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The Drone Threat: At Home and Abroad Image: UK Ministry of Defence

The Drone Threat: At Home and Abroad

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Early one morning in January of 2015, Secret Service personnel were shocked upon discovering that their advanced White House radar systems failed to detect a small, slow-flying commercial drone before it crashed into the South Lawn. Later that same year, a Japanese man attached a small amount of radioactive material to another drone and landed it on the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister shortly before being arrested. Fortunately, in both incidents, no one was injured, but these events highlighted the growing risks that these small, widely-available drones pose to modern day defense and security measures.

Abroad, US troops and their allies face a similar threat posed by these small drones.  In Iraq and Syria, ISIS has utilized commercial drones to act as ready-made surveillance aircraft to spot enemy forces, and more recently, have retro-fitted several versions of them to drop small lethal munitions on top of unsuspecting coalition troops.  In the on-going conflict in Eastern Ukraine, drones are being used by both Ukrainian troops and the Russian-backed separatist forces to surveille suspected enemy positions and spot potential artillery targets. Further north, joint military training exercises conducted by Sweden and Norway have noticed a substantial increase in unauthorized drone flights observing their training exercises near the Russian border.

The relative absence of aerial threats in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan has found the US Department of Defense attempting to reinvigorate an emphasis on the importance of air defense in the battlespace, now that drones have become a factor over most modern battlefields. In July of 2016 the US Army released ATP 3-01.8, Techniques for Combined Arms for Air Defense, which for the first time in an Army Publication specified the rising threat of what it terms low, slow, small (LSS) unmanned aerial platforms and effective techniques to detect and engage them.

Whether being employed in lethal capacity or as observation platforms, these readily available aircraft pose a substantial threat to personnel and facilities. Government officials, agencies, and private companies have all been fast at work in attempting to develop and implement counter-drone techniques. MITRE, an organization that assists research for the Department of Defense, launched a “grass-roots” level competition for enterprising counter-drone innovators. The competition, aimed at the development of a system that could track these small drones and force them to land safely and softly, sagely acknowledged the potential chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear threats that could exist if the drone were simply shot out of the sky. Batelle’s DroneDefender exemplifies such a device – a shoulder-fired weapon that disables drones with radio-waves and ultimately forces them to land. Some other anti-drone solutions have been more novel than others, like the Dutch police’s eagle-training program that teaches the birds to attack the aircraft near airports or other sensitive areas.

The need for the US to focus on quick solutions to match this emerging threat is not unprecedented. At the height of the war in Iraq, US and Coalition forces were attempting to come to terms with a new and extremely dangerous insurgent technique, remotely-detonated IEDs. Relatively inexpensive and adaptable, the House Armed Services committee prioritized the development and implementation of the now-popularized Counter Radio-Controlled IED Electronic Warfare (CREW) system, greatly reducing and jamming a significant percentage of successful IED attacks.  It is possible a similar area-denial system could be adapted to friendly forces to help safeguard against potentially hostile drones, and the same amount of attention and urgency should be given to the rapid development of counter-drone technologies and innovations.

Foreign militaries have begun to hone their usage of smaller drones in conventional, day-to-day combat operations while non-state actors attempt to offset the wide technological gap with these ready-made, commercially purchased observation platforms.  The threats represented by the increased usage of these drones highlights the growing vulnerability of the United States in defending itself both domestically and abroad.  Congress would do well in prioritizing the ongoing development of systems and accompanying policies that will better assist in countering the threat posed to US and allied personnel and installations. Through swift and decisive action, the United States can better prepare itself for the age of the drone threat.