Privately owned drones routinely violate restricted airspace over military bases, ships and airfields and the Pentagon wants more authority to shoot them down, Defense Secretary James Mattis on May 9 told lawmakers.

The military can disrupt or destroy small unmanned aerial systems (UAS) over certain secure facilities with restricted airspace but has limited authority to shoot down drones over most of its facilities. The FAA limits what defenses the military can deploy against small drones because some systems pose a threat to manned commercial and civil aircraft.

Federal Aviation Administration National Capital Region No Drone Zone signage. Graphic: Federal Aviation Administration.
Federal Aviation Administration National Capital Region No Drone Zone signage. Graphic: Federal Aviation Administration.

“This is becoming an increasing problem,” Mattis told the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense during April 9 testimony on the fiscal 2019 defense budget. “We now track every overflight of our bases, ships, airfields. I was surprised to see just how much of this is being dealt with. We are probably going to have to come in to the FAA and perhaps even to Congress and ask for additional authorities.”

The 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) gave the Pentagon a green light to makes plans for tracking and eliminating threatening unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) flying over facilities with significance to national security, though the methods and over what facilities remains classified. Mattis said the current concern is UAS overflying “normal military bases.”

“The problem is it’s only a matter of time before the threat manifests in a violent way,” he said. “We are going to have to come in with a very clear statement of what we need from the Congress or the FAA and then get that authority out, get the systems out to take them down.”

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) manages the integration of UAS into the National Airspace and requires all privately owned small UAS to be registered. As of March, more than 150,000 small drones were registered to fly for commercial purposes. That number is expected to jump to 450,000 UAS within five years, Brian Wynne, chief executive of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International testified to the Senate Commerce subcommittee on aviation operations, safety and security on May 8.

The FAA says reports of UAS sighting by pilots, civilians and law enforcement have “increased dramatically over the past two years. It now receives more than 100 sighting reports per month, according to the FAA’s website.

Under the 2017 NDAA, the Defense Department is authorized to detect, identify, monitor, and track unmanned aircraft over or near its facilities without consent of the operator. Military personnel are then authorized to warn the operator, seize, assume control of or confiscate the UAS or, “use reasonable force to disable, damage or destroy the unmanned aircraft system.”

In 2018, Congress expanded that authority slightly to address additional mission areas determined to be “critical, high priority U.S. facilities and assets essential to the Department carrying out its mission.”

The FAA administrator and Defense Department leadership are required by law to provide a semiannual report on counter-UAS needs and capabilities. The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) version of the fiscal 2019 NDAA would require Mattis to brief the congressional defense committees on what authorities the military still needs to have adequate counter-UAS capabilities over its facilities.

The brief should also include a list of existing department research and testing locations within the military services that have expertise or specialize in counter-UAS capability in the areas of detection and tracking, hard-kill defeat prediction or improvised explosive device performance assessment capability.

Where applicable, the Defense Department also should study whether counter-UAS procedures and systems in operation at overseas facilities or in combat zones could be used at stateside bases.