Air Force Seeking Authority To Counter Drones At U.S. Bases

The U.S. Air Force is seeking authority to use anti-drone equipment to defend against small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that accidentally or intentionally fly onto its homeland bases, according to the head of Air Combat Command (ACC).

Gen. James "Mike" Holmes said July 11 that the need to field such technology was underscored last week when an F-22 Raptor pilot reported seeing a small UAS “flash by” his fighter while he was landing. The Air Force suspects the UAS was flown by a hobbyist.

An Air Force F-22 Raptor. Photo: Air Force.

An Air Force F-22 Raptor. Photo: Air Force.

The F-22 “had a near collision with a small UAS and I don’t have anything that I can do about it,” Holmes said. “Right now, we have signs that say this is a no-drone zone, but we don’t have the authorities” to use counter-UAS equipment to protect that zone.

The Air Force will likely receive the go-ahead to defend its nuclear bases first, “and then we’ll try to work the other ones,” including those that fall under ACC’s command, Holmes said. Lt. Gen. Mark Nowland, deputy chief of staff for operations, is leading the service’s work on the issue.

The Air Force wants to protect its bases not just against a single UAS that strays onto a base but against a large number used to mount an attack. The proliferation of inexpensive, commercially available drones has made such an attack more likely.

“Imagine a world where somebody flies a couple hundred of those and flies one down the intake of all my F-22s with just a small weapon on it,” said Holmes, who spoke at a Capitol Hill breakfast sponsored by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

The Air Force, along with other services and defense agencies, is evaluating a wide range of counter-UAS technologies, including those that disrupt a drone’s communications to make it land or fly away from protected areas. But while the Air Force has deployed such systems overseas to counter Islamic State drones, it needs to receive “civil” authorities to use them in the United States. It was not immediately clear who would grant those authorities or how that would occur.

In other comments, Holmes said the Air Force would like to buy at least 80 to 100 Lockheed Martin [LMT] F-35A Lightning IIs a year to replace aging fighters but is aiming to eventually reach a top annual production rate of only 60 due to budget constraints. The service’s fiscal year 2018 budget request would fund 46 F-35As, though Congress is considering adding to that figure.

The Air Force is also grappling with a backlog of security clearance applications, which is making it hard to retain people with vital skills, Holmes asserted.

“I have 500 airmen at Fort Meade [in Maryland] that can’t go to work,” Holmes said. “They’ve been through one of the world’s best cyber-training courses, they’re ready to go to work, and they’re waiting on clearances … I will not be able to keep them in the Air Force. They will go somewhere else at the first opportunity.”

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