Expeditionary cyber forces fighting drones on the front lines

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Nonstate groups have been employing commercially available unmanned aerial systems for some time, but as many have feared, these small devices have now been weaponized. With previous reports of “flying improvised explosive devices,” which effectively turn these aircraft into onetime use kamikaze devices, the Islamic State group has begun dropping explosives on security forces.

Their capability has evolved over time, Col. Brett Sylvia, commander of Task Force Strike, within Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, the global anti-ISIS coalition, told reporters in early January.

“As we’ve made our way into Mosul now, what we’ve seen is that they use the smaller drones, the quadcopter things,” he said, according to a Pentagon transcript. “[T]hey’re up for, you know, 45 minutes, an hour so, and even that evolution has transitioned in the beginning of the Mosul campaign … from just reconnaissance to they are actually putting munitions in them … dropping munitions [on] the Iraqi security forces and their positions.”

ISIS conducts UAS operations on a regular basis — over 100 operations in a 60-day window varying from surveillance to dropping ordinance — said Col. John Dorrian, Operation Inherent Resolve spokesman. This bears a localized threat, he said.

Dorrian explained there are a variety of systems used to counter this localized threat. Moreover, captured documents indicate the group has developed a standardized approach to employing these systems in an operational context. The ways in which U.S. forces could down these devices is garnering greater attention from high levels of the Defense Department.

The DoD is using the cyber forces from Cyber Command to conduct offensive cyber operations against ISIS, but non-kinetic counter UAS would likely not be a component of this mission or even within the purview of capabilities the command can offer to joint force commanders as these are tactical operations that go down to maneuver units. CYBERCOM and the cyber mission force work at the operational and strategic level, meaning the forces and capabilities used to spoof or jam quadcopters would have to be forward deployed, such as the service cyber components — Army Cyber Command and Marine Forces Cyberspace Command, for example — embedded with traditional maneuver forces.

Army Cyber Command — whose commander heads the joint task force dedicated solely to the counter-ISIS efforts — declined to offer details regarding its counter-ISIS efforts.

During training exercises, expeditionary cyber teams embedded with brigades and helped commanders maneuver in the “information environment,” the Army has said, leveraging defensive cyber operations, offensive cyber operations, electronic warfare and information operations.

The Army is working to incorporate cyber and electronic warfare detachments into conventional units in the future. EW forces could be used to disrupt the signals used by UAS operators, rendering them ineffective. In fact, the Army is looking to go after operators of UAS as opposed to just defeating the device itself. By disrupting the communications link of the system, the UAS will return “home” and hover over the person controlling it, Chief Warrant Officer 4 Samuel Kleinbeck, Division UAS at Fort Riley, Kansas,  said. EW can then hone in on the signal and find the person as well to be neutralized.

MARFORCYBER, for its part, is conducting similar lines of effort with integrating cyber capabilities within traditional forces by training the Marines organic to Marine Expeditionary Forces.

As evidenced in Ukraine, UAS are susceptible to being jammed via electronic attack measures. The Army is working to stand up a new career field and operational detachment specifically for electromagnetic operations, despite fielding electronic maneuver forces for some time.

As the New York Times has reported, however, jamming countermeasures create problems because they might interfere with Iraqi communications. This, in turn, has lead to “firepower” to down small drones.

The Defense Department and the individual services have invested, developing capabilities and strategies toward defeating enemy UAS, albeit without much detail given the sensitive nature. A spokeswoman from the Marine Corps acknowledged that while ISIS has moved from intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to limited close-air support, DoD has been tracking these advancements and the advancements of state actors. As such, DoD has evaluated over 20 systems  to detect, track and destroy commercial UAS, the spokeswoman added.

The Air Force previously demonstrated its counter-UAS capability when it brought down an ISIS UAS with “electronic measures,” former secretary Deborah Lee James said, declining to offer more details. A spokeswoman said the Air Force has a counter-UAS working group that meets regularly and held a conference in January. The group cuts across functional areas and commands to integrate experts empowered to act rapidly to outpace the evolution of the small UAS threat.

“Airmen down range will continue to innovate and act to defeat threats as they evolve, while this cross-functional working group will build a strategy to anticipate and defend against small unmanned aircraft systems now and in the future,” she said.

As is the case across the services, the majority of the Air Force’s counter-UAS efforts are classified.

For the Marine Corps’ role specifically, the spokeswoman said they have had an active role in evaluating technologies to defeat air threats from small UAS with Marine Air defense transitioning to an improved Integrated Air and Missile Defense, or IAMD, family of system to maximize the latest non-kinetic and kinetic capabilities to defeat adversaries’ threats.

Moreover, CWO4 Jerome Foreman, a strategic spectrum planner with the Marine Corps, said that while the force recognizes the threats posed by state and non-state actors in this space, they are ” continuously investigating approaches to expand our means to counter emerging technologies,” acknowledging that electronic attack and electronic countermeasures are one type of capability they possess to mitigate and defeat these threats.