20 years of global terrorist risk, stringent law enforcement and security measures in the XXI century

ASIS International, a community of more than 38’000 members, is the leading non-profit organisation dedicated to promoting excellence in the security management profession worldwide. Through its national Chapters, ASIS promotes professional education and networking at local level.

On the occasion of the 9/11 20th anniversary, the ASIS international chapters of Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland join forces and invite you to a big event taking place on

September 10th, 2021
9 am to 5 pm
LIVE from the premises of
Università della Svizzera Italiana in Lugano (Switzerland)

Click here for both ONLINE and ONSITE REGISTRATION

The event is free and open to ALL

Twenty years of global terrorist risk stringent law enforcement and security measures in the XXI century

The panels are subject to Chatham House Rule

“When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed”


Welcome message (09:00 – 09:20)

Speakers line-up
Prof. Boas Erez – Rector, USI / Jean-Patrick Villeneuve – Associate Professor, USI / Etienne Ammon – Chairman, ASIS Chapter 160 (Switzerland)

Session 1 (09:20 – 11:00)
9/11, its context and the subsequent terrorist attacks

Speakers line-up
Chiara Sulmoni / André Duvillard / Joseph Billy Jr (click here for bios)
Moderator: Luca Tenzi

Session 2 (11:25 – 13:00)
The war on terrorism and its successive impacts on business conditions

Speakers line-up
Umberto Saccone / Franco Fantozzi / Claudio Bertolotti (click here for bios)
Moderator: Godfried Hendricks

Session 3 (14:15 – 16:00)
The implications, for companies, of the security framework in place in Europe today to consider the residual/objective terrorist threat

Speakers line-up
Johan Ohlsson Malm / Prof. Frédéric Esposito / Adrien Frossard / (click here for bios)
Moderator: Nicolas Le Saux

For further details, updates, COVID provisions and contacts, please refer to
ASIS Switzerland
or your national ASIS chapter




A number of European countries which experienced internal terrorist threats in the past (e.g. Italy and Spain) have already been regularly applying ‘reward’ measures -such as the recognition of mitigating circumstances, prison benefits and so on- with some degree of success; they basically induced captured terrorists to cooperate with the authorities, taking advantage of the fact that many extremists were merely “flankers” of a terrorist organisation and therefore still sensitive to the loss of freedom, as well as widely rehabilitable.

These measures have effectively strengthened the judicial response to the phenomenon of internal terrorism.

Over the course of the past two years, the FIGHTER project carefully explored whether reward measures can be implemented against  international terrorism as well.

Results will be introduced and discussed in an open seminar taking place on

9:00 -13.00 a.m.



Elio Tavilla
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, Department of Law – Dean
Luigi Foffani
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia

Chair and introduction:
Massimo Donini
University of Rome “La Sapienza” – FIGHTER P.I.

Armando Spataro
Former Judge, Counter-Terrorism Criminal Law Expert
Mirta Kuštan
Sveuciliste U Zagrebu – Pravni Fakultet
Thibaut Slingeneyer
Université Saint-Louis de Bruxelles
Vincenzo Di Peso
Nucleus Police Prevention Central Director

Patrick Born
Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
Clémence Quentin
Université de Lille 2
Francesco Rossi
University of Modena and Reggio Emilia

Manuel Cancio Meliá
Universidad Autónoma de Madrid
Silvia Allegrezza
University of Luxembourg
Leonardo Romanò
University of Luxembourg
Ludovico Bin
University of Salento



Photo by Grant Durr on Unsplash

Risk analysis of militant conspiracy theories


This analysis was originally disseminated by ASIS Italy Chapter 


As much as they sound silly and preposterous, militant conspiracy theories are not a joke and pose an increasing security risk instead. This is mainly due to the ease of diffusion in political systems; their tendency to provoke civil unrest; and the alarming association with far-right terrorist movements with which they share a cell-styled organizational structure.

The infiltration of militant conspiracy theorists in American society is now considered by several analysts so pervasive that it is starting to heavily influence the country’s political environment. Several groups which are operating at the moment have displayed an outstanding ability to mass-proselytize, especially among law enforcement, the military, and, more recently, politicians. In Europe, militant conspiracy theory is a relatively recent phenomenon that currently does not exhibit the same degree of institutional penetration one can find in the US. However, over the past three years, it has shown considerable potential for radicalization. Historically, militant conspiracy theories -which differ from the simple act of consuming conspiracy theories per se- owe much of their traction to the American Alt-Right movement, forerun by social media phenomena such as InfoWars launched in 1999 by Alex Jones. The Alt-Right movement dates back to approximately 2009 when it emerged from the Tea Party platform following the last Great Recession of 2007/08. However, it must be borne in mind that it is with the presidential elections in 2016 that militant conspiracy theorists blossomed and begun to take over on a global scale. Thanks to the QAnon movement and the commitment of essential influencers such as Steve Bannon, it now raises serious concerns due to the violence embraced by many followers. The dangers posed by militant conspiracy theory mainly lie on three primary levels.

First of all, their increased influence on politics. Several social movements and think tanks, those that have always mobilized voters in favour of right-wing parties in the identitarian milieu, have amplified the messages of militant conspiracy theories and, in some cases, have taken on the role of promoters. To gain consensus, mainstream parties have immediately picked up those very same issues and disseminated them, primarily through social media. It almost always happens because conspiracy theories’ simplistic rhetoric offers a great communicational advantage and translates into an immediate return in terms of consensus. However, in doing so, even without espousing conspiracy theories, these parties expose themselves to the risk of associating with a perilous movement and political culture. Above all, the primary risk consists in being infiltrated at the top by militant conspiracy theorists, thus increasing the possibility that future policy-making will be fictitious and based on faulty assumptions. Moreover, there is also the danger of possible connivance with hostile foreign powers that could exploit militant conspiracy theories as a tool of aggressive foreign policy (such as already happens with memetic warfare).

Second, the progressive level of civil unrest. In North America, the US, and Canada, the increased violence linked to militant conspiracy theories has led several security and law enforcement agencies to list conspiracy-based groups as criminal and/or terrorist organizations. However, the lack of a legal framework to prosecute them and the absence of a defined and structured organization with identifiable leadership figures makes it extremely difficult to assess and monitor the conspiratorial environment, let alone to counter it. In many cases, we are talking about individuals who adhere to the contents of a conspiracy and exploit its ideology but operate independently or through loose ties with more structured organizations. The main risk posed by such lone wolves is a future increase in hate crimes. In other instances, militant conspiracy theorists act in a more structured way, as was observed in the case of the assault on the Capitol Hill on January 6th. Here, the risk is mainly an increase in underlying tensions, civil unrest, and violent public outbursts.

Finally, a potential for a terroristic turn. Several analysts fear the increased risk of mass radicalization, especially among the young and less educated elements of the militant conspiracy theories milieu, following the events of January 6th. The propensity to mass-radicalization is due to the very satisfying, interactive nature of conspiratorial contents with their constant references to popular culture that make the experience of consuming and act upon these theories extremely compelling. To spread efficiently, militant conspiracy theories mainly exploit mechanisms of involvement typical of ARG video games (alternate reality game), thereby creating a LARP (live-action role-playing game)-like socially pervasive experience that allows a safe zone for participants to develop their militant profile. The appeal of these theories is quasi-religious. The message is structured as a theology, whereas the eschatological component, the “cosmic war” against the deep state, predominates. The social control level exercised by various conspiratorial groups over their members is so pervasive that it encapsulates them and makes it hard to keep fiction and reality distinct, shielding them from the latter. For example, the failure of Donald Trump’s re-election prophecy has immediately activated religious-like rationalization mechanisms that suggest a violent escalation is likely.

The analysis of recent militant conspiracy theorists’ social networks and their repost highlights how the movement is branching out to the world of white supremacists, right-wing extremists, and violent domestic terrorists. It is not to argue that all militants are involved or will be involved with violent or terrorist organizations, such as, for example, the Oath Keepers, Boogaloo Bois, Proud Boys, and neo-Nazi terrorists such as the Atomwaffen Division. For now, we see this in a minority of cases. However, growing trends hint at it as a natural evolution for many followers, especially if they look for a more militant experience. Furthermore, these violent movements themselves use established conspiracy theory networks to recruit new members to their cause by picking them, for example, among the disappointed fans of QAnon or those expelled from groups disbanded by the authorities. These individuals seem to constitute an ideal recruitment pool of domestic terrorists that could, with little effort and in a short time, exponentially increase their ranks with easily manipulatable individuals. The main risk associated with this trend is potential attacks on infrastructures and other sensitive targets, notoriously exposed to the action of radicalized individuals (lone wolves). It should also be borne in mind that these individuals often possess technical skills and, in some cases, served in the military or law enforcement. We already witnessed a first, worrisome example a few days ago in the State of Florida where a hacker who breached the city of Oldsmar’s water network system with the intent of poisoning its drinking water, was luckily stopped before he could succeed.

To conclude, new efforts must be made to increase our understanding of militant conspiracy theories, with a focus on removing the conditions conducive to their development and spread. Concerning infiltrations, it is important to promote awareness within political parties’ leaderships about the need to reduce the ambiguity of their message and prevent conspiratorial elements from achieving positions of power within their ranks. As far as civil unrest and criminal activities are concerned, it is crucial to better monitor militants within formal and informal conspiracy groups and networks and disband them where necessary by providing appropriate legal paths to prevent and sanction criminal activities. Finally, concerning the issue of terrorism, it is necessary to tackle the militant conspiracy problem by learning from the experience gained in the field of Islamist radicalisation both from an operational point of view; in countering the phenomenon; and finally in terms of intervention, prevention and de-radicalization.

Photo by Brendan Beale on Unsplash

#ReaCT2021: 2nd Report on Radicalization and Counter-Terrorism

In my role as Executive Director of the ReaCT Observatory, I am honoured to introduce #ReaCT2021, the 2nd Report on Radicalisation and Counter-Terrorism in Europe.

This report offers a concise analysis on the evolution of radical ideologies and terrorist threats in accordance with the European Union directive 2017/541 on the fight against terrorism and is meant as a useful contribution, within the wider public debate, to the harmonisation of member States’ discrepancies around what should be defined and treated as terrorism.

