How Doctrine and Delineation Can Help Defeat Drones

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. 

Pacheco notes that as for actually shooting down the pilotless birds, the military has for some time had systems in the pipeline prepped to answer this task, “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.”

He adds:

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.

Pacheco concludes:

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.