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Should the U.S. Air Force Be Able to Shoot Down Civilian Drones?


The United States Air Force is calling on Congress for help in dealing with civilian Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) that pose a threat to military aircraft.

It was not easy for the Air Force in July. Numerous incidents with UAS led the U.S. Air Force to request authority to shoot down consumer drones. If they fly too close to military aircraft, the Air Force believe airmen should be able to target the small devices. One can understand their frustration. An F-22 Raptor fighter jet tried to land at an airbase when it almost crashed into a small UAS. Shortly afterwards, a security guard saw a drone fly over the gate onto the flight line of a U.S. Air Force base where rows of aircraft were parked.

Under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s rules, UAS operators cannot fly within five miles (about eight kilometres) of a base without authorisation from that base. The law is unclear as to whether the military can shoot it down. In fact, it is unclear what they can do at all. They can track the drone, refer the incident to the regulators and ensure the operator receives a hefty fine. But that too also presents difficulties. The operators of drones carrying expensive weaponry to attack a base, for instance, probably would not pay a fine.

The U.S. military has a right to self-defence. But the Air Force desires an expansive jurisdiction to give them more options to deal with intrusive UAS. There are classified rules authorising the military to protect nuclear bases and assets but that does not extend to all bases. Even authority in this context is difficult to obtain. Not only must each nuclear base approve, but so do numerous government agencies such as the U.S. Department of Energy.

It is a difficult area to grapple with. The issue blends civilian law and military law. Protection from civilian law applies to UAS, which after all is civil aircraft. Should the military be able to shoot down civilian drones if they come too close to aircraft? Likely, that would occur in training. There is the advantage that firing on drones would deter people from flying into prohibited areas. Clearly the risk of a fine does not deter people in all circumstances, but the risk of their drone’s destruction may be likely to do so. The law prohibits civilian UAS operators from flying drones into prohibited areas, and this punishment may be an effective one.

Terrorist organisations often utilise tactics of blending military capabilities with a ‘civilian camouflage’ as a misleading diversion. It is a common tactic in asymmetric warfare, where a less powerful actor may utilise unconventional guerrilla tactics against a more established, powerful force. Drones, whilst not cheap, are still more affordable than Armoured Personnel Carriers, M1 Abrams tanks, F-22s and 50 caliber machine guns. UAS provides a unique opportunity for hostile non-state actors to develop such tactics. With the increasing concern of home-grown terrorism, one can connect the links to appreciate the risk of UAS homegrown terrorists or disillusioned foreigners unhappy with Western foreign policy. Perhaps the U.S. Air Force understandably need to address such concerns.

No matter who the perpetrator is, the prospect is still dangerous for national security. Drones can capture on film the layout of the bases, what technology the military possesses, its capabilities and its weaknesses. Even if the operator filming footage or taking snapshots is not a spy, the phenomenon of information sharing means the risks are still great. Any person can spread information via the Internet, such as through uploading videos onto social media or sending information to WikiLeaks. There is therefore good reason why drones have been banned over 133 U.S. military facilities.

In the map below, you can see, via the FAA’s geographic database, restricted airspace for UAS over Fort Riley Military Reservation in the U.S. State of Kansas. This however, does not stop the military at Fort Riley from using their own drones.

Firing on unexpected UAS incursions during training may, in any case, be good training. Pilots should be able to react quickly to events that arise quickly. They are trained to think rapidly in life-threatening situations. Drones flown by either enemies or the daring hobbyist maybe just should be faced with the consequences. It is also good training for military commanders, who may not expect civilian drones to suddenly appear out of nowhere. That might be a weak point, but still interesting to consider.

We tend to think that a regular person should not be able to shoot down a neighbouring drone. It is, after all, somebody else’s property. The military might not able able to play it so safe. The U.S. Air Force cannot be sure that a drone is not spying or carrying weaponry. The U.S. military have experienced hostile drones in multiple battlefields, and have recently shot down multiple hostile UAS in Syria and in Iraq. Some of them are manned by the Islamic State.

The FAA estimates that the number of consumer drones will rise to 3.5 million in 2021. This is a significant increase from 2.4 million in 2016. You can find a good map of UAS restricted U.S. airspace here.

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