The threat of small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) is a top concern for the head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie.

Two disparate issues–the future of refugees/displaced persons in the CENTCOM area of responsiblity (AoR) and the use of small drones by unfriendly states and non-state actors–“keep me up at night,” McKenzie told an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) forum on Apr. 27.

Al-Hawl, a camp in northeastern Syria near the Syria-Iraq border, shelters some 60,000 refugees, mostly women and children–many of them susceptible to illnesses, such as cholera and COVID-19, and to radicalization by extremist groups, McKenzie said.

Regarding small drones, he said that “we see a proliferation” in the CENTCOM AoR.

“The United States is going to great lengths to prepare to defend ourselves and our partners and allies against these types of threats, but we’re still largely on the wrong side of the cost imposition curve,” McKenzie said. “Iran operates these systems and have invested a great deal of time and resources into it, but also entities as disparate as ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban have all gone into this area because it’s easy to do. It’s very cheap to train someone to use a system like this, and you can do it with a relatively low level of training and a relatively low expenditure of money, but you can have significant results on the other end when it gets to its target.”

To help combat the small drone threat, the Pentagon’s Joint Counter Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-sUAS) Office (JCO) is developing technologies like high energy lasers and high-powered microwave systems while simultaneously preparing for the testing of low collateral interceptor technologies in April at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz. (Defense Daily, Feb. 2).

Last June, the JCO picked eight counter-drone systems to comprise the Pentagon’s joint “system of systems” against small UAS. They include radars, electronic warfare tools, kinetic capabilities and common command and control platforms in the Army’s FS-LIDS system; the Air Force’s Negation of Improvised Non-state Joint Aerial threats, known as NINJA; the Navy’s CORIAN; and the Marine Corps’ Light-Mobile Air Defense Integrated System, or L-MADIS, vehicle-mounted drone-jammer for the mobile C-sUAS systems.

The consolidated portfolio of counter-drone capabilities is to be interoperable with the Army’s Forward Area Air Defense Command and Control (FAAD-C2) and to include the Air Force’s MEDUSA C2 and Marine Corps’ Air Defense System Integrator.

For troops on foot, the JCO said last year that it is moving forward with U.S. Special Operations Command’s handheld Bal Chatri counter-drone tool and the commercially-available Dronebuster jammer and Smart Shooter kinetic capability.

McKenzie said that a common operational picture among the United States and its regional allies will be important.

“Long-term, particularly vis-a-vis Iran, a common or collective security approach is going to be the best way to ensure malign activities don’t become terribly harmful in the region,” he said. “An integrated air and missile defense common operating picture is a great example of the way we might be able to move on that. What you would like to see is particularly nations in the Gulf States be able to share a common threat picture against Iran. The threat from Iran is not ground maneuver. It’s not maritime, particularly. It’s a fires thing–ballistic missiles, land attack cruise missiles and UASs. The small UASs and land attack cruise missiles are relatively new additions to Iran’s arsenal. Each nation has its own organic, air defense capabilities. It would be better, if they can pool those resources.”

Radar and signals intelligence for detecting launches of small drones, as well as non-kinetic–such as electro-magnetic jamming and kinetic attack, will help counter the small drone threat, McKenzie said, adding that he sees “10 to 15 promising programs” in the U.S.’ counter UAS arena that may neck down to an integrated approach, if the latter does not slow down fielding.