The Observatory mainly focuses on jihadism; however, we make sure to afford enough room and support for studies on other forms of terrorism, ideological radicalisation and social deviance, as well as “conspiracy theories” leading to violent outcomes.

In their assessments, the authors who submitted their work for this issue of #ReaCT2021 took into account the repercussions of new social and conflict dynamics brought about by COVID-19.

Due to other priorities, the pandemic seemed to have sidelined terrorism when, all of a sudden, October 2020 revived the threat which had apparently been overcome. From early September to early November, a successive chain of events clearly highlighted a dramatic and articulated scenario. Those sixty days of fear tell us that terrorism is now a “normal” rather than an ‘exceptional’ phenomenon, as an instrument of the ongoing conflict.

2019-2020: the evolution of European jihadist terrorism

In 2019 according to Europol there were 119 successful, failed or thwarted attacks: 56 of these were carried out by ethno-nationalist and separatist groups; 26 by extreme left radical and anarchist groups; 6 by far right groups; 24 were jihadist, of which 3 were successful and 4 unsuccessful. In the same year, START InSight’s database listed 19 jihadist actions / events (as compared to the 7 reported by Europol); in 2020, the number goes up to 25.

In 2019, jihadists were responsible for all deaths from terrorism in Europe: according to Europol, 10 people lost their lives and 26 were injured (1 person was injured in a far-right attack). START InSight recorded a higher number of people with injuries (48), who were mostly victims of marginal and emulative attacks. In 2020 there was a significant increase in deaths: 16 people were killed and 55 were injured.

The long wave of terrorism which hit Europe following the emergence of the “Islamic State” phenomenon recorded 146 jihadist attacks from 2014 to 2020: 188 terrorists took part in these attacks (59 among them died in action); 406 people lost their lives; 2,421 were injured (START InSight’s database).

Cases of recidivism are on the rise: 3 out of 10 in 2020. START InSight also spotted an increase in actions carried out by terrorists already known to European police forces or intelligence services: 54% of the total in 2020.

An increase in the number of irregular migrants heightens the potential risk of terrorism: 20% of terrorists are irregular immigrants. In France, the number of irregular immigrants involved in terrorist attacks is growing. Until 2017, no attack had seen the participation of irregular immigrants; in 2018, 15% of terrorists were irregular immigrants: in 2020, they reached 40%.

Islamic State and al-Qaeda online terrorist propaganda during the Covid-19 emergency

Propaganda activities carried out during the Covid-19 pandemic and the attacks which took place in Paris, Nice and Vienna, recall how dynamic terrorism associated with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda remains, especially through the Internet. In particular, the Islamic State confirmed its aggressive narrative, identifying the Coronavirus as a “soldier of Allah”. An ally, set out to punish the “infidels”, above all the military and police forces.

The concepts and importance of preventing and countering violent extremism (PVE/CVE)

PVE and CVE gradually became an integral part of the global counter-terrorism architecture. In order to be long-term and effective, these policies and projects require a constant dialogue among researchers, practitioners, law enforcement agencies and legislators which also sets out priorities and expectations. Measuring the results of these activities remains a difficult task but several European think tanks are already bent on the issue.

Countering radicalisation and terrorism via criminal law: problems and perspectives

By its very nature, counterterrorism criminal law does not affect the causes of radicalisation and terrorism. An overarching and disproportionate resort to criminal law may even produce crime-inducing side effects: radicalisation shall be addressed as a reversible process. Counterterrorism criminal law in Europe is generally prison-based, even with regard to facts that arguably do not harm legal goods or interests.

The terror threat in the UK. The challenge: identify, define, arrest and convict

The complexity of the terror threat picture faced by the UK was recently highlighted through court cases which have frustrated the efforts of the security and intelligence forces. The cases that are now emerging are so disconnected from terrorist networks, are planning such random acts and the tools of terrorism are becoming so banal that it has become almost impossible to entirely shield yourself from the threat. But it has also become almost impossible to prove who might be going in this direction. This is creating a new generation of radicals that authorities struggle to identify, define, arrest and convict.

A look at the Balkan gate to Europe

The attack which took place in Vienna in November 2020 drew attention to the issue of terrorism in Europe, especially in the Balkan Area. It also focused such attention on jihadist presence in the Balkan countries, which could become a potential logistical hub for jihadism towards Europe.

Lessons learned from Kosovo’s experience in repatriating former foreign fighters: the small Western Balkan nation of Kosovo repatriated 110 citizens, including men, women, and children, in April 2019, making it one of a very small number of countries that has actively repatriated citizens involved with the Islamic State. The paper also includes what lessons can be learned by EU countries in handling the complex issue of how to manage the return of foreign fighters and their families.

The other terrorisms: far-right, extreme left and the new QAnon phenomenon in pandemic times

The pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus has also had significant effects on the relational and communicative strategies and methodologies typical of both far-right and extreme left-wing environments. Right-wing violent extremism, a phenomenon in expansion in the West, appears to be acquiring a transnational character and has an emerging symbiotic, mutually-reinforcing interdependent relationship with Islamist extremism. This interdependence poses additional threats to European security.

A threat to democracy is QAnon, a conspiracy theory movement active in more than 70 countries and that presents a high risk of radicalization in Europe. It should be closely monitored because of its potential for violent actions.

Thanks to all of the authors who contributed to this Report. My gratitude also goes to the two co-editors who have given their fundamental input: Chiara Sulmoni, President of START InSight, and Flavia Giacobbe, Director of Airpress and Formiche.

Claudio Bertolotti – Executive Director



Co-editor’s note: Flavia Giacobbe, Director Formiche and Airpress
Flavia Giacobbe

Introduction: terrorism at the time of Covid-19
Claudio Bertolotti

Numbers and profiles of jihadist terrorists in Europe
Claudio Bertolotti

Sixty days of fear: the lesson learned
Marco Lombardi

Countering radicalisation and terrorism via criminal law
Francesco Rossi

The Islamic State and Al-Qaeda online terrorist propaganda during the Covid-19 emergency. Comparing strategies
Stefano Mele

Terrorism and immigration: links and challenges
Claudio Bertolotti

The terror threat in the UK
Raffaello Pantucci

Jihadist extremism in Europe. The concepts and importance of PVE/CVE
Chiara Sulmoni

Tools to counter violent radicalisation: a study case
Alessandra Lanzetti

Terrorism in Vienna: the Balkan clue
Enrico Casini

Kosovo’s experience in repatriating former foreign fighters
Matteo Bressan

Extreme right and extreme left in pandemic times: some reflections
Barbara Lucini

Right-wing Violent Extremism, Its Transnational Character, and Its Interdependent relations with Islamist Extremism
Mattia Caniglia

QAnon: a threat to democracy
Andrea Molle


EUNAVFORMED “Irini” operation: constraints and two critical issues

The war in Libya represents the main obstacle to stability in the Mediterranean area. While regional and international actors scramble for influence, the European Union and European states seem unable to revive the diplomatic path launched last January with the Berlin Conference and to prevent a looming humanitarian disaster just beyond the EU’s southern border (ISPI, 2020). As war persists in the North African country, factors such as weapons’ supply, illegal migration, drugs and human trafficking continue to affect the region and the south of Europe -including NATO’s border- and to impact on security in the area. EUNAVFORMED’s “Irini” operation aims at ending arms trafficking in Libya: but such goal is far from being achieved due to a lack of political cohesion and ineffective military capability.

Analysis by Claudio Bertolotti  

EUNAVFORMED’s “Irini” operation: constraints and two critical issues

The Berlin Summit as a premise to the “Irini” operation
Participants at the Berlin Conference on Libya, which was held on 19th January 2020, committed specifically to fully respecting and implementing the arms embargo established by the United Nations Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1970 (2011), 2292 (2016) and 2473 (2019). On 17th February 2020, the Council agreed to launch a new military operation in the Mediterranean, which would oversee the enactment of the embargo by means of aerial, satellite and maritime assets. In a break-through following months of negotiations, Greece confirmed its willingness to assist irregular migrants saved at sea by EU military ships, who would therefore not -at least formally- be sent over to an already hard-pressed Italy. This issue had previously stalled any tangible progress.

On 31st March 2020 Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy announced an agreement over the creation of operation “Irini” (Greek for “peace”), an Italian-led mission with its operational centre in Rome. As well as supporting the implementation of the UN arms embargo on Libya, and in accordance with Resolution 2292 of the U.N. Security Council, the mission also entails the inspection of vessels navigating the high seas off the coast of Libya, assumed to be carrying weapons (or related material) to, and from, Libya; it also inherits some secondary tasks from its predecessor, EUNAVFORMED’s operation “Sophia”, including the training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy, and search-and-rescue duties.

the mission entails the inspection of vessels navigating the high seas off the coast of Libya, assumed to be carrying weapons to and from Libya

But up to now, “Irini” proved unable to achieve its primary goal, due to a fundamental political weakness brought about by the heterogeneous priorities set by EU countries, and to a limited military capability.

“Irini” ’s mission
On 30th March 2020, the European Council officially launched EUNAVFORMED’s “Irini” operation in the Mediterranean. Through the imposition of an arms embargo and a new military operation within the scope of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), the European Union is stepping up its efforts towards peace in Libya.

up to now, “Irini” proved unable to achieve its primary goal, due to a fundamental political weakness brought about by the heterogeneous priorities set by EU countries, and to a limited military capability

The main task assigned to EUNAVFORMED’s “Irini” consists in implementing the embargo by also inspecting vessels to and from Libya, which can be reasonably assumed to be carrying weapons (or related material) for belligerents; as well as gathering extensive and comprehensive information on the trafficking of arms and other military equipment and supplies by sea. As secondary tasks, EUNAVFOR MED “Irini” will also:

  • monitor and gather information on illicit exports of petroleum, crude oil and refined petroleum products from Libya
  • contribute to the capacity-building and training of the Libyan Coast Guard and Navy in law enforcement tasks at sea
  • contribute to the disruption of the business model of human smuggling and trafficking networks through information gathering and patrolling by planes

“Irini” ’s mandate will initially last until 31st March 2021 and the operation will be performed under the close scrutiny of EU Member States, who will exercise political control and strategic direction through the Political and Security Committee (PSC) -in its turn under the responsibility of the Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy-. Unlike its predecessor “Sophia”, which operated in the Strait of Sicily, “Irini” shifted eastwards to patrol the waters between Egypt and Crete, with special attention payed to Cyrenaica.

