As conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Libya continue, battlefields in the region have turned into technological incubators for groups looking to find new and improved ways to kill one another.

While homemade munitions and Mad Max-style modifications to civilian equipment have been a staple of 21st-century warfare, a new Army report released last week by the branch’s Foreign Military Studies Office points to the growing trend of insurgent and terrorist groups using remote-controlled or “tele-operated” weaponry.

The report looks at 21 case studies — gathered mainly through social media and news reports — of remote-controlled rifles and machine guns used by groups such as the Islamic State, the Free Syrian Army and the now rebranded Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Twenty of the weapons are from groups in Iraq and Syria, while one is from Libya in 2011. The modified weapons are mostly older Soviet variants, though at least one Syrian rebel group appeared to be using a U.S.-style rifle in one of its systems. The designs are rudimentary but include the necessary components — a small screen and operating cables — for firing the weapon from a distance. Some of the designs are stationary, while others are mounted on wheels or tracks. One such weapon, photographed with rebels in Misurata, Libya, appears to be a medium machine gun affixed to a toy truck.

“It is troublesome to wonder how well they would do if they had better materials — potentially making something that could actually match the weaponry developed in the United States,” the report says. “As the conflict escalates, the likelihood of more of these types of weapons being employed is highly probable.”


Marines with 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, tested the new Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System in simulated combat at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on July 8. (Lance Cpl. Julien Rodarte)

Tele-operated weaponry is nothing new. On some modern armored vehicles, remote-controlled machine guns and cannons, known as remote weapons stations, are the norm. One of the earliest examples of such a system was developed by the Germans in World War II when engineers modified an MG-34 machine gun so it could be affixed to the exterior of a tank and operated from within by periscope. Currently, the U.S. military is experimenting with some mobile remote weapon systems, including the Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) in use with the Marine Corps. The mobile weapon station can hold a medium machine gun and move at a jog’s pace alongside ground troops. The weapon, however, still needs to be manually reloaded.

While the advantage of remotely operating a direct-fire weapon such as a machine gun or sniper rifle is obvious, remote weapons can also make small bands of insurgent groups seem stronger and better equipped. The report covers one instance in which Kurdish troops attacked an Islamic State remote-controlled sniper rifle, losing men in the process while the shooter remained protected in a bunker nearby. Instead of using men to protect the remote weapon, the Islamic State instead tied up dogs around the system.

According to the report, the remote-controlled weapons “have proven to be more efficient than expected,” though it is unclear how effective and accurate the weapons actually are in combat, as the majority of them have been filmed and photographed in periods of relative calm. If anything, the devices are still novelties, but as the conflicts continue, the report notes that “in the worst case, terror groups may even obtain more modern weapons to improvise, which may boost accuracy.”

Those modern weapons would likely come from the United States and other countries that have readily pumped advanced arms and munitions into the region for well over a decade. In July, Syrian rebels equipped by the Pentagon with modern U.S. sniper rifles and heavy machine guns were defeated by the Islamic State on the Syrian-Iraq border and subsequently lost some of their weapons and equipment to the terrorist group.

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