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Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Lecture: Drones and the Future of CBRN Threats

Drones and the Future of Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear (CBRN) Threats

April 1, 2021 – Center for Security Policy Studies – Schar School of Policy and |Government at George Mason University.


Good afternoon everyone. I’m pleased to welcome you to this exciting event at the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason University.

CSPS is one of several research centers at the Schar School of Policy and Government that examine diverse aspects of the security agenda, and this is why our security programs are highly ranked and drawing students from all over the country and from abroad.

The Center for Security Policy Studies organizes and hosts events as well as student-led activities such as crisis simulations. Our next simulation is going to be in late April, by the way.

Today’s topic addresses an emerging issue in National Security Policy deliberations. How could advances in drone technology further complicate defenses against chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear attacks?

We have a great panel to explore these issues. I’m happy to pass the virtual mic to Ellen Laipson, who directs the Center for Security Policy Studies, and she’s going to moderate today’s discussion and also introduce our speakers. Ellen.

Thank you so much Dean Rozell and welcome to everyone on this topic that I think has garnered a lot of interest. We’ve all watched the emergence of drones as almost ubiquitous technology from Amazon delivering packages, etc, but the military and security applications of drones really do require a lot of serious study in consideration.

Today, we’re going to be looking at drones and the CBRN cluster of challenges, both who’s using them and how might they use them in an offensive way, but in particular as well what are possible defenses.

How is the US government and the US policy thinking world thinking through the challenges and the dilemmas of drones that could further complicate how we protect ourselves against chem, bio, radiological, and nuclear threats. Today we’re going to have three wonderful speakers.

Each will speak for 10 plus, 10-12 minutes, and then we’ll open to a discussion among the three of them. We’ll see if they want to challenge each other a little bit, and then we’ll open it to our audience for some questions and comments.

I would ask you to please put any question or comment that you want raised in the Q&A box at the bottom of the screen. First, let me quickly introduce myself. We have longer bios available to you online, but I’m delighted to welcome my colleague, Greg Koblentz, Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense program at George Mason.

He has been working on nuclear and biological threats and runs, as I said, our Biodefense program. Professor Koblentz will speak first. We’ll then turn to Zach Kallenborn, who was now affiliated with our Center for Security Policy Studies, and he’s also a research affiliate with the unconventional weapons and technology division of the group that studies terrorism at the University of Maryland.

The US Army has proclaimed him a mad scientist, which we are quite intrigued by. Zach will talk about his work on drone swarms and other clusters of issues related to drones. We’re really delighted to have Nicole Thomas join us.

She is the Deputy Chief for strategy and policy at the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office in the Department of Defense. She graduated from the Army War College, and she will give us perhaps a broader perspective on how some of these issues fit into the work that her office does on Small Unmanned Aircraft. Greg, I think you’re up first, so we’ll look forward to your remarks. Great.


Thank you, Ellen.


Really glad to be here with everybody today. Nice to see so many people have tuned in despite the really nice weather and the temptation to both side and enjoy that. So I’ll try to make it worth your while. I’m going to be talking about drone and the future of CBRN terrorism, and this is not actually a new topic.

In 2016, at a nuclear security summit, 50 world leaders gathered and conducted a crisis simulation involving a radiological terrorist attack conducted by a drone.

Even though this was a fictional scenario, it embodied facts and technologies that are very much

a reality now and have implications for the ability of terrorist groups to use chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons. This threat is enabled by the fact that drones are now maybe not quite ubiquitous, but they are multiplying evermore quickly in terms of both numbers and capabilities and applications throughout the civilian sector.

The market now for drones globally has an expected count of $30 billion in about four years or so, and so we can expect this trend to continue if not accelerating.

The drones that have emerged, the ones that I’ll be talking about, have applications in the areas of consumer and commercial imagery, cargo delivery, and in agriculture. The risks that we have to worry about is the fact that these commercial off-the-shelf systems with little to no modification can be used to provide unprecedented means for non-state actors to gather intelligence and attack targets that could release chemical, biological, radiological materials in unconventional ways.

Today, I’m going to briefly discuss three ways that drones can enable CBRN terrorism.

The first is the role of drones to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance on potential targets.

Next, the role of drones as basically flying IEDs when equipped with explosive weapons to attack critical infrastructure targets that contain large quantities of chemical, biological, radiological materials.

Then finally, the risk posed by drones serving as delivery systems directly use chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons against the target. I will just note that this talk is based on an article that came out last summer that in itself is based on a talk I gave to the UN Security Council in 2016 on the threats of emerging technologies and the impact on the ability of non-state actors to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction.

So first looking at the role of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, there’s already quite a record of terrorist groups and certain groups using drones to gather intelligence on high-security areas, and one of the real damages that the drone bring to this is their ability to circumvent ground-based defenses that are the primary means of security for these types of facilities and their ability to loiter over long periods of time over such targets together, high-quality intelligence.

Traditionally, this has been done using visual imagery in cameras, but there are now more advanced drones that are available commercially that have thermal imaging, and infrared capabilities so they can operate at night as well.

This kind of intelligence gathering can provide really useful insight into not just the layout of a facility internally, but also the practices and capabilities of any security forces that are operating at the facility.

We know of at least five terrorist groups, including Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic State, the Taliban, and HTS that have used drones for this purpose. In fact, they make this part of the propaganda as you can see here from the imagery that the Islamic State and Hezbollah have released to demonstrate their ability to gather information and otherwise inaccessible targets.

We’ve also seen several cases of unidentified operators using drones to penetrate secure, restricted areas over securing sensitive sites.

