THE ISLAMIC STATE'S REMOTE CONTROL GUNS
During the short-lived existence of their so-called Caliphate, the Islamic State (ISIS) dedicated significant resources to the development of various self-produced weapons. These including several remote control guns. Spanning a period of almost four years, ISIS experimented with using these weapons across Iraq and Syria, with videos and images documenting at least 11 remote control guns.
The first confirmed instance of a remote control gun being used by ISIS occurred near Kirkuk in Iraq during May 2015. A Dragunov sniper rifle with the stock removed was placed on a mechanised metal frame, which was controlled using a computer. The fighter operating it could rotate and elevate the weapon, aiming via a camera. They could then fire it. Labels on the weapon were reportedly written in English, suggesting that someone involved in the production or use was at the very least an English speaking ISIS member.
Almost a year later in April 2016 a second remote control gun was found near Hawija, west of Kirkuk. According to a Kurdish commander, the weapon was operated by an ISIS fighter in a nearby bunker. This weapon was virtually identical to the one captured near Kirkuk: a Dragunov sniper rifle with the stock removed and placed on an identical metal frame. This, combined with both weapons being found in the same area, suggests they were made by the same individuals and likely at a similar time.
A new iteration of remote control guns next appeared during the Battle of Mosul. In the ISIS propaganda video "And You Will Be Superior" that was released in March 2017, a double SPG-9 remote control gun was shown. Two SPG-9s were placed together on a single tripod that had been modified to allow for elevation and rotation. A car battery was used to power the entire system and a white box taped to one of the legs of the tripod held most of the electronics.
This propaganda video also showed that a repurposed PlayStation 2 controller was used to control the weapon. This was connected to a small portable screen which had the feed from a camera attached to the weapon, allowing the fighter operating the controller to aim the gun.
A second remote control gun used by ISIS in Mosul was shown in a May 2017 propaganda video titled "We Will Surely Guide Them to our Ways". It was being used as an anti-aircraft weapon. The remote control gun itself was large and bulky, which would make moving it difficult. It also appears to be the best designed and produced, looking the least homemade of all the remote control guns made by ISIS.
A remote control gun used by ISIS in Mosul as an anti-aircraft weapon
A large spool of wire is seen by the gun which was likely used to connect the gun to the controller, suggesting the weapon could have been operated at quite a distance. The controller itself is a flight simulator controller, a controller used to practice flying remote control planes in a simulator program on a computer. A small screen attached to the controller is linked to a camera placed under the barrel of the gun, allowing the fighter operating the weapon to see where he's aiming.
While these two weapons initially appear more advanced, they both had major drawbacks. The anti-aircraft weapon is likely the most ineffective of all the remote control guns produced by ISIS. The gun is already ill-suited for the role, and it's made worse by the reduced accuracy caused by the remote control modifications.
The SPG-9 design also had flaws. The camera was offset to the left of the system which would make aiming harder, especially for the furthest right SPG-9. But most significantly the double design appears entirely pointless. It was presumably intended to allow two shots before reloading, an attempt by ISIS to slightly mitigate the drawbacks of a remote control gun that must be reloaded after every shot. However, the video footage shows the two SPG-9s being loaded and fired individually. The double SPG-9 design also adds the drawback of the entire system being bulkier and harder to move.
ISIS also deployed remote control guns outside of Iraq, using them during the battle of Raqqa. The July 2017 propaganda video "Death Rattle from the Tribes" showed a remote control SPG-9. Unlike the example from Mosul, this just used a single SPG-9 doing away with the seemingly pointless double design.
A propaganda video released two months later showed to more remote control guns used by ISIS in Raqqa. These were both machine guns that, like all the other weapons so far, were modified to allow elevation and rotation. Unlike the machine gun in Mosul these were not intended for an anti-aircraft role. Instead, they were targeting SDF forces on the ground. The propaganda video also shows how one of the weapons was fired. A loop of wire was wrapped around the trigger that was pulled back when a button on the controller was pressed.
An ISIS remote control gun used in Raqqa
The weapons used in Raqqa appear far more practical and effective than the more experimental designs from Mosul. There were several improvements, including the SPG-9 removing the double design and no remote control weapon being used in an anti-aircraft role. They seemed to have learned from their mistakes.
There were some similarities between the weapons in Mosul and those in Raqqa as well. Both the white box that was used to hold the electronics and the car battery for power which first appeared on the SPG-9 in Mosul, were used for all the remote control guns in Raqqa. This suggests a transfer of technology with ISIS in Raqqa, building on the experience gained from the use of remote control guns by ISIS in Iraq.
This passing on of experience has occurred with other self-produced ISIS weapons, such as SVBIEDs. It is also alluded to in Rumiyah 12 (an online magazine formerly produced by ISIS) in which the ISIS military commander in Raqqa said that ISIS in Mosul has "experiences [that] have been passed on to all the Wilayat, so they could benefit from them."
As well as improving upon the remote control guns in Mosul, the weapons in Raqqa appear far more standardised. Despite the different outward appearances, several of the components were the same. They all used a CCTV camera, a white box containing most of the electronics, and a car battery for the power source.
