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Not Cleared for Takeoff: Lessons Learned from the AWG’s Efforts to Counter the Use of Commercially Available UAS
Ryan Harmon, Mark Holden and Brandon Sasnett
At first glance, the photograph below appears to have all the trademarks of a western nation’s Special Operations Forces (SOF) command post: bearded men in an austere room, equipped with hard line phones and handheld radios, monitoring a battle in real time from what appears to be feeds provided by a military grade unmanned aircraft system (UAS).1 Except the picture is not of a friendly SOF unit. It is a picture of an ISIS headquarters element controlling its personnel during a siege on the Baiji Oil Refinery in Iraq.
ISIS Members During the 2014 Siege on the Baiji Refinery2
The camera and the airframe used to feed those images into the command post are not expensive military-grade equipment. They are the type of products that Amazon ships to the front doors of millions of customers across the globe. For decades, U.S. forces have not had to worry about scanning the skies above them. The use of commercial UAS by ISIS and a slew of other state and non-state actors has abruptly changed that dynamic.
For military professionals and senior Department of Defense (DoD) officials, the magnitude of the threat posed by UAS platforms employed by malicious terrorist, non-state, or state-sponsored actors against U.S. forces is clear. As Col. Matthew Tedesco, TRADOC Capability Manager on Global Ballistic Missile Defense, stated in his recent article in Military Review magazine, “Militaries that are not examining ways to defend against the use of unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) are not preparing adequately for the next war.” AWG has been at the forefront of this “examination” since the fall of 2014 when it initiated a project to assist DoD efforts to counter the emerging threat posed by the proliferation of commercially available UAS such as the ones used by ISIS. The goal of the project was twofold: (1) increase awareness of and enable training on this emerging threat and (2) assist in the development and selection of technologies to counter it. In pursuit of those objectives, the AWG Counter-UAS (C-UAS) Team has encountered several obstacles the Army will face as it tries to confront emerging threats that emanate from the increased availability of sophisticated technology. Those obstacles range from the challenge of equipping the force fast enough to counter a threat evolving at the pace of commercial innovation to the administrative and policy hurdles that stymie the Army’s ability to respond to rapidly evolving technologies in the hands of our enemies. This article uses the C-UAS problem set as a case study to highlight some of the challenges the Army faces responding to the increased use of innovative technologies by our adversaries.
The UAS Boom
Once a niche industry that catered almost solely to the recreational world of remote controlled model aircraft enthusiasts, the UAS industry has grown enormously over the past five years. In 2015, global sales hit 4.3 million UAS, an astounding 167% increase over the previous two years.3 The industry’s growth originated from consumer demand for aerial photography attributable to the popularity of the GoPro camera and subsequent derivatives of this compact, high-resolution camera system available to customers at low cost. That demand, coupled with an aggressive advertising campaign by companies such as Amazon and Google to incorporate UAS into everyday life, triggered a UAS boom that industry experts agree will continue to grow as more industries explore the potential of UAS technology to increase efficiency and improve product quality.
The first company to truly capitalize on this maturing technology and then spearhead this industry boom is the Chinese-based Da-Jiang Innovation Technology Company, better known in the UAS community as DJI. At the heart of DJI’s success lies the Phantom series, an eleven-by-eleven-inch quadrotor released in 2013. Since then, DJI has annually unveiled newer models of its Phantom series, with each model more groundbreaking than its predecessor. As of July 2016, the DJI Phantom4 is on the shelves of every Apple store, Target, and Best Buy in the United States, and DJI has over fifty patents pending approval at the U.S. Patent Office to technologically supplement the next series of Phantoms. Impressively, each new model of the increasingly sophisticated Phantom series remains available at the same cost (roughly $1,200) as previous models at the time of release.
As DJI and its ready-to-fly (RTF) quadrotors grew in market share and sophistication, another trend affected the UAS industry: the do-it-yourself (DIY) technology revolution. Once only affordable to research and development laboratories, ultra-capable DIY commercial electronic systems became immensely popular, putting cutting-edge computing technology into the hands of novice users. UAS enthusiasts quickly found utility in these types of DIY technology, which allowed them to design and build UAS platforms to suit their own specific needs. This resulted in the growth of the almost-ready-to-fly (ARF) UAS market, which often incorporates DIY-type technologies with a fixed-wing airframe. While the ARF systems require significantly more expertise to build and operate than RTF systems such as the Phantom, they offer users advantages in flight endurance, lift capability, and speed that help meet a variety of market demands.