For example, there were a series of cases both in the United States and France of unidentified drones in very close proximity to nuclear power plants for unknown reasons. In 2016, an unidentified drone flew over the Bangor naval base, which is home to eight of the United States’ tried and ballistic missile submarines as well as over 1,300 nuclear warheads, which is the largest nuclear weapon stockpile in the United States. Since these sites are surrounded by fences and gates and guard and patrols, the ability of these drones to fly over all of those security precautions provided a unique means for whoever is operating these drones to gather information about the internal web of these facilities, the configuration, and the security practices inside.

Another application of these drones, and this is a newer trend but one that has been widely copied, is weaponizing drones, either weaponizing commercially available off-the-shelf drones or groups building their own to either use in a kamikaze tactic or dropping small munitions on a target.

We’ve seen groups including Hezbollah, Hamas, the Islamic State, Palestinian Islamic Jihad developed these types of drone-based weapons to attack their targets. One of the major disadvantages of using a drone in this way is the relatively small payload that the drone can carry. Drones that are commonly available for consumer use have a payload of only a few kilograms.

There are more commercial, professional way drones that have a payload and maybe a dozen of have kilograms, but there are models that are being developed that carry even heavier payloads. However, these drones do the advantage of being able to be turned into precision-guided munitions basically based on either the onboard camera that can be used to target a drone directly onto a specific endpoint or the use of precision guidance through GPS that can allow the drone to attack a target in a very specific location.

In addition, again, the drone has the somewhat unique ability to circumvent ground-based defenses and then attack specific targets inside of a secure compound, and vulnerability of otherwise secure facilities to this kind of tactic was revealed in 2015 when a drone accidentally crashed on the grounds of the White House. But that was just an illustration of the ability of these kinds of vehicles to enter otherwise restricted, heavily-controlled areas.

Now there’s a way for terrorist groups to compensate for the small payload on these drones, and the example you see here on the right of an ISIS drone equipped with a high explosive anti-tank grenade, which is designed to punch through the heavy armor of a tank. This kind of shape charge or explosive-formed projectile is relatively small and it can be carried by relatively small drones, and that does provide enough firepower to punch through a storage tank that contains toxic industrial chemicals.

Using just one drone in this way, they’ll probably won’t be sufficient to cause a disruption of a site that stores toxic industrial chemicals or a nuclear power plant, spent fuel ponds or highlight containment facilities, because these sites are designed to withstand natural events such as tornadoes, hurricanes and earthquakes, and they tend to have redundant safety systems to prevent a catastrophic release of a dangerous material in the event of some kind of accident or for security breach. In addition, being able to use these drones to release large quantities of a hazardous material,

would probably also require fairly detailed understanding about the operations of the facility and its weak points.

That being said, the possibility of using swarms of drones to attack multiple sensitive points in a facility simultaneously, it does create a considerable risk that a group would be able to neutralize or circumvent or mitigate some of the backup systems that are at these facilities and would normally prevent that kind of release of a dangerous material. Finally, commercial off-the-shelf drones could one day serve as a poor man’s cruise missile to deliver a weapon of mass destruction.

Nuclear weapons will remain too large and bulky for delivery by any of the kinds of drones that the non-state actor could either build or buy themselves. But some of the other CBR agents are more suitable for delivery by drones. Probably the most suitable would be the delivery of chemical and biological agents because it requires a very small payload to have a very large effect. The low-speed, low altitude flight profile of these drones is very well suited for disseminating chemical and biological agents on top of a target.

There are actual drones that are already equipped to spray pesticides on fields, and these are becoming increasingly common, increasingly capable. They are even designed online to build your own sprayer drone for just a few thousand dollars. These commercially available drones can carry upwards of 20 or 30 liters of pesticides or of saron. It’s worth remembering that the oceanhackweek group use only 6-7 liters of Saron to kill 11 people and injure over 1000 commuters on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

Even a small quantity of a potent nerve agent can cause really massive casualties if delivered effectively. There also, the potential for delivery of biological agents by amenorrhea vehicles.

However, dissemination mechanisms for biological agents are different than for chemical agents. You’d need a more specialized dissemination device. Those are commercially available, but they wouldn’t be integrated into the drone to turn the drone into a flying biological weapon, which would be more challenging. However, biological agents that don’t require a crystallization for dissemination, such as certain animal and plant pathogens could be more easily delivered by a drone. In fact, we have a case from just about a year and a half ago in China where there were reports of gangs using drones to deliver material infected with African swine fever onto pig farms in China.

This was not terrorism, this was not bio-terrorism, but this was a bio crime because these gangs would then buy the contaminated pigs from these farmers at a very cheap rate. But then go on to the black market and resell it at a higher rate as healthy meat. This was a bio crime episode, but it does demonstrate the unfortunate creativity of non-state actors to use drones for these different purposes. It’s worth noting that African swine fever is considered a select agent in the United States, because that disease does not occur naturally in the United States, and any outbreak of African swine fever would have catastrophic consequences for our pork industry in the US.

Finally, there is one known case of a radio-logical incident involving a drone. This occurred in 2015 when a anti-nuclear activist fluid drone containing a small amount of slightly radioactive soil under the roof of the Japanese Prime Minister’s office in Tokyo. Even though this was a wanted to be a harmless political gesture, it very radically demonstrated the vulnerability of even highly secure buildings and compounds to these kinds of aerial assault from above. It also highlighted the diversity of payloads that these kinds of drones can carry and especially as more capable drones for cargo delivery, such as it has been developed by Amazon and DHL, become more widely available that payload limitation will become less and less important.

At that point, really it’s only the ingenuity of the non-state actor that will limit the application of the drone for enabling or facilitating a CBRN terrorist attack.

