For the first time, U.S. soldiers and their allies are being hunted by drones sent by the Islamic State.
“ISIL has been able to take commercial drone technology right off the shelf and make it an effective weapon,” said Maj. Gen. Walter E. Piatt, the head of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities Office. “As a result our soldiers have had to look up to worry about threats from the air. The air domain, an area we have dominated for a long time, is being contested.”
The United States has enjoyed air superiority during its current military operations in the Middle East. While the drones themselves do not contest America's control of the skies, the enemy drones means that Americans face "death from above" for the first time in decades. The Islamic State's use of drones also marks the first time that drone technology has been used by America's enemies.
Islamic militants have modified store-bought drones to make them lighter, faster, and capable of carrying weapons. In October, a drone deployed by Islamic State forces killed two Kurdish soldiers in the first deadly terrorist drone attack. Two previous drone attacks against Iraqi forces did not cause casualties. Drones are also regularly used by the Islamic State for reconnaissance on Iraqi forces.
“You can imagine a scenario where coordinated drones could be used in a terror attack,” Piatt said.
The Islamic State is not the only extremist group that has shown a capacity to innovate, Piatt told American Media Institute on the sidelines of the Capitol Hill 2017 Defense & National Security outlook briefing. The annual meeting explores potential military threats and possible innovations by bringing together leaders in Congress, the armed services, and the defense industry. This year's briefing emphasized the fast pace at which America’s rivals and enemies are upgrading.
Russia’s military capability is more advanced than is commonly understood, said Piatt, who spent significant time in the Ukraine as part of his prior NATO duties. Far from a demoralized army incapable of paying its soldiers, Russian forces in the Ukraine have unveiled some high-tech innovations.
“They have some unmanned aerial vehicle technologies for which we don’t have an answer,” Piatt said. Russia is working on a number of new drone and anti-drone systems, according to recent reports in Russian and U.S. media. These include two submersible drones: the Surrogat, which could be used to imitate the presence of a nuclear submarine; and the Kanyon, which may be capable of carrying a nuclear payload.
U.S. defense spending peaked at $721 billion in 2010 and it has edged downward ever since, according to data from the U.S. Government Publishing Office. This year the Pentagon will spend an estimated to $577 billion-- a reduction of 20% from the 2010 peak.
The Defense department asked Congress for an additional $20 million specifically to address the drone threat earlier this year.
Reduced spending and budgets mean America's military must be ready to adapt civilian technologies for the battlefield, particularly in dealing with drones and cyber-security threats.
“We have to look at technologies that are being developed for a civilian purpose and look at ways we can apply them for a military purpose,” said Piatt.
“We are increasingly focusing on UAVs,” said Vice Admiral Philip Cullom, who works on U.S. Navy readiness and logistics. “UAVs are taking a lot more of our time and will do so in the future, and we need not just to think about them as a warplane without a pilot.”
More than a quarter century after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the admiral said, the Pentagon's great challenge is to remain flexible while the United States faces foes who are quicker to adapt than the draftees of the old Warsaw Pact.
“Today, we have to be able to innovate and deploy new technologies with a reduced timeline," Cullom said.