A worsening situation: weapons keep reaching Libya
The internationalization of the conflict -its transformation from a civil war into a war by proxy- ensures that technologically-advanced military equipment continue to reach Libya by air, land, and sea.
The fact that non-state armed actors in the country are pretty familiar with such weapons systems is a harbinger of danger for bordering countries as well: between 2012 and 2014, terrorists and separatist groups filled their arsenals with weapons belonging to the former Libyan army. These weapons could now cross into bordering countries, a number of which are increasingly struggling with insurgencies fueled by, among others, the so-called and dangerous as ever Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaida.

participants at the Berlin Conference on Libya committed to fully respecting the arms embargo established by the UN Security Council; according to the UN, the latter has since been broken by several participants

Against such background, the optimist attitude displayed at the Berlin Conference now seems unjustified, especially as according to the UN, the arms embargo has since been broken by several Summit participants, with planes landing at airports in both Eastern and Western Libya with their cargos of weapons, armored vehicles, foreign fighters, and military advisors. The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL, 2020) reported that “several among those who participated in the Berlin Conference” have been involved in the “ongoing transfer of foreign fighters, weapons, ammunition and advanced systems” and other military equipment (Kaim, Schulz, 2020).

From theory to practice: operational difficulties and political boundaries
“Irini” started its activities at sea on 4th May but, despite some initial confidence, it has since been marred by differences among EU members. Greek and French ships joined the mission at the end of May but Malta, which had pledged specially-trained on-board personnel, withdrew its participation in an apparent attempt at influencing the Libyan GNA and Turkey.

The mission currently operates with the Greek frigate “Spetsai” (Hydra class) and the French frigate “Jean Bart” (Cassard class); a small maritime reconnaissance aircraft made available by Luxembourg and Poland; a German P-3C Orion maritime patrol aircraft; and (as of July) the Italian ship “San Giorgio”. In August, Germany provided its “Hamburg” vessel -a Sachsen class frigate with a crew of 250 military personnel. Italy further contributes with a drone for surveillance operations and with the logistical bases of Augusta, Pantelleria and Sigonella, while a P72 maritime patrol aircraft, an Air early-warning aircraft (Aew) and a submarine “will occasionally be available in support” (Pioppi, 2020). According to its operational commander, the deployment will “soon be capable of reaching full operational capacity” (Pioppi, 2020): nevertheless, compared to its initial objectives, it suffers from very limited resources and its effectiveness is further undermined by poor political cohesion among the 27 European partners.

Turkey’s challenge to the European Union
On 10th of June 2020 the Greek frigate “Spetsai” (under Italian command) tried to approach Tanzanian-flagged mercantile ship “Cirkin”, which was being suspected of carrying weapons from Turkey to Tripoli. The maneuver was countered in the Gulf of Sirte by direct intervention of a Turkish military unit escorting the mercantile (Hassad, 2020). A second Turkish military unit apparently converged towards the Greek frigate after a Greek navy helicopter overflew the “Cirkin”. As soon as the Greek helicopter approached the “Cirkin”, it received a call from the Turkish frigate explaining that “the Turkish ship is under the protection of the Turkish Republic”. The Turkish official said that the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) had not recognized “Irini”. A laser framing action on the part of the Turks -as a prelude to an escalation- is thought to have put an end to the situation by forcing “Spetsai” into retreat.

The “Cirkin” freighter, which entered the port of Tripoli on 11th of June (a day after the event), had set sail from the Sea of ​​Marmara, south of Istanbul, after docking in a “roll-on roll-off” (RORO) port for a loadful of weapons, equipment and heavy vehicles, including armored vehicles hailing from a nearby military base of the Turkish army. The 4,000 tons, 100 metre’s long Turkish freighter was launched in 1980 and has previously been used by Ankara for shipping armored vehicles and other equipment to the GNA in Tripoli.

Greece denounced the incident -which would later re-occur with the French ship as well- as a blatant violation of the UN embargo; to which Ankara replied by underlining how, since the “Cirkin” enjoyed Turkish protection, the “Irini” intervention could in fact be deemed un-necessary. Turkey undeniably exposed the European operation’s critical issues; it also criticized its unilateral bias in favor of General Khalifa Haftar and further suggested the creation of a new mechanism by the United Nations (Hurriyet Daily News, 2020).

The incident, which did not make headlines outside Greece, testifies to the political -rather than operational- ineffectiveness of the European mission, which is supposed to be enforcing a military embargo on Libya; but as a matter of fact, does not seem to be able to control naval routes and to  stop flows of weapons and other equipment from reaching General Haftar’s faction by land, from Egypt, and by air, from Russia.

the fact that the EU mission deals primarily with naval violations of the embargo raises questions about its effectiveness

“Irini” ’s two principal shortcomings
The fact that the EU mission deals primarily with naval violations of the embargo raises questions about its effectiveness.
Military supplies reach the opposing Libyan factions from two directions: the western maritime border, used by Turkey to provide the GNA in Tripoli with weapons and fighters; and the eastern border, whereby Egypt and the United Arab Emirates send their support to Haftar’s LNA (al-Jazeera, 2020). As Egypt and the UAE are determined to take advantage of the situation, the Turks are left with no other option than supplying Tripoli with weapons across waters that are now being patrolled by the EU.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu recently complained that “the EU mission did not do anything to stop other powers’ shipments into Libya”, including what he alleged were “arms being sent by France to Haftar”. France, which denies supporting Haftar but has long been suspected of favoring him, voiced its fury last month after alleging that the French ship “Courbet” was subjected to laser framing by Turkish frigates’, while inspecting a mercantile en route to Libya (al-Jazeera, 2020).

Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio addressed the issue as well by specifying that “Irini” “is not a naval blockade. The international regulatory framework includes the naval blockade as a method of war. Therefore, the blockade is a measure that can only be adopted during international armed conflicts. “Irini” envisages measures which must be selective, legitimate and fully respectful of international law, and aimed at promoting the return of peace and security in Libya “(Di Feo, 2020). Di Maio’s statement implicitly upholds the operation’s structural limitations, which clearly emerge in the form of two main criticalities.

the absence of a jurisdictional framework for States to operate in Libya or bordering nations, allows countries wanting to flout the arms embargo, to directly supply weapons to the conflicting parties by land, sea and air

One of the weak points of the arms embargo on Libya consists in its implementation. States’ and EU actions are restricted to enforcing the arms embargo at sea. Initially, the Security Council had only called upon States to inspect all cargos to and from Libya “in their territory, including at seaports and airports”, should they possess information providing reasonable grounds to believe that those cargos contained arms. The absence of a jurisdictional framework or authorization for States to act outside their own territory and to operate in Libya or bordering nations, allows countries wanting to flout the arms embargo, to directly supply weapons to the conflicting parties by land, sea and air.

The second criticality resides in the option of extending monitoring activities to Libya’s land borders, which involves having “boots on the ground” EU military personnel, but only in the event of a request from local authorities. If up to very recently, an agreement on this issue between General Khalifa Haftar in Tobruk and Tripoli government’s chairman Fayez al-Serraj seemed utterly unlikely, the truce which was announced on 21st August 2020 by al-Serraj and Aguila Saleh (spokesperson of the Chamber of Representatives in Tobruk) could open a different scenario (and al-Serraj’s apparent intention of leaving office at the end of October also adds to the picture[1]). Currently though, without any Security Council authorization or consent on the part of the Libyan authorities, the EU cannot conduct any aerial surveillance activities within Libyan airspace, let alone stem the supply of weapons by air or enforce the arms embargo on the ground in Libya. As most of the weapons destined for General Haftar’s forces are being transported by land or air, a stricter enforcement of the arms embargo at sea comes at the expense of the Libyan Government of National Accord, which receives most of its supplies from Turkey via the sea route.

One might question whether the EU operation will be any more than symbolic, as EU member States are not likely prepared to commit all the naval and surveillance assets which are required to effectively enforce the arms embargo.

Analysis, assessment, forecast
Despite the UN arms embargo, Turkey signed a military cooperation deal with the GNA and sent drones, armored vehicles, Syrian mercenaries and military officers to support al-Sarraj against the forces of eastern-based commander, General Khalifa Haftar. Ankara’s support affected the balance on the ground, forcing Haftar’s Libyan National Army to retreat from the west of the country following an unsuccessful attempt at capturing Tripoli; an attempt which turned into an exhausting one-year siege.

It is clear how current rules make it impossible to stop weapons’ shipments from Turkey, while the latter consolidates its position and role in Tripoli. As a sign of this, Ankara was assigned the port of Misurata in a move which saw the simultaneous removal of Italy from the same area.

“Irini” should essentially consist in a deterrent barrier; however, due to its shortcomings in countering embargo violations, such deterrence inevitably fails and Europe cannot but acknowledge, at most, Turkey’s commitment to war, and its success in Libya.

Due to a lack of control on land, sea and air routes, the overall impact of “Irini” is currently marginal. The mission will only be successful in so far as it is inscribed into a broader strategy which needs to be clearly defined and better implemented.

As recently suggested by ECFR (European Council for Foreign Relations), Italy should grab the opportunity offered by the German presidency of the EU Council to initiate a platform from which -together with allies- to enforce international norms on the conflict; broker among international competitors who have an interest in ‘feeding’ a war-by-proxy; enable a new UN conference on Libya. An engagement in this direction would jeopardize Russia’s attempt at protracting the conflict and possibly fill the vacuum generated by Turkey, Egypt and the UAE, who are supporting opposing sides.

due to a lack of control on land, sea and air routes, the overall impact of “Irini” is currently marginal. The mission will only be successful in so far as it is inscribed into a broader strategy 

The recent UN Security Council resolution 2473 (2019) in support of operation “Irini” can be seen as a useful stepping-stone towards bolstering a European political vision able to turn into diplomatic and military action and initiative. EU member States should launch a real, impartial and balanced operation based on a shared strategy, which would concretely fulfill the Berlin Conference’s commitments. In order for this to be achieved, the embargo must necessarily be extended to include air and land, rather than being restricted to patrolling sea routes (Varvelli and Megerisi, 2020).

