Current legal authorities provided to the Department of Homeland Security for drone security are limited and the department is discussing next steps with Congress and its interagency partners, Acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf said on Wednesday.
DHS’ direction to counter unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS) is “very specific and I would say even in some respects limiting,” intended primarily for department facilities and responding to threats against a “soft target,” he told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee toward the end of a hearing to review the fiscal year 2021 budget request.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the committee chairman, asked Wolf if its time for additional measures to for “countering the malign use of drones.”
Wolf replied that “There’s an ongoing conversation we continue to have with Congress, particularly on the House side, regarding CUAS capabilities at airports, which is where we see a lot, but not all” of drone activity. “We continue to do that but, again, our authority is very limited.”
Johnson told Wolf his committee is ready for DHS’ input on new CUAS authorities and noted that the issue is “complex.”
Congress in the fall of 2018 provided DHS and the FBI with limited authorities to detect, track, identify and mitigate threats from drones in some cases. Shortly after, in December of 2018, small UAS were flown near runways at Gatwick airport in London, resulting in flight delays and cancellations as well as economic losses. That incident raised security alarms at airports worldwide, including in the U.S., where drone use at times has disrupted operations at some airports.
Wolf told Johnson that DHS is working to leverage existing CUAS expertise within DHS as well as the Defense Department, which has anti-drone systems to protect facilities and assets overseas and, in the U.S. Several DHS components, namely the Secret Service and the Coast Guard, also use counter-drone systems in some instances and the U.S. Border Patrol is also evaluating the technology.
Wolf also said that DHS is working with the Federal Aviation Administration on the CUAS issue.
In late 2019, the Transportation Security Administration, a DHS component, was designated the lead federal agency to work with airports in the area of detecting, tracking and identifying potential drone threats at the 30 largest U.S. airports. Some House Republicans have pushed back on that designation saying TSA was never given these authorities.
After the hearing, Wolf told Defense Daily that DHS is discussing this with the House Homeland Security and Transportation and Infrastructure Committees.
“I think we can work through that,” he said. “We’re going to work through that.”
Wolf continued that these discussions include the fact that the department’s CUAS authorities are limited and there is a need to sort out the 2018 legislation and clarify what it “provides and what it doesn’t provide” and what “tweaks to the law that we need as this continues to develop and we build up our capabilities.”
“So, we can respond to an incident but having forward deployed or having proactive measures is not currently within our authority unless we’re talking about DHS facilities,” he said. “What obviously concerns us is a Gatwick like incident that’s occurring in an airport environment and making sure that we can respond effectively and efficiently is what we want to be able to do, and so we continue to do that in conjunction with FAA. But it’s an ongoing dialogue with Congress.”
Wolf highlighted that DHS has CUAS concerns at the southwest border, at airports, and various types of soft targets such as stadium.
This year DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate plans to begin evaluating technology for detecting, tracking and identifying drones in border environments and TSA is also working to establish an evaluation of the same type of technology for use at airports.