WASHINGTON — The Defense Department has asked Congress for an additional $20 million to deal with the Islamic State group's drone threat.
Some of those enemy-owned drones carry improvised explosive devices (IED) while others are being used for reconnaissance, according to Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO) spokesman David Small.
And more money is needed in order to find and buy solutions to detect and defeat enemy drones on top of $189.7 million already allotted for attacking the networks of terrorist organizations in fiscal 2015 Overseas Contingency Operations funding, according to an omnibus reprogramming request sent to Congress last week. The money would be funneled into the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Fund used for JIDO projects.
JIDO, the Pentagon's wartime office set up to counter IED threats that proliferated during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, will become a permanent establishment under the Defense Threat Reduction Agency later this year designed to rapidly address a wide array of improvised threats around the world.
"This effort will fill critical capability gaps defined in the Counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems Joint Urgent Operational Needs Statement (JUONS) to support counter-improvised explosive devices (C-IEDs) and improvised threat capability requirements in support of Counter-Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant and Resolute Support (C-ISIL/RS) missions," the reprogramming document said.
Resolute Support is the mission to advise and assist security forces in Afghanistan.
"This unanticipated critical capability gap requires detection and defeat capabilities to acquire and defeat these small and tactical unmanned aerial systems," according to the document, "that pose a direct threat to US and coalition forces."
According to Small, JIDO has observed both quadcopters and fixed-wing type drones that can be bought commercially being used "in an improvised manner as both an IED delivery system and for reconnaissance."
"We expect their use to increase because commercial unmanned aerial vehicles have become very accessible," he said.
Late last year, JIDO held an event at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, showcasing its rapid acquisitions and development projects related to countering threats. One of the displays featured a quadcopter to highlight the growing threat of groups like ISIS employing them as weapons or as a way to spy.
"Drones can and have delivered small, precision IEDs in Iraq," Small said. "This is an iteration on the basic IED and there are known efforts by ISIL to grow this capability." ISIL is an alternative acronym for the Islamic State group.
While statistics on the number of armed drones found in the conflict or how much the threat has grown are classified, Small noted that "the threat of this as a tactic right now today is assessed low."
Small said it is more common to see commercial drones used for spying on opposing forces.
There are four different ways ISIS uses drones, he said. For one, it uses drones for tactical observations using full motion video "to look for attack opportunities," Small said.
Second, the group uses the drones to learn from Iraqi security forces responding to attacks in order to adapt their tactics, according to Small.
ISIS also uses drones to "vector suicide-vehicle-borne IEDs," he said. "The tactic has become routine for ISIL when employing VBIEDs and is highly sophisticated."
Lastly, the group uses drones to "generate propaganda material for recruitment and morale," he said.
While the Army is the lead for all counter-UAV activities based on urgent needs from US Central Command, JIDO supports the effort and is "specifically focused on countering the smaller classes of unmanned aerial systems that can be used in an improvised manner," Small explained.
JIDO is partnering with a number of other agencies and organizations to tackle the threat, he noted.
If the reprogramming funds are approved by Congress, JIDO would be able to research and invest in potential technology to bring on capability within zero to two years, Small said. JIDO is designed for rapid procurement.
Small would not elaborate on what exactly JIDO was working on related to the threat in order to "keep the enemy guessing."
There is a wide array of technology and capability that could address the problem JIDO is tackling.
For instance, MITRE, a nonprofit that conducts research and development paid for by the federal government, is holding a counter-UAV challenge in August at Marine Corps Base Quantico in Virginia. The eight finalists that will participate in the challenge — taken from a pot of over 40 entrants — will present an array of technologies that could be useful in countering drone threats.
The challenge sets up the opportunity for entrants to test out capabilities that can combat small, easy-to-get commercial drones in an urban environment. Capabilities from entrants vary from systems that can grab a drone out of the sky with a net to ones that can hack a drone and force it to land or ones that can disable the camera or other sensor on the drone.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.