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Drones are redefining the modern battlefield — we must act swiftly to counter the UAS threat

Greg Nash

Recent events in Afghanistan remind us that today’s global security landscape presents a vast matrix of complex challenges for the Department of Defense (DoD). One of the most concerning tactical developments is the rapid evolution in the use of militarized Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) — or drones — by near-peer adversaries and non-state actors. Armed, low-cost drones are now a feature of 21st century warfare and we must accept the reality that this threat is here to stay. 

Imagine a scenario in which an organization like ISIS-K deployed a large-scale autonomous drone swarm in the region — or worse, launched an explosive-laden drone here in the homeland. The outcome of either scenario would be disastrous. The absolute necessity of fielding an enduring and effective Counter-UAS (C-UAS) solution could not be more urgent. We cannot wait for a tragedy to be the catalyst for change when proven technologies exist today that can effectively counter both individual and swarming drones. 

Earlier this year in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM Commander General Kenneth McKenzie branded drones as “one of the most persistent and dangerous threats” in the region and one for which the United States, remarkably, is still unprepared. For months, U.S. forces in Iraq have been under weekly and at times daily attacks from drones operated by Iran’s proxy forces. The time for cautious half-measures is over. The need to defend our forces from drone attacks demands swift action to field effective counter-drone technologies.

Drones don’t just threaten deployed military forces and installations, but also pose serious risks to civilian venues such as airports, sporting stadiums, critical infrastructure, and much more. In December of 2018, a pair of unauthorized drones flew into restricted airspace surrounding London’s Gatwick Airport, leading to a 33-hour airport closure, the cancellation of 1,000 flights, and the disruption of 140,000 passengers. Cartels are also making use of drones to smuggle illegal drugs across our southern border. A technology that offers significant economic promise has also become a weapon of choice for our adversaries. 

Since last year’s release of DoD’s first comprehensive “Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategy,” the Pentagon is still struggling to field an effective C-UAS solution to meet this urgent need. Fortunately, American innovators are responding to this challenge with cutting-edge solutions that can neutralize this real and growing threat. The U.S. government must now move with purpose to test, select, and deploy proven technologies before a large-scale drone attack or loss of life confirms we were too slow to act. Time is not on our side. 

To achieve long-term C-UAS mission success, DoD must organize and invest in the rapid development and fielding of C-UAS systems that are mobile; able to integrate with existing DoD Command and Control networks; can power up and down in a matter of minutes; and have the ability to defend against individual drones and autonomous swarms while also minimizing collateral damage wherever possible. These technologies exist today and it’s time to put them in the hands of our warfighters. 

The threat posed by advanced autonomous systems is real and growing. We are behind and must act to regain the initiative. As we work to equip the joint force to confront the dangers of the modern battlefield, we must not allow the quest for the perfect technology — or the perfect acquisition process — to become the enemy of the good. Speed is security. My colleagues and I from the congressional defense committees stand ready to provide the authorities and resources necessary to deter and defeat advanced UAS threats. We must be prepared to “ground” the adversary UAS threat now! 

Don Bacon represents Nebraska’s 2nd District. He is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and a retired Brigadier General in the U.S. Air Force. 

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