As Iranian-made drones continue to spread destruction across Ukraine, observers have been reminded once again of the dangers unmanned aerial systems pose. The United States, to its credit, has made significant progress in bolstering its capabilities to combat this threat, particularly through the investment of the Pentagon and the defense industrial base in counter-drone research and development. Washington has also established a senior-level Joint-Force office dedicated to addressing drone attacks within the Department of Defense.
But there remain two areas that have not been properly tackled: base defense and warfighter-policymaker synergy. First, bases have become particularly vulnerable to small drones, in part because there is no clear delineation of roles and responsibilities in defending against them. Second, the fast-paced evolution of drone warfare has made it difficult for policymakers to effectively ensure every echelon down to the operators of counter-drone systems is on the same page when it comes to strategic vision, operational mission, and tactical employment.
To address these gaps, the Department of Defense should begin incorporating its counter-drone research and strategy into new doctrine and professional military education. To facilitate this, the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office should include representatives from Army Training and Doctrine Command and the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery School on its team. At the same time, the Department of Defense should authorize a new joint command center integrating the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps that would fall under J3 Operations to directly oversee base defense. This interagency effort would be tasked with bringing together all relevant stakeholders, alongside the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, to test and deploy new counter unmanned aerial systems technology.
Understanding the Drone Threat
Global procurement of military unmanned aerial systems is up 57 percent from 2021. In the Middle East, Houthi attacks on the Gulf States have shown how legacy air defense systems like the American MIM-104 Patriot have proven ineffective in combating the threat. Even the U.S. military’s most effective legacy system against drones, the Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar Intercept, is at risk against a large enough drone swarm with decentralized flight patterns.
Understanding America’s drone vulnerability begins with distinguishing between two potential threats: massed attacks and swarming methods. The first resembles several birds with decentralized flight patterns picking and choosing different prey while the second resembles an organized flock of birds converging on a single target. Massed attacks are much less organized and often can have several operators using decentralized drones that are not coordinating. This makes it difficult to neutralize a source, but also makes the capacity of the attack less lethal. Swarms on the other hand feature coordinated command and control, usually with one operator using an algorithm or tactical operations center. These are more likely to be practiced by state actors and involve large numbers of drones employed for increased lethality. This makes swarms more vulnerable to being deterred but also more deadly and useful for offensive penetration.
Historically, the usage of drones in global conflict — particularly low-intensity conflict and irregular warfare — has featured mass attacks since the command side has been limited to human-in-the-loop control. But the primary drone threat to U.S. forces today comes from small unmanned aerial systems used in swarm attacks, particularly as China and Russia have focused on this technology.
These systems possess two characteristics that make them more militarily useful than larger unmanned aerial systems. First, their diminutive size, slow speed, and plastic construction allows them to avoid detection by traditional anti-aircraft sensors. Second, because small unmanned aerial systems are relatively inexpensive, they can be procured and deployed in large numbers. This poses a distinct challenge to base defense because the legacy systems that make up the robust U.S. air defense apparatus do not have capabilities to counter large numbers of drones all at once. The ability of small unmanned aerial systems to coordinate with one another and pick and choose targets enables them to deliver high explosive volume coupled with rapid decision-making and precise direction of attack. With quickly developing AI integration, these swarms are becoming increasingly deadly.
The Current State of Play
The Department of Defense is already in the process of implementing new strategies to confront the risk posed by drone swarms. In December 2019, the organization streamlined its various counter unmanned aerial systems programs, naming the Army as the executive agent tasked with overseeing all Department of Defense counter unmanned aerial systems development efforts. Then, in 2020, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper approved the implementation plan of the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office. Thus far, in conjunction with the combatant commands and the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, this office has proved to be an effective part of the Pentagon’s brain trust, assessing over 40 fielded counter unmanned aerial systems. There are now seven more of these systems slated for development along with one standardized command and control system.
The war in Ukraine demonstrates the nature of the remaining challenge. Iranian Shahed-136 kamikaze drones have replaced long range precision fires as Russia’s go-to method of aerial offense-defense integration. The Ukrainian military has responded with some success, using NATO-provided jammers and existing air defense systems to down two-thirds of Russia’s deployed drones. This achievement bodes well for counter drone strategists and offers lessons for the future. Specifically, on the technology side, it has shown the potential for communication jammers, which can be particularly valuable for defending bases.
As for actually shooting down the pilotless birds, the military has for some time had systems in the pipeline prepped to answer this task. In 2019, the Navy announced successful trial runs of its High Energy Laser with Integrated Optical-dazzler and Surveillance, a 60-kW laser for close defense against unmanned aerial systems and surface craft. There is also the Tactical High Power Operational Responder system, which uses short bursts of high-powered microwaves to disable unmanned aerial systems at short ranges. To date, this represents the most robust swarm-specific technology created. The commercial market also offers a trove of emerging technologies. At the Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Technology USA 2021 Convention, companies like Israeli D-Fend Solutions unveiled technologies which the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office subsequently adopted and recommended to the joint force.
