Confronting an evolving threat

Nations beefing up defenses against unmanned aircraft systems


ASeptember 14, 2019, attack on oilfields in Saudi Arabia by 18 unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and three low-flying missiles temporarily shut down more than 5% of the global oil supply and caused an international spike in fuel prices. More significantly, the attack served notice to homeland defenders worldwide that shoring up defenses against unmanned systems remains a top priority.

The attack, which was attributed to Iran by the United Kingdom and United States, underscored long-held fears of counterterrorism experts about the rapid evolution of inexpensive yet lethal technologies. A September 2019 Bloomberg News report noted that the devices were able to “pierce Saudi defenses in a way that a traditional air force could not: flying long distances to drop potent bombs that apparently set vast portions of the Saudi petroleum infrastructure ablaze.”

Nearly a year before the attack, FBI Director Christopher Wray told a U.S. Senate committee that civilian drones also pose a “steadily escalating threat.” The devices are likely to be used by terrorists, criminal groups or drug cartels, he said, to carry out attacks in the United States.

Homeland defense and security experts are taking notice. From London to Paris to Washington, military researchers, civilian aviation authorities and legislators are confronting the threat. London’s Heathrow Airport announced in January 2020 that it is bringing in a new monitoring system to detect and track drones entering its airspace, The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported. Operational Solutions, which makes the technology, said the system will be able to locate the pilot of a drone in any malicious attack.

In Paris, the French company CS Group provided police with its Boreades anti-drone system for use during France’s Bastille Day parade. Also, the operator of Paris’ two main airports, ADP, launched a drone-detection program called Hologarde in partnership with the French aerospace firm Thales.

Military research is also in high gear as defense planners consider options to defend against UAS attacks. One commercially available option is an air launcher that fires a net to capture the drone before dropping it to the ground by parachute. Hijacking UAS signals is another possibility. A U.S.-based company, Department 13, and the Chinese firm Hikvision have developed technologies that can disable an unmanned system or force it to return home. Militaries also are looking at other options, including directional radio frequency interference and laser technology. The U.S. military already possesses Stryker-mounted Hellfire missiles and interceptor drones to knock UAS out of the sky.

Legislative advancements are also part of the arsenal. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, for example, issued proposed rules in December 2019 that would require remote identification of UAS by people on the ground or in the air. Within three years of the rule becoming law, nearly all UAS will be expected to communicate their identities and location.

UAS and cruise missiles are difficult to defend against because they fly at low levels, making it difficult for ground-based radar to detect them. They are also mobile, which means the threat can come from missiles launched from the ground, an aircraft, or from ships and submarines.

With many low-cost options commercially available, homeland defenders face a challenge that grows more difficult by the day. “Armed drones and cruise missiles can effectively and efficiently augment a country’s air power and military might, and diversify the threat a potential opponent must defend against,” wrote Peter Brookes, a senior fellow for national security affairs for The Heritage Foundation. “The attack on the Saudis will only make these weapons systems more popular.”