[1] On 15th September 2020, al-Serraj apparently announced his intention to leave his post at the helm of the GNA by the end of October. 

WAR AND PEACE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN: understanding the Turkish escalation between the Chinese expansionism in Africa and the reshaping of Middle Eastern equilibria

by Andrea Molle

The renewed interest in the Mediterranean, too often considered as a secondary theater in the context of International Relations, derives from several medium and long-term processes that are affecting the global geopolitical equilibria. In particular, it is the consequence of an aggressive Chinese trade policy in Sub-Saharan Africa, which has intensified in the last decade and sees many African states, such as Kenya and Congo, for example, reduced to colonies or in a de facto subordination to China’s interests.

This dynamic is echoed by Beijing’s desire to complete its Belt and Road Initiative, affirming itself as a privileged trading partner of the most important powers within the EU to force it in a relationship of strong dependence. This scenario is made possible by the vacuum created with the protectionist and isolationist turn of the USA led by Donald J. Trump, who seems to lack any coherent international strategy. Moreover, it is a consequence of the lack of a coordinated European strategy in foreign affairs, as demonstrated by the recent Italian interest in becoming a closer partner to China independently from its partners’ choices.

The intensifying of migratory fluxes, aggravated by climate change, corruption, and the increased radicalization in Africa, is a symptom of the destabilization resulting from the Chinese expansionist policy that handed control of critical commercial routes and hubs over to Beijing. Faced with a substantial erosion of their economic systems, mostly caused by the quasi-monopolies established by Chinese companies and investors and the consequent social crisis, more and more people leave Africa to seek fortune in Europe, accentuating the demographic crisis of the continent. Paradoxically, such an easing of demographic pressure contributes to the perpetuating of Chinese control over African governments, hence aggravating the crisis and divisions within the European Union.

Moreover, the crisis is exacerbated by the recent Turkish initiatives aimed to gain a hegemonic role in the Maghreb and the Eastern Mediterranean. This pitch invasion is seemingly facilitated by the shared Islamic culture to which Turkey claims the role of Defensor in open competition with other countries such as Saudi Arabia. Once again, this is a consequence of America’s withdrawal and the lack of a single European voice. With the expected resignation of Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the Government of National Accord (GNA) recognized by the United Nations, the effects on the current Turkish activities in Libya are hard to anticipate. Nevertheless, the intentions of Ankara remain unchanged: to become the privileged Chinese partner by taking advantage of this economic and political conjuncture.

To better understand Ankara’s strategy while not underestimating its chances of success, it is paramount to consider the totality and complexities of the Sino-Turkish relations. We are witnessing several signals. First of all, a softening of visa policies between the two powers has been underway for years. In addition to intensified cultural exchanges, China has recently granted Turkey considerable financial resources to support the industrial and military development plans of the government led by Erdogan. To overcome its structural military inadequacies, Turkey is now rumored to considering the purchase of fifth-generation Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter aircraft. The opening to a partnership with China has been made possible by the exclusion of Turkey from the Lockheed Martin F-35 initiative, wanted by the US. It also represents a further step towards Turkey’s exit from NATO. Should it happen, the loss of the Turkish partner would undoubtedly cause a crisis in the Atlantic Alliance, which is already in a state of suspended animation according to several international observers. A possible weakening of NATO is also a goal of Putin’s Russia, which, despite the current political tension with Turkey, is already providing the country with anti-aircraft systems and is pressing Ankara to purchase its Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighters.

In this context, the normalization of the diplomatic relations between Israel and some of the Middle Eastern powers, such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, and the unconfirmed rumors of possible future agreements for developing common military assets, should not be at all surprising. Indeed, this event cannot be just considered due to Trump’s plan to bring stability to the Middle East, which many commentators describe as insufficient if not wholly nonexistent. Instead, it must be understood as evidence that the Arab world, in a perpetual crisis of relevance, is aware of the profound changes in the geopolitical equilibrium of the Eastern Mediterranean and is trying to gain the most advantageous position possible. Finally, what seems to be consolidation now may appear as an anti-Turkish front. However, on a closer look, it is more likely to form an opposing front to Chinese neo-colonial reaches in Africa, or at least contain them while reducing at the same time the dependency from the West.

This game of Risk against the Sleeping Giant will eventually involve all those Persian Gulf countries, which were once sworn enemies of the Jewish state, which today think of Israel more and more as a natural ally. To them, Tel Aviv will represent not only a strong military partner but also an economic and technological hub capable of rivaling Beijing. Such a realignment of alliances and loyalties would probably lead to a solution to the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This result, however, will not be due to either the American mediation or the joint efforts of various nations and international organizations. But instead to the emergence of a common enemy at the horizon. If a solution is therefore reached, it will, unfortunately, be at the expense of the Palestinians. Clinging to obsolete rhetoric and increasingly marginalized by their former allies, they do not seem willing to accept the changes and adapt their long-term objectives and strategy accordingly, falling into complete irrelevance.

With tensions with China predictably on the rise and in the face of the recent threats to Greece, the US has recently taken a stand, causing the temporary withdrawal of Turkish exploration vessels in the territorial waters controlled by Athens. However, coming “too late and one dollar short,” the US is not signaling any intent to get involved in the Eastern Mediterranean. On the contrary, responding to the American intervention and following the announcement of military exercises planned by the Greek armed forces in the northern Aegean, Ankara accused again Athens of violating the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which ended the Greek-Turkish war (1919- 1923) by redesigning the new borders between the two countries. It is not the first time that Turkey has accused Greece of violating the Treaty. The first time was in June 1964, following the deployment of a Greek motorized brigade on the island. However, this time Turkey does not seem to rule out a military reaction to the exercises recently announced by Athens.

On the northern shore of mare nostrum, things are not going any better. Although it is clear that the game that is being played in the Mediterranean, and that involves Greece and Cyprus, is an existential threat to European and Western interests, including the survival of the European Union, few nations have fully understood it. Amongst the European capitals, the change in the balance that for years accompanied the Union’s Mediterranean policy seems to be fully appreciated only by Paris. Accused of only aiming to control negligible energy resources, the second powerhouse of the EU has instead always pushed for a more incisive international role for Europe and its military integration. France is left alone while Berlin acts as Germany is still a trading state, interested only in short-term economic gains and not to upset the precarious balance reached with Turkey on the issue of migrants from the Balkan route.

As for Italy, Rome seems to think its best option is to take once again on the very same posture of equidistance and neutrality that has reduced it to a background actor in the international relations system with the addition of a dangerously ambiguous relationship with China. Nevertheless, France, which appears to be the natural candidate to lead the Union’s foreign policy, cannot expect to win this game alone. Geography is not an opinion: without Italy, the second naval power in the EU, Europe stands no chances of being relevant. It will inevitably be doomed in a humiliating position of subjugation.

Estimating the number of unidentified cases of COVID-19 in Italy as of March 31st using South Korean and Chinese mortality rates

Andrea Molle, Chapman University, California USA.

The global panic around the COVID-19 epidemic is fed by alarming estimates of its mortality rate. Italy in particular is watched upon with great anxiety as a potential global scale scenario with a mortality rate currently estimated in the 10%. Using the mortality rates by age group identified in China and South Korea as theoretical mortality rates and comparing them to the deceased numbers in Italy in order to estimate the number of unidentified COVID-19 cases, I suggest that as many of 500,000 infected, asymptomatic, individuals are not included in the official count. This in return, results in the over estimation of the overall gross mortality rate which probably falls around 2%. There are strategical public policy implications to our quarantine and mitigation strategies.

The official number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 in Italy represents a mystery for the disease seems to have taken on a more aggressive and lethal form than in other countries, with a mortality rate currently estimated in the 10%. In this research note, I assume that this is a statistical artifact and a consequence of extremely unreliable data on the true total number of cases in Italy. First, there is one main factor which contributes to an underestimation of the total case numbers. Italy appears to have performed fewer tests than other countries and, more importantly, it is testing only individuals who experience severe symptoms, and who ultimately require hospitalization. Many of the currently infected, asymptomatic, people are therefore not included in the official count. Secondly, in more acute cases, there is a lag of about 8 to 10 days between the initial onset of the symptoms and the death of the patient. All this clearly results in the over estimation of the overall mortality rate.

Here I suggest that is possible to get a better understanding of ​​the actual spread of the contagion in Italy using the mortality rates by age group identified in China and South Korea as theoretical mortality rates and compare them to the deceased numbers in Italy in order to estimate the number of unidentified COVID-19 cases.

Estimates of Total Cases

First we need to consider mortality rates in China using the most recent data available [1]. Being the first country to experience an outbreak of COVID-19, it is now probably the closest country to having a conclusive outcome for most of its active cases. Chinese estimates are, however, considered highly problematic and present a staggering difference between the mortality rates in Wuhan and the rest of the country. Therefore, we advise extreme caution if using them as a reference.

The following table (1) computes estimates of the total cases in Italy using Chinese mortality rates as a reference. Using the official number of deaths by age group reported by the Italian Ministry of Health at March 30th [3] [4] (column B of the table), we estimate the number of true cases by age group (column D) assuming that Italy has the same mortality by age group as China. This is done by dividing the number of deaths in each age group by the corresponding theoretical mortality rate. By subtracting the number of official cases (column C) from them, we determine the estimated number of infected people who are not yet identified (column F).  In comparing the latter with the official Italian data, we assume that the more the detected lethality differs from the theoretical mortality, the more infected people are not yet identified.

Table 1 – Estimated true cases (Chinese mortality reference)

For example, if we want to estimate the true number of infected in the 70 to 79 bracket, we divide the number of deaths officially recorded for this age group (3,458) by the corresponding mortality estimated from the Chinese data (8%) thus obtaining a projection of 43,225 cases which results in 25,761 more cases than the 17,464 currently detected. By repeating this for each age brackets, with the exception of the <30 bracket for which we don’t have mortality data available, we estimate that the total number of true cases is 169,408.