Recovered ISIS Weaponized UAS4
As cinematographers, agriculturalists, and a wide range of other industries started to capitalize on the booming commercial UAS market, so too did malicious state and non-state actors long tired of advanced militaries ruling the skies over the battlefield. By the summer of 2014, ISIS regularly employed commercial UAS as an effective intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform to conduct target acquisition, indirect fire adjustments, and real-time command and control during battles.5 Images of ISIS UAS were routinely showcased on Twitter and other social media sites, as opposing groups such as the Peshmerga proudly posted images of times they successfully recovered downed ISIS aircraft. Looking to increase the lethality of its UAS operations, ISIS continues to aggressively pursue the weaponization of commercial UAS platforms to deliver improvised explosive devices from the sky.6 Not wanting to be outdone, but similarly unable to secure military-grade UAS, Iraqi Security Forces and Shia militias that are fighting ISIS routinely employ commercially available UAS for many of the same missions. Sadiq al-Husseini, commander of the Shia militia known as the Badr Organization, relies heavily on such UAS; “The drones have been extremely useful for preventing casualties among our forces. They have helped us lock onto targets with our mortars and cut ISIS’s supply lines.”7
The use of commercial UAS to increase combat effectiveness is not isolated to Iraq. The prevalence of commercial UAS along the front lines in the Ukraine is worth noting, as both sides in the conflict employ a wide variety of RTF and ARF UAS. Pro-Russian separatists fighting in the Ukraine use UAS to identify and then target Ukrainian national forces to inflict maximum casualties. Like ISIS, these separatist elements have also focused on relatively simple weaponization efforts, in particular employing quadrotors to drop hand grenades onto Ukrainian forces. On the other side of the conflict, the Ukrainian military relies on commercial UAS to compensate for the aging nature of their military issued equipment. Numerous times, the Ukrainians have even resorted to crowd-sourcing to fund their UAS production efforts, using donations from across the globe to buy the components necessary to produce highly capable fixed and rotary wing UAS.8
Separatist Fighters Prepare a DJI Phantom in Eastern Ukraine9
Responding to the UAS Threat
By all measures, it is only a matter of time—and based on the rapidly increasing utilization of these platforms in Iraq and Ukraine, a short time—until U.S. forces overseas routinely encounter this threat. Even the most cursory examination of the military’s preparedness to mitigate this threat reveals a force that is woefully ill-equipped and ill-trained to respond to the adversarial use of small UAS. That unpreparedness was somewhat understandable, as it has been decades since U.S. forces had to truly consider enemy air assets as a threat to ground operations. Now, not only must U.S. forces prepare to once again operate in a contested air environment, they must do so in the face of a unique threat that is evolving at the speed of commercial innovation driven by alarming market potential.
When AWG initiated its C-UAS project, it set out to work on two lines of effort. The first was to ensure developing C-UAS technologies met the needs of the Warfighter and were robustly tested to ensure effectiveness against relevant commercial UAS. The second line of effort was to ensure the Army was capable of familiarizing units on the capabilities and limitations of commercial UAS they may encounter. While pursuing both lines of effort, AWG observed a variety of challenges and obstacles that speak to larger problems the Army faces as it seeks to match the pace of innovation set by the commercial sector.
Challenges to Equipping the Force
The efforts of various Army stakeholders to understand and counter the emerging threat of commercially available UAS employed on the battlefield resulted in a collective understanding of the problem. The UAS platforms employed by most overseas threats were typically too small and flying too slow and low for traditional air defense artillery equipment to effectively counter. This creates a problem as the countermeasures to defeat the UAS must be both cost effective relative to the price of the threat and sensitive to collateral damage. As these requirements and challenges emerged from units stationed overseas, AWG and partnered organizations set out to provide the Army with countermeasures capable of detecting, identifying, and defeating the commercial UAS operated by adversarial groups, as well as training and equipping strategies for implementing these countermeasures.
Driven by a growing number of high-profile UAS incidents (such as at the White House, the Japanese Prime Minister’s office, and a speaking engagement by Angela Merkel, to name a few), the commercial sector began developing innovative ways to protect critical infrastructure and personnel against these UAS threats. Forward-thinking government organizations also became involved as they looked to repurpose or tweak existing technologies to address this new challenge. Government agencies and partnered commercial ventures pursued a variety of options such as small form factor radars, software-defined radios, and an assortment of radio frequency inhibitors in an attempt to meet the rising demand from the military, law enforcement organizations, and other government agencies.
However, it soon became clear that these efforts were being conducted in a vacuum. Military organizations were testing and assessing their C-UAS systems’ effectiveness against outdated or irrelevant commercial UAS in unrealistic operating conditions. In a rush to equip the Warfighter with these systems, equipping initiatives pursued by the services and Combatant Commands were based on the (at best) incomplete or (at worst) inaccurate information gleaned from these events. The Rapid Equipping Force set out to fix this issue and planned and executed a comprehensive test event that aimed to assess the capabilities of developing C-UAS systems in an operationally relevant way. The event, named Desert Chance (now referred to as Desert Chance I due to following iterations of the event), took place in September 2015 at Yuma Proving Ground.