The final point I want to make is that there are also ways that drones can be used to improve our defenses against chemical, biological, radio-logical, and nuclear weapons. There’s some definite need for investment in technologies that will enable unmanned ground vehicles to play a role in either preventing or defending against or responding to a CBRN attack. I’ve just highlighted a couple of examples here on the slides. Really the most useful short-term application will be using aerial and ground vehicles for detection of chemical, biological, and radio-logical agents. Since most of the detectors that we have available require to be in close proximity to the agent that they’re protecting, it makes a lot of sense to mount these on drones and find these and potentially contaminated areas as a way of reducing the risk to humans from doing that kind of operation.

Then with the ability for these vehicles to the load or be persistent, it will enable them to map contaminated areas, to conduct monitoring of the spread of contamination and then track plumes that might be spreading downwind and feed that information back to first responders or military in order for them to take defensive measures or to warn civilians in the area about how the risk from this incident is changing. The EU, for example, has developed a suite of vehicles that are designed for conducting friends at work after CBRN incident, where they can go downrange of a CBRN incident from either terrorists or criminal, intend to gather evidence and bring it back for analysis safely without endangering human health.

There are a lot of opportunities here, I think, in the future for investments in science technology to leverage the capabilities that are offered by many oracle vehicles to enhance our defenses against drones. Hopefully we’ll hear a little bit about that from our future speakers.

That’s it. I will stop sharing my screen and turn things over to Zach as the next speaker. Thanks, Greg. That was quite excellent. The Zoom thing is blocking the PowerPoint ribbon. Here we go. Thank you very much for attending. I’ll just give a quick DC disclaimer that, of course, these are all my own thoughts and don’t represent any of my current or former employers, funders, affiliates, or anyone else, just my own views. I’m going to be building a bit on Greg’s comments by focusing on specifically the application of drone swarms and what they mean for a CBRN warfare.

By drone swarms, I’m specifically referring to the ability of multiple drones to work together and collaborate to accomplish some shared task. I realized that when I bring up drone swarms, I think there’s often a sense of, oh, this is science fiction. This is the type of thing we see in the Star Trek Beyond movie, whereas there’s a huge storm and robots that overwhelm and attack the Star Trek Enterprise and destroy everything. Like that’s what we expect to see, that capability. That’s for not all that long ago. I thought that was pretty much the same thing, I didn’t really think too much about it.

But the reality is that drone swarms are already here. What’s more, they’re likely to proliferate incredibly fast. In 2016, US Strategic Capabilities Office launched 103 products drones. Those are the little orange ones you can see at the top right there. Out of three FAT and super hornets, these drones all collaborated together autonomously. They work together, they form into some various formations, as you can see, like in the bottom left. They moved across a theoretical battlefield and then formed in some other information. They were doing all of this through a collective collaborative operation, information sharing entirely autonomously. Now, what’s even more important than the fact that there was a test and that’s what was five years ago,

is who actually designed the system. This product’s drone was not created from a skunkworks tight multi-million dollar R&D project where there were Boeing type things where you’re designing the next F36 or F23 or whatever. Rather, these systems were actually designed by students at MIT as part of the class project. Now, those are probably some of the smartest students in the world, but they are nonetheless students. It shows that you don’t necessarily need that level of sophistication and capability to design some very sophisticated systems to actually carry out these attacks. What that suggests is that the likelihood of proliferation is quite high because you don’t need that level of expertise.

Just in the past, like six months to a year or so, there’s been reports and announcements of new drone swarm related projects from the United States, United Kingdom, India, China, Spain, South Africa. I think France announced a new one. That’s a very short amount of time. Now, most of these are not for CBRN purposes. In fact, they’re not aware of any that are specific to CBRN. But nonetheless, you can see that the basic technology here is quite simple. There’s likely to be quite a lot of movement in a very short amount of time. I’ll not just to connect a bit too, one of Greg’s comments about non-state actors is that I think there is a very real risk when it comes to non-state actors. I’m not sure how much worry that is a short-term because even though these are simple, like they’re from an attack perspective. There’s quite a lot of integration that you need to do.

I suspect it’s probably going to mostly remain in the domain of higher levels, like the Aum Shinrikyo type thing. it’s possible you may have like a one-off small actor, but it seems at least at the moment, not as likely, but certainly is likely to grow over the feature just given this level of simplicity. Drone swarms have applications really across all aspects of warfare. I think that’s why you see this incredible proliferation. Drone swarms can be useful for logistics in terms like bringing supplies to folks out in the battlefield, can be useful for mounting bombs or guns onto to carry out attacks. There’s been some work on using basically swarms as smart munitions to serve like a missile warhead that releases like 48 or some odd drones that all work together.

Of course, there’s also extensive applications across all aspects of offensive and defensive chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear warfare, which is of course what I’ll be focusing on today. I think I’m going to be breaking it up a little bit. I’m first going to be talking a bit about the chem, bio and radiological side and then about the nuclear I think there are distinct insignificant applications. At the moment, I’m going to be drawing some broader conclusions about what is likely to mean like on balance for broader CBRN warfare. Because there’s so many applications, I think it’s probably more important just to explore and think more carefully about where these applications are and how they mesh up. Because often I think imagination is a declaredly important aspect into how these stack up. For example, during World War II. Both France and Germany realized the importance of a tank for militaries, but France used it primarily as an adjunct to light infantry, whereas Germany designed their entire blitzkrieg strategy around it to significant effect.

