Left-of-Launch In The Counter-Drone Fight

Left-of-Launch In The Counter-Drone Fight


Left-of-Launch In The Counter-Drone Fight
Left-of-Launch In The Counter-Drone Fight

Left-of-Launch In The Counter-Drone Fight: America’s adversaries, including both state and non-state actors, have developed creative ways of using cheap, commercially available, and easily weaponized drones to assassinate opponents, destroy tanks, wage surprise attacks, smuggle drugs, and even conduct aerial dogfighting.

Most recently, extremist groups such as the Houthis in Yemen have used drones to attack commercial shipping in the Red Sea.

The democratization of drone technology means that countries, as well as terrorist organizations and “lone wolves,” are now able to conduct attacks with near impunity.

This includes attacks against U.S. Military forces deployed abroad, America’s commercial interests on land, sea, and air, and even critical infrastructure and population centers in the homeland.

In response to this drone proliferation crisis, the U.S. Government has largely focused on a narrow “right-of-launch” approach. This relies on defeating tactical drones after they are en route to their targets with a variety of point and stationary defenses — small-arms fire, arresting nets, dazzling lasers, frequency jammers, and even other drones. This prevailing approach is reflected in the administration’s Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Plan, as well as the Department of Defense’s Counter Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategy, both of which focus mostly on mitigation technologies.

Yet our research suggests that a right-of-launch strategy is too reactionary. It cedes the initiative to America’s adversaries, and it requires expending costly munitions that are not designed to counter drones. This problem will only worsen as a new generation of drones, enabled by artificial intelligence, begins to collaborate in large numbers to overwhelm stationary and mobile military positions with swarm tactics. Defending every target, right-of-launch, with a “bullet-on-bullet” approach is likely to be technically difficult, costly, and insufficient. The Houthis’ recent drone attacks in the Red Sea are prima facie evidence that America’s current ad hoc and tactical response to these low-cost and easy-to-use capabilities is not working. This is not to say that mitigation efforts are not worth pursuing — the use of microwave energy to disorient and ultimately defeat drones holds particular promise. But this is only part of the solution.

In our estimate, a better approach to countering the emerging drone swarm threat is to embrace a holistic, offensive counter-drone strategy that snuffs out adversary drones at their source. The U.S. Army’s Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System Office, in its role as the executive agent for the entire joint force, should pursue a “whole-of-government” approach that enables a “left-of-launch” counter-drone strategy, which can be tailored across all classes of drones. This new strategy should focus not only on drone attacks but also on the networks behind them. Such an approach will require U.S. Officials to adopt a new mindset — drawing from the U.S. Special Operations Command’s experience and expertise in countering terrorist networks — that focuses on intervening early and proactively to disrupt and defeat the transregional networks that are enabling drone attacks globally. The strategic shift to a left-of-launch strategy will require a variety of activities, many non-kinetic, but potentially also some lethal interdiction operations, the latter of which is dependent on the political will necessary to operate in sensitive and inherently dangerous areas.

These networks are characterized by variations in drone technologies, important differences in how drones are employed by states, non-state actors, lone-wolf threats, and the potential for these actors to learn from one another. International regimes that aim to stem drone proliferation are likely to founder as capable, low-cost drones proliferate to a variety of America’s enemies, both near and far. But diplomatic, military, and economic tools that aim to take down globe-spanning drone networks — long before they can attack U.S. Interests at home and abroad — can help manage the expanding drone threat.



The Nature of Global Drone Networks in the New Drone Age


Global Drone Networks
Global Drone Networks


The left-of-launch counter-drone strategy we propose starts with a fresh assessment of drone proliferation globally. Though drones were once the monopoly of industrialized nations, such as France and the United States, this is no longer the case. Terrorist organizations, including Hamas in Gaza and the Houthis in Yemen, now favor weaponized drones. Indeed, the international drone marketplace is saturated with commercially available and easily weaponized drones, such as the Chinese-manufactured DJI, and military-grade capabilities including Turkey’s TB-2 Bayraktar and Iran’s Shahid series of drones. This new drone age blurs prior distinctions between military-grade and commercial drone technologies, as well as between state and non-state actor operating concepts, organizational structures, and drone procurement and manufacturing.

First, there is an emerging “cross-over market” for drone technologies, which combines the best of breeds from military-grade and commercial technologies. Military-grade technologies, which tend to have greater range, payload, and precision, are concentrated among leading drone exporters like China, Iran, and Turkey. These drones, such as China’s Wing Loong, Iran’s Shahid, or Turkey’s TB-2, incorporate low-cost and dual-use technologies. But they also require a degree of systems integration that middle powers, non-state actors, and smaller commercial companies have yet to master. That said, these less-capable actors are quickly bending the learning curve as they gain access to increasingly lethal commercial and military-grade technologies.

