Military Must Prepare for Unmanned Aircraft Threat

By Jeffrey Lamport and Anthony Scotto

Photo: iStock

Low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles are equipped with cameras, laser designators, radio frequency collection devices or weapons. The size and composite materials used in UAV production make them difficult to defeat with traditional force protection measures and short-range air defense systems commonly employed by maneuver forces.

In Ukraine, both Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists are operating UAVs in relatively large numbers. They are reportedly operating more than a dozen variants including fixed- and rotary-wing configurations, each functioning at different altitudes with various sensor packages.

For nearly three decades, U.S. and allied forces have had the luxury of conducting ground and air operations in a virtually uncontested airspace environment. Development and fielding of air-defense systems has declined and passive air defense skills have atrophied across the force. Leaders at all levels cannot be lulled into a false sense of security because of the small size of these UAVs. They are as effective, if not more effective, than traditional manned aircraft (or even stealth aircraft) in reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition precision attack and indirect fire support.  

UAVs can create serious problems for maneuvering or static forces. Conventional air-defense systems often “filter” out tracks to avoid confusion with clutter, large birds and aerostats. Systems optimized for this threat often forfeit effectiveness against other target sets (manned aircraft, cruise missiles, rockets and mortars, and ballistic missiles).

A reduction of dedicated air-defense units to maneuver brigades creates potential gaps in air defense coverage. And soldiers are “numb” to UAVs. Recent combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates troops may be highly accustomed to friendly UAVs and, therefore, less likely to be concerned about them flying overhead and less inclined to actively search for UAVs operating in their battle space.

Many soldiers lack UAV recognition training. This issue is compounded by the ever-increasing proliferation of new UAV designs and off-the-shelf systems sold to multiple countries. U.S. Army and joint doctrine have not kept pace with the threat.

UAVs provide the enemy critical intelligence such as a unit’s precise location, composition and activity. They may also provide laser designation for indirect fires or direct attacks using missiles; rockets; small “kamikaze” munitions; or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Some payload configurations can contain radar and communications jamming or other cyber attack technology.  

UAVs are the air threat of the next fight. Technology development and employment around the world demonstrates a relevant and viable air threat. Air defense artillery liaison officers cannot be lulled into a false sense of security because of the relatively small size of these platforms.  

Air defense artillery liaison officers — when working with or within an integrated air defense system — should take an active role to address threats to the maneuver force, suggest UAV-specific rules of engagement when there is a reliable ability to distinguish unmanned platforms, ensure criteria for “hostile act” and “hostile intent” specifically address UAVs and are written in terms any soldier can understand. They also must ensure all joint data link contributors utilize a common set of track amplification data — air type, air platform and air activity — to categorize the UAV target.

Critical assets within the continental U.S. have already been “attacked” by nefarious UAVs. It is only a matter of time before these systems are directly or indirectly responsible for loss of life or interference with critical infrastructure. In some circumstances, Title 10 military personnel and equipment may be required to operate subordinate to civil-military organizations.

Per Department of Defense Directive (DODD) 3025.18, DoD resources may be used in an immediate response to prevent loss of life, mitigate damage to infrastructure, or in support of mutual aid agreements (Title 42 USC).

It is unlikely that most organic communications systems will be compatible with the civil organizations being supported, thereby increasing reliance on knowledgeable liaison officers. Missions may include air defense coverage for the National Capital Region, key power/communications infrastructure, national borders, sporting arenas, political conventions and presidential inaugurations.

Technology used to counter UAV threats within our own borders must be in compliance with Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission regulations. Military planners cannot assume they are exempt from fines or prosecution for violating civil airspace or spectrum management policies in the interest of thwarting a potential hazard.

It must be assumed targets of vital interest are being watched and targeted. UAS operations are not limited to the battlefield; they have already been used to disrupt our daily routines at home and violate traditional security measures surrounding our borders, prisons, nuclear facilities and sporting venues.  

Leaders across the board must take an active role in educating themselves and training their units to defeat this threat.

Jeffrey Lamport and Anthony Scotto are unmanned aircraft experts at the joint deployable analysis team, part of the Joint Staff J6, located at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida.

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles

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