The importance of that means that these drone swarms may be applicable in all sorts of ways that we’re not even really considering at the moment. There’s, I think, an important need to explore and think carefully about what this all means. Let’s dive into specifics. I think when it comes to chemical, biological, and radiological weapons, I think, again, you have applications for both offense and defense, but to me, I think that particularly impactful applications are around delivery systems for chem, biologic and radiological weapons. Historically, we know that a huge challenge with these weapons is environmental factors, where a bad wind might blow gas or cloud of sand into a bad area.

We know that historically, for example, from the decision to, actually it was in the 1960s or so the US tested, I believe it was sarin gas in the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. It was like a nice little controlled area where you don’t have anyone at risk but a bad wind ended up blowing the cloud into a nearby farm killing a whole bunch of sheep. Got a bunch of media attention in 60 minutes and it excited the passions of Congress folks who then helped launch a broader review of the chemical and biological weapons programs. The time leading to a biological program, even though ironically it was a chemical weapon that started. The point being here is that because these environmental factors are so big, that creates big challenges in terms of the reliability of these weapons. Which means if you can improve that, that can be quite significant, and drone swarms, I think, are likely to do that.

Because we’ve talked about a drone swarm, you can potentially integrate multiple different types of sensors, weapons, and other types of capabilities and have them all interact in and support one another. You could, for example, have a variety of environmental sensors that are monitoring wind conditions and then feeding that information to drones armed with CBRN agents to better tailor and position that they’re targeting. Alternatively, you can incorporate aspects of the same machine vision to better recognize more precisely where the target is and have a higher likelihood of placing the agent on a particular target. Now, that’s a really big issue because if we think, just think about the broader proliferation norms, those risks to civilians and the lack of ability is a big aspect of why we don’t use these weapons anymore. If you can improve that and that would just reduce, that potentially creates a real concern, especially at the same time where we’re seeing broader concerns over chemical norms, particularly around some of these open-source reporting about Russia and use of Nova chalk agents in various assassination programs at Balin recently released.

I think more than just improving that delivery, there’s all sorts of interesting and complex things that militaries can do if you have this mixed complexity where you have different types of sensors, different types of armaments. For example, what if you had a mixed chemical and conventional armed swarm in which the military says, sprays a bunch of chemical agents on an adversary to force them until the really restrictive protective gear slows their movement and makes it hard to respond. Then they follow up with a bunch of drones that are armed with, say, bombs and guns and then just kill them and destroy them. Or vice versa, start out with a bunch of guns and bombs to focus their attention, and so then they don’t pay attention to the chemicals being sprayed in the air around them that might create significant harm. I think it’s a very real concern there on the delivery system aspect.

I think there are also defensive aspects and Greg Kidd on I think both of the ones I was planning on doing around forensics and plume modeling, as well as some of the cleanup aspects. I think drone swarms escalate that capability even further. Because what you get with drone swarms is that mass aspect and coordination aspect where you have multiple drones working together to coordinate around behaviors. Rather than having, say, a single drone that’s searching an area, looking for signs of some chemical agent, you get a whole bunch of them that are all operating together.

You maybe have some ground drones that are working with aerial drones, and they’re communicating and collaborating and breaking out how exactly they are searching over a particular area of concern or monitoring for these plumes or getting, say, different angles around different data on that plume to get more precise modeling of where that spread is. That may even be integrated with say, live sensors about the population in the likely direction of where that plume is headed. Hey, is there some big group of people hanging out very clearly downwind?

I think there’s some very real applications that could be really interesting there to explore. On the nuclear side, I think again, there are applications for both offense and defense. I think on this side, I think the more significant aspect is on the defensive side.

Just follow the same order, we’ll start with offense again. I think offense is relatively limited here in drone swarms. It’s more of how technology may enable existing technologies, so you can imagine how collaboration, communication might be helpful for say, like cruise missiles or other types of missiles to slightly change their targeting depending on how they change it, where they’re heading towards a target. Already there’s been some work around communication between just regular types of bombs. It just better improved their targeting.

I’m a little bit skeptical about how significant that’ll be for nuclear weapons, just given the sheer size. Does it seem as important to have some of that communication collaboration? But I think there’s at least potential there. But I think again, like where there’s likely to be more significant aspects around the defensive challenge, particularly in identifying, targeting, and destroying some of these mobile delivery systems. Think about it from a broader nuclear deterrence perspective. It’s really important for states to have second strike deterrence where they can be assured that a single attack will destroy their entire nuclear forces. We have a summary and hide in the vastness of the ocean.

We believe that now even in the event of a major nuclear attack, there’ll be survivable, so if you can better identify and target those systems that tends to be quite significant. What you can imagine with drone swarms is how you might use that same collaboration, wide-spread area searches to try to search for some of these vehicles, either on land or even at sea, developing and there’s quite a lot of work going on building undersea drone networks as well and undersea vehicles. Where they may say search the ocean, looking for signatures or submarines.

Now I think realistically, given the vastness of the ocean, there’s going to be a lot of major logistics challenges that only have to be coupled extensively with intelligence, knowledge of adversary behaviors, doctrine, and very targeted to say, focus your search areas around known nuclear or submarine ports and stuff like that, rather than just searching the vastness of the ocean. But I think the potential for identifying these systems is very real.

There was a really fascinating international security article the other day that looked at submarine warfare. It touched on it. The main topic was something slightly different, but it was talking extensively about undersea competition and nuclear warfare during the Cold War and they found that based on historical records during, I think it was the ’60s and ’70s, the United States had such an understanding of Soviet nuclear submarine forces that they actually at the time believed they could actually take out all Soviet nuclear capabilities in a single strike because of particular aspects of how the Soviet forces were maneuvering their submarines, where it ended up being somewhat predictable, particularly when coupled with various sensor systems that were placed in various aspects of the ocean.