The Houthis, for example, were reportedly able to create simple cast fiberglass shells of Iranian drones, so that when their access to Iranian-manufactured drones was cut off in 2021 due to peace talks and an embargo, the local industrial base in Yemen was still able to reproduce an aerodynamic drone chassis. During its 2020 conflict with Armenia over the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region, Azerbaijan was also able to use simple automation — in the form of autopilot software — to convert Soviet-era AN-2 crop-duster aircraft into one-way suicide drones. Azerbaijan used these jury-rigged loitering munitions to bait Armenia’s air defense systems, which analysts argue helped turn the tide of the war in Azerbaijan’s favor.

Second, new operating concepts and organizational structures are also proliferating across state and non-state lines. While the war in Ukraine has made it fashionable to claim that anyone can rig a drone with a mortar and drop it on a tank, the reality is that drone operators often need some combat training, which involves the kind of tacit knowledge that state-backed military organizations can provide. Battle-hardened private military contractors from Russia’s Wagner Group, for example, reportedly trained Hamas terrorists to drop bombs from small drones during exercises in Africa before the brutal attack on Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. Among Hamas’ supporters, Russia had experience with these simple bomb-dropping mechanisms.

At the same time, states are also gaining new knowledge from watching how non-state actors employ commercial drone technology. The Islamic State’s drone campaign against Iraqi and U.S. Forces in 2017 prompted some experts to label drone warfare a threat as strategically significant as “the next improvised explosive device.” The Islamic State’s approach to drone warfare, followed by Russia and Ukraine’s use of tactical drones during their ongoing war, has even encouraged a rethinking of the force structure of the U.S. Air Force and the need to combat the low-cost yet effective drone threat.

Third, the adoption of new manufacturing processes also crosses state and non-state lines. The Islamic State initially emerged as a violent extremist organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq, and then morphed into a pseudo-state, helping to explain its rapid adoption of a state-like bureaucracy for drone manufacturing. This allowed the group to acquire drone technologies from 16 different companies in seven different countries and eventually establish its drone production system. Similarly, countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are exploring commercial 3D printing to mass produce drones at scale. This initiative replicates what non-state actors are already doing. Rebel groups in Myanmar, for example, already use 3D printing to manufacture drones for combat, albeit with mixed success.

In this operational environment, it will be difficult to identify the sources of drone proliferation and stop them. Commercial drone capabilities — especially on the software side — will diffuse more quickly than military ones, as nearly continuous cost reductions in turn yield greater accessibility. Advancements in AI technologies — which employ computers and computing power to perform tasks that are normally reserved for humans — add another wrinkle. In the context of drone innovation, AI could become a key enabling function for the autonomous command and control of fast-moving, lethal drone swarms that stand to provide a coveted “first-mover” advantage. Stemming the proliferation of AI-enabled drone technologies might ultimately require stopping people from writing code on computers, although such regulation would result in a dystopian level of intrusion, including a breach of countries’ sovereignty and individuals’ privacy, which raises ethical and legal concerns.

We believe that the United States, with the Department of Defense in the lead, can successfully adopt a left-of-launch counter-drone strategy without resorting to such tactics. By recognizing a convergence in trends toward more capable, pervasive, and military-class drone operations in modern warfare, a left-of-launch strategy sharpens the focus on specific actors with the greatest capability and desire to threaten U.S. National interests, as well as those of America’s key allies and partners. The U.S. Military cannot conceivably track every code writer, 3D printer, high-resolution camera, and mortar that supports tactical drone development. But only a limited set of actors are seeking to leverage combinations of commercial and military-grade technology to produce novel warfighting capabilities that could affect U.S. Interests — and the Department of Defense can use a left-of-launch strategy to target and eliminate these threats.


Getting Left-of-Launch to Counter Global Drone Networks


Middle powers and violent extremist organizations in the Middle East and Africa — who import drones from China, Iran, and Turkey — are obvious targets for a left-of-launch counter-drone strategy. All of these actors benefit from difficult-to-track commercial technologies, making widespread proliferation almost inevitable. Even state powers interested in limiting proliferation are tempted to dismiss international regimes, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime, which are designed to achieve this goal. For example, France and the United Kingdom, both regime members, sold the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia SCALP missiles, which have specifications that come within shouting distance of the range and warhead size specified for export guidelines. And China never agreed to the regime in the first place — it has exported a variety of drones since producing its first armed drone in 2011. Meanwhile, non-state actors are starting to develop their indigenous drone capabilities which are modest now but could become far more autonomous, networked, and capable, especially with the support of patron states such as Iran and Russia.

Yet we argue that, despite these serious challenges, it is still possible to get ahead of the proliferation problem. The United States, along with its allies and partners, should leverage economic and military measures to counter these emerging and globe-spanning drone networks. In the new drone age, both state and non-state adversaries will continue to rely on dual-use and military-grade capabilities to maximize their combat effectiveness against stronger militaries. Many of these capabilities are, in fact, dependent on supply lines, manufacturing facilities, and training networks. All of these elements are required to operate armed, automated, and networked drones at scale. And they also have key vulnerabilities that are exploitable.

A model for a left-of-launch counter-drone strategy is U.S. Northern Command’s missile defeat strategy, which aims to destroy missiles before they launch. The centerpiece of this effort is “early domain awareness,” enabled by long-range radars, autonomous drones, and other technologies. Of course, tactical drones are even harder to detect than cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons. So, an equivalent counter-drone strategy should put greater emphasis on intelligence collection to identify the movement of supplies and trainers that the United States, in concert with its allies and partners, can interdict.

Fortunately, the U.S. Military knows how to do this. Years before the Islamic State massed drones on the battlefield, the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group — which was tasked to identify future threats during the “global war on terror” and is now partly nested under the Threat Systems Management Office — recognized drones as an emerging threat. It outfitted U.S. Forces deployed abroad with cutting-edge counter-drone technology and proliferated new “tactics, techniques, and procedures” across Army formations combating radical Islamic terrorists.

Today, Special Operations Command organizations like the 75th Ranger Military Intelligence Battalion, which include exquisite cyber, human, imagery, and signals collection capabilities, provide valuable intelligence capabilities. This organization, as well as other Special Mission Units assigned to the command, also has flexible funding authorities to experiment with novel counter-drone measures that are capable of identifying the threat early enough to create space for kinetic, economic, or diplomatic responses. Among these options include proliferating counterfeit drone parts with tracking mechanisms to enable global interdiction; using “zero-day” cyber tools to exploit and disrupt software enabling tactical drones; and conducting strikes against drone makers and manufacturing nodes themselves, when the political will exists to do so.

Business intelligence is also critical. A proactive left-of-launch strategy should emphasize working with allies and partners to prevent drones and components from falling into adversary hands in the first place. The Islamic State’s drone network, for example, relied on the purchase of large numbers of suspicious items — such as bulk orders of thermal cameras — for delivery to war zone-adjacent locations. A coalition of willing governments and industry partners could develop new trade regulations and practices that enable participating companies to monitor and report suspicious transactions.

Finally, although mitigation strategies themselves are reactionary solutions, they are nevertheless essential to a layered, holistic, and proactive left-of-launch counter-drone strategy. Recent history reveals the costs of waiting. While the U.S. Military struggled to adapt its ground vehicles to the threat of Iranian-made explosively formed penetrators in Iraq between 2005 and 2011, at least 196 soldiers were killed and nearly 900 were wounded. Mitigations may be less effective for drones, which are difficult to detect with radar and even more difficult to destroy if deployed in large numbers. But identifying the most effective mitigations now is prudent, rather than waiting until the day when every U.S. Tank formation, carrier strike group, and manned fighter package is vulnerable to saturation attacks by large drone swarms. One key lesson gleaned from the Asymmetric Warfare Group’s research, and more recently validated by Special Operations Command, is that any counter-drone strategy should be layered, offering a defense-in-depth to defeat a variety of small drones used at different scales and ranges. There is no “silver bullet” for countering drones, but a strong network can take down an adversary network.


The Best Defense Is a Good Offense


The U.S. Approach to countering tactical drones has too narrowly focused on defensive options. The popular narrative around the democratization of drone technologies has fed into the idea that drones are too ubiquitous to be targeted before they launch. However, the most sophisticated drone capabilities still require supply chains, manufacturing facilities, and training regimes that are all viable targets for a variety of interdiction efforts. These features constitute emerging global drone networks with access to increasingly capable and low-cost drone technologies. The good news is that the U.S. Military has an ace in the hole: its comparative advantage is that it knows how to take down networks. The left-of-launch strategy we outlined offers a new path forward to proactively counter tactical drones by integrating all instruments of national power. As the Department of Defense looks to revise its counter-drone strategy, it’s time to recall Gen. George Washington’s timeless advice: “Offensive operations, oftentimes, is the surest, if not the only (in some cases) means of defense.”

Dr. Caitlin Lee is the director of acquisition and technology policy in the national security research division at RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

Paul Lushenko, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College and serves as the director of special operations. He is the co-author of The Legitimacy of Drone Warfare: Evaluating Public Perceptions (2024).



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