Model Aircraft Are Not A National Security Threat

Recently, the FBI launched a successful sting operation that nabbed an wanna-be al-Qaeda member, Rezwan Ferdaus, who had been trying to provide terrorists with cellphones turned into explosive detonators and who had been plotting on attacking the Pentagon and the Capitol with remote-controlled aircraft.

There is already a great deal of hype from writers like Slate‘s Will Saletan over terrorists using RC aircraft to launch terrorist attacks. But it’s hype with little factual basis. The fact is that RC aircraft are not a significant threat to national security.

Setting the Record Straight

First, it’s important to get the facts correct. CNN erroneously reports that a model aircraft like the one that terrorist wanted to use can be purchased for less than $200. That is simply incorrect—you can buy small aircraft powered by electric motors and made of styrofoam for $200. But those will not carry much more than a small camera—certainly not enough explosive to make a dent in a building. Such aircraft weigh less than 2 pounds and have a range of less than two miles—hardly a devastating terror weapon.

The RC F-86 intended for the DC bomb plot

The RC F-86 intended for the DC bomb plot could not have carried a 20-pound payload

The aircraft that Ferdaus used was apparently a model of the Korean-War era F-86 with a wingspan of over five feet and a similarly-sized model of the Vietnam era F-4 Phantom. More than likely the aircraft would have been powered by gas turbine engines. Aircraft of that size are quite expensive, probably several thousand dollars, not including equipment. Plus, those aircraft are not designed to lift large payloads. They are designed for speed and maneuverability, not lifting objects. Even if Ferdaus had actually gotten his hands on C4 explosive, the chances of him pulling off a successful attack would have been slim. Loading that aircraft with 20 pounds of explosives and the gear needed for it to use GPS to fly to its intended target would have probably left it too heavy to fly, or at the very least much slower than it would otherwise be. While some reports say that the aircraft could carry 50 pounds of explosives, that is simply untrue. In theory a model aircraft of that size could be stuffed full of C4, but they would have no prayer of actually taking off with that kind of weight.

Not only that, but a turbine aircraft flying over Washington would have been very noisy and very visible. No doubt the Pentagon and the Capitol have systems in place to deal with airborne threats. Even at a maximum speed of over 100 miles per hour, a model aircraft is much slower than a missile, and much larger. The chances of it getting to a target undetected are slim to none. A plane packed full of explosives, assuming it could fly at all, would fly so slowly and ponderously that small arms fire would have no problem knocking it out of the sky long before it reached its target.

That assumes that Ferdaus wouldn’t have blown himself up in the process. C4 is a very stable explosive, but anyone who’s ever flown a model aircraft will say one thing: it’s damn hard. It’s harder than flying a full-scale aircraft. Even with technological aids, it’s still very difficult. And the aircraft that Ferdaus chose would require a long, paved runway to take off. It’s not something that could be launched from a park. Ferdaus would have more than likely not been able to take off, and there’s a good chance he would have ended up meeting his 72 virgins long before he would have caused harm to any government buildings.

In short, this attack would not have worked even if it hadn’t been an FBI sting from the very beginning. As Fast Company observes:

Model aircraft and drones are exceedingly poorly suited to lone wolf terrorist attacks. Despite the use of drones by the U.S. military for targeted strikes and assassinations, operation of these types of unmanned aircraft require access to resources and training generally available only to domestic and foreign military forces. In other words, if you don’t have North Korea or Pakistan training you and supplying AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, fuggedaboutit. The many drones easily available to the civilian market are good only for surveillance and aerial monitoring.

But that won’t stop the busybodies in Congress from trying to regulate model aircraft into oblivion given half the chance.

The Real Threat is Regulation

The real threat here isn’t from al-Qaeda. If you wanted to attack the Pentagon, there are 20,000 missiles gone missing from Libya that could do a lot more damage than a model F-86 packed with C4. Model aviation does not pose a substantial security threat to the United States.

But that won’t stop the regulators from trying to end the hobby. There have been efforts to regulate model aviation into the ground in the past, and busybodies like Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have threatened to regulate RC planes before. The federal government does not like it when anyone does something that they can’t control, and model aviation is next in their crosshairs. This harebrained scheme by a terrorist wanna-be is just the excuse that Washington needs to clamp down.

And this could not come at a worse time. Model aviation is becoming more and more useful to the American people. Thanks to better battery technology and cheaper radios, model aviation is open to people who could never have afforded to get into the hobby in the days of expensive and dangerous fuel-powered engines and equally expensive radios. This means that children can get into a hobby that will teach them about physics, engineering, and aerospace. Last I heard, we wanted to build a high-tech 21st Century economy. We can’t do that by restricting the ability of the average citizen to explore science and technology on their own.

Not only that, but this technology has more concrete uses. Civilian drones can be used for aerial surveying, aerial photography, and scientific studies. The University of North Dakota recently flew a model plane close to a tornado to launch probes into the storm. An off-the-shelf AR.Drone that can be bought at a mall was used to survey damage after the New Zealand earthquake. These are applications that would have previously been too expensive for civilians to afford.

We should not risk these benefits over unnecessary fears of terrorism. We have already sacrificed too much in the name of security, preferring the illusion that “security theater” will keep us safe when the reality is that those measures are less about preventing terrorism and more about having the illusion of doing something.

Rezwan Ferdaus’ foiled attempt to attack Americans with model aircraft was never going to work, and even if it had, the damage would have been far less than more conventional modes of attack. But we should not let Ferdaus’ foolishness lead to an overreaction on the part of government. We only have so many resources that can be brought to bear in stopping the next terror attack, and using those limited resources to patrol civilian hobbyists diminishes our capacity to deal with real threats to our safety and security.