Let’s now consider mortality rates in South Korea as of March 30th [2]. The East-Asian country has the most accurate estimates of the true size of the infection due to its extensive testing, it has already reached the cases peak, and is not far from having a conclusive outcome for most of its currently active cases. Because of the more reliable data, assuming that the standards for reporting cases outcomes are the same across both countries and its structural and demographical similarities with Italy, we recommend using the estimates based on the Korean case. In other words, the mortality rates by age group in South Korea represent a better approximation than China of what the true Italian mortality rates should be. Adopting the same procedure as we did with China and results are shown in the following table.

Table 2 – Estimated true cases (South Korea mortality reference)

Following the previous example, in order to estimate the true number of infected in the 70 to 79 bracket using the South Korean mortality rates, we divide the number of deaths officially recorded for this age group (3,458) by the corresponding mortality estimated from Korean data (5.27%) thus obtaining a projection of 65,617 cases which results in 48,153 more case than the 17,464 currently detected. By repeating this for each age brackets, with the exception of the <30 bracket for which we don’t have mortality data available, we estimate this time that the total number of true cases could be as large as 416,270.

Finally, to obtain a more accurate estimate of unidentified cases, we can factor the window from contagion to death in our calculations. I computed an estimate of future deaths by regressing the current distribution of cases with a fatal outcome up to March 30th. I then opted for a conservative prediction of 14,574 total deaths by April 5th and redistributed them across age brackets using the same proportions as in the original Italian data.

Table 3 – Estimated true cases with projected deaths (South Korea mortality reference; death cases adjusted for onset-to-death window)

Once again, if we use the resulting distribution to estimate the true number of infected in the 70 to 79 bracket using the South Korean mortality rates and we divide the number of deaths for this age group (5,026) by the corresponding mortality from the Korean data (5.27%) we obtain a projection of 95,374 cases which results in 77,910 more cases than the 17,464 currently detected. By repeating this for each age brackets, with the exception of the <30 bracket for which we don’t have mortality data available, we estimate that the total number of true cases could be as large as 605,330.

The validity of our assumptions and the robustness of our estimates are confirmed by the resulting mortality rate of 2.408% that is similar to the Case Fatality Rate at 10 days (2.45%) computed by dividing the number of death at March 30th (812) by the cases active at the beginning of March 20th (33,190) [5]. The analysis shows that about 78.64 to 85.31% of cases haven’t been identified and thus between 327,367 and 516,427 infected people are still potentially contagious. Although these figures should be taken cautiously, the size of the difference between identified and unidentified cases remains alarming. Moreover, as shown in the following table (4), if the true mortality rate in Italy is the same as North Korea, the age breakdown suggests that more than 70% of undetected cases should be among the active population, between 40 – 69 years old.


Table 4 – Proportion of unidentified cases per age bracket (South Korea mortality reference; current cases vs. adjusted for onset-to-death window)


Many researchers are now suggesting the importance of comorbidities in determine the severity and the outcome of the infection by COVID-19. Having an estimate of undetected cases could help the Italian government, and other governments now facing the same scenario, to better investigate the spread of the virus among their population. Thus, extending aimed testing to underrepresented age brackets and, for example by targeting individuals with comorbidities, increasing the effectiveness of their public health strategies in facing the pandemic as well as mitigating the panic in the public.

About the Author

Andrea Molle, Department of Political Science and Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society, Chapman University, Orange, California, 92866 USA


[1] The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team. The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020[J]. China CDC Weekly, 2020, 2(8): 113-122.

[2] Age distribution of coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in South Korea as of March 30, 2020, Korean Center for Disease Control. Retrieved through link [Retrieved on March 30th, 2020. The site updates regularly, mortality rates are subject to change].

[3] Characteristics of COVID-19 patients dying in Italy. Report based on available data on March 30th, 2020, Istituto Superiore di Sanita’: Link [Retrieved on March 30th, 2020. The site updates regularly, mortality rates are subject to change].

[4] COVID-19 Italia – Monitoraggio situazione by Protezione Civile: Link [Retrieved on March 30th, 2020. The site updates regularly, case numbers are subject to change].

[5] A. C. Ghani, C. A. Donnelly, D. R. Cox, J. T. Griffin, C. Fraser, T. H. Lam, L. M. Ho, W. S. Chan, R. M. Anderson, A. J. Hedley, G. M. Leung, Methods for Estimating the Case Fatality Ratio for a Novel, Emerging Infectious Disease, American Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 162, Issue 5, 1 September 2005, Pages 479–486, Link.

Comorbidity Factors (such as heart disease and diabetes) Influence COVID-19 Mortality More Than Age (Chapman University)

by Steven Gjerstad and Andrea Molle – Chapman University, USA

last update 2020.03.30

“It is an extremely important finding, not only because it allows for better decisions in the triage phase. But also because in the following phases, starting from the so-called phase 2 up to the production and distribution of a vaccine, it will be essential to make decisions aimed at protecting those who are the most at risk of serious consequences. Moreover, before the vaccine is distributed, individuals with hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, if not already developed immunity, will necessarily have to be closely monitored. Not only as they are at higher risk, but above all because if the disease is reactivating, we will see it in those with comorbidities, since healthy individuals tend to be asymptomatic and therefore could spread the virus silently.”


The global reaction to the COVID-19 epidemic has rested on a critical assumption, that all persons over the age of 60 face an unacceptable risk of death if they are infected with the virus.  Recent evidence from a detailed analysis of individual Chinese, American, and Italian patient data clearly indicates that this assumption is incorrect.  Our research indicates that only 0.8% of all coronavirus-related deaths in Italy involved otherwise healthy individuals.  The remaining 99.2% of deaths involved individuals who had at least one, and often at least 3 other illness factors.  There are significant public policy implications to our quarantine and triage strategies.

Mortality from COVID-19 increases substantially  with comorbidity factors, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and liver disease. After we control for the high incidence of  comorbidity factors among the elderly, we find that mortality from coVid-19 does not vary much with age.

The coronavirus epidemic in Italy has strained hospital resources, including ICU beds and ventilators for those experiencing acute respiratory failure. Studies of COVID-19 in China [1], Italy [2], and the United States [3] show that fatality rates increase rapidly with age, especially beyond age 60. The same studies and others also show that fatalities increase substantially with comorbidity factors, such as heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and liver disease [1, 4]. These morbidity factors are known to increase rapidly with age [5, 6, 7]. This paper demonstrates that once we control for comorbidity factors, age has a minor effect on COVID-19 mortality. Among the elderly the higher incidence of heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, and other comorbidity factors lead to their increased mortality form COVID-19. The distinction is an important one for the critical triage decisions that are required now. If it is the comorbidity factors that lead to death with COVID-19 patients and not age, then triage will be more effective if healthy elderly people are provided with treatment, since their chances of survival are good.

We examine 73,780 cases of COVID-19 and 6,801 deaths from COVID-19 in Italy through March 26, 2020. Based on estimates of the prevalence of comorbidity factors in Italy by age group and on the frequency of COVID-19 cases and mortality rates for age groups, we estimate the percentage of patients with and without morbidity factor that would be expected to die, first assuming that those with and without comorbidity factors are equally likely to die. Subsequently, we use a maximum likelihood estimate to get mortality probabilities for people in each age group, with and without comorbidity conditions. COVID-19 patients with comorbidity conditions are 10.5 times as likely to die than those without a comorbidity condition. For example, an Italian COVID-19 patient between 70 and 79 years old with no comorbidity factor has about a 1.6% chance of death, whereas a 70 to 79 year-old patient with a comorbidity condition has a 21.4% chance of death.

Triage decisions based on patient age do not account for the large differences between the prognosis for patients with and without morbidity factors. As medical resources become strained during the epidemic, it will be important to take account of the probabilities of survival for patients with different medical histories.


Table 1 in [4] shows that 50.7% of the fatal cases of COVID-19 in Italy through March 26 had 3 or more of the comorbidity factors. Another 25.9% had 2 of these factors, and 21.3% had one factor. Only 2.1% had no factor. This last statistic is important. If age alone were an independent factor that leads to high mortality, then – we will demonstrate in this paper – there would be many more deaths among those who are elderly but otherwise healthy. In other words, the 2.1% frequency of no comorbidity factors would be much higher.

Tabella 1 in [8] shows that 19.2% of 73,780 COVID-19 cases in Italy through 4 p.m. on 26 March were among people age 70 to 79. From Tavola 7 in [7], we can infer that close to 25% of those people have none of the comorbidity conditions. We take death rates for the age groups from Tabella 1 in [8]. We consider the hypothesis that healthy people in each age group are as likely to die as those with 1 or more comorbidity condition. This hypothesis will lead us to the conclusion that there should be approximately 10.5 times as many people with no comorbidity factors as the number that are shown in Table 1 in [4].

People between 70 and 79 comprise 19.2% of the cases, and 25% of those have no comorbidity condition, so healthy people 70 – 79 years old are 4.8% of the cases. If healthy people between the ages of 70 and 79 are as susceptible to death from COVID-19 as those in their age group who have comorbidity conditions, then their death rate should be 16.9%, like their age group. If they were dying at the same rate as their age group, the fraction of all cases who would be people between 70 and 79 and have no comorbidity factor would be 0.048 x 0.1569 = 0.0081. Now we repeat this analysis for the remaining age groups and fill out Table 1.

Table 1: Column E shows the percentage of the 73,780 total cases that would be healthy people (i.e., no comorbidity factor) in their age group and would die from COVID-19.

The total number of deaths that we would expect for people with no comorbidity factor would be this expected death frequency times the number of cases, which is 0.0209 x 73,780 = 1,542.

Table 2: Column E shows the percentage of the 73,780 cases in each age group that would die who have one or more comorbidity factor.

We now carry out a similar calculation in Table 2, but we consider here those people who have one or more comorbidity factor. This calculation shows that 7.08% of the total cases should be people with one or more comorbidity factor who died. That would result in 0.0708 x 73,780 = 5,223 deaths. As a check, total predicted deaths are 6,765. The total number of deaths from Tabella 1 in [8] where we get our total number of cases and our lethality factors for age groups (Column D) is 6,801.3

Our hypothesis that healthy people in each age group have the same probability of dying from COVID-19 leads us to the conclusion that of our estimated 6,765 deceased, 1,542 or 22.8% should have no comorbidity factor. Yet Tabella 1 in [4] shows that only 2.11% had no comorbidity factor. Consequently, the hypothesis that the probability of dying is the same for all people in an age group regardless of their comorbidity factors leads to the conclusion that there would be about 10.8 times as many deaths among those with no comorbidity factor than what we see in the sample of deceased persons in Tabella 1 in [4].

