On December 17, a Hamas member described by the organization as a supervisor of its drone program, was gunned down by unknown assailants in Tunisia. The fact that Hamas identified the target as a drone program supervisor underscores the ominous reality that Hamas, and other non-state and state adversaries, have taken up drone warfare.
The FY 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) recognizes this reality and takes some important steps in tackling the threat of adversary drones operating against our own military, in both foreign and domestic airspace.
The military will be able to protect key U.S. facilities. The Federal Aviation Administration announced earlier this year that it considers federal law prohibiting the shooting down of aircraft in U.S. airspace to include the shooting down of drones. One would have thought (or hoped) that there would be an obvious, unambiguous exception for the United States military preventing drones from flying over domestic military installations.
Apparently not, or the NDAA's language on this subject would have been unnecessary. Section 1697 remedies this ambiguity by explicitly authorizing the Department of Defense to take certain actions, including "reasonable force", to deal with threats posed by a hovering drone to the safety or security of a "covered facility or asset."
Having this authority just makes sense. ISIS, Hezbollah, and others are using drones on the battlefield, and authorities in several countries have raised concerns about terrorist groups using drones to attack domestic targets, or using drone surveillance capabilities to support attacks by other means. It would appear that to date, French authorities have still not identified or apprehended who was behind a series of unauthorized drone flights that took place over various sites in France in 2015, including nuclear plants, military installations, and the U.S. embassy.
Significantly, the NDAA definition of "covered facility or asset" is limited to those relating to the U.S. nuclear deterrent, U.S. missile defense, or the military space mission. While those are critical places to secure from drones, the authority to prevent such incursions should really apply to all military facilities located within the United States – that should be a first-order item for the House and Senate to address in the 115th Congress at the earliest opportunity.
Exploring opportunities with Israel on directed energy solutions. One of the challenges associated with bringing down adversary drones is that many of those being deployed against our military and our allies are comparatively less sophisticated than our hardware, and cheap to produce.
This gives rise to a disadvantageous "cost-exchange ratio". When the enemy is launching weapons in our direction – be they drones, rockets, or other projectiles – that cost far less than our counter-measures cost us, that's something we literally can't afford.
Israel knows a lot about this subject. The average cost of a single Hamas-launched Grad rocket, fired from Gaza into Israel in 2012, is roughly one thousand dollars. The average cost of a missile fired from the Iron Dome missile defense system, to bring down a Grad rocket: roughly one-hundred-thousand dollars, each. And aside from rockets, the Israelis are now also contending with terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas launching drones into Israeli airspace.
In what would appear to be an effort to tackle this problem with a partner that has experience facing similar threats, Section 1274 requires the Department of Defense to produce a report on the potential for cooperation between the United States and Israel to develop a directed energy capability to defeat adversary drones, along with other threats.
The solid-state laser form of directed energy weapon has been operational on board the USS Ponce in the Persian Gulf in the form of the Navy's Laser Weapons System (LaWS) since the end of 2014, to address threats like small attack boats or aircraft in the area. The Navy estimates a cost of 59 cents per shot from LaWS.
Cooperation on directed energy with Israel could yield important benefits for both countries in confronting the challenge of adversary drones. It's extremely encouraging that Congress recognizes this opportunity – hopefully the findings of this report can be acted upon quickly in the coming year.
There will be more to be done to protect our troops and military installations – and for that matter, civilian targets – from this form of warfare in 2017 and beyond. Augmenting our capabilities in these critical areas should be a top priority for the Trump administration and congress.
Ben Lerner is Vice President for Government Relations with the Center for Security Policy.