Can the U.S. Military Combat the Coming Swarm of Weaponized Drones?

The U.S. Army will have to dramatically change its timeframes to deal with drones, study says

A camera equipped radio controlled quadcopter drone flying over a silhouetted man.
Photo: Eddie Gerald/Alamy

To counter the threats posed by small drones, the U.S. military may have to rapidly step up its R&D timeframes, according to a new report commissioned by the U.S. Army.

Small unmanned aircraft systems (sUASs) have become increasingly affordable and sophisticated. With millions of these drones now available worldwide, “It’s become very easy for an adversary to use them in nefarious ways,” says Albert Sciarretta, chair of the committee behind the new study and president of CNS Technologies in Springfield, Virginia.

The U.S. Army asked for a detailed report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that analyzes potential risks from these devices, especially to dismounted infantry (that is, foot soldiers) and lightly armored vehicles. For example, hobby drones could be fitted with lethal weapons such as explosive, chemical, biological, or radiological payloads—or modified to jam military radio signals, Sciarretta says.

The risks that modified hobby drones pose are not just hypothetical scenarios, the study notes. In 2016, a sUAS booby-trapped by ISIS killed two Kurdish soldiers and injured two French soldiers near Mosul, Iraq. That same year, Russia was spotted using drones to jam mobile phone signals near the city of Donetsk as part of its war against Ukraine.

Countering unmanned aircraft first requires detecting and identifying them, which, the researchers note, can prove very difficult. Among the reasons: These drones are small, typically fly low to the ground, and can move in highly unpredictable ways. Moreover, they can, at least in theory, conceal themselves among their surroundings by, for instance, hiding in a tree or blending in with a flock of birds.

The scientists noted that the U.S. military has invested significant resources into counter-drone technologies, often focusing on detecting radio signals from a drone or its operator and jamming the radio link between them. However, the researchers noted that modern drones can increasingly operate without radio links, instead relying on automated systems for target recognition and tracking as well as obstacle avoidance.

The report also indicates that, by 2025, hobby drones could operate in swarms of tens to hundreds of aircraft—much sooner than the U.S. Army might have anticipated. Countering such drone swarms will likely prove to be a difficult challenge; researchers will have to find ways to detect, identify, and track numerous targets simultaneously instead of single drones. “America has done a lot of research with [deploying] swarms, but other nations are now advertising they have swarms as well,” Sciarretta says.

Much of the study's findings are classified. “The Army and all the services are looking for ways to counter multiple numbers of sUASs, but I can't tell you what we recommended,” Sciarretta says.

What the study does make clear is that most counter-sUAS systems are too bulky, heavy, and power hungry for infantry personnel to carry; they’re even too much for the lightly armored vehicles most vulnerable to sUAS attacks. “Dismounted infantry are already overburdened, so any counter-sUAS systems we give them has to take that into account,” Sciarretta says.

The report’s public version also notes that the time horizon on which the U.S. Army says it will combat the problem is too drawn out to deal with the rapid advances in the level of threat posed by sUASs. “The U.S. Army's timeframe of near-term is from now to 2025; mid-term, from 2026 to 2035; and far-term, from 2036 to 2050,” Sciarretta says.

Instead, the committee behind the study proposes much more accelerated timeframes for sUAS and counter-sUAS research. “It should be more like, immediate, from today to 2019; imminent, from 2020 to 2022, and emerging, from 2023 to 2025,” Sciarretta says.

The scientists unveiled the unclassified, public version of their findings online on 6 March.

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