AWG Member Operating a UAS at Desert Chance I
Desert Chance I was a significant improvement from previous C-UAS events, as it brought a much needed scientific approach to definitively uncover the true capabilities of existing C-UAS technologies. While the Desert Chance testing and evaluation series has been largely successful to that end, it revealed the challenge the Army faces in fielding countermeasures to mitigate threats that evolve at a pace driven by commercial industry. It took over a year for a suitable C-UAS system to pass through the testing, procurement/contract, and equipping process before landing in the hands of a unit overseas. One year for a complete planning, testing, procurement, and fielding cycle for new equipment conceived to counter an emerging threat would normally be adequate, if not impressive, but that life cycle assumes the strategic rival model in line with threats such as China, Russia, or North Korea. However, UAS technology creates a dangerous intersection involving the pace of commercial innovation and the decentralized nature of non-state or quasi-state sponsored groups. This intersection has upended the traditional threat life cycle.
When AWG initiated its C-UAS project, the multirotor Phantom 2 platform was ISIS’ primary UAS of choice. By the time the military fielded a suitable C-UAS solution overseas, the Phantom 3 had already been supplanted by the even more capable Phantom 4, and ISIS had evolved into using fixed-wing UAS as its primary battlefield resource. In that same timeframe, adversarial groups continued to modify their ARF UAS to increase range and endurance capabilities based on technological improvements from a variety of UAS components. ISIS began incorporating long-range communication systems to control its UAS and highly complex video transmission systems to extend ISR coverage while also researching a small group of commercially-popular platforms that provided individual capabilities to suit specific missions. With every modification comes a chance that a once-effective C-UAS solution is rendered useless at detecting, identifying, and defeating the UAS by the time it is fielded overseas.
Staying ahead of these technological advances is extremely difficult for the small teams within the Army and the fledgling C-UAS industry. While the Army struggles to keep pace with the newest UAS technology and the C-UAS industry navigates the approval, equipping, and contracting processes to test its capabilities, companies like DJI and its competitors are out resourcing and outsmarting them to ensure their next product meets consumer demand. That investment will inevitably lead to advances such as cellular network-enabled flight control systems, evolutions in battery research and technology, and even null (beam) forming antennas to prevent GPS denial. Such improvements may reduce current Army C-UAS efforts to irrelevancy and put deployed U.S. units at a significant and deadly disadvantage.
Like all other persistent threats, the C-UAS problem will evolve into a cat-and-mouse game between countermeasures and threat capabilities. What makes the C-UAS problem set different, and therefore critical, is that the pace of the game is set by a multi-million dollar commercial industry that is innovating at a speed the Army is not equipped to match. The UAS industry is just one of many technological initiatives that will likely share an uncomfortable relationship with military technology and the fringe groups that seek to use them to increase the efficiency and lethality of their operations. The Army must analyze how it (1) assesses the use of innovative commercial technology by nefarious actors, (2) builds the capacity to understand and replicate that usage, and (3) tests and rapidly equips countermeasures to mitigate it.
Obstacles to Training the Force
For units to become familiar with and train in an operating environment in which they may encounter commercial UAS, they must actually train against an OPFOR equipped with such capabilities. This deceptively obvious effort has been surprisingly difficult. Beginning in early 2015, AWG initiated several efforts aimed at increasing awareness and training for Soldiers who might soon encounter this threat overseas. Over eighteen months later, many of those efforts have still not come to fruition. While the particulars of each effort are different, the theme is consistent with nearly all of AWG’s C-UAS experiences to date: the administrative and policy requirements to incorporate commercial UAS into training on Army installations present a major obstacle to units conducting innovative training to replicate the threat.
The regulations and administrative requirements that affect the employment of commercial UAS platforms are all in place because of valid legal, technical, ethical, or safety issues. Understanding that fact does not make the obstacles to employing commercial UAS any less easy to navigate. The first challenge stems from the difficulty of procuring such items. The contracting/purchasing requirements to purchase all the requisite equipment to fly a DJI Phantom 3 (the end item, the tablet for increased effectiveness, apps, cables, etc.) are challenging to navigate even for a unit such as AWG, which is staffed to tackle such processes. If a unit is fortunate enough to obtain a DJI Phantom in a timely fashion, Army regulations require that the unit must obtain an Air Worthiness Release from the Army’s Aviation Engineering Directorate to fly it. This administrative requirement, which comes at a cost to the unit, requires a litany of unnecessary paperwork just so a unit can fly a UAS on their military installation. Meanwhile, millions of private citizens are safely flying their personally-procured systems within hours of purchasing, perhaps within a few miles of the military installation where such access is strictly controlled.
