NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — The head of U.S. Strategic Command has issued new guidance on securing nuclear weapons sites against small, unmanned systems, a bureaucratically challenging but increasingly vital security issue for the Pentagon.
Gen. John Hyten, the head of STRATCOM, told Congress in a hearing Tuesday that "just in the last week" he has issued guidance to forces on how they should respond if a drone appears near a military weapon site, be it a submarine base, an ICBM missile field, or a storage facility.
"I've signed out guidance to my forces to give them kind of parameters on how they should respond if they see a threat UAV or a surveillance UAV, and to give them specific guidance so that it — so a young Marine at Kings Bay or an Airmen at F.E. Warren doesn't have to worry about, 'what should I be doing when I see that?'" Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Just what that guidance is, however, remains classified, a decision that Hyten's deputy, Vice Admiral Charles Richard, supports.
"The details are best not discussed in public, any more so than you would expect [legendary New England Patriots head coach] Bill Belichick to tell you what the play book looks like," Richard told Defense News after an appearance at the Navy League Sea Air Space conference.
"Gen. Hyten basically made it clear to those commanders what authorities, what they are allowed to do, and removed some level of uncertainty from that," Richard added. "He's been pressing us very hard for that, and I think for very good reasons, and I'm happy we were able to finally get something to his satisfaction."
The issue of small drones flying around nuclear sites has been troubling the Pentagon for several years, particularly as groups like the Islamic State have shown that cheap, off-the-shelf quadcopters can be weaponized or used for surveillance.
In September, Gen. Robin Rand, the head of U.S. Air Force Strategic Command, said there had been several incidents of small drones hovering near weapons facilities. Weeks later, then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called the threat of small drones near nuclear bases "a concern."
On Tuesday, Hyten acknowledged what he called "incidental activities" around nuclear facilities, but expressed concerns less-benign uses for the unmanned systems may come soon.
"If you watch what is happening overseas in [Syria and elsewhere] with the use of lethal UAVs and the use of UAVs for surveillance on the part of a terrorist adversary -- I'm very concerned that those same kind of UAVs could be employed against our weapon storage facilities, especially on the nuclear weapon storage facilities" he told Congress.
But plans to deal with the issue have proven a bureaucratic knot in the past, in part due to the various authorities that needed to be coordinated, according to both Carter and Rand.
Among those with interest in the issue: the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Energy, Department of Justice, and other law enforcement agencies are involved outside the Pentagon. For DoD, NORTHCOM, STRATCOM the Air Force and the Navy all have weigh-in.
In his comments Tuesday, Richard downplayed those issues.
"There are a number of players in there," he acknowledged, but "I'd hesitate to call it 'confusion.' It's just that what we had was very restrictive, and it was based more on an older, manned stack of thinking, as opposed to an unmanned [thinking]. And we have simply caught up with the times, in some respects, with the technologies that we see relative to what we can do against those."
In a statement, STRATCOM spokesman Lt. Col. Martin O'Donnell said Hyten's guidance applies to any STRATCOM "facilities, assets and personnel," and said it "is effective upon receipt and it will remain in effect until superseded or cancelled."
"We will continue to update legal guidance, policy frameworks, and rules of engagement as necessary to defend against these and any future threats," O'Donnell said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.