WASHINGTON — The Pentagon released a new strategy Jan. 7 to counter increasingly complex small drone threats, one that focuses on establishing a common threat picture, architecture and protocol across the services.
The new strategy also sets up stronger coordination between other federal agencies in the homeland as well as with allies and partners abroad.
Drones are getting cheaper and easier to use and acquire. Small drones run the gamut from being nuisances in the wrong air space at the wrong time to being deadly, aiding adversaries in serious operations such as lasing targets for fires or collecting intel or becoming a weapon itself. Technology development in autonomy and artificial intelligence is making swarming drones even easier to coordinate and integrate into operations.
Military leaders approved a set of requirements to help counter small unmanned aircraft systems in late September 2020. That move created a path for the development of materiel and non-materiel solutions to work within a common command-and-control system.
The requirements were developed by the newly established Joint Counter-sUAS office — or the JCO — led by the Army that has been tasked to round up the plethora of C-sUAS systems — over 40 items — used to answer urgent needs in the Middle East and to consolidate the technology into a group of interim systems.
Additionally, the JCO was directed to develop a joint strategy that focuses on an evolving and growing threat and to manufacture long-term solutions that are designed to address the threat .
For now the office has picked three systems-of-systems approaches — one from each service — for fixed and semi-fixed sites, settling on the Light-Mobile Air Defense Integrated System from the Marine Corps as a mounted or mobile system; Bal Chatri, Dronebuster and Smart Shooter for dismounted, hand-held systems; and one command-and-control system.
The strategy focuses on appropriate solutions for the homeland, in host nations and during contingency operations and acknowledges that these may differ in a variety of ways based on a variety of factors.
The central challenge in carrying out a new C-sUAS strategy is moving quickly while making well-informed decisions. The strategy states, the DoD should “continuously evaluate the efficiency of our processes to provide effective materiel and non-materiel solutions to the Joint Force. Transformational processes, such as the Adaptive Acquisition Framework, can streamline efforts to meet the unique requirements of the C-sUAS problem set.”
But the strategy also notes that some acquisition processes designed to support conventional operations may take too long when it comes to capability development. It says, “if our processes do not adequately respond to the needs of a rapidly changing security environment, we must take a new approach.”
The strategy consists of three lines of effort to help diffuse the world-wide drone threat: “Ready the force, defend the force and build the team.”
To prepare the force, the Pentagon plans to coordinate the development of threat assessments that inform both current and future requirements at the joint-level. This includes establishing enduring intelligence requirements and priorities that feed into “analysis-informed” capabilities, according to the strategy.
The Pentagon also needs to synchronize science and technology investments and accelerate development of key technologies. These technologies have to work in the homeland and in host nations where forces operate.
The capability also must have a common information sharing architecture that “draw[s] from standardized interfaces that enable joint and multilateral information sharing that is interoperable and capable of plug-and-play,” the strategy states. A centralized sUAS threat data architecture must also be developed in order to validate requirements.
Joint C-sUAS test and evaluation protocols, standards and methodologies must also be established.
To defend the force, the strategy emphasizes the need to deliver joint capabilities that are synchronized when it comes to doctrine, materiel, training, policy and organization and will require investment across the services. This translates to a family of capabilities based on joint requirements documents.
It requires new joint concepts and doctrine which will be as critical as the materiel solutions that will go along with it. The doctrine applied to C-sUAS should address peacetime operations all the way to large scale combat.
To build a team that will work together to counter small drone threats, the strategy highlights the importance of partnering with technology innovators and other agencies in the homeland as well as allies and partners abroad.
“The Joint Force must attract new partners and engage with rising technology leaders to defend against evolving threats from non-state actors to near-peer competitors,” the strategy states.
“These partnerships will enable us to accelerate the development of solutions and provide the Joint Force and DoD Components with effective countermeasures for sUAS hazards and threats,” according to the strategy. “We will also seek to establish new agreements with civilian organizations and expand multilateral collaboration.”
The Pentagon’s strategy plans to share with law enforcement agencies as permitted and also work with host country authorities within the boundaries of U.S. and international law.
More “mutually beneficial local policies” will be developed for the joint force to work with allies and partner nations, according to the document.
“Cooperative efforts with allies and partners will include opportunities for technology exchanges, shared investments, and common system standards,” the strategy notes. “We will proactively support the Joint Force to enhance C-sUAS information sharing and synchronization efforts with host nations to influence unimpeded approval and authorities for access to the electromagnetic spectrum,” the document specifies.
The Pentagon will also find ways to expedite acquisition and distribution to partners and allies abroad using adaptive agreements and approval processes that already exist. And the U.S. will work with other nations to conduct combined research, development, testing and evaluation of technology and capability advancements.
“We will integrate export requirements early into the development of C-sUAS systems in order to compress the timeline to share technology,” the strategy notes.
And foreign military sales and direct commercial sales of C-sUAS equipment will be fostered “to bolster a competitive U.S. commercial market and strengthen our collective defense,” the document states.
On the homeland front, the joint force will work to improve information sharing and synchronize actions with federal and domestic law enforcement agencies and other entities.
“We will work with our federal partners to establish adaptive agreements that improve airspace management and enhance their ability to execute C-sUAS authorities and missions independently and jointly,” according to the strategy.
The strategy comes shortly following a call from Congress to rapidly advance the joint program to develop and field a capability for countering drones, requiring the Pentagon to field a system as early as next fall and adding more than $47 million to fuel the effort, according to the fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.