But while the technology side of defense is developing apace, the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office has more work to do engaging the warfighters who will have to use this technology, specifically air defenders and base security force units. The latest U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command air defense doctrine, Army Techniques Publication 3-01.7 “Air Defense Artillery Brigade Techniques,” contains only two mentions of “unmanned aerial systems” and has no current measures for officers and noncommissioned officers to review. Likewise, the principle doctrine for base defense, Joint Publication 3-10 “Joint Security Operations in Theater,” does not address unmanned aerial systems enough and ignores swarming methods completely.
Bringing the warfighters into the Fray
To address these gaps, senior Department of Defense staff should begin by including representatives from Army Training and Doctrine Command and the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery School in the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office. Here, these representatives could assist in implementing new doctrine and professional military education based on the latest technological developments and findings in counter unmanned aerial systems research.
These changes will help enable warfighters on the ground to drive the strategic direction of counter drone planning with operational fielding and testing. Warfighters and their chain of command should both be informed of counter unmanned aerial systems planning and have a mechanism to effectively communicate the dynamics of the battlefield. Since the Army serves as the primary air defender branch, incorporating its higher echelons into counter-drone efforts would eliminate stovepipes between the warfighters and strategic planners and give future generations of air defenders access to updated doctrine in their education. Integrating the U.S. Marine Corps would also facilitate better planning and the creation of a joint-force approach. Indeed, this is something that has already been recommended by the recent Department of Defense “Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategy.” In “Force Design 2030”, the Marine Corps has made significant strides in counter-drone technology. This includes not only air defense systems but the fully-fielded Installation-Counter small Unmanned Aircraft Systems which incorporates monitoring and sensor systems that track and provide warning signals for drone incursion in nearby air space. Incorporating the Marine Corps into counter-drone planning could help systems like this become a part of U.S. base defense memorandums of understanding.
Creating greater burden sharing and coordination at the higher echelons of the joint force is also important because of the rapid change in the unmanned aerial system strategy. Senior commanders at the theater level have the best vantage point to see how the enemy is shifting operations, tactics, and strategy in response to U.S. countermeasures. Incorporating their voices will ensure that the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office does not continue working on assumptions and testing that do not correspond to the real world.
Building Joint-Force Synergy
The Pentagon should also authorize a new joint command center that integrates the Army, Air Force, and Marine Corps. Working under the J3 Directorate, this center would be directly responsible for base defense, with the task of working with all necessary stakeholders to field new counter unmanned aerial systems technology and coordinate field tests.
The Air Force and the Army should be the focus of institutional reform. The Air Force is the only military service that lacks clear authority to develop and procure surface-based air and missile defense systems to protect its own forces. The Army, in turn, employs the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and Patriot missiles to defend operational theaters from air and missile attack, as well as Counter-Rocket, Artillery, and Mortar Intercept systems for smaller threats. This has created disagreement over base defense oversight between the Air Force and the Army for most of the past 70 years, and there is often not a clear memorandum of understanding between the two over the operational authority for base security. With the Army taking the lead in the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, it has the greater interest in moving assertively to create greater synergy. The Air Force should also share this urgency since they are the branch tasked with maintaining America’s air supremacy.
Fostering greater synergy fits best under the J3 mission statement, since this directly deals with operations-related matters. Creating a joint command center would centralize and enhance command and control for base defense, properly distributing roles and responsibilities for the joint force while also assisting in implementing new counter unmanned aerial systems. A new joint command center in the J3 would allow for a unitary approach bringing together the Army and Air Force that can focus solely on base defense and serve as higher command for base security forces globally. The J3 could ensure that units tasked as security forces were specifically identified, trained, and deployed for that mission. This center could also play a valuable role in coordinating field tests for new technology. Alongside the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, it could offer a direct mechanism through which the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the defense industrial base could test newly designed systems in active combat zones.
The Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office has, during its short existence, made enormous progress in protecting U.S. forces from drone technology. Like any organization, though, it should assess where it falls short and where it can improve. It has the capacity to set the tone of counter unmanned aerial system strategy for the foreseeable future and develop standard operating procedures that will keep pace with the threat. The unmanned aerial system threat will only evolve. So should the institutions tasked with countering it.
Nicholas Paul Pacheco is a policy support analyst at the Department of Defense and an Army Reserve officer as well as a former resident Anna Sobol Levy fellow at the Reichman University in Herzliya, Israel. He has written for the National Interest, InkStick Media, and the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Department of the Army or Department of Defense.
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