A-10 Warthog
Frame from CBP video of a UAS trailing a USAF A-10 Warthog, courtesy of The Black Vault
Much is being written today about the disruptive impact of drones in modern warfare. Rightly so, because these small, inexpensive, and highly capable devices are transforming military operations. They are accurate and effective; hard to identify or intercept; and can be operated with minimal infrastructure or training. A single soldier today can operate an eye in the sky or conduct his own bombing mission. As we are seeing in Russia and Ukraine, new drone uses, applications, and capabilities are rapidly advancing while the defense struggles to catch up.

It is therefore not surprising to see footage of fallen soldiers and destroyed armored vehicles that succumbed to drone attacks. Even the mighty Russian Black Sea Fleet, a massive investment of resources and manpower, has suffered humiliating defeats and been neutralized by a relatively tiny investment in guided missiles and small drone watercraft packed with explosives.

Although the effects on the battlefield are profound, they are also being felt far from the front lines. St. Petersburg and Moscow, hundreds of miles from the Ukrainian border, have both suffered drone attacks. Iranian drones are also helping to throttle shipping through the Red Sea and were responsible for the recent deaths of 3 U.S. soldiers in Jordan. They are even being used as tools of assassination by drug cartels in Latin America.

Meanwhile, manufacturers and nation states are working feverishly under wartime pressure to increase the range, lethality, and defensive capabilities of these small, unmanned vehicles. Advances in artificial intelligence will soon enable swarms of drones to operate in a highly sophisticated and completely autonomous manner. At some point they will become "fire and forget" systems, with no control signals to jam, making the threat more daunting than it already is. They'll also be able to do things like land and hide until conditions change before resuming their mission or spread out and attack a target from multiple directions simultaneously, making them even more difficult to defend against. For all these reasons, there is an urgent need to develop and deploy effective drone countermeasures.

What Americans do not yet realize is the shocking extent to which unmanned aircraft of unknown origin are already penetrating restricted airspace and disrupting military operations here in the United States. The situation is so bad that fighter aircraft from Langley Air Force Base were relocated last December due to the collision hazards presented by recurring drone incursions that the Air Force proved unable to stop. This is only the latest instance of Air Force or Navy training activities being disrupted by the presence of unidentified aircraft. The continuing inability of our military to control or defend its own airspace should shock and concern policymakers and the public. After all, if the Air Force and Navy can't defend the airspace around their own bases, how can they defend the rest of the country?

The cases discussed below involve persistent and sophisticated incursions into government airspace by drones, or what the military calls Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS)1, operating in a coordinated manner. This includes drones able to follow warships at sea for hours in foggy weather, a performance that far exceeds the range and duration of civilian drones. Other unmanned aerial systems have been observed by U.S. fighter aircraft operating in military airspace as high as 35,000 feet, although the legal limit for civilian drones is only 400 ft. In some cases, these small craft are using spotlights to illuminate and probably photograph sensitive military systems. To date, they have proven impervious to U.S. anti-drone technologies. Our government has had no success in determining where they are coming from or who is operating them. It is also surprising that not a single one has malfunctioned and been recovered despite extensive operations by large numbers of them over extended periods of time. Although the well-documented cases below are adequate to illustrate the problem, they are only a small fraction of the total number of reports of unmanned aircraft violating restricted U.S. military airspace.
1 Although mysterious and unidentified, I will not be referring to these craft as Unidentified Anomalous Phenomenon (UAP) for several reasons. First, in most cases the objects are not demonstrating the radical capabilities that characterize UAP. Aside from a report related to me by a Deputy Sheriff in Nebraska, few of these cases allege instantaneous acceleration, hypersonic speeds without heat or noise signatures, low-observability, or trans-medium travel. Second, in some cases the observers explicitly describe these objects as "quadcopters" or "quadcopter-like." I see no reason to doubt the witnesses. Finally, I want to avert the distracting and unproductive debates concerning jargon and definitions. It is crucial to bear in mind that as alarming as these reports are they are only a subset of a much larger pattern of mysterious and anomalous aircraft being reported by military personnel. The UAP challenge is critical as well and I've written much about it, but it is important for policymakers and the public to understand that in addition to hundreds of annual reports of UAP there is an alarming pattern of activity by what appear to be more conventional unmanned aircraft violating sensitive U.S. airspace. Recognizing this problem is crucial, but it is also critical to bear in mind that it is only one part of the much larger challenge of trying to effectively monitor and control U.S. airspace.
The worrisome pattern discussed below was first identified by two extraordinary investigative journalists, Tyler Rogoway and Joseph Trevithnick, writing for The War Zone. Both have been doing their best for years to draw attention to the growing mismatch between U.S. air defense capabilities and the threat posed by UAS. Their work in turn has heavily benefited from the results of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests submitted by UAP researcher Douglas Johnson. Most of the information below is derived from the work of these three individuals. My hope is that aggregating the data will help readers better appreciate the urgency and extent of the problem. In each case below, other than the Customs and Border Patrol Videos, an associated War Zone article is accessible through an embedded link in the underscored sub-heading title (e.g. "Guam 2019)." Even if you are only skimming, I urge you to briefly click on these links to get a better sense of how serious and well-documented these incidents are.

Those interested in doing some research on their own may want to peruse FAA data or the data made available by the Office of the All-Domain Anomaly Resolution Office (AARO), although AARO's data is not clearly presented or easily parsed.

2019 | Guam

From late February to early March of 2019, unidentified UAS with bright spotlights made recurring incursions over Andersen Air Force Base, one of America's most important military facilities in the Indo-Pacific. The aircraft seemed especially interested in the newly installed THAAD anti-ballistic missile system. They were observed hovering above it and shining bright lights down on it, perhaps to facilitate video imagery of the system. The THAAD system is obviously of keen interest to the People's Republic of China. In fact, the introduction of a THAAD anti-missile system into South Korea in 2016 led to Chinese diplomatic protests and restrictions on South Korean trade and cultural imports. If China was operating these drones (as seems likely) this is far more concerning than a balloon drifting at 60,000 feet because in the event of conflict they could neutralize Guam's primary defense against incoming Chinese ballistic missiles. North Korea, which also has ballistic missiles thought to be capable of reaching Guam, is another potential source of these intrusions.

2019 | Multiple US Navy Vessels Operating off the coast of Southern California

Also in 2019, U.S. Navy ships off the coast of California began reporting incidents of surveillance by mysterious, small, brightly lit UAS, presumably some kind of advanced drones. They were able to operate in adverse conditions with low visibility, following U.S. warships for hours. The article at the link above describes some of the initial incidents. There have been other similar incidents since that time involving many other U.S. Navy warships. These reportedly include the USS Kearsarge, USS Russell, and USS Omaha. Here is an excerpt from one of 35 reports obtained by The War Zone involving these incidents:
"PHM [USS Paul Hamilton] observed four UAS with a CPA [closest point of approach] approximately 200 yds off the bow, port and starboard beams. The UASs had an on station time of approximately 2 hours and 20 minutes. The first UAS was spotted by lookouts at 0