This analysis can be augmented by assuming different probabilities of mortality for those with and without comorbidity factors. If we multiply every element in Column D in Table 1 by 0.0925 we would get 143 deaths among those with no comorbidity factor. If we multiple every element in Column D, Table 2 by 1.2677 we would get 6,622 deaths among those with one or more comorbidity factor. We would then have 143/6,765 = 2.11% of the deceased having no comorbidity factor, as in Tabella 1 in [4]. The probabilities of death are then those in Table 3.

Table 3: These mortality probabilities produce fatalities in each age group that match total fatalities and match the frequency of comorbidities found in Tabella 1 in [4].

From this we conclude that age is most likely only a moderate factor leading to COVID-19 mortality. Of course, healthy elderly patients are not dying in large numbers from COVID-19, so triage decisions that ignore the elderly healthy are not likely to lead to large numbers of deaths within this group. These patients are likely to recover, but they are likely to recover more quickly and with less physical damage if they are provided treatment. They also are unlikely to require critical care for much longer than a healthy young person, since like the healthy young, they are recovering. For these reasons, we believe that triage decisions should be made without regard to a patient’s age.

About the authors

Steven Gjerstad, PhD, Economic Science Institute, Chapman University, 1 University Drive, Orange, California, 92866 USA, E-mail:; Tel: 714-628-7282

Andrea Molle, PhD, Institute for the Study of Religion, Economics and Society, Chapman University, Orange, California, 92866 USA


[1] Wu, Zunyou and Jennifer M. McGoogan, “Characteristics of and Important Lessons from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Outbreak in China,” Journal of the American Medical Association, Feb. 24, 2020.

[2] Livingston, Edward and Karen Bucher, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) in Italy,” Journal of the American Medical Association, March 17, 2020.

[3] “Severe Outcomes Among Patients with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) — United States, February 12–March 16, 2020.” Centers for Disease Control, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), 18 March 2020. DOI:

[4] “Report sulle caratteristiche dei pazienti deceduti positivi a COVID-19 in Italia,” Instituto Superiore di Sanita, 20 Marzo 2020.

[5] “Age-adjusted percentages of selected circulatory diseases among adults,” Centers for Disease Control, Summary Health Statistics: National Health Interview Survey, 2018.

[6] “Diabetes prevalence and glycemic control among adults,” Centers for Disease Control, 2018.

[7] “Patologie croniche in costante aumento in Italia con incremento della spesa sanitaria. La cronicità non colpisce tutti allo stesso modo: si confermano le diseguaglianze di genere, territoriali, culturali e socio economiche,” Istituto di Sanità Pubblica, Roma, 15 febbraio 2019. cronicità-in-Italia-feb-2019.pdf

[8] “Epidemia COVID-19 Aggiornamento nazionale,” Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS), Roma, 26 Marzo 2020.

Terrorism and Drones: next challenge

by Ginevra Fontana, Osservatorio ReaCT

original article published on Osservatorio Strategico Ce.Mi.S.S. 4/2019

Remotely piloted aircrafts (RPAs)[1] witnessed an exponential increase in sales during recent years[2]. Small-sized[3] RPAs for photography and videography purposes can now be afforded by an average consumer, as price is akin that of digital cameras with nearly identical specifics[4]. At factory settings, an RPA is equipped with an advanced image-capturing system and presents higher payload capacity, which allows for better stability and manoeuvrability.

At non-altered status it could already be used to infringe privacy and/or no-fly-zone legislation. In the United States, the problem of identifying people responsible for breaking flight law already manifested[5]; in Europe, the cases of drones hovering over Gatwick and Heathrow airports has highlighted their inherent potential to cause confusion and inconveniences[6].

Geofencing systems[7], with which RPAs are equipped, have proven fallible. Removing GPS components appears to be a simple process – the drone can then be manoeuvred solely basing on what the integrated image-capturing system transmits. It is also possible to disable the geofencing software through programmes which can be found online[8] – in some cases, it even appears to be virtually non-existent[9].

In the Syrian and Iraqi theatres of operations, the first reports regarding use of ‘drones’ or ‘armed drones’ by ISIS[10] date back to 2014. They were used to spy on US and Kurdish lines’ movements during the 2014-2017 battles, to drop explosives, and as ‘kamikaze drones’[11]. Multiple reasons have allowed ISIS to include RPAs in its arsenal: notably, simplicity in purchasing second-hand products online. Their dimensions and flight altitude rarely trigger radars or protective shields; for the same reasons, they are also difficult to spot or engage by personnel on the ground[12]. Tampering with them is uncomplicated, and they can be weaponised in various ways. Last but not least, they can provide images of their activities: videos can be used for propaganda purposes, as has already been the case in late 2017[13].

RPAs for videography and photography purposes are the type exhibiting the biggest potential to turn into a national security issue. The role of the Defence is fundamental in identifying possible solutions for the short-, medium- and long-term to guarantee the protection of the civilian population. A concerted approach from Armed Forces and Law Enforcement would be desirable[14].

Identifying potentially sensible objectives –harder to determine than critical infrastructure[15]– is one of the first problems arising. ‘Covering’ the whole national territory with anti-drone systems is an objective currently lying out of reach for timing, costs and level of technology.

The necessity materialises to develop an integrated, fully automated search, find and ID system basing on two main motivations. The technologies presently available on the market do not present a satisfying cost-benefit ratio, considering the investment needed to acquire them; secondly, a fully automated system has the capacity to resist saturation by removing the man-in-the-loop element[16], pre-envisioning future attacks conducted by swarms[17]. Particular attention should be paid to rapidity of reaction and intervention, which interconnects with the engagement question.

The long-term objective should be the development of systems acting upon control algorithms so as to “steal” the drone and land it in a safe zone. The danger, in fact, lies in an RPA armed not only with explosives, but CBRN[18] charges as well. Protocols including the creation of a quarantine zone are needed to safeguard both civilian population and specialised personnel.

Since the development of this system is not achievable in the short-term, existing possibilities need to be analysed on a costs-and-benefits basis. In conducting said analysis, problems relating to the type of command used for the drone (whether remotely controlled or with a pre-set route) and the type of armament (whether the release of the charge is activated through the remote control; or automatically when the drone is above certain pre-set coordinates; or with a timer).

There are four possible outcomes. Having lost connection to the remote control, the drone incurs in a mid-air stalemate (is essentially frozen), automatically goes back to the last known remote-control position, or lands. If a failsafe system[19] is not in place, it crashes to the ground[20]: in this case, if armed with explosive charges, it could detonate; if armed with CBRN ones, it could contaminate the area.

A first option of anti-drone technology might regard the use of jammers, translating their established use as counter-IED systems[21] in conflict areas. Impact on civilian technologies and infrastructures, if used in urban environment, remains to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis[22]. Considering the relatively short distance and duration of drone flights with malevolent potential, absence of a jamming system in loco, whether portable[23] or fixed, could implicate missed engagement. Fixed systems in urban environments present problems regarding background noise, though.

A second hypothesis would be the use of conventional ballistic weapons with the intent of shooting the drone down, or eventually armed with net projectiles[24]. This should only be considered as a last resort option, because of the aforementioned risks concerning typology of armament. Undoubtedly, a danger for the civilian population persists if the menace materialises in crowded areas.

A third option would be using predator birds. The reactivity of these animals and their economic impact make them a competitive short-term solution. A falconry nucleus is estimated to have a maximum cost of around fifty thousand euros – that would mean that, with a budget of three million euros[25], the installation of circa sixty falconry nuclei could be feasible. The costs for maintaining a single nucleus appear not to be above the few tens of thousands of euros per year[26].

A fourth option would involve weapons emitting radio frequencies. The specifics of an American-manufactured system appear quite interesting, yet it falls within the category requiring prior authorisation by the Federal Communications Commission to be sold or rented to non-federal users[27].

Lastly, direct-energy systems are increasingly attracting interest: an example would be the Counter Unmanned Aerial System (C-UAS) provided to the Italian Air Force’s Fucilieri, 16° Stormo during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Rome in July 2019. It was described as a detection system equipped with devices to electronically interdict flight[28].

In the short term, the most feasible solution would be the constitution of a pilot experiment using a falconry nucleus to monitor exceptional situations involving a high concentration of people and, if need be, intervene – for example, Sunday Mass at the Vatican or the future Winter Olympics in Milano-Cortina 2026.

Information exchange amongst Armed Forces, intelligence and Law Enforcement should be accentuated. To predict possible future trends, attention should be on alterations, which can be found online, defined as “feasible” by hobbyists, enthusiasts and/or ill-intentioned actors. One should avoid the reasoning by which a possible modification, being it non-functioning, does not represent a future menace: when an idea concerning malevolent use of an RPA is put out, it should be considered as feasible, either in the short-term or in a more distant future.



[1] Colloquially referred to as “drones” and also known as UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), UASs (Unmanned Aerial Systems), or – in the Italian version – APRs (Aeromobili a Pilotaggio Remoto).

[2] European Commission (2014), “Remotely Piloted Aviation Systems (RPAs) – Frequently Asked Questions”, p. 2 Link:

European Aviation Safety Agency (2016). “Explanatory Note”, Prototype Commission Regulation on Unmanned Aircraft Regulation, p. 13. Link:

[3] RPA Classification

Category Operative radius (km) Flight height (m) Flight duration (h) MTOW (kg)
Nano < 1 100 < 1 < 0,0250
Micro < 10 250 1 < 5
Mini < 10 150 – 300 < 2 < 30

[4] An entry-level Canon reflex, like the EOS 1300D, is sold on the Canon official website at € 470,99. In the same price range fall also cameras from other labels, such as the Nikon D3400. DJi, the Chinese company leader in drone-making, prices its drones from the Phantom and Mavic series between 500 and 1.200 dollars. They are the most sold worldwide. In 2017, DJi held more than 36% of the North American market.