It’s certainly possible to imagine that enhancing that capability, having these broad sensor networks will get that same capability, identify and find some of these nuclear systems in conjunction with intelligence and doctrine and all these other aspects of it, are important too. Given all this application, what do we do about that? I think there’s a few things important to hit on. First, I think perhaps most importantly is red teaming and assessing adversary tactics and strategies. Thinking imaginatively about how states and non-state actors work as well, but again, I think that’s less of a risk.

But how might folks employ these in novel ways and how might these different ideas stack up. How big of a deal is it if you have some of these big networks of drone searching across the ocean or how big of a deal is it if you have these mixed chemical and biological delivery systems and we need to explore and figure out which of these are nice to think about, but may not really be that big of a deal, and which of these like, we need to really worry about these defensive measures. I think there’s a need to think about how we defend some of these nuclear delivery systems in new and novel ways. Particularly the role of decoys and disguise, I think are particularly important as we saw in the conflict of Armenia and Azerbaijan. Part of that, what’s makes these drones significant or that loitering capability where they can just sit and watch for movement of some particular vehicle and just destroy it as needed.

Drone in that case, destroyed a whole bunch of tanks and armored personnel characters and all those types of things. One of the answers to that is to better disguise these systems and deploy, as you can see, what looks like just a blow-up model of a little nuclear system there. But exactly what that looks like, I think it’ll be interesting. I think there’s probably also need to develop potentially even unmanned versions for some of these systems that may not necessarily be nuclear armed but look like them, because as we improve image recognition and high resolution images, some of these decoys may very well show up as more likely to be decoys. Nonetheless, I think just exploring some of these options is important.

Finally, I think this will tailor up nicely to our final presentation report. I think there’s a need to think about Counter UAS and integrating that within the Counter WMD space. Because if we think about detecting and stopping drone swarms armed with a bunch of chemical, biological, radiological agents, it’s really not all that different from detecting any type of drone. There may be some slight differences in terms of like, because a chemical drone probably has some big like canister that might be recognized, really much of the challenge is the same.

I think there’s a need to work together with all the different departments working on cUAS as well as interested in the WMD aspect of it, to think about what lessons learned have they found? What types of technology seems to be working better or worse, and how we can go about addressing these strategies. But to sum up, overall, I think there are some extremely broad applications for this technology, and I think this technology is here now, and so there’s a very real need to think carefully about what this needs and figure out our best solutions to reduce the risk and hopefully develop some better defenses.

Thank you.

Over to you, Nicole.


Thank you.

Let me see if I can share my screen here. It says the host has disabled sharing screen. That’s okay. I only had one slide, it’s fine. Hello, my name is Nicole Thomas and I am the Division Chief for Strategy and Policy in the Joint Counter UAS Office. Both Greg and Zack talked a lot about CBER and the implications of drones and swarm technology. I’m going to briefly cover what the Department of Defense’s approach is to addressing the potential threats and hazards from small UAS in general. We recognize that the threat is quickly evolving. In 2019, the Secretary of Defense designated the army to be the executive agent for Counter-Small UAS. To execute that designation, the Secretary of the Army set up the Joint Counter UAS Office or the JCO, which is where I work.

Our role is to synchronize Counter UAS efforts across the DoD. One of the first big things the JCO did was to complete an operational assessment of the equipment we have already fielded. Over the past couple of years, we fielded a lot of systems and this assessment allowed us to step back and pare down our systems to have few interim solutions in different categories like fixed, mobile and command and control. We also developed an operational requirements document that helps us focus our future investment on very specific capabilities.

The other big thing that we did in the JCO was to produce the DoD’s first Counter UAS Strategy, and that’s what my division was responsible for doing. As we were thinking through how to characterize the problem, we used a few key trends to help frame the central challenge that we felt the department was facing. One, first obviously, is the exponential growth of this sector, the expanding capability of these systems and its affordability are enabling and even more diverse set of actors that had access to the air domain and quite frankly, that’s something that was previously only for state actors and so now we have a variety of people who can do this.

The second is the increasing number of ways in which these systems can be used for nefarious needs as Greg and Zack pointed out. Third is the growing commercial and private use of small UAS, which is driving us to make it increasingly important that we have the capability and the training to detect and identify what’s flying near and above our operations. If you take a look at the strategy which is posted on the DoD website, we found a couple of things. One, we’re doing a pretty good job of developing and deploying material and sending it down range in contingency locations when needed. But our desire to be really responsive created a gap in training. One of the things the department tends to do is to synchronize our solutions to ensure that the policies and the training we provide support the material we’re developing.

Second, we realize that the joint force must be more agile in responding to emerging threats. That will require us to look at our processes and find ways to get after those threats faster. Finally, our interagency partners and international allies and partners around the world are our key enablers for the strategy. We dedicate a lot of effort that drives us to improve how we integrate and how we become interoperable with them. In the end, we want to give commanders and the joint force what they need to defend our facilities and personnel admissions. Given the complexity of the problem, we need to pull in a more diverse community to provide their unique perspective on this mission set.

Partnering with academia, and research labs and finding new ways to work with industry will be one of the ways we’ll be able to remain agile and stay ahead of the threat. Thank you. Well, thank you Nicole and we caught up a little bit on time. That was very synchronized and I appreciate it. Sorry, I didn’t get to share your slide but if you want to pull it up you’re most welcome.

