Drones over D.C. stir concern
Nation’s defenses aren’t keeping up with rising threat, officials say
Over a career that has taken him to Afghanistan and Iraq, Col. Patrick Duggan has seen the lethal power of drones. Now, as a base commander in the nation’s capital, he is worried that frequent illegal flights buzzing over Washington could pose a threat.
In the middle of a federal no-fly zone for drones, in some of the most sensitive and restricted airspace in the United States, technicians working with Duggan recorded nearly 100 drone sightings over two months last summer. And that was just around two Army posts he oversees.
Many of the operators were probably oblivious to the flight ban or just ignoring it as they flew for fun, he said. But he’s not sure. “Are they bad guys? Well, we don’t know,” Duggan said. “It’s a technology that can be used to attack us at home. Why? Because we are not as prepared as we need to be.”
In an acknowledgment of the threat, Congress in November voted to broadly expand the Defense Department’s anti-drone powers within the U.S. President Donald Trump signed the measure last month.
Millions of agile and easyto-fly quadcopters and other drones are sold in the United States each year. Yet many of the quandaries that come with the devices have not been addressed. Although any tool or technology, from a rifle to a rental truck, can be misused, security experts say drones have introduced broad new dangers and have outpaced efforts to regulate them.
Whether controlled by remote or set to fly autonomously, drones can carry surveillance cameras, hacking devices or explosives long distances, easily evading ground defenses, experts say. And, they add, the threat from what officials call “unmanned aircraft systems” (UAS) is not theoretical.
An analysis prepared by members of a team at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida specializing in counter-drone operations reported in 2016 that “critical assets within the continental United States have already been ‘attacked’ by nefarious UAS operators.”
Members declined to specify the targets or provide details, given security and other concerns.
“While no deaths have been attributed to these UASs, it is only a matter of time before these systems are directly or indirectly responsible for loss of life or interference with critical infrastructure in the homeland,” the analysis said.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in March, a top military leader voiced concern about recent unauthorized drone flights over Navy and Air Force installations.
“These intrusions represent a growing threat to the safety and security of nuclear weapons and personnel,” said John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command.
In the almost three years since a recreational drone user crashed his 2-foot-wide quadcopter on the White House grounds early one January morning — and called to “self-report” the incident to the Secret Service six hours later — federal authorities have been trying to figure out how best to protect the capital.
A few months after that incident, in Tokyo, a protester was arrested for landing a drone carrying a harmless amount of radioactive cesium on the prime minister’s office.
It’s tough to tease out the potential attackers from the “knuckleheads,” and officials say the U.S. government has been hamstrung as it works to upgrade security.
Under the legislation Trump signed last month, the Defense Department’s powers were expanded significantly. There are six new areas where it can track or take down drones, including working to protect the president, vice president “or other officer immediately next in order of succession.”
Air defenses, including in Washington, Special Operations forces activities, and certain combat support, testing and explosives facilities also were included.
The military’s sense of urgency is due, in part, to its experiences using drones to deadly effect overseas and facing off-the-shelf drones on the battlefield.
The Department of Homeland Security says that “without statutory relief we remain constrained in responding” to the threat of drones and must rely on “conventional means.” Without legal changes, spokeswoman Anna Franko said, the agency is “limited in its ability to fully develop counter UAS technologies — further delaying our security response.”
Whether controlled by remote or set to fly autonomously, drones can carry surveillance cameras, hacking devices or explosives long distances, easily evading ground defenses, experts say.
“Are they bad guys? Well, we don’t know,” Col. Patrick Duggan says of the scores of drones flying over Washington, D.C. “We are not as prepared as we need to be.”