black coloured cart is shown integrated with a Russian NSV 12.7mm heavy machine gun. In a firing demonstration, a laser scope is seen mounted on the cart, linked by cables to a screen operated by a remote control unit. When firing, the mount appears to manage heavy recoil without shifting from the target. The cart appeared to be battery powered.
Dr. Robert J. Bunker discussed his findings with Mönch on 29 October. He is Adjunct Research Professor, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College and Adjunct Faculty, Division of Politics and Economics, Claremont Graduate University:
Mönch: Has your report receive subsequent attention/action by the US Department of Defense (DoD) and wider intelligence community?
Dr. Bunker: I think the report may have been quite a ‘wake-up call’ for some in the DoD and US intelligence community that were not tracking or connecting the dots on the deployment of these remote weapons by insurgent and terrorist groups. Hopefully, these systems appearing in Syria and Iraq were already tracked, I think we can assume if they were not before they definitely are on the radar now.
Mönch: Have any reported uses of remote controlled rifles and machine guns proved decisive in achieving the users end goals?
Dr. Bunker: It looks like their deployment so far has been hit and miss, this is to be expected given the experimental nature of such a new technology. If the user is attempting to avoid being shot while firing a rifle or machine gun from a static position, then manipulating such weapons remotely makes a lot of sense. These systems do not really have a viable mobile capability, however, as the user would have to expose themselves by trailing some of these systems with long cable attachments as they walk behind the platform. An improvised remote fired weapon turret on a vehicle with a cable running to the cab might be a good compromise between these two extremes, but for real mobile utility at some point, these systems need to go wireless. New radio frequency-based vulnerabilities present opportunities for exploitation.
Mönch: Do you know of any attempts or methods used to counter these weapon configurations?
Dr. Bunker: Because of the simplicity of these systems, essentially long hard-line cables connecting a hand-held controller (with a video camera display) to a mechanically manipulated rifle or machine gun, they do not provide any exploitable radio frequency signal vulnerability. Counter-sniper fire is also problematic because no human operator can be easily targeted. Instead, the human sniper is positioned remotely from the weapon, although a potential target would be presented when changing out a magazine or clearing a firing malfunction. A probable response to this configuration utilises a direct fire area weapon such as a shoulder-launched rocket or call in artillery fires to reduce the area suspected of housing the weapon, along with adjacent concealed spaced in an attempt to neutralise the remote sniper.
Mönch: Of 21 systems analysed in your report, which would rank above others so far as ease of assembly and effectiveness?
Dr. Bunker: I would go with the static systems over mobile, keep it basic with less moving parts and things to go wrong. I also prefer the remote sniper rifles over remotely-operated machine guns, less need to reload and possible jams to contend with, so the user is better protected, but I’m sure professional military snipers look down on the amateurish capabilities inherent in these remote sniper systems. Regardless, I’d choose the 7.62mm FN-FAL rifle with the scope and video camera attachment used by the FSA in the Aleppo Region in March 2013. The set-up is basic, the screen and user interface shown in the video appeared straightforward, relatively easy to use, the FN-FAL rifle has good standoff range and reliability.
Mönch: Please tell our readers if you have plans to update your report and how they may access the initial version?
Dr. Bunker: In about eight months or so, we may do another literature/image/video/social media search on these remote weapons. We would do this primarily in English and Farsi with a basic search in Arabic as well. If anything of interest turns up, this could result in a short research update. This has already been done for some new information on narco-tanks and narco-submarines that I track from time-to-time although this new information would likely appear in a non-FMSO publication like Small Wars Journal. A fascinating side note to this research is the fact the US Army was way ahead in these types of remote systems in the mid-2000s with its armed Swords system that for a time was deployed in Iraq. Another Western system, the TRAP T192 remote sniper kit, also exists and is also far more advanced than the systems we reviewed.
The report is available at the FMSO website at: http://fmso.leavenworth.army.mil.
Mönch: Dr. Bunker, thank you for this interview and the excellent report you and Keshavarz produced.