The threat to the United States military and the homeland posed by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAS), also known as drones, continues to grow. Russia, China, and Iran are working hard to compete with the West in the development and deployment of military drones. So too are smaller nations as well as non-state actors of various stripes. Over the past several years, the world has seen a marked increase in the number of drone attacks on both military and civilian targets. The scale and sophistication of these attacks has also increased significantly. Drones are now becoming a transformative capability in conflicts large and small. This is placing a premium on the development and deployment of counter-UAS capabilities (C-UAS) for U.S. military forces and to secure critical infrastructure at home.
Militaries the world over are making use of drones not just for surveillance and targeting but as strike systems. Most recently, Azerbaijan was able to win its short conflict with Armenia rapidly and decisively using UASs acquired from Israel and Turkey.
Drones are becoming almost a standard weapon for insurgents and terrorists. The ISIS Caliphate fielded its own air force built from modified commercially available drones. These were used to drop hand grenades and mortar shells on Iraqi forces. Hezbollah has repeatedly attempted to penetrate Israeli airspace using Iranian supplied drones.
Nor has the use of drones been restricted to the battlefield. Insurgents and terrorist groups have employed them against infrastructure targets. The Yemeni Houthi rebels have conducted mass drone strikes against both military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. One such attack in 2019 employed 18 drones, plus a number of cruise missiles, to strike two critical Saudi oil facilities. In its recent conflict with Israel, the terrorist organization Hamas employed drones as well as rockets and missiles to attack civilian housing and critical infrastructure. On July 30, an explosive-laden drone, allegedly launched by Iran, conducted a precision strike on the pilothouse of an Israeli-operated cargo ship off the coast of Oman, killing two people. Mexican drug cartels are using commercially available drones both to transport narcotics across the U.S. southwest border and to attack government forces.
The U.S. faces a daunting challenge when it comes to countering the growing threat posed by UASs of all sizes and types. According to the Congressional Research Service:
“Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), commonly called drones, have proliferated rapidly and are available to nation states and to nonstate actors and individuals. These systems could provide U.S. adversaries with a low-cost means of conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions against—or attacking—U.S. forces. Furthermore, many smaller UASs cannot be detected by traditional air defense systems.”
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) sees a growing threat from UASs in the hands of terrorist organizations, drug cartels and even lone individuals. Small drones in the hands of malign groups and individuals could pose a serious threat to U.S. critical infrastructure.
The U.S. military has begun to take seriously the threat from drones, particularly smaller, more difficult to detect platforms. In 2019, the Pentagon stood up the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office (JCO), designating the Army as executive agent, to consolidate the disparate programs across DoD and focus on getting capabilities into the field. The JCO picked eight systems as interim counter small UAS capabilities. This set includes a mix of fixed, mobile, and hand-held weapons systems. They employ a variety of sensors and defeat mechanisms to find, fix and finally neutralize small drones.
One of the most interesting is the Light-Mobile Air Defense Integrated System (L-MADIS) developed by the Marine Corps. This is a light vehicle-mounted electronic warfare system that uses jamming techniques to interfere with the guidance and navigation system on a drone. While operating from an amphibious warfare ship in the Persian Gulf, L-MADIS successfully defeated an Iranian drone threatening the ship.
The defense department is working on a range of new technologies to counter UASs. These include deploying drones as counter-UAS devices by either directly striking the target or employing physical or electronic countermeasures to defeat the target. The Army recently conducted a successful test of Raytheon’s Coyote Block 3 counter-UAS system employing some form of electronic countermeasure to defeat a swarm of ten drones.
To counter the threats from larger drones as well as swarms of smaller UASs, the U.S. will need to deploy electronic attack and directed energy weapons as countermeasures. Directed energy weapons, both lasers and microwave transmitters, have the advantages of being able to engage multiple threats as well as to reduce collateral damage. Against smaller drones or swarms, they also have the advantages of near-infinite magazines and relatively low cost per shot.
The U.S. and some allied militaries have programs underway to develop directed energy systems as counter-UAS weapons. Many of the leading U.S. defense firms are investing in directed energy solutions to the UAS threat. One such program is the Air Force’s High Energy Laser Weapon System 2, developed by Raytheon. This system is relatively compact, allowing it to be deployed on ground vehicles and even some types of aircraft. Another, also sponsored by the Air Force, is the Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR) which, in its current configuration, can be deployed in a standard shipping container and employed for the defense of fixed facilities. The Israeli military is looking to develop directed energy weapons to supplement its kinetic Iron Dome system as well as support mobile ground forces. Among the entities competing for this mission is a team consisting of Lockheed Martin and Rafael and another from the Israeli electronics powerhouse Elbit.
The threat from drones both to U.S. forces deployed abroad, and to the homeland is growing. Developing countermeasures that can address a wide range of environments, physical and legal, as well as reduce the risk of collateral damage, will be a challenge. Even as the budgets for DoD and DHS tighten, the Biden Administration must make countering this threat a high national security priority. This means ensuring sufficient funding to support a robust effort to deploy effective countermeasures to the drone threat.
Dr. Daniel Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure is also a new Contributing Editor to 1945 as well.