Photographer: Getty Images

The Pentagon Takes Aim at Bomb-Carrying Consumer Drones

Terrorist groups are turning a popular hobby item into a deadly strategic challenge.

​They’re cheap, they’re light, and they can carry a small bomb: The commercial drone is essentially a new terror gadget for organizations such as Hezbollah, Islamic State, or anyone else looking to wreak havoc on a budget.

“That’s the same quad copter you can get on Groupon or go down to Sam’s Club and buy for $400,” U.S. Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller said last week at a Washington forum on future warfare. The elusive nature of small drones is one reason the federal government has designated the District of Columbia a “national defense airspace” and prohibited drone flights there. A recent spate of drone-related incidents, including one last year in which a drone crashed on the White House lawn, probably didn’t help, either.

But the problem is no longer about enthusiasts with a bad sense of direction. Weaponized to various degrees of sophistication, such unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now being used in the Syrian civil war and along parts of Lebanese and Syrian borders with Israel, where Hezbollah holds sway.

“There has been an increasing concern in the military and a wider acceptance of how pernicious this problem is going to be, moving forward,” says Andrew Metrick, an intelligence security analyst at the Center for Strategic & International Studies. “From a U.S. and allies perspective, we haven’t had to think about how to fight where we don’t have total aerial supremacy.”

The U.S. military has begun studying small drones and how best to respond. Earlier this month, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) issued a request for ideas on how to protect troops from the new threat; it is planning a workshop next month. “We’re looking for scalable, modular, and affordable approaches that could be fielded within the next three to four years and could rapidly evolve with threat and tactical advancements,” a DARPA program manager, Jean-Charles Ledé, said in a statement

Closer to the battlefield, the Marine Corps has begun integrating small drones into training exercises at the Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms, Calif., Neller said. A Marine or soldier who spots a drone overhead would typically shoot it down, but smaller drones can operate surreptitiously and elude radar since they are barely larger than a bird. Their small motors make acoustic detection enormously hard, and while wide-area camera sensors deployed on the ground might detect a drone, they usually require large computational resources in the field. One solution is an electronic signal jammer to prevent a drone’s operator from flying within a certain vicinity, an approach that U.S. forces have studied. 

Unlike an improvised explosive device (IED), an enemy using a small drone “can’t blow up a tank, but you can more easily attack individual war fighters, you can collect intelligence, and you can tie down a lot of resources by forcing U.S. personnel to respond to the danger,” said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Lexington Institute. “If you think there’s a drone nearby that might be watching you or might be a threat, then you have to be more careful—and that means you’re distracted from your primary mission.”

It’s worth noting that the U.S. also deploys small drones, typically for reconnaissance and surveillance. One of these, called Switchblade (PDF), is a model from California-based Aerovironment Inc. that’s been used by the U.S. Army and Marine Corps. The 5.5 pound drone can carry a lethal charge and has been flown in Syria, Metrick said.

When it comes to large drones, the U.S. has shown itself—somewhat controversially—to have no current peer. Remotely piloted Reaper and Predator drones have been used in thousands of attacks, including “targeted killings” for more than a decade. And the U.S. has major ocean-going drones: The autonomous Echo Voyager from Boeing Co., for example, can patrol underwater for months.

Those drones are all highly advanced platforms, with technology and price tags that put them far out of reach of almost all but the most advanced militaries. For the guerrilla masses, the numerous cheaper, lightweight models are far more accessible. Their easiest use would be simply to monitor U.S. activities. But it’s their potential for modified, deadlier use that worries U.S. military tacticians.

U.S. Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller.
U.S. Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller.
Photographer: Sgt. Gabriela Garcia/USMC

“When was the last time an American military force worried about being bombed by enemy air? World War II?” Neller said. “So what capabilities do we have to defend ourselves from enemy air or enemy unmanned air?”

Such drones also represent only one facet of a future battlefield on which the U.S. military will no longer enjoy complete dominance, the general said. Technology has given potential adversaries new advantages, especially as the U.S. has “developed a system of war fighting that is very dependent upon the internet, the network, and space.” All three are vulnerable because they establish an electronic signature as they operate. Mobile phones, for example, put soldiers in harm's way in the new digital conflict zone, because a drone might home in on them and explode.

“We just got to change,” Neller said, describing a future battlefield in which fighters must become virtually invisible, a return to a time when electronic detection was impossible because there were no satellite radios, Google Earth maps, or GPS-enabled mobile phones. In many ways, the new era Neller envisions would replicate the operating environment a soldier in 1916 might have known:

“You’re living out of your pack, you’re going to stop at night, you’re going to dig a hole, you’re going to camouflage, and you’re going to turn off all your stuff. And you’re going to sit there and try to sleep. And you’re going to be careful to not make any noise and you’re going to try to have absolutely no signature. Because if you can be seen, you will be attacked. That’s the difference. And that’s what we got to get.”

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