We’ve got some terrific questions and because I think there’s just a lot of technical knowledge in this group I’m going to go directly to the questions and I hope I won’t garble them because some of them are more technical than I might understand. Let’s get started. What do you see as the future application of collaborative smart tools like facial recognition to run against a terrorist use of drones. Will this type of collaboration be useful when countering the CBRN deployments because presuming that there has to be proximity to controlling the use of the drones? Anybody want to grab that one? I think the private limited utility for that approach is just because one of the advantages of UAVs is that they can be remotely operated and it depends on the model but the individual, especially the example, the camera they can use for guidance.

Could be several miles away as the drone drew lines purely on GPS guidance. They might be completely autonomous and therefore there won’t be anyone operating them at the time. There might be other counter-terrorism applications for coupling facial recognition and drones but in the CBRN space, I don’t particularly see it as being a leading defensive measure. Greg, you may have partially answered the next question. How are terrorists controlling the drones? Is there an argument for regular signal disruption to prevent the approach of such drones as part of a perimeter of defense at a nuclear facility? Zack, do you want to come in on that one? Yeah, I can cover a little bit of that. I think there has been a little bit of work on that.

There’s been a big focus on geofencing. Within many of these drones, they had these in-built GPS systems and when they hit a particular sense of location the idea is they stop operating. There has been some work on that for sensitive facilities. However, it also looks like there are already available countermeasures available online and how to get around that. Thanks. We have a question on Iraq and one on Iran. Let me just put them together. Do you think that the militia forces in Iraq, the Shia-backed militias, the Iranian-backed militias are likely to be increasing their use of drones? The US military is developing drone defense measures but they’ve already started to see any engagement with forces in Iraq and the second question of the report that intercepted communications out of Iran said that there was a drone attack in DC.

Does anybody know anything about drones that Iran threatened DC with? Anybody know anything about those? I’ve not heard anything about that. I’ll comment on the general Iraq and Iran issue. I believe General McKenzie has commented a few times in the news media about how very concerned he is about drone use against forces. I can’t remember exactly which I believe was basically we’re getting straight outgunned. I might be misremembering but that was the basic gist of it. This is a major problem and he was particularly concerned about swarming and multiple drones coming together as a huge problem. But not necessarily with any WMD on it? No, not necessarily. Go ahead Nicole. Nothing.

It’s just I was going to piggyback on what he said. Yes, General McKenzie said that drones are very concerning. The most concerning thing since the IED and that’s pretty significant. Iran’s been having a lot of experience with these kinds of tactics by supporting the Hutu rebels and some of the attacks on Saudi Arabia. I would not be surprised if Iran experts on those tactics to the other proxy groups they support in

Iraq and Syria and Lebanon and elsewhere. Whatever is demonstrated and proven to be useful in one field of engagement I think we should expect it to pop up in other areas as well. But so far we’ve seen drones for surveillance purposes. Have we seen them heavily weaponized causing any casualties? In Yemen yes but in Iran or Iraq? I believe so. I’m not aware of specifics but I know ISIS, for example, used I think, 300 drone operations during the Battle of Mosul and I know at least quite a few of those were directly armed. Nicole. No, I was just going to comment on something Greg said earlier about replicating tactics and the recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is a good way. People are studying that fight because it had such novel things going on in it. That’s another example of things that are happening. They’re going to replicate across.


This may be for Nicole and I don’t know whether you can answer.

This is DOD working on a miniature rail gun that can be integrated into a UAV? I personally am not aware of that. It doesn’t mean it’s not happening, I just don’t know about that. Next question is, much of the UAV, UGV technology requires advanced data analytics and real-time processing to be truly effective. The same is true in order to truly defeat them. Could you comment on the critical requirement for application of AI, machine learning, advanced data analytics, and processing to enable timely informed decision making and enhance situational awareness to defeat and defend against these threats?


Thank you.

Yeah, that’s definitely important. What we have talked about in my earlier comments was that we have the operational capabilities requirements document which is a mouthful but it basically lays out the things that we need industry to help us build future capability. We’re looking at AI, automation, machine learning. Those are things that are going to help us get after the threat and close some of those gaps. Great. But one of the things that we’re doing is we’re trying to develop a joint common C2 called the jack C2.

That’s going to enable us to pull in that information. As we have AI and automation and machine learning, it’s going to pull in a lot of data. The common C2 is going to allow us not only to have a better site picture but it’s going to rationalize all of that data that’s coming in so that the operator can make better decisions and process that information that’s coming in and it will actually decrease the burden and stress on the operators. Actually has to make sense of what they’re saying. From someone at the CBRN academy, what are the required control measures that need to be applied to prevent CBRN drone attacks? Well, I think this is one of the real dilemmas we face because there’s such a proliferation of drones for civilian and commercial purposes that could be either misused or modified for misuse. That’s going to be a real challenge.

Zach mentioned geo fencing and there might be some other built-in features, but at the end of the day, those will be vulnerable to hacking or otherwise circumventing threats at the low end. Commercially available systems will definitely be harder to counter than some of the more high end threats that Zach was talking about that involve swarms and highly integrated systems. At some point, you have to focus more on the bottleneck which might be the CBR and agents themselves, not the drones as delivery systems.

Again, this is just to reinforce Zach’s point about the need for the counter UAS and the counter WMD communities to work more closely together to figure out where are the right bottlenecks and where are the places we should emphasize joint efforts to try and reduce some of those threats. I think that would be an important area moving forward. Thanks. Will Fed eventually be replaced by drone swarms or possibly used in conjunction? Do you see drone swarms being integrated at that level, Zach? I think there’s potential to integrate.

