The Rise of the Commercial Threat: Countering the Small Unmanned Aircraft System

By Tingle, Anthony; Tyree, David | Joint Force Quarterly, April 2017 | Go to article overview

The Rise of the Commercial Threat: Countering the Small Unmanned Aircraft System


Tingle, Anthony, Tyree, David, Joint Force Quarterly


The Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) is a disruptive commercial technology that poses a unique and currently undefined threat to U.S. national security. Although, as with any new technology, the parameters of the capabilities regarding military use have yet to be fully discovered, recent events highlight the potential danger. In September 2013, an unarmed sUAS hovered near the face of German Chancellor

Angela Merkel while she delivered a campaign speech. (1) In January of 2015, an sUAS defied restricted airspace and landed, initially undetected, on the White House lawn. (2) And more recently, in August of 2016, at least five sUASs disrupted wildfire fighting efforts near Los Angeles, grounding helicopters for fear of mid-air collisions. (3) Likewise, sUAS altercations with law enforcement are increasing, as the Federal Aviation Administration now receives over 100 adverse UAS reports per month. (4) These examples emphasize the intrusive, undetectable, and potentially lethal nature of this emerging technology.

The sUAS epitomizes the difficulties with rapidly advancing commercial technology. (5) The sUAS is as prolific as it is disruptive, and it will challenge our joint air-defense procedures and doctrine and redefine our perspective on the military uses of commercial technology. In this article, we examine the characteristics and capabilities of the sUAS, report on current counter-UAS initiatives within the Department of Defense (DOD), and present policy ideas to mitigate the future threat from militarized commercial technology.

Characteristics and Capabilities

The rapid rate of commercial technology's advance has directly contributed to the rise of sUASs. Improvements in communication equipment, cryptography, and lightweight materials have led to the current state of the multiple rotary-wing UASs, often referred to as "quadcopters," and extremely small fixed-wing UASs. For this article, we define aircraft that fall into the DOD UAS Category 1 (weighing less than 20 pounds) as an sUAS6 because the interdiction of larger than Category 1 aircraft quickly approaches traditional defensive counterair operations. (7)

As technology advances, the sUAS will increase in lethality. If Moore's law continues to hold, we will see an increase in sUAS command and control distances, electro-optical sensor resolution, GPS guidance accuracy, and battlefield autonomy. With advances in material science, especially considering adaptive ("3D") printing techniques and carbon nanotubes, sUASs will become smaller, faster, and lighter, and will loiter longer and carry heavier payloads.

The basic physical structure of the sUAS (including the use of advanced materials) hinders radar technologies, the primary component of modern air defense. Radar works by bouncing energy off airborne objects and interpreting the return reflections. Although the carbon fiber and plastic components (of which the majority of most sUASs are comprised) naturally reduce radar return, size appears to contribute most to the shortcomings in sUAS radar identification and tracking. (8) While modern radar technology has the capability to engage smaller objects. Additionally, concerning radar, sUASs are often indistinguishable from other airborne objects (specifically birds). (9) While additional methods such as acoustic-phased arrays and electro-optical cameras show promise, a combination of these tracking and identification technologies may be necessary to defend against the growing sUAS threat.

It is hard to understate the current complexity and importance of positively identifying sUASs. As sUASs continue to be used for a variety of commercial and private purposes (including package delivery and photography), the sUAS operator's intent becomes difficult to discern. Unlike traditional aircraft, which require runways and thus provide longer lead times for tracking, the average sUAS is able to become airborne quickly and close on its target. …

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