December 1, 2011  

Unready to stop UAVs

It’s time to get serious about countering unmanned enemy aircraft

America’s wars of the last decade have vaulted the UAV from novelty to workhorse. Yet too little is being done to prepare for the inevitable day when our enemies turn these weapons, which are growing cheaper, more powerful and more ubiquitous, against us.

There are severe shortcomings in almost every aspect of our approach to enemy UAVs, from education to materiel. But a coordinated, effective approach must flow from a comprehensive, thoughtful, agreed-upon doctrine, and so that is the logical starting point for a Pentagon effort to build up its counter-UAV capabilities.

The limited effort at creating a doctrine for countering enemy UAVs has largely focused on their use as platforms for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and limited strike, much as the U.S. uses them today. Moreover, the military tends to focus on force-on-force engagements during high-intensity conflicts.

This leaves out plenty of scenarios, including how terrorists, drug cartels and a range of other actors could employ UAVs within the current full-spectrum operations model. The military must broaden its perspective and think through the scope of the threat, from individual to group actors, so it can understand the wide range of options available to potential adversaries. It should launch a study to address current and emerging threats, at all levels, and by all system classes and types. It would be useful to frame the task by realizing that the employment of unmanned aircraft stands today about where the use of manned aircraft did after World War I. The study’s authors would be well-advised to go back in history and analyze what happened during the growth of air power, as they seek to build doctrine for countering UAVs.

But who or, more specifically, which organization should handle this task?

There is no single Defense Department organization whose mission is to think about countering UAVs, much less to coordinate the various service branches’ approaches. Even within the individual services, the mission is spread across organizations. This is perhaps unsurprising; the services are still to some extent jousting over control of their own UAVs. Witness the Air Force and Army’s dispute over the latter’s high-flying Gray Eagle. Not only does the Gray Eagle inhabit airspace traditionally dominated by the Air Force, but the Army allows its UAVs to be operated by junior enlisted members, while the Air Force requires rated aviation officers. Even intraservice squabbles still exist. The Army only recently ended the feud between its aviation and intelligence branches by assigning servicewide oversight to its aviation branch.

One logical place to lead DoD counter-UAV doctrine might have been the Joint UAS Center of Excellence, stood up in 2005 at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., but it is slated to be shut down soon.

Therefore, one clear priority should be to anoint or create an organization within DoD to coordinate all counter-UAV efforts. This office would help integrate the services’ various UAV task forces by ensuring that they share lessons, doctrinal developments, intelligence gained and materiel successes to maintain a better coordinated and less diffuse process.

Another priority should be defining which service outfits have a piece of the counter-UAV puzzle. In the Army, such work should be done by various branches: military intelligence; science and technology; and the program executive offices for aviation and air defense. In the other services, the equivalent units should follow suit.

Once the leaders for various warfare areas have been marked and thorough doctrine development begun, the next problem is dissemination. There are few true subject-matter experts on counter-UAV developments. Such education is improving, yet it is still focused on visible threats: ones that have already been documented or are expected because they are employed in a manner similar to our own. A look at the curriculums for intermediate-level education at the Army’s Command and General Staff College and the Captains Career Course for the aviation, military intelligence and air defense branches shows that UAVs are discussed only as U.S. assets.

UAV subject-matter expertise must grow at all levels. More organizations should create billets to bring such expertise aboard. For example, each U.S. combatant commands should have counter-UAV experts on its staff, while each Army brigade combat team might add some personnel or additional training requirements into its air defense and airspace management section.

In some services, counter-UAV training is inadequate; in others, it does not exist. Proper training would expose commanders and staffs at all levels to many potential techniques and types of systems adversaries could employ, and lay a foundation for the tactical employment of counter-UAV weapons and systems.

Yet generally speaking, exercises do not incorporate enough UAV threats. Training remains limited to the “most likely” scenarios — despite the fact that too little analysis has been done to indicate what is really “most likely.” Thus, we are asking war fighters to be prepared for every contingency and to solve the problem on their own — too much to ask when neither planners nor operators could possibly conceive of every potential threat.

