JUST IN: Joint Office Predicting, Preparing for Future Small Drone Threats

By Stew Magnuson

The Army-led Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office on Sept. 20 wrapped up a two-day “large-scale combat operations tabletop” exercise that looked ahead at the near- and far-term small drone threat.

The exercise’s purpose — part of a year-long learning campaign — is to inform senior leaders about future counter-small drone development, investment and policy decisions, the organizers said in a conference call with reporters.

Small class 1 to 3 unmanned aerial systems are an increasing threat to all the services and are being used by nations, terrorists and insurgents in all domains — land, sea and air — for surveillance as well as munitions delivery, Army Col. Glenn Henke, military deputy in the Joint Counter-sUAS Office, or JCO, said. And then there are just the reckless hobbyists flying too close to military assets, he added.

“If we just look from the last few years, as we move forward, the threat will get smarter. I think we absolutely have to understand what artificial intelligence and machine learning brings to threat capabilities,” he said.

Adversaries are also looking to deploy small drones in “complex ways,” he added. That could include large swarms.

“We're seeing that play out all around the world in terms of the volume of threat that can be sent against us and our allies. It is only going to trend upwards,” he added.

The exercise — carried out with the assistance of the RAND Corp. — sought to “explore the interplay of and seams between the services’ operational concepts to identify specific C-sUAS doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities and policy gaps,” a JCO statement on the exercise said.

The exercise looked as far ahead as 2031 and used fictional adversaries employing Class 1 to 3 drones with various emerging trends in attack vectors, unique tactics and “evolving technical capabilities across the expanding battlefield and different operating environments,” the statement said.

Army Lt. Col. Rich Brennan III, strategy branch chief in the strategy and policy division of the office, said the eight-year mark was intentional.

The Defense Department does a five-year projection of its budgets so “we have to look pretty far out,” he said.

The JCO serves as an advisor to the services and combatant commands and makes recommendations about technologies. The recipients of their advice want to know where to invest their research-and-development and acquisition funds, the statement said.

The question for them is: “what do we need to get ahead of the threat now — or today — rather than waiting around [until it’s] too late,” Brennan said.

While the office could not share its conclusions yet, Henke was asked if the U.S. military was prepared to meet the small UAS threat if it were to go to war the next day.

Between the recommendations the joint office makes, and the technologies being deployed by the services, “we’re meeting a lot of the threats that we're facing now,” Henke said, adding he would defer to Central Command, which is currently the “most active theater for attacks against us.”

“We are learning every day. We're continuing to add capability. But again, the threat is not going to sit still,” he noted.

Vignettes explored a critical strategic location experiencing and responding to a variety of escalating small drone incidents, from surveilling to differing forms of direct attack, it added.

Brennan said the tabletop exercise looked at everything from near-shore scenarios to mountains and dense urban cities. “One of the major takeaways is that we are on a good path. And I do feel more comfortable with where we’re at and where we’re heading based on this learning,” he said.

The next event of the Future Force Study is scheduled for March 2024 and will focus on scenarios and vignettes exploring interoperability with allies and foreign partners as part of studying a “Host Nation Support” tabletop learning event, the statement said.


Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Robotics

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