Chandler, C. (2017). “For China’s high-flying drone maker, the sky’s the limit”, Fortune. Link:

Glaser, A. (2017). “DJi is running away with the drone market”, Recode. Link:

[5] An example is Casey Neistat’s case in Manhattan.

P.A. Aitken (2017) “Copy of FAA message sent. Casey Neistat investigation lacks conclusive evidence”, Taitkenflight. Link:;

Andy (2017) “EXCLUSIVE: Details of Casey Neistat’s FAA investigations”, Andy’s Travel Blog. Link:

[6] BBC (2018), “Gatwick airport: Drones ground flights”, BBC. Link:

BBC (2019), “Heathrow airport drone investigated by police and military”, BBC. Link:

BBC (2019), “Heathrow airport: Drone sighting halts departures”, BBC. Link:

[7] “Geo-fencing is the concept of restricting drone access by designating specific areas where the drone’s soft- ware and/or hardware is designed not to enter, even if the pilot, without intent, instructs the drone to go” European Aviation Safety Agency (2015), “Concept of Operations for Drones…”, ibidem.

[8] Ryan Whitman (2017) “Russian Company Is Selling Mods to Bypass DJI Drone Safety Features”, Extreme Tech. Link:

[9] Interviews conducted with drone enthusiasts have highlighter how, at the moment in which a DJi drone flies in a no-fly zone proximity, the operator is alerted through a pop-up alert. Accepting the alert, the drone continues to function, and it is yet to be verified if and how the geofencing system would behave. The text of the pop-up alert appearing when using a DJi drone can be found here below —

No-Fly Zones. There are 1 Authorization Zone(s) nearby. Authorization zone type: Military Facility(Military Zones). Your aircraft may experience RTH interruption, hovering, or Intelligent Flight Mode cancellation. Please fly with caution. Do you wish to apply for Self-Unlocking to access these zones? No / Yes”

[10] “[ISIS] è un progetto politico di lungo termine con confini mobili […] Frutto delle idee di Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, proclamato “Califfato” il 29 giugno 2014 da Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, ha ridisegnato la geografia del Medio Oriente cancellando i confini di Iraq e Siria prodotti dagli accordi di Sykes Picot del 1916. Si proietta contro gli stati postcoloniali che sorgono all’interno della mappa di “Bilad al Sham”, la leggendaria nazione araba del Levante che corrisponde agli attuali territori di Iraq, Siria, Giordania, Libano, Israele e Autorità nazionale Palestinese”, cit. M. Molinari (2015), “Il Califfato del terrore. Perché lo Stato Islamico minaccia l’Occidente”, Rizzoli, pp. 10-11.

[11] Peter Bergen & Emily Schneider (2014) “Now ISIS has drones?”, CNN. Link:

Ben Watson (2017) “The Drones of ISIS”, Defense One. Link:

Mike Peshmerganor (2018), Blood Makes the Grass Grow: A Norwegian Volunteer’s Fight Against the Islamic State, Independently Published.

[12] L. E. Davis et al. (2014) “Armed and Dangerous? UAVs and U.S. Security”, RAND Corporation. Link:

[13] The video hereby referred was circulated on the internet through ISIS-affiliated Amaq agency and spread by ABC News ( It showed a drone dropping munitions over a Syrian arms depot. Although the author is skeptical regarding the authenticity of the images themselves, the potential for propagandistic use of these technologies remains undeniable. Link to the video:

[14] Only two actors appear to be – at the time of writing – equipped with jamming systems in Italy: central Police services, as they are the ones involved in cases of specific necessity; and offices where classified information is discussed, which undergo periodic checks.

[15] Legislative Decree n. 61, 11 April 2011, in actualization of Directive 2008/114/CE concerning individuation and designation of European critical infrastructures and evaluation of the necessity to implement their protection.

Legislative Decree, in Italian:

European Directive:

[16]Human-in-the-loop (HITL). A model that requires human interaction.” Cit. USA Department of Defense (1998), “DoD Modeling and Simulation (M&S) Glossary”, DOD 5000.59-M, p. 124 (emphasis in the original).

[17] “UAV swarms, inspired mainly by the swarms of insects, are groups of small independent unmanned vehicles that coordinate their operations through autonomous communications to accomplish goals as an intelligent group, with or without human supervision. It may be a heterogeneous mix of machines with dissimilar tasks but contributing synergistically to the overall mission objectives”, cit. Puneet Bhalla (2015), “Emerging Trends in Unmanned Aerial Systems”, Scholar Warrior, Autumn 2015, p. 89.

[18] Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear.

[19] Definitions of “fail-safe” —

(American English): adj. “[D]esignating, of, or involving a procedure designed to prevent malfunctioning or unintentional operation […]”.

(British English): adj. “Something that is fail-safe is designed or made in such a way that nothing dangerous can happen if a part of it goes wrong”.

Collins Dictionary, link:

[20] In summer 2019, during a drone race in Turin, a hacker attack to the organisers’ Wi-Fi made the operators lose control of their drones. This was caused by the fact that all remotely-controlled APRs were operating on the same Wi-Fi network, offered by the organisers – therefore, attacking this infrastructure was a cyberattack which had no direct effect on the drones (it did not intervene on them), but rather broadly speaking on their wireless communication. The causes of the reported “going crazy” of the APRs are to be found in the fact that these were homemade race drones, presumably with no fail-safe system, already launched at high speed at the time they were disconnected from their remote controllers.

Alessandro Contaldo (2019), “Attacco hacker alla drone race: i quadricotteri fuori costretti ad atterraggi di emergenza”, La Repubblica. Link:

[21] Here below follow a few definitions —

“An improvised explosive device (IED) is a type on unconventional explosive weapon that can take any form and be activated in a variety of ways. They target soldiers and civilians alike. In today’s conflicts, IEDs play an increasingly important role and will continue to be part of the operating environment for future NATO military operations. NATO must remain prepared to counter IEDs in any land or maritime operation involving asymmetrical threats, in which force protection will remain a paramount priority.” in NATO (2018), Improvised explosive devices,

Electronic Warfare: The use of electromagnetic (EM) or directed energy to exploit the electromagnetic spectrum. It may include interception or identification of EM emissions (es.: SIGINT), employment of EM energy, prevention of hostile use of the EM spectrum by an adversary, and actions to ensure efficient employment of that spectrum by the user-State. An example of electronic warfare is radio frequency jamming” in Michael N. Schmitt, editor (2016), Tallinn Manual 2.0 on the international law applicable to cyber operations, Cambridge University Press, p. 565 (enfasi nel testo).

[22] The use of (civilian) jammers is legal in Italy, as long as the limits set by law concerning emissions and exposure are respected and they do not cause an interruption of public service (art. 340, Italian Penal Code). Armed Forces and Law Enforcement can use them in exceptional cases, hence when they operate in deroga (lit. notwithstanding the current regulation), e.g. for public safety reasons, protection of personalities, public order et simili.

[23] As could be, e.g., the Wilson handgun jammer.

[24] COMFOTER SPT (2018), “Sperimentazione antidrone del COMACA”, Esercito. Link:

Stato Maggiore Esercito (2018), “Sperimentazione antidrone del COMACA”, Difesa Online. Link:

Maurizio Tortorella (2019), “Abbattete quel drone”, Panorama. Link:

According to indiscretions, these exercises have been conducted using a Beretta rifle, caliber 12.

[25] This amount has been chosen on purpose. Apparently, the Israeli ‘Drone Dome’ system, used at Gatwick airport – against the drone which caused the stop of air traffic – costed the United Kingdom 2.6 million pounds (at the moment of writing, equivalent to nearly 2.9 million euros).

Joe Pinkstone (2018), “The £2.6m Israeli ‘Drone Dome’ system that the Army used to defeat the Gatwick UAV after the technology was developed to fight ISIS in Syria”, Daily Mail Online. Link:

[26] As experts estimated during interviews.

[27] Reference is hereby made to the DronekillerTM, a product of IXI Technology. Company website:

IXI Technology, document on Dronekiller specifics:

[28] “[…] sistema radar di rilevamento munito di dispositivi e ottiche diurne e notturne per l’interdizione elettronica del volo”. Cit. Ministero della Difesa / Stato Maggiore della Difesa (2019), “Le Forze Armate concorrono alla cornice di sicurezza per la visita del Presidente Putin”, Difesa. Link:

All web links indicated in the present document have been last accessed on September 27, 2019.

Swarming and Machine Teaming – Defence Future Technologies DEFTECH

A workshop in Thun (Switzerland) to assess the
state-of-the-art technology and research

Chiara Sulmoni reports.

On Wednesday, 21st November 2018 armasuisse S+T (Science and Technology) organised a day-long international workshop for military personnel, researchers, specialists and company representatives, addressing the subject of ‘swarming and machine teaming’.

The event is part of a series which armasuisse Science and Technology organises on a regular basis under the trademark DEFTECH (Defence Future Technologies). These high-profile meetings allow military and civilian experts to share hindsights, anticipate technology trends and make informed decisions in the field of security.

Swarming indicates the deployment of low-cost, autonomous elements acting in coordination with one another to carry out a specific task. Generally, it’s small drones or robots.

Swarms are common in nature, where many species -birds and fish, for instance- move or operate in vast groups. Research into ‘artificial’ swarming often starts with the observation and study of animal behaviour.

Swarming is dual-use, meaning that it can take shape in the civilian environment -for instance, with commercial drones flying in formation- or the military -where it’s principally a battlefield tactics and is associated to the issue of lethal autonomous weapons (LAWS), whose ethical aspects are discussed at UN-level-. Given the rapid development of technology -and the lack of an efficient defence system should a swarming attack take place- armasuisse wished to gain a better understanding of the challenges and risks related to it. The workshop was therefore aimed at getting to know the ‘state of the art’ within this domain. Experts from different fields were called in to provide their perspectives. What follows, is a brief report of some key points which have been touched upon during this meeting, which was organised under the supervision of Quentin Ladetto, Research Programme Manager at armasuisse S+T, and introduced by Director Thomas Rothacher.