Even UAV-specific exercises do not adequately represent the range of threat possibilities and are hobbled in other ways. Take Black Dart, an annual exercise held at China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station, Calif.,that explores UAV threats and how they might be countered. As currently executed, the event tends toward canned scenarios that limit the opposing force’s creativity or ignore their successes when they occur. Moreover, opposing-force operators are often junior, with limited or even no experience with their systems, and are therefore unable to replicate the full range of potential adversary tactics.

These exercises produce less useful data and lessons than they should, but even their limited results are not systematically shared around the services.

Here’s how to start improving counter-UAV training:

First, incorporate opposing force UAVs into training scenarios at the major combat training centers: the Army’s National Training Center and Joint Readiness Training Center, the Navy’s Joint Task Force Exercise and the Air Force’s Red Flag. It is important that these UAVs depict realistic opposing force tactics. The Army’s NTC has since 2008 incorporated coalition and enemy UAVs, yet the opposing force’s tactics and procedures mimic U.S. and allied ones.

Next, add surrogate UAVs to pre-deployment training. This would allow units to prepare for UAV use by adversaries. Real-world exercises that bring in UAVs and operators that have the freedom to act like a creative adversary would be very valuable. Simulations that include UAV threats must also increase — for example, Army war-fighter exercises, the Army’s aviation training exercises and the Unified Endeavour exercise. In all cases, there should be situations that include the potential for friendly fire. Thoroughly planned training exercises would result in organizations that can plan for a range of scenarios that are grounded in experience and hard lessons.

The results of Black Dart and other counter-UAV exercises should be disseminated and incorporated at all levels in DoD. Units training for deployment must understand what lessons come out of exercises such as Black Dart. Larger organizations, as well as nondeploying units, can look to the results of such exercises to improve their own force protection. In addition, the operators of Black Dart opposing-force UAVs must be more experienced and they must be encouraged to be adaptive and creative in order to give training forces unexpected, and therefore, a greater range of challenges.

Finally, develop and fund a common training program for all services that is based on real threats, not just perceived or expected ones.

Weapons and systems for countering UAVs are getting better, but much more needs to be done. The first enabler will be the aforementioned comprehensive doctrinal review, followed by a thorough review of the threat, the application of doctrine and funding of research. In order to discern what to develop and acquire, DoD must analyze the state of UAV research around the world. Again, a useful frame will be to look at UAVs as if we were looking at aircraft during World War I, and imagine the possibilities.

Ultimately, counter-UAV technologies — perhaps to jam or spoof their control and data link signals, perhaps to shoot them down — should be designed into future U.S. military systems and retrofitted into existing ones. The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example, should carry a signature library for its radar that will allow it to spot and identify most classes of UAVs. This and other systems should be able to feed data on enemy UAVs into the Single Integrated Air Picture , where the services share radar data and multiple radar looks at a particular target at deeper ranges. Making this happen will have less to do with technology than with forcing the services to improve the data links.

The American use of UAVs during the last decade opened the door to a future where their unique capabilities are sought after by multiple nation-states, terrorist organizations and terroristlike groups, such as the drug gangs along America’s southern border. It’s too late to shut the proverbial barn door; the horses are already running amok. Now that unmanned technology is on the global market and proliferating rapidly, America’s armed forces need to do a better job preparing for the use of UAVs by enemies.

It’s no longer a matter of if, or when. Instead, the questions are: How bad will it get, and how well will we be prepared?

MAJ. DARIN L. GAUB serves as a division maneuver planner on the1st Infantry Division staff. He previously served several assignments within the Army Aviation branch, including as a battle staff trainer focusing on UAV applications, personnel recovery, airspace management and rotary-wing tactics at the Army’s National Training Center. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Army or the Defense Department.