KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. — The Pentagon, the Department of Energy and other government entities are all concerned about the threat commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could pose to nuclear sites, but a tangle of legal issues means a solution is still a ways off.
Gen. Robin Rand, the head of Air Force Global Strike Command, told reporters Sept. 19 that the threat from small drones, such as quadcopters that are widely available to the public, is one that was not on his radar when he first took over his position 14 months ago. But a series of recent incidents have made him very aware that these systems could prove a danger to the nuclear enterprise.
"After some recent incidents that have happened across government, not just anything specific to Air Force Global Strike, Adm. [Cecil Haney, the head of STRATCOM] and I have had several discussions about this and we have highlighted that to our chain of command. And it's being worked," Rand said.
"I have our bases with our weapons storage facilities [mission], and I will tell you there have been recent examples of extended UAS over some of the areas we don't particularly like them being around," Rand added. "I'm not comfortable with that."
During a trip to various Air Force installations that deal with the nuclear enterprise, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called the potential threat from small drones "a concern" and acknowledged it was an issue that had reached his attention.
"We have facilities where the physical security is of paramount importance," Carter told reporters Sept. 27. "We need to provide security for them."
But doing something is harder than it appears, in part because the use of commercial drones near protected facilities of all kinds is still something of a grey zone, hinging on a series of regulations from the Federal Aviation Administration to help figure out questions of when it would be ok to destroy what otherwise would be classified as private property.
"It’s not enough for me to tell our guys to take a shotgun and shoot down something flying over [a nuclear facility]. There is legislation about what we can and cannot do," Rand said.
Speaking to reporters at Minot Air Force Base Sept. 26, Col. Jason Beers, who leads the 91
Security Forces Group, said commercial UAS systems near his base have yet to pose a problem, although he acknowledged that the increasing use of commercial drones for agricultural reasons in the region was something his forces were keeping an eye on.
"Not here, not yet," Beers said of the UAS issue. And while he said there are "procedures in place" to deal with an unmanned system in around Minot — home to both B-52 bombers and ICBMS — Beers declined to go into details.
The discussions about how to unmanned systems around nuclear sites quickly get complicated. Beyond the FAA, the Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies are involved outside the Pentagon. Internally, NORTHCOM and STRATCOM are interested parties, as well as the Navy, which has control over several nuclear submarine sites.
"I don’t envy anyone who has to make these decisions. No one’s job is easy," Rand said.
Carter said he has had top level meetings with the secretaries of the departments with a stake in the issue, saying "they all understand this very well. I believe that there are legal solutions to this, and there are technical approaches to it, that will allow people to enjoy the benefits of unmanned systems, but still allow us to protect people."
"And people need to be protected from abuse of these things, and we’re working out the details of that," he added. "I believe there is a lot we can do."
Earlier this year, the Air Force awarded a $75,000 contract for portable systems to counter personal drones to XCOM Wireless, of Long Beach, California. The Air Force solicited a system to disrupt the navigational signals of a "wide range" of UAV targets and minimize collateral effects on friendly assets. The Pentagon has also run a series of exercises since 2010 called Black Dart, to test counter-UAV technologies.
Congress has also gotten involved, with the House Armed Services Committee including two provisions in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act seeking to extend new authorities to DoD and DoE to allow them to defend against small unmanned systems.
A number of major defense companies have also begun investing in counter-UAS technology, while Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top weapon buyer, told reporters Sept. 9 that he thought directed energy weapons could be effective in that mission.
"They’re being used by ISIL, they’re being used by Russia in Ukraine for targeting and sometimes for delivering lethal mechanisms. That is the type of target that is relatively soft to a laser, and it’s also short-range in most cases, so you don’t require as much power," Kendall said then.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.