The challenges only become more difficult when addressing the frequency spectrum regulations. Like all other equipment that employs/emits power at frequencies, commercial UAS must be approved for use by the Army Spectrum Management Office (ASMO). The process for submitting spectrum approval for each UAS is highly technical and requires knowledge of the equipment maintained at the developer’s level. By the time the AMSO database is updated with the technical specifications for approval and use overseas, the requested technology is outdated as the commercial market and adversaries have advanced beyond that technology. The complicated spectrum approval process may include additional hurdles, as policies and requirements vary from installation to installation, making it difficult for a uniform approach to planning UAS operations.
In isolation, the above processes are all necessary and in place for a reason. In the aggregate, they equate to an obstacle that is very difficult for tactical units to overcome. That obstacle has consistently been an issue as the combat training centers, training areas in Kuwait, and a variety of other units have tried to replicate the commercial UAS threat in home station training. In each case, forward-thinking organizations looking to innovate their training are stymied by a process that makes it too difficult to do so. What is both worrisome and indicative of the larger challenge of innovating at the action officer level is that it is not possible for a higher headquarters to find the point(s) of failure along the process and remedy it. Each of the obstacles stems from a variety of commands, all of which have their own reporting structure that inevitably originates from a general officer. No one office at the Department of the Army level is capable of, or authorized to, analyze and arbitrate these obstacles.
When the Army speaks of innovation, it too often focuses on the technological and organizational obstacles while disregarding the policy ones. As the C-UAS community continues to make significant advances in understanding the threat, assessing technologies, and executing test events, no improvements to alleviate outdated and restrictive policies have occurred. For too many C-UAS events, an O-6 or general officer had to temporarily insert themselves into the policy process for the event to occur. As the military looks to increase the technological sophistication of training at the tactical and operational level, many of the obstacles inhibiting C-UAS operations will impede these efforts as well. For the fruits of innovation to hit the hands of end users in a timely manner, the military must comprehensively look at policy inhibitors with equal vigor as they do technological and organizational ones.
More Than Just UAS
Efforts to speed up the pace of innovation within the DoD are not necessarily new. They have, however, taken on increased importance since Secretary Carter assumed office. From creating the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental with offices in Silicon Valley to inviting SpaceX CEO Elon Musk to the Pentagon for talks, Secretary Carter is investing significant leader energy to ensure the speed at which the unwieldy military innovates increases. Secretary Fanning has followed his lead, recently establishing the Army Rapid Capabilities Office to help streamline the acquisition and fielding process for the Army. As these and similar offices continue to gain their footing, they must be cognizant of the challenges and obstacles to innovation that exist at the action officer level.
The threat posed by adversarial use of commercial UAS is sure to continue to grow as the commercial market continues to produce more advanced UAS. As it does, AWG, the REF, and other partnered organizations will continue their efforts to ensure the Warfighter is able to train on and counter this threat. However, the lessons learned from those efforts are more than just about the UAS threat. New threats will only continue to emanate from commercial technological advances, and equipping and training the force to react to them will be equally if not more challenging as they do. Whether the Army can meet these challenges is critical to the military’s success on current and future battlefields.
1. This article uses the term unmanned aircraft system as per Joint Doctrine. The terms “drone” and “UAV” are often used instead, and for the purpose of this article, they are interchangeable.
2. Caleb Weiss, “Islamic State uses drones to coordinate fighting in Baiji,” Long War Journal (2015), http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2015/04/islamic-state-uses-drones-to-coordinate-fighting-in-baiji.php.
3. Brad Dick, “Drones Take Off, But Remain Weighted by Heavy Regulations,” Acquisition Global Viewpoint (2016), accessed June 28, 2016, https://www.thebroadcastbridge.com/home/category/acquisition/entry/5207/drones-take-off-but-remain-weighted-by-heavy-regulations.
4. David Hambling, “ISIS Is Reportedly Packing Drones With Explosives Now,” Popular Mechanics (2015),
5. Weiss, “Islamic State uses drones to coordinate fighting in Baiji.”
6. Bloomberg News, “Islamic State fighters using drones with IEDs and spy cameras, says Pentagon” The Telegraph (2016), accessed July 8, 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/07/07/islamic-state-fighters-using-drones-with-ieds-and-spy-cameras-sa/.
7. Christopher Miller, “Commercial drones are flying off the shelves and into the hands of armed groups,” Mashable (2016), http://mashable.com/2016/02/18/terrorist-groups-drones/#IbiSYIQhbOqw.
8. Austin Bodetti, “Iraqi Militia and Police Use Commercial Drones to Fight ISIS,” Wired (2016), accessed June 28, 2016, http://www.wired.co.uk/article/iraq-isis-war-consumer-drones.
9. Larry Fries with N. R. Jenzen-Jones and Michael Smallwood, “Emerging Unmanned Threats: The use of Commercially Available UAVs by Armed Non-State Actors,” Armament Research Services (2016), accessed July 6, 2016, http://armamentresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/ARES-Special-Report-No.-2-Emerging-Unmanned-Threats.pdf.