WASHINGTON — After two incidents where small civil drones invaded U.S. Air Force airspace — and in one event almost collided with an F-22 Raptor — the head of Air Combat Command is clamoring for congressional authorities that would allow him to deal with future incursions of unmanned aircraft.
Speaking at an Air Force Association event Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Gen. Mike Holmes implored congressional staff for more help on countering unmanned aerial systems that are flown near a military airfield.
"One day last week I had two small UASs that were interfering with operations," he said. "At one base, the gate guard watched one fly over the top of the gate check, tracked it while it flew over the flight line for a little while, and then flew back out and left, and I have no authority given to me by the government to deal with that."
In a second incident that same day, an F-22 had a "near collision" with a small UAS, Holmes said. The Air Force declined to comment on whether either incident led to damage of government property. Once again, the ACC commander was left with few options.
"The rules basically are the same as if it was a civil aircraft," he said.
However, UAS operations pose unique challenges that make it difficult to enforce those laws. Under the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s current rules, drone operators are not permitted to fly within five miles of a base without getting permission from that installation, but there are no clear regulations governing what the military is allowed to do once a drone violates that policy.
When a civil aircraft enters a restricted airspace, the military can easily track the aircraft and ensure that the pilot faces consequences from the FAA, such as a fine or losing his or her license. But that’s more difficult with small unmanned systems, said Holmes, who acknowledged that the possibility exists for nefarious actors to use commercial drones like off-the-shelf rotorcraft to launch an attack.
"Imagine a world where somebody flies a couple hundred of those and flies one down the intake of all my F-22s with just a small weapon on it? I need the authorities to deal with that," he said.
While the military retains the inherent right of self-defense, even in encounters with small UAS, the Air Force is seeking an expansion of that jurisdiction that would give the service more options to deal with drones while allowing citizens to operate them safely, Air Force spokeswoman Capt. Trisha Guillebeau said in a statement.
Recent legislation gave the Air Force the authority to protect bases and assets connected with the nuclear mission from UAS threats — a problem that Air Force Global Strike Command head Gen. Robin Rand said in September had grown.
Exactly what is included in those authorities remains murky. In April, Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, told Congress that he had issued guidance to service members on the rules of engagement with a drone that has flown near a nuclear site such as a missile launch facility or a base with ballistic missile submarines. However, the details of the guidance — including when the services are permitted to shoot down or electronically disable a drone — are classified.
Air Combat Command plans on making a request to Air Force headquarters to extend those authorities beyond nuclear bases and is also working with other stakeholders such as the FAA, Holmes said Tuesday.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.