How the Pentagon is preparing for the coming drone wars

More than a decade after the improvised explosive device became the scourge of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is battling another relatively rudimentary device that threatens to wreak havoc on American troops: the drone. Largely a pre-occupation of hobbyists and experimenting companies, the vehicles are beginning to become a menace on the battlefield, where their benign commercial capabilities have been transformed into lethal weapons and intelligence tools.

Instead of delivering packages, some have been configured to drop explosives. Instead of inspecting telecommunications towers, others train their cameras to monitor troops and pick targets. Instead of spraying crops, they could spread toxic gas, commanders worry. Military strategists envision the day when they will be deployed in robot armies capable of swarming defenses in kamikaze raids.

Stopping the drones has become a challenge for the Pentagon and its allies. The unmanned aerial vehicles, as they are known, can range from the size of an insect to a shoe box to a large fixed-wing aircraft. Although they have not been anywhere near as deadly as IEDs, drones could become more lethal as technology improves, military officials fear.

In response, the Pentagon is attacking what it sees as a potentially major threat, working to develop lasers and micro-waves to blast drones from the sky. The range of their use is “up to the creativity of the enemy,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Shields, director of a Pentagon agency called the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO), which is focusing on countering the drone threat. The office opened in 2006 initially to combat IEDs, but as the enemy evolved, so too has JIDO, which now handles all sorts of “improvised threats,” such as vehicle-borne IEDs, suicide bombers, booby traps and, now, drones. “It was a natural progression for us,” Shields said. “Right now, JIDO is focused on nonstate-actor use of small drones, but there are certainly other capabilities that are out there — larger, faster and so forth.”

Some soldiers already carry specially outfitted “anti-drone” rifles that, instead of firing bullets, use pulses across radio frequencies that interfere with the vehicles’ controls. France and other countries have trained eagles and other birds of prey to attack enemy drones.

“There is definitely a sense of urgency,” said Luis Hernandez, a senior staff member at BAE Systems, which recently participated in the Hard Kill Challenge, a Pentagon-sponsored anti-drone competition. “We don’t want this to become another issue like the roadside bombs, the IEDs. Let’s attack this now.”

At the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference in Washington recently, anti-drone technology was on display on the floor of the convention center. Nammo, a Norwegian company, showcased a drone that had been blown apart by an “air burst” round — programmed to explode as it reaches its target.

Raytheon is taking a different approach, mounting a high- energy laser weapon on top of a militarized dune buggy that it says can be used to knock drones out of the sky. The company also has developed what it calls Phaser, a high-powered microwave blast that scrambles a drone’s avionics.

Lockheed Martin has a laser it calls Athena that is capable of frying the tail off a fixed-wing drone. And at an Army exhibit, officials showed a small quadcopter with what looked like a small bullet hole in it that was caused by a laser, not a gun.

While IEDs are cobbled together from mortar and artillery shells found in Afghanistan after decades of war, drones are easily accessible. A search on Amazon.com for “quadcopter” yields more than 80,000 results. And as the technology improves, the drones are becoming more capable.

“They’re used by basically everyone, and we’re seeing terrorists put them to use,” said Paul Scharre, director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security. “Think of them as flying IEDs. And while you haven’t seen casualties on the scale of IEDs, IEDs didn’t start out as that lethal, either. In 2003, they were largely a nuisance.”

That year, IEDs killed three U.S. service members. In 2010, they were responsible for 368 deaths, more than 60 percent of that year’s fatalities in the global war on terrorism, according to iCasualties.org.

Officials are not just concerned about the use of drones on the battlefield. Prisons have seen the vehicles buzz over fences to smuggle in contraband. In 2015, a quadcopter flew by the Secret Service to crash on the White House grounds. And airports worry about drones interfering with planes. On October 12 in Quebec City, a drone hit a small airplane in what officials said was the first such collision in North America. The plane, which was carrying six passengers, landed safely, but the incident raised alarms in Canada and the United States.

The United States has been using military drones to great effect for years, and the military’s dependence on them is only growing. Scharre thinks that soon they’ll be used to help troops peer around corners and search buildings for weapons or explosives, so that they become a unit’s “eyes and ears. It sounds like science fiction, but it doesn’t rely on any fundamental technology advances we don’t have today.”

– edited from The Washington Post, November 24, 2017
PeaceMeal, March/April 2018

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