More significantly, the two examples of controllers--the one for the SPG-9 and another for one of the other machine guns--were identical. It appears to be a purpose-built design, made up of a white box with five buttons. Four controlled left / right / up / down movements, while a fifth was the trigger. This represents one of the most significant improvements ISIS made on their remote control guns, creating a simple and self-explanatory controller that can be used with little training.
A control station used for a remote control gun in Raqqa
The next example of a remote control gun didn’t surface until slightly over a year later, in mid-December 2018, when one was captured by the SDF in Hajin in eastern Syria. It appeared far more rudimentary than previous examples, with a PKM fixed to a metal frame, while a motor near the trigger caused the weapon to fire when activated.
The fact the gun was fixed to the frame suggests there was no way to move or aim the weapon, so it was most likely used like a booby trap. It would be placed in a position SDF fighters were expected to pass through, and would be fired when they did. A second, virtually identical remote control gun, was captured by the SDF in nearby Shafahin January 2018.
Also in Shafah, during January, the SDF captured a more complex remote control gun from ISIS. The gun was placed on top of a larger metal frame, with what appears to be a motor underneath and a box which likely contained electronics.
A final remote control gun was captured in Baghouz at the end of January. Likewise, this appeared more advanced than the fixed guns, with the presence of more components. It seems likely that both weapons could be aimed, and so were more akin to the remote control machine guns seen in Raqqa, than the two fixed remote control guns also captured by the SDF in Baghouz.
Shafah remote control gun
The remote control guns used by ISIS varied. They can be broadly categorised into four types: sentry gun, SPG-9, anti-aircraft, and booby trap.
The most common was the sentry gun with six examples. The two earliest remote control guns used by ISIS, the two remote control machine guns used in Raqqa, and the two more advanced weapons captured by the SDF in the final ISIS pocket. These were most likely placed at a location ISIS wanted to defend and then used to engage any force who entered the nearby area, inflicting casualties and stalling the attacker's advances.
While these sorts of weapons were likely to be less accurate than a normal manned weapon, this was offset by the advantages a remote control weapon offered. This included the added safety given to the operator.
The second category of remote control gun used by ISIS is the SPG-9s. As we've mentioned, one was used in Raqqa and the other in Mosul. Their usefulness seems more limited than the sentry guns, as the SPG-9 has the major drawback of having to be reloaded after every shot. This limits the main advantage of remote control guns as, while it is still safer for the operator when firing, they will have to expose themselves after every shot to reload anyway.
The single remote control gun used in an anti-aircraft role fits into its own category, due to how far its use differentiates from the other weapons. While appearing like it's the most well-made system, it was likely the most ineffective of all due to the ill-suited role it was used in. The fact that there is only one instance of this type of weapon suggests this was something ISIS recognised as well, opting not to produce any more of them.
The final category is the two fixed remote control guns which only appeared in the last ISIS pocket in eastern Syria as a booby trap. The fact that the sentry gun style remote control guns were also used here suggests these were not purely a degeneration in ISIS ability to produce remote control weapons, but rather a strategic choice.
Fixed remote control gun captured in Hajin
Several things indicate that these ISIS remote control guns were broadly quite effective. The fact that ISIS used these weapons several times, over an extensive period in several parts of the territory they controlled in Iraq and Syria, means they at least believed them to be effective. Significantly, they appeared both in and outside of the ISIS propaganda, mean they weren't just for show. Perhaps most convincingly, the Kurdish SDF commander who found the remote control gun near Hawija stated that it caused several casualties.
The effectiveness did vary though between the different types of remote control guns. The anti-aircraft version and the double SPG-9 design for example were seemingly the least effective, while the sentry gun style weapons were likely the most effective.
Despite this, the ISIS remote control gun remained a mainly experimental weapon, not seeing standardisation or mass production. The most likely reason for that is that they are a particularly niche weapon that is not as versatile as other self-produced ISIS weapons. These guns are only useful when on the defensive in certain conditions.
This is at odds with ISIS's preferred tactics, which were often attack orientated even when on the defensive. It is unsurprising, then, that barring the first two, all the remote control guns were used in urban areas: first in Mosul, then in Raqqa, and finally in the last towns controlled by ISIS along the Euphrates in eastern Syria. These are some of the urban areas ISIS defended most ferociously, having been encircled. This led to drawn-out "last stand" urban battles.
ISIS using a repurposed PlayStation 2 controller to fire a remote control gun
It’s worth noting that, like with many of their self-produced weapons, IS were not the only group to use remote control guns. Multiple rebel groups in Syria also used similar weapons, with the earliest example pre-dating remote control guns being used by ISIS. What set the use of them by ISIS apart though is how they used them more often and developed their remote control guns further than others. Outside of the earliest examples, ISIS used heavier machine guns compared to rebel groups, and developed remote control SPG-9s which others hadn't done.
While they were not as refined as other weapons designed by ISIS, and were never mass produced, these remote control guns represent another effective weapon ISIS was able to develop. Despite this, it is unlikely these weapons will see use by ISIS in the future. Their reversion back to an insurgency means the type of fighting where these weapons could be useful will likely no longer occur.
Follow Robert Postings on Twitter: @RobertPostings
Thanks to Calibre Obscura for help with weapons ID: @CalibreObscura