War never changes, it just iterates
ISIS is, by all appearances, fighting a losing war. The ultraviolent pseudo-state in Iraq and Syria stunned the world with a series of victories in 2014, but since then it’s been rolled back by a coalition of forces from Kurdish fighters to American airstrikes to a regrouped Iraqi Security Forces, and is losing territory daily. Beset on all sides, the embattled extremists are turning to technology for salvation.
In a slickly-produced video released today, ISIS brags about a range of new weapons, from rocket launchers to remote control gun turrets. What is most impressive, perhaps, is the languages used in the video: three different speakers describe weapons in French, English, and Russian, reflecting the foreign fighters who have left their home countries to join ISIS. The weapons themselves are clever, but nothing the world hasn’t seen before, sometimes even a century ago. Here are three weapons, shown off by ISIS today, with long lineages.
Like few forces before it, ISIS embraced small, cheap, commercially-produced drones, turning them into headline-grabbing weapons and booby-trapped rigs. Its latest drone appears scratch-built, like the kind recovered by Iraqi Security Forces when they seized an ISIS drone workshop last year.
The video is edited to suggest that this flimsy frame can carry explosives, which makes the new ISIS drone a modern version of a century-old idea. Built in 1918, the Kettering Bug was an “aerial torpedo” designed for combat on the Western Front. It was tested before the war ended, but never saw action. Still, its basic concept predates both drones and cruise missiles, as an unmanned explosive built to fly a certain distance and then crash into the ground, exploding. ISIS isn’t even the first insurgent group to field a kamikaze drone; rebels in Yemen use an Iranian-built one-use bomb drone, too.
Another new weapon for ISIS featured in the video is small anti-tank vehicle. It’s a tracked body, like the world’s tiniest tank, and instead of a turret or anything else, it carries a land mine on its back. It seems designed to roll under tanks or other vehicles, and then detonate, blasting through the weak bottom armor.
In World War II, Nazis used a small, remotely controlled tracked machine carrying an explosive charge as an anti-tank device. Dubbed the “Goliath,” its range was limited by the spool of wire needed to control it, and by the fact that that cord was vulnerable to cutting. Despite negligible battlefield use, it's commonly seen as a predecessor to modern remotely-controlled, tracked robots.
Remote Controlled Guns
The basic problem with firing a gun in battle is that it typically requires a fleshy, vulnerable human to pull the trigger. Remotely controlling a gun, instead, lets the person shoot while being somewhat removed from the danger, so remote control gun turrets are starting to be a modern battlefield staple. ISIS’ entry into the genre includes a monitor so the shooter can see what the gun is pointed at.
Remote control gun turrets first saw major use in the skies about World War II, with German bombers and American B-29s letting gunners inside the plane control weapons without physically holding onto them, as was required in earlier bombers. For the most part, gun turrets remained a phenomena of the air—even the venerable B-52 bomber originally had a remotely controlled tail gun for a while.
In Iraq and Syria, other rebel groups already debuted remote-control machine guns years ago. Forces fighting in Ukraine even crowdsourced funding for a remote control system that could steer either a rank or a gun turret. Last August, the Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office published a report on “Terrorist and Insurgent Teleoperated Sniper Rifles and Machine Guns.” While ground-mounted remotely operated guns are a modern phenomenon, the report notes that other groups fighting in Syria pioneered the technology before ISIS, and that nations like South Korea, Israel, and Russia are also already developing their own sophisticated remotely controlled guns.