I would be skeptical about fully replacing it just given the size of the relative missiles. I don’t know enough about that system to comment for sure. But I think certainly looking at how drones swarms can integrate and support auto missile defense is definitely a good thing to do. I think it would make sense to integrate them if you look into what Russia is doing. They took a lot of lessons from their foreign countries such as Ukraine and Syria and they are integrating drones at every level and across all their services and that’s something you want to probably consider as well. Interesting. Commercial applications to swarms include displays and alternatives to fireworks, will this accelerate the hostile use of swarms?

I don’t think that probably we won’t accept the hostile use, but certainly the broader awareness that this technology is out there and could imagine it creating some challenges from responses in terms of like, this person is buying a whole bunch of drones, are they doing it for display purposes or commercial applications? Or is this potentially trying to do something hostile?


From Larry Pfeiffer, what are the greatest intelligence challenges and gaps that need to be addressed in the counter UAS domain? Is the intel community making this a priority? Yes, actually I co-chair the threat intelligence working group, and one of the things that we’re doing is we’re really improving, like I said in my earlier comments, that connective tissue between the intelligence and dread assessments, and the capability that we are developing. So we’re trying to make better use of that, and actually we’re doing a TTX further exploration of that.

That’s definitely something that’s going to be very critical if we’re going to get after some of these gaps. We also have a process that’s called the joint counter UAS strategic portfolios review, and that basically takes the threat assessment and looks at studies and analysis, and it looks at what our capability gaps are, and then we decide what we’re going to resource based on those gaps. Again, the intelligence assessments play a huge role in future capability development.

Nicole the next one is for you so keep your mic open if you can. Could you expand on the required training that you brought, who would be trained and what type of training? Can you say more about that? Yes. One of the things that we’re doing, as I said in my comments, is that we got to pair down those systems to a few, and then the idea is that we’re going to move into some joint capability. Before there were lots of systems out there and services had very service specific systems. But the training was inconsistent, and so what we’re doing is we are pairing those systems down, we’re having joint capability and with that we’ll have joint training. So we’re developing online training and they’re in the testing phase now.

We are going to have institutional training, a joint academy, not to address you to call it, but it’s going to be a way in which all the services will have a common level of training so that you don’t have that inconsistency. Great. Is there any unclassified information into the UAP reported by the USS Kidd off the coast of California? Anybody heard about that one? Okay, why don’t we move on. Somebody’s asking Nicole, could you post the reference to the publicly available document on the strategy. If you want to maybe tell people how to find it on the DoD website, I don’t know, would someone like to use it?



It’s on the DoD website and there’s a list of documents and all the documents that DoD has published for this year or last year are right there.

Or if you simply just Google counter UAS DoD strategy it’ll pop right up. Thanks. In what ways are we preparing for agricultural bio-terrorism? In your opinion, what should be done next?

Reduced biodiversity in US agriculture in some large swaths where essentially monoculture is very worrying. Greg, that looks like it’s up to your ally. Sure. There’s a longtime concern about our cultural bio-terrorism, but we have actually not seen any groups really interested in pursuing that type of thread. This case I’m trying to mention is one of the few cases we know of intentional, deliberate attempt to spread an animal pathogen. Unfortunately, our cultural system is very vulnerable in the center, it’s very open, it’s very large, it’s very spread out.

The one advantage we have though, is that because the system is so large, any attack will likely have a local impact, but is unlikely to be able to spread to become something that can affect the entire cattle population or the entire weak crop. Just because it is such a large and widely dispersed agricultural system. At this point, the focus is on controlling the pathogens that are of most concern, but the problem as demonstrated by the case in China is that a lot of these diseases that we worry about in the US that don’t exist naturally here are endemic in other parts of the world.

Transporting those types of agents into the US would not be that difficult. Animal plant pathogens are easier to disseminate than ones that are aimed at humans because you don’t need to actually aerosolized animal and plant pathogens into the very small particle size to infect humans. The key then becomes, if you can prevent a small-scale local attack, the key is early detection, and containment of the disease in that animal population or that plant population.

So really the emphasis should be on bio-surveillance by veterinarians and farmers and plant pathologists to make sure that we identify any outbreak early on and respond as quickly as possible to contain and prevent it from spreading. I think at this point that would be the area where I would emphasize more investments in terms of bio-surveillance for both animal and plant disease outbreaks. Somebody is asking if there’s any database, either academic or official that is tracking drone incidence. Is anybody aware of the publicly available data collection like we have on terrorism incidents? I was going to say yes, but then you said public. No, there’s no publicly available information that I’m aware of.

Oh, go ahead Please.

I think there was one published study that did collect all of them on non-state actor use, but I’m not aware that it’s kept alive. Probably there’s also some under the global terrorism database. I’m sure they’re capturing drone incidents but I’m not aware that they specifically fly like this is a drone versus other type incident. I’m going to combine two questions.

A few years back, there was just a lot of concern about the ethics of the use of drones that changed the nature of warfare with the threat not equally distributed among the adversaries and even the psychological stress on people who were managing drones in the US military. Do any of you work on the human dimension of drone policy and public attitudes towards drones? Maybe this is outside the parameters of today’s conversation but if anybody has something to add, that would be great. I think there needs to be focus on that. I’m generally a believer that drone swarms, not necessarily WMD armed but could very well just be a WMD in and of themselves which is a much larger discussion.

I think it’s important to bring up many of these concerns particularly, given these proliferation risks. I think trying to put major treaties and norms in place in a quick way is going to happen and once there’s pretty broad negative views like, hey, this is something we need to worry about. I think that’s definitely an important aspect of it. Greg, you mentioned that storage tanks or chemical plants are considered hard targets for attack.

How vulnerable to UAS attacks are the rest of the chemical facilities; pipelines, valves, corrugated steel warehouses, etc. Could you speak a little bit more about chemical plants? Sure. Either I misspoke or I miss heard because I don’t think those storage containers actually are hard targets, especially if you have a malicious actor that has access to shape-charged projectiles or anything that is able to have a piercing capability to it.

Those are very large tanks that are usually exposed from above very openly as opposed to there being better defenses on the ground to prevent unauthorized access to a facility. Those would be easier to target than pipelines, other things that are smaller targets. But I think this is an example of an area where chemical security and nucleus security in the US, if they haven’t grappled with the UAS threat the way that DOD has, then we will have lots of vulnerabilities that people are just not thinking about. This goes back to Zach’s plan about the importance of right teaming. DHS has chemical facility security standards.

I haven’t tried lately. I don’t know if they’ve been updated to deal with possible threats from above as opposed to traditional terrestrial assault. Same thing applies to nuclear power plants that have a design basis threat, last I heard was updated about 10 years ago. It probably does not include groups that have inside knowledge about the facility due to drones or using drones as flying IDEs to disrupt defenses or target backup systems at a noc facility. This is the thing I think that facilities and recommendations to who is in charge of security need to be looking at and thinking about and then figure out how to then increase awareness and update policies, procedures, and defensive measures in order to have a layered defense against this new type of threat that’s emerging. Thank you. We’ve really made good progress. We’ve gone through most of the questions. I thought just in the interest of time, I’ll throw out one more form and then if any of our speakers want to just make any final point.

The last question will be on resources and how the governments get ready from a financial resources and budget perspective to prepare countermeasures. Drones are inexpensive but countermeasures devices are very expensive. For law enforcement and defense, how do you anticipate that drone technology is going to become a more important driver of budget decisions and the competition for resources in both federal and state level budgets? Anybody want to come up? I didn’t know that drone technology is going to be driving those budget decisions, but definitely the cost curve is upside down. Drones are very inexpensive, countermeasures are incredibly expensive.

But we have to have an innovative approach to it. Since we are talking about swarms, I wanted to talk about what the Department of Defense is doing for swarms, and that cut ties into the budget piece. Nowadays the drone defense program is called THOR; is a tactical high-powered microwave operational responder and by the title, it’s a high-powered microwave. THOR is the perfect example, it encapsulates what the Department of Defense in general approaches for counter UAS. The department had a specific issue and that was a potential for swarms.

They needed to get some capability out there quickly and as you know the process for capability to validate from development, to testing to fielding is years and quite frankly, we don’t have that time. The folks that developed THOR did it in 18 months and that is very fast. They did it fairly inexpensively so it was $15 million. That’s a way in which we can be innovative and be quick and be relatively inexpensive. THOR does a couple of other things as well. We are putting a few more resources against that program in the next couple of years.

One of the things they want to do is create an exportable version of that and that’s really a big deal. As I said in my earlier statements, that our partners and allies are really key to our security overseas, and they often buy our capability, but there’s a long lead time to getting it because we have to work through releasability and for making that, I didn’t know that it’s exportable. With THOR, they’re doing that on the front end, so as soon as that is ready, they can go out the door. You don’t have that long lead time. I think THOR cracks the code on how to do things fast, do things inexpensively and get it up there to the field and it’s for our allies and partners.

Thank you, Nicole. Greg and Zach, any final thoughts and we’ll wrap up?

I was going to add to Nicole’s comment from a homelands perspective. I think there’s also a need to rethink some particular authorities and how we address counter UAS. Particularly where at the moment, only a handful of federal authorities are allowed to operate counter UAS systems but many of these threats are to private sector facilities. I think there’s a need to think about how you balance that. Personally, the one that I like to put out is tele-operated drone systems; counter-drone systems operated by federal authorities that are then disbursed to various facilities. But even if that’s not the best approach, that’s definitely a key issue. I think that needs to be addressed to reduce the threat.



I just want to highlight that this is just another one of these areas where you have emerging technologies, national security, homeland security, and public policy all intersecting and in a really interesting way. It’s nice to hear what DOD is doing on the threat but unfortunately, Zach and I have highlighted the way that threat keeps evolving and emerging. I think this is a dynamic threat and we’re going to need a dynamic process to keep evaluating it and trying to develop countermeasures to stay ahead of it. I think this is just going to be an enduring challenge we’re just going to have to be grappling with for several years. Thank you, Greg. A very perfect way to end.

Greatest thanks to Nicole Thomas for joining us.

Zach Kallenborn, terrific presentation.

Greg, thank you so much.

Thanks to everybody who tuned in and from time to time for upcoming programs. Thanks everybody and we’ll catch you next time.


Nicole Thomas

Division Chief for Strategy and Policy @Joint Counter-UAS Office, Department of Defense

Nicole Thomas is a civilian with the U.S. Army and the Division Chief for Strategy and Policy in the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office. She is a graduate of the United States Army War College.

Zak Kallenborn

Policy Fellow @Schar School of Policy and Government

Zachary Kallenborn is an analyst in horrible ways people kill each other: weapons of mass destruction, WMD terrorism, and drone swarms. Officially, he’s a Policy Fellow at the Center for Security Policy Studies at the Schar School of Policy and Government; a Research Affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), headquartered at the University of Maryland; an officially proclaimed U.S. Army “Mad Scientist”, and a national security consultant.

Gregory Koblentz

Associate Professor and Director, Biodefense Program @Schar School of Policy and Government

Gregory Koblentz is an associate professor and director of the biodefense program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. Koblentz has authored, co-authored, or edited multiple books on nuclear and biological threats and published widely on biodefense, biosecurity, dual-use research, and the proliferation of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Dr. Koblentz earned his PhD in political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his MPP from the Kennedy School at Harvard University.

Source: Schar




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