A surprise drone attack that took out nearly half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production and blindsided global markets last year is just the kind of thing that keeps Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey up at night.
Gen. Gainey, commander of the Defense Department’s new Joint Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Office, is the Pentagon’s point man in countering the rapidly growing threat from foreign drones, responsible for coordinating a crucial 21st-century anti-drone strategy across the country’s military services.
With allies, major rivals such as China, and even hostile powers like Iran closing the gap with the U.S. on drone technology, the Army general and his 60-person team face one of the most daunting challenges confronting American national security today.
“This threat can touch anybody, anywhere,” Gen. Gainey told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview this week.
“We’re trying to get after the whole spectrum, from training through material solutions,” he said. “We have to ensure our soldiers have the best capability against that threat.”
In the wide-ranging interview, Gen. Gainey detailed his office’s approach to protecting American military forces stationed around the world from enemy drone attacks. He described the growing momentum behind the idea of consolidating anti-drone capabilities across the services, rather than relying on the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Space Force to mount and maintain their own programs.
Gen. Gainey assumed his new post in January, just four months after a swarm of low-flying drones slipped past Saudi Arabia’s sophisticated air defense systems and devastated two state-owned oil processing plants at Abqaiq and Khurais. Houthi forces in Yemen, battling a Saudi-backed coalition in that country’s civil war, claimed responsibility, but Washington and Riyadh both saw the hand of Iran in the attack.
Not only did the September 2019 attack temporarily cut the oil production in one of the world’s biggest suppliers by half, it showed the world what some believe is the future of combat — and demonstrated how America’s once-inarguable advantage in drone warfare may be eroding.
Dozens of countries across the globe — from major international powers such as China, Russia, Israel and the United Kingdom to nations such as Nigeria, Belarus and Indonesia — either have armed drones in their military arsenals or have invested heavily in programs to develop them.
A South Korean think tank estimated in 2017 that the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had stockpiled upwards of 1,000 drones that analysts fear could be used to deliver chemical or biological weapons across the divided peninsula. Iran’s Defense Ministry, whose experience with drones dates back to the 1980s war with Iraq, last month took the wraps off a large arsenal of new drones for the army and air force, drones that Tehran says have the range to hit Israel.
Turkey unveiled its first armed drone in 2015 and has quickly become an international leader in the sector, according to New America’s “World of Drones” project. The country’s unmanned aerial vehicle technology came into sharp focus this week when Turkish-backed Libyan government forces reportedly used drones to target rival Libyan National Army vehicles that were carrying a Russian-made missile system at the al-Watiyah airbase.
The Turkish-made drones were able to disable the missile system before it could be put into action. In a major victory for the embattled Tripoli regime, government forces later captured the base.
Such an attack is just one example of how militaries can no longer simply focus on the offensive capabilities their drones can offer and instead need to devote time, money and resources to fending off enemy attacks.
Uniting the force
Pentagon officials have been brainstorming ways to defeat drone attacks since at least 2017, with each service buying its own system. That includes the Army’s Raytheon-built Coyote, a radar-guided drone that attacks other “unmanned aerial vehicle,” or UAVs; and the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS), a version of which successfully engaged an Iranian drone in the Strait of Hormuz in July 2019.
Appointing a single office to take charge of the counter-drone mission, Maj. Gen. Gainey said, means there’s likely to be less redundancy. It’s an argument that others in the defense community are making.
“There is inefficiency of cost and effectiveness today by the Navy, the Army, the Air Force, the Marines and soon to be the Space Force of all having primary separate weapon systems to integrate, early warn, track and intercept with separate command-and-control systems,” according to the Alexandria, Va.-based Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
Streamlining the system so everything can work together is among the most critical missions of the Pentagon’s new anti-drone office. Next month, officials expect to have chosen weapons and radar systems to accomplish three standing missions: protect fixed locations like military bases; provide anti-drone overwatch for mobile units; and choose a hand-held system that can be used by an individual soldier on the ground.
“We know there’s no ‘silver bullet’ to get after the UAV problem. It takes a layered approach of different systems that you integrate,” Gen. Gainey said.
Picking one system over another is only one part of the mission for the office. Also, Gen. Gainey’s team is focusing on requirements, training and especially integration among the services.
Like the internet and GPS, drones can trace their origins to the military but now have applications in virtually every setting. Goldman Sachs estimates a $100 billion opportunity for unmanned aerial vehicles in the commercial market.
But, the ease with which combat-capable drones can be obtained by relatively impoverished forces — such as Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels — means they can serve a dual purpose as weapons. There have been reports that Islamic State units in Iraq and Syria have used cheap, off-the-shelf drones to deliver grenades into enemy positions.
Even relatively primitive militaries could potentially wreak havoc by employing huge numbers of small, cheap drones to confuse and overwhelm an enemy force. A recent RAND Corporation report delved into the concept of using a swarm of drones to create a “targeting mesh” in contested airspace, overwhelming any defense by the sheer force of numbers.
“Preliminary research suggests that if the cost of the UAVs, including launch, can be kept low enough, it will be possible to pursue a strategy of pure saturation, replenishing the mesh at a rate faster than the enemy can attrit it, until the enemy exhausts its on-hand inventory of interceptor missiles,” reads a key finding of the report.
Those strategies underscore how drone warfare has quickly gone from being borderline science fiction to a hard reality.
“The threat is out there,” Gen. Gainey said.
Trained as an air defense artillery officer in the Army, Maj. Gen. Gainey has spent most of his military career contending with attacks from the air. Before the creation of the Army-led anti-drone office, he had been working on the subject for more than a year in the Pentagon as a member of Joint Chiefs of Staff directorate focused on evaluating and developing force structure requirements.
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