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Do commercial drones pose a genuine security threat? Owen West, a former Marine who U.S President Donald Trump hired to advise Secretary of Defense James Mattis on special operations recently stated that within five years, any terrorist will be able to shop online for the latest commercial drone, weaponize it, launch it and fly it across the Atlantic to attack the U.S. mainland. West explained his five-year security outlook to lawmakers during a hearing in June, and his comments were immediately dismissed by experts as outlandish.
“The timeline for it is not realistic,” Peter Singer, a specialist on 21st-century warfare, told VICE News. However, West’s doomsday vision touched on a grim reality that’s already stoking fear throughout the Pentagon.
According to Gen. Raymond Thomas of the U.S. Special Operations Command, commercial drones posed the “most daunting problem” for his troops in 2016. Security analysts are concerned the threat from commercial drones will soon extend far beyond the battlefield. Likely targets can include military bases, power plants and nuclear facilities, as well as spaces of large outdoor gathering, such as sports stadiums, shopping malls and skyscrapers.
The Department of Defense is actively working on developing the tools to counter these threats. It has awarded tens of millions of dollars in contracts to drone defense companies and is partnering with companies like Droneshield, which developed the signal-jamming DroneGun. A Defense Department spokesperson stated that the new directive was not a response to anyone specific incident.
In general, UAS countermeasures typically range from “soft kill” options like jammers to “hard kill” options including the use of lasers or bullets.
Commercial drone attacks are increasingly popular among terrorists because they are easier to carry out than traditional attacks like suicide bombings, according to a report by the International Center for the Study of Violent Extremism. Some coalition allies have deployed commercial drones on the battlefield for the same reason — they’re cheap and effective — but the U.S. Army has taken a cautious approach thus far. In early August, the U.S. Army ordered troops to stop using drones made by Chinese manufacturer DJI due to “increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products”