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A new school will train U.S. troops to fight a growing threat: small, weaponized drones

Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Spicer tests a "Nightfighter" anti-drone system at Fort Bliss, Texas in Dec. 2022. The manufacturer said the system interrupts the radio signals that are used to control drones.
Raquel Birk
U.S. Army
Army Chief Warrant Officer Michael J. Spicer tests a "Nightfighter" anti-drone system at Fort Bliss, Texas in December 2022. The manufacturer says the system interrupts the radio signals that are used to control drones.

The U.S. military is opening a “university” next month to train troops to defend against a rapidly-evolving weapon that is changing the nature of war: small drones.

The war in Ukraine has underlined the urgency of developing and teaching effective countermeasures, where both sides routinely use small drones to pinpoint each other’s locations. Some drones can also drop small bombs, or, when loaded with explosives, find a target and fly into it.

“You're seeing drones used on a scale that’s never been seen before,” said Stacie Pettyjohn, the director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.

So many drones are being used in the war that one British think tank estimated Ukraine alone was losing 10,000 a month. That figure may be high, but there’s no question the numbers are substantial, said Pettyjohn.

“There you see both sides using them and adapting and sort of learning from each other, and then developing new ways to counter them,” she said.

For the U.S. military, the mission to counter small drones has become critical.

“We don't have five years to wait for the perfect system,” said General James Rainey.

Rainey leads United States Army Futures Command, which helps the Army keep pace with changes in technology and other aspects of warfare.

“We've got to rapidly innovate with what's possible now and keep getting better, ” Rainey said. “It’s going to be something you’re going to have to deal with continuously and be adaptive when you fight the next time.”

The challenge of countering small drones is getting the kind of intense, almost moonshot-like focus that defeating improvised bombs received during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Rainey said there are differences, including that drones are proliferating faster.

"This is a much larger problem when it comes to scale and speed of disruption,” he said.

The Pentagon calls drones "UAS" for unmanned aircraft systems. At the Army’s Joint Counter Small-UAS office, deputy director Colonel Glenn Henke's office coordinates anti-small drone efforts for all service branches, works with industry to develop counter-drone systems and trains troops.

Even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. military had begun planning a new “counter-Small UAS University," Henke said. It’s located at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and the first classes begin Oct. 16. Henke said the school will eventually train about 1,000 troops a year to plan, install and operate a variety of anti-drone defenses.

“There's no silver bullet in any of this; there's no one system that will do everything,” he said. “So you have to have a system of systems approach and that allows us to address the threats…that can be employed against us and our allies.”

The university will offer three main types of instruction: one for troops tasked with operating counter-drone systems, with classes tailored for the different needs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines.

Another will instruct planners who have to figure out how to identify the best locations for sensors to detect drones and weapons to counter them.

And lastly, an installation protection course will train troops to set up and operate counter-drone systems to protect existing U.S. bases.

A security officer responds to a simulated suspicious drone during a drill at Naval Support Facility Indian Head in Maryland. The drill was part of a February 2023 readiness exercise.
Griffin Kersting
U.S. Navy
A security officer responds to a simulated suspicious drone during a drill at Naval Support Facility Indian Head in Maryland. The drill was part of a February 2023 readiness exercise.

Given the rapid evolution of drones and counter-drone systems, a key challenge will be staying up to date.

“This is a real threat, and it's evolving daily," Henke said. “Most Army schools you don't build it so that you might have to change your training, curriculum, and instruction every six months as the threat evolves, and that's what the joint counter-UAS university is doing there."

Henke said the military already has more than a dozen counter-drone systems in use, not just to defeat drones but also to quickly identify and track them.

The weapons that knock out drones use several approaches. Some strike drones with physical objects such as shrapnel or even other drones. Some use microwave energy or lasers. Others try to disrupt the signals that control drones.

Pettyjohn, the think tank drone expert, said each approach has strengths and weaknesses.

For example, high-powered microwave systems and lasers can counter drones by frying their electronics or physically disabling parts of them. But the systems also can have large energy requirements and might damage other electronics in the area, including things belonging to friendly forces or civilians, she said.

Pettyjohn added that such weapons can be very costly.

“Right now, a lot of the weapons that the U.S. relies on for air defense are prohibitively expensive,” she said. “If you're firing off several hundred-thousand dollar, or million dollar, missiles to destroy a cheap drone, it's just not something that's going to be sustainable over the long run."

Pettyjohn said it’s crucial to understand that stopping small enemy drones is just one problem the military faces as it tries to keep pace with the technology-driven changes in fighting wars.

Small drones, for example, that Russians are already using are just one part of sophisticated attacks.

"You have to be prepared for these complex heterogeneous attacks that include things like cruise missiles, faster, hypersonic threats, ballistic missiles," she said. "A smart adversary is going to use these weapons together to overwhelm your air defenses or to temporarily punch holes through them. So you need this integrated approach to it."

She said Russia has already begun using such tactics in Ukraine. And several nations — some friendly, some not — are developing drone swarms, which are dozens of tiny aircraft that fly together.

“Even right now you're seeing with these smaller drone attacks where two or three sometimes are operating together, that is enough to overwhelm the air defenses,” Pettyjohn said. “So you have to imagine that the challenges associated with that if you move into dozens or hundreds of drones.”

Henke’s office at the Pentagon recently put out a call for proposals for systems to counter drone swarms. It wants manufacturers to have working versions ready to demonstrate in June.

Henke said he recently saw a drone swarm himself for the first time in a demonstration on a practice range.

“That,” he said, “was fairly unsettling.”

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.

Jay Price has specialized in covering the military for nearly a decade.