It may be a long way from any battlefield but the 2024 Paris Olympics is preparing for the threat of a drone attack with what one official calls “unrivalled” measures.
Fear of a terror attack has haunted every Olympic host nation for half a century since Palestinian gunmen took members of the Israeli team hostage during the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
The last terror act at an Olympics was in Atlanta in 1996 when a pipe bomb exploded as revellers enjoyed a rock concert. Two people were killed and more than 100 injured in the attack, for which a US extremist was jailed.
But the use of civilian drones by armed and criminal groups in recent years poses a new and high-tech nightmare scenario for Olympic organisers.
“It’s really something we are taking very seriously, we’ve been working on it for a long time,” a senior French official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told AFP.
A part of warfare for years, drones have become a defining feature of the Ukraine conflict, deployed on a scale never seen before to carry out both surveillance and strikes.
“The hybridisation of civilian drones for military or terrorist use is not new, as we can see in Ukraine among other places,” Thibault Fouillet, a historian and researcher at the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, said.
“The risk can be transposed to the Olympic Games, it’s no fantasy.”
– ‘All scenarios’ –
The unprecedented opening ceremony planned for the 2024 Paris Olympics already poses a serious security headache.
The plan is to take the ceremony out of its customary location in the main stadium and place it in the heart of the capital, with sporting delegations sailing down the river Seine in boats.
Drones are “very clearly a matter of high priority”, the senior official said.
“The Olympic Games are an ideal showcase, (shown) live around the world, and naturally the security services are working on all the scenarios to prevent a possible attack.”
Nevertheless, on top of concerns about overall security and budget worries for the Paris Games — set to be a centrepiece of President Emmanuel Macron’s second term — there have been questions about its preparedness for dealing with a drone attack.
A parliamentary information team in summer 2021 raised the alarm about France being insufficiently prepared for such a threat.
Just a few weeks earlier, a report by senators had highlighted the “complex” and “evolving” nature of the anti-drones battle.
Among multiple solutions both for detecting drones and their neutralisation, none taken on their own was “completely satisfactory”, it said.
“Systems have evolved since,” the senior official said.
– ‘Drone swarm’ –
The big issue, explained Fouillet, is ensuring the effectiveness of a system “which must be multi-layered”.
“You don’t fight military drones in the same way as civilian drones,” he said.
Civilian drone capabilities have been of concern to authorities for some time.
A mere drone owned by a tourist had to be intercepted by law enforcement officers in Paris in 2021.
“It was flying at 140 kilometres an hour (87 miles mph) and could reach several kilometres high up in the sky. With that, we saw we had a problem,” a security source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Another issue authorities must consider is the way in which an attack could be mounted, such as a so-called drone swarm where an armada of the small devices suddenly fills the skies, flying in coordination.
For Fouillet though, an attack by militarised swarm requires state capabilities and is not necessarily expected to be the number one threat to the Olympics.
A drone swarm calls for a lot of coordination and is “much more sensitive to interference”, said Etienne Faury, a general and commander of the air brigade for the permanent surveillance of airspace who is in charge of the anti-drone initiative for the Paris Games.
“The threat appears to us to be low.”
– From nets to jamming –
Ensuring the skies are safe during the Paris Olympics will fall to the French Air and Space Force, whose job will be to coordinate the measures.
According to a military source, three main risks have been identified — an explosives-laden drone attack such as occurs daily in Ukraine; a coordinated terror attack with the broadcasting of images of its impact; and disruption by a protester with a drone.
Several options for intercepting drones are planned, including sending up a drone capable of deploying a large net. Others involve using a laser or an electromagnetic pulse.
Jamming guns are also envisaged, a security source said.
“We’re setting up a system that is quite unrivalled,” Faury, the general, said.
However, as one source pointed out, the anti-drone systems in place cannot remove every risk. “If the drone falls with its explosive charge, it may miss its target but it may still cause damage,” the senior official said.