Unmanned Aircraft Systems pose an ever-increasing, multifaceted threat to civilian and military infrastructure, assets and people. What are the Allies doing to address this challenge?

“Drones are here to stay. Get used to it” titled the Time magazine in May 2018. Indeed the last two years have seen great developments in the field of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) and robotics in general. Still, most applications are yet to come: the next five years will probably see the widespread adoption of civilian drones for urban mobility, delivery services, crisis management, disaster recovery and emergency supply, to name but a few.

Additionally, from the military point of view, we are now entering the so-called “second drone age” in which all competitors, from peers to terrorists and non-state actors, are including drone technologies in their standard tactics and concept of operations, challenging Allies’ traditional air superiority in most conflicts. As an example, terrorist groups, like ISIL/Daesh, have been using consumer and recreational UAS to plan, prepare and execute attacks on the battlefield. Also, the Gaza strip recently became one of the most active theatres for modern drone warfare, due to the extensive use of drones both by the Israeli Army and Hamas.

However, two recent events have significantly shaped the global narrative in the field of drones and their security implications. First, in December 2018, a few days before the New Year holiday period, the incursion of a rogue drone on the runway heavily impacted Gatwick Airport near London, leading to the closure of airport operations for almost three days and financial damage totalling millions of euros for airport operators, airlines and passengers. Secondly, in September 2019, Houthi rebels claimed a massive coordinated drone strike on two oil production facilities in Saudi Arabia, causing evident physical damage and loss of oil production capabilities, estimated at six per cent of the world’s oil supply, for several weeks.

The incursion of drone at Gatwick Airport near London, in December 2018, illustrated the disruptive potential of asymmetric tactics. © Wired.co.uk / John Stillwell/PA Wire/PA Images

These two events have one factor in common: they are perfect representations of the use and potential effects of asymmetric engagement between parties whose relative power differs significantly. With only limited means, the perpetrators were able to provoke large losses to the victims, in terms of financial implications, strategic independence and public perception. Moreover, in an increasingly connected world, the effects cascaded widely on a global basis: the former event brought serious safety concerns due to the need for massive deviation of European air traffic towards other destinations, while the latter had a large impact on oil production, stock markets and global oil prices worldwide for the subsequent weeks.

However, the two events are also very different in nature. The Gatwick event was probably caused by an inexpensive recreational Commercial Off-The-Shelf drone, piloted near the airport. But the Saudi Arabia attack was perpetrated by a mix of fixed wing drones and ballistic missiles, which targeted a strategic asset in a sort of air strike conducted from several hundred kilometers away. Potential countermeasures are also very different in the two cases. The market currently offers a multitude of Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-UAS) solutions, ranging from Electronic Warfare to nets and drone-on-drone technologies, to deal with the first case. But to defend from an air strike, as in the second case, the solution is much closer to the realm of traditional air defence.

Uncontrolled developments

Drone technology, though, is developing very quickly. Future commercial technologies – from cargo drones to novel Command and Control concepts, from autonomy to swarming, from collision avoidance to multi-modal operations – will massively challenge current C-UAS solutions. The advent of the Internet of Things and 5G technology will open up the possibility to operate drones via the internet from anywhere in the world: imagine a future in which it would be possible to launch swarms of drones over all major European airports at the same time.

The good news is that C-UAS technology is also becoming smarter. From the original stand-alone equipment, new systems are becoming more sophisticated, integrating and fusing different technologies, making use of innovative approaches such as machine learning, sensor fusion, cognitive and holographic radars and augmented reality.

Investments are also pouring into this market. In 2019 the U.S. Department of Defense spent roughly 900 million dollars on C-UAS solutions, according to the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement, while the global market size is expected to reach 6.6 billion US dollars by 2024. This is, in effect, the beginning of a new variation of the classic offence-defence race, in which drones and counter-drones manufacturers will fight to deploy the smartest and most innovative technologies, bringing the current C-UAS issue to new heights, expanding towards novel domains and concepts, from electronic to cyber warfare, from kinetic to lasers and energy weapons.

Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems: a wicked problem

Nevertheless, experts, industry providers and military personnel all agree to the fact that no single “silver bullet” will ever exist to cope with the drone threat – only a combination of technologies and tactics would be a viable solution in the future. This is even more true in an operational context. With a drone flying at 20 meters per second, it would take less than a minute to cover one kilometre. This means that from the time of detection, and ideally with the capability to determine with certainty the drone’s intentions, an operator has only a few seconds to react.

That is why future products will likely explore even further autonomous decision-making approaches, although today all products offer a “human-in-the-loop” operating mode. This will be true especially for those tasks that could be overwhelming for an operator, i.e. making sense of huge amount of data, activating effectors in a matter of seconds, etc.

Coping with such a scenario is a “wicked problem”, i.e. a problem that cannot be tackled by traditional sequential and logical approaches. Wicked problems cannot be solved, they can only be tamed. And to tame the C-UAS problem, the only possibility is to have a profound understanding, to anticipate trends, to imagine the desired end state and work towards it. The “silver bullet” turns out to be a mix of different approaches, all carefully coordinated: understanding, preparedness, innovation, cooperation, and capability to adapt.

NATO’s approach

Having a common understanding of the threat and a deep situational awareness are key to better preparedness: conducting threat scanning and strategic foresight will help in future-proofing policies, strengthening Alliance resilience and improving planning processes.

Additionally, countering the threat of UAS will require more cooperation at every level:

  • at the technical level, where single solutions are never effective if not integrated in a broader defence-in-depth context;

  • at the tactical level, to make sure that countermeasures are effective against the threat without collateral damages;

  • at the operational level, as C-UAS needs seamless integration at the verge of multiple domains;

  • at the strategic level, as a whole of government approach is essential to cope with the threat.

The NATO Communications and Information Agency has built an experimental prototype system to detect, identify and localise small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, using low-cost commercial devices and machine learning. © NCIA

Finally, innovative and out-of-the-box thinking is also necessary. This includes bringing novel concepts quickly from the realm of Science & Technology to the battlefield; designing novel acquisition and procurement approaches; creating a competitive and cooperative environment for academia, industry and operational communities; operating with novel concepts and tactics; and disrupting traditional approaches.

On this basis, NATO has been pursuing a dedicated C-UAS effort since 2019, led by a specific new working group bringing together in one single forum the required expertise from different communities within all Allied nations. In the course of two years, it has become a trusted forum, where Allies discuss these specific problems, cooperate on practical solutions and learn from each other. Important first steps taken have included promoting technical and operational interoperability, coordinating innovative projects and performing trials and exercises.

Protecting assets and personnel from malicious UAS is an ever-increasing problem. “The thing that was really top of everybody's mind were C-UAS,” said U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord, in early 2020, while announcing the setup of a Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft System Office to lead and direct C-UAS efforts in the U.S. Department of Defense. “We see that small UAS are becoming a more popular weapon of choice … [and] we need to be agile and pivot to that challenge.”

Countering drones incorporates all the typical problems that modern warfare will bring: an uncontrolled and fast-developing technology, an unestablished legal framework, complex ethical questions, and standard practices that are unsuitable to address the challenge. All these many different elements also make it a perfect case study on how NATO and its member nations could tackle the challenges posed by future emerging and disruptive technologies in other fields.