The current effort to thwart the "ingenious" application of unmanned aerial systems being used by the Islamic State group, which include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance as well as lethal payload delivery, is reminiscent of the counter-improvised explosive device effort undertaken by the Defense Department, according to one top intelligence official.
"There is a departmentwide effort underway, which if you go back to the days of the stand up of [Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization] … and the department just went at the [counter-IED] with everything we had. This is that but in a different environment," Lt. Gen. Jack Shanahan, director for defense intelligence (warfighter support) within the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, said during a March 17 luncheon hosted by AFCEA's Northern Virginia Chapter.
Following a trip to Iraq, Shanahan asserted that Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, the main counter-ISIS effort, described counter-UAS as his No. 1 force protection priority. While no American personnel have perished at the hands of ISIS drones, it is only a matter of time, Shanahan said, paraphrasing Townsend.
"Our adversaries are incredibly adaptive, very ingenious. They come up with ways of using these that nobody might have predicted two years ago, one year ago, six months ago," Shanahan said.
There’s also a psychological effect these devices afflict to soldiers down below, Shanahan added. After all, the troops can’t hear these small devices coming prior to dispensing a lethal payload overhead — essentially a hand grenade.
It was ISIS’ predecessor organization, al-Qaida in Iraq, that proved exceptionally adept and lethal at planting IEDs during the Iraq War in the mid-2000s. And it was during this conflict that U.S. forces learned to hone skills, tradecraft and an industrial base to thwart these systems. Ironically, the same can be said for the current threat posed by ISIS, which was as aggressive and adaptive as al-Qaida in Iraq, and the militant group has continued this trend, learning from mistakes and pulling from wartime experience. Personnel from former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s military and intelligence ranks are member of the Islamic militant group.
In 2016 there were 600 different UAS types as opposed to 20 in 1999, according to a chart provided by Shanahan. Even more startling, the most expensive UAS device one can buy on Amazon.com costs $22,900. Neither the MQ-1 Predator nor the MQ-9 Reaper cost even $22,000, Shanahan said, and ISIS is purchasing quadcopters that only cost $650.
Shanahan stressed that the most important statement he can make surrounding the drone concern is that power, payload, endurance and autonomy of these devices are rapidly increasing while costs are rapidly decreasing. This leads to increased lethality on the battlefield, Shanahan said, and forces don’t seem to understand or appreciate how fast this is occurring.
Solving the problem with intel
So what is DoD doing to get at this problem and defeat ISIS? "Our piece of this is to understand the network," Shanahan said of the role of intelligence. "There is a network. There is a bureaucracy to ISIS that is: How do they put together a UAV organization? Everything from resource development, which they have, to acquisition, which they have, to engineering … and experimentation."
In one scenario, Shanahan described an aerial ISR vehicle observing a UAS being loaded on a pickup truck in Mosul. Rather than strike that pickup truck, he said, forces would follow it, let it go to its pit stops to see the entire network's build, and then begin going after the entire network, or at least portions of it.
The focus of those coming out of theater and briefing the Pentagon on counter-UAS tends to be the importance of attacking the network, Shanahan said.
"They understand this up front because everybody who’s been around for a while lived it in the IED piece of it," he said. "The CFACC, the air component commander, has been very savvy about this — don’t just strike [if] you see a UAV launching. You want to take it out … but you’re going to put a fairly expensive $500 bomb against a $500 [asset]. Is that the best answer or do we go after that network and take a little more time to build it up? That is engraved in philosophy right now."
This counter-UAS effort is taking a lot of intellectual capital across the Pentagon and the Joint Staff, he said, working with the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics as well as the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization "because they are experts at this network piece to understand it and go after it."
In fact, JIDO askedCongress last summer for an additional $20 million to deal with the UAS threat posed by ISIS.
In thinking of holistic and creative measures to defeat ISIS and their employment of UAS, Shanahan suggested going after the group's supply chain. ISIS isn't building these systems, he said, but rather modifying systems purchased commercially.
And where is ISIS getting them from? Amazon, he said.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.