Switzerland is a global leader in drone technology. Markus Hoepflinger from Swiss Drones and Robotics Centre (affiliated to armasuisse S+T) was keen to underline right from the start that not only domestic and foreign media dub it the “Silicon Valley of robotics” or “drones centre of the world”. The very same Federal Department of Foreign Affairs is an eager proponent of Swiss expertise (for more information, visit Swiss research involves both academic and technical institutes in all regions, and the industry. Today’s environment is mainly mobile robotics with the strongest capability being autonomous flights. There are however a series of potential future military applications which are being looked into, with a view to enhancing search and rescue operations for instance, or for engineering work. Markus Hoepflinger also explained that swarming in the future could dominate war, with experiments underway in Russia, China, the US, Israel and to a lesser extent the EU (e.g. Royal Air Force and Airbus). But drone warfare is not yet happening, despite what has been (questionably) described as the first swarm attack in Syria against a Russian base in January 2018.

Despite rapid progress in all fields, Vincent Boulanin of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) emphasized how misconceptions and myths around autonomous systems and artificial intelligence represent a problem, insofar they tend to make policy discussion improductive and blind us from the true possibilities and limitations of these technologies. Programming machines for general tasks is difficult, as they can not generalise from previous situations: while they do process images and understand words (consider the mobile phone application ‘Siri’, for instance) common sense is not one of their assets. On the other hand, autonomous navigation is very context-dependent, with air or underwater environments presenting less obstacles compared to land. ‘Teaming’ is an important aspect of swarming, as machines must communicate with each other and their operator; these systems can share information, perform collaborative tasks (like flying together, complete surveillance assignments, inspect buildings in uncomplex environments). But there’s no symmetrical machine-human communication and finding the right ratio can also be complex. As pertains to the military field proper, Boulanin pointed out how targeting remains the most critical application of autonomy as systems do not have the ability to make a distinction between a civilian and a military target. In the end, autonomy is much easier to achieve for commercial applications.

Martin Hagström from the Swedish Defence Research Agency underlined how having ‘many of something’ does not constitute a problem; the objective is to be able to deploy cheap, efficient sub-systems and a reduced number of ground operators. He also recalled that the antagonist perspective is considerably different from the civil perspective. Swarms rely on satellite navigation (GPS) and are therefore vulnerable to attacks by adversaries who can master a high technological command and could disrupt communication in a contested environment. ‘Robust’ systems are quite expensive and Hagström is therefore persuaded that it might take some time before swarming can be adopted in the military. Other issues to take into account when thinking of flying objects are flight safety rules and policies (air space is not free) and last but not least, the complexity of testing. Stability and predictability are paramount in military applications and because a system acts within its own designed space, autonomy is to make that design space very large, so that it may include many potential events. But outside of (software-based) simulation, testing a system remains hard.

Georg Dietz works for German group IABG mbH and focuses on military airborne platforms. The expert explained that air operations today are increasingly complex for a number of different reasons: the sheer amount of players in the world, the fastest conflict dynamics, the speed of technological advances and information exchange, the rapid growth of sensor ranges and so on. Capabilities like platforms or systems can be insufficient while costs are high, with each new fighter aircraft, by instance, being at least twice as expensive as its predecessor. Future combat air systems will be designed as a system of systems (SoS) consisting of a variety of different components both manned and un-manned, enabling swarming operations. Design and control open up a series of questions though, as to the number and type of platforms needed, the degree of autonomy and technology gaps; on communication in highly contested areas; on human – machine interface and so on. Nevertheless, swarming represents a nearing future in air operations.

Jean-Marc Rickli from the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) expounded the concept that swarming is the 5th evolution of military strategy and together with autonomy, it represents a key characteristic of the battlefield of the future. Other strategies (or ways to use force) are ‘denial’ -whose main target is the military; punishment -which hits civilians and infrastructure to exert indirect pressure (terrorism features as punishment); risk -consisting in threatening an escalation, e.g. US-USSR Cold War; and decapitation -which relies on technology like drones to eliminate enemy leadership-. But a large number of small units with sensory capabilities, easy to manouver, able to act in coordination -such is the description of a functioning swarm- can concentrate firepower, speed, forces in a way previously unseen. Swarming tactics is a means to wage asymmetric wars and cyber manifestations of it have already been encountered. 3D-printing of gun components and drones will have important implications, explained the expert. In 2017 in Mosul several Iraqi soldiers were killed by drones operated by ISIS in what was the first instance of the West losing tactical aerial supremacy. Should swarming become a mainstream strategy, we should expect a more conflictual international environment, concluded Rickli.

Marco Detratti from the European Defence Agency (EDA) underlined how, according to estimates, the market for autonomous systems’ products and technology in non-military sectors will be in the order of €100Bn by 2025, with defence playing only a minor part. But swarms have disruptive potential in many fields and while defence is not yet impacted, it nevertheless expects to be in the future. In defence (non-offensive perspective) swarms can change and improve capabilities. Specifically, they can offer ubiquity, resilience and invisibility and are therefore taken into consideration in all tasks and for all domains: land, air, maritime and cyber. From swarms, the military expects cost reduction, decrease in manpower and risk, technical advantages.  Since 2010, EDA has been trying to identify scenarios where swarm and multirobot systems could ‘deliver’; it started a series of projects accordingly. Despite technical evidence of feasibility and noteworthy research, problematics and challenges persist: Detratti went on to explain that there are no real autonomous systems in operation; systems are not resilient enough (consumption); they are not ‘smart’ enough; more progress is needed in testing the unpredictable (to be sure, for instance, that things continue to work when communication is interrupted, that information is not manipulated). There are also non-technical issues to take into account, like the need for a big shift in terms of military culture, doctrine and training; public perception; and ethics.

Autonomous (lethal) weapons have been raising ethical issues for years. George Woodhams gave a hindsight into the discussions and initiatives taking place at UN-level and within UNIDIR (UN Institute for Disarmament Research), which has been dealing with UAVs (un-manned aerial vehicles) since 2015. A specific concern regards the use of Reapers and Predators (drones). The Institute has been encouraging the international community to consider what new challenges may emerge from the proliferation of this technology and it also looks into strategic implications of un-manned systems. An issue for the UN to consider in the long term, is whether due to their low risk and cost of deployment, these systems might lead to problematic military practices. Woodhams went on to illustrate lines of debate within the frame of the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, a UN-negotiating body designed to address weapons systems with implications on international humanitarian law. A Group of Government Experts to address Lethal Autonomous Weapons systems (LAWS) was established in 2014, with military advisors regularly invited in. It focuses on what is called ‘meaningful human control’ and its ethical foundations, like retaining human agency in decisions over the use of lethal force, preserving human dignity and ensuring human accountability. Talks can be difficult, as the 84 States which are involved in discussions have different military capabilities and levels of hindsight, but everybody seems to agree on the need to identify best practices and practical measures for improving compliance with international law. Though swarming has not been mentioned specifically over the last four years, concluded Woodhams, it’s the one area of autonomy that catches the imagination the most.

From all the implications derived from the concept of swarming, to the practical side of understanding the many ways in which it can take shape. There’s a flurry of exciting and ground-breaking research going on in laboratories, aimed at addressing limitations and constraints, with a view to developing a higher degree of autonomy and coordination.

We already mentioned how research takes ‘inspiration’, so to say, from nature. In introducing his  line of work, Nicolas Bredeche from Pierre and Marie Curie University explained that methods used to study natural systems (like animal behaviour) can also be used to study artificial systems; and solutions for artificial systems are often a simplified version of what can be observed in nature. Bredeche oversees research on ‘adaptive mechanisms for collective decision-making in populations of simple individuals’ (such as insects or small animals). Simply put, he tries to understand the principles of collective behaviour, see how single members adapt to group strategies, and try and reproduce it in the lab in a way that is useful for artificial intelligence. With tigerfish and collective hunting as models, his studies reveal the importance of symbiotic behaviour and lead to conclude that a version of natural selection, with the ‘fittest’ individual winning over the rest of the population, can be transferred into robotics as well.

Dario Floreano from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne described how animals in a swarm use different types of sensors -like vision, magnetic compass for orientation, and noise; they can also make use of local information, unlike drones which rely on information from ‘vulnerable’ GPS. The question is: can we have swarms that, despite resorting to available technology like GPS, will also follow their own rules instead of being controlled by a computer on the ground?  Floreano recalled how computer graphics’ rules for the animation of swarms with a certain degree of autonomy have already been laid down in the ‘80s by Craig Reynolds. Briefly put: when a drone is too close to the others, it will move far way (repulsion); when a drone is flying in a different direction with respect to the rest of the flock, it will tend to align to the others; when a drone is too distant, it will be attracted. But other variables like the ability to communicate, power capabilities (batteries), agility (quadcopters vs. fixed-wing drones) can greatly affect swarming and continue to be actively researched. Most importantly, one strand of Floreano’s research (commissioned by armasuisse and related to rescue drones’s ability to operate without GPS) has confirmed that sensor-based flight is possible and deserves attention.

Cooperation and teaming (human-robot-dog) in the field of rescue operations in rescue disaster areas is also a line of research at Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence (Lugano). Within this context, maintaining connectivity -either within the swarm and among drones and people- is crucial. Researcher Alessandro Giusti explained how another important strand of work focuses on interaction between humans and robots; specifically, it’s about exploring ways in which to exert control over a drone. The lab came up with the idea of pointing at it -an easy, quite natural gesture for people-; the technological options for implementing this solution are wearable interface like bracelets, laser pointers, or a smart watch, which make it possible to direct the robot to performing its task by moving one’s arm. Vision-based control is also being actively tested.

From human-robot interaction to situational awareness. This is the project Titus Cieslewski (University of Zurich) is involved in. The motivational question being: how can drones know where they are, in a hypothetical situation where there’s a team of agents in an unknown environment, they can’t see each other directly (unlike in classic swarms!) and the further they move in exploration, the harder it becomes to communicate? GPS, explained Cieslewski, does not work indoors, can be reflected in cities and is subject to jamming and spoofing in a military context (jamming and spoofing are part of electronic warfare and consist respectively in disrupting your enemy’s wireless communication and sending out wrong positioning). Computer vision can offer a way out, maintained the researcher; through the images captured by their cameras, drones can build ‘sparse visual maps’ resulting from processes like place recognition, pose estimation and optimisation. What Titus Cieslewski is currently bent on, is trying and reduce the amount of data exchanged in the process, which would translate into the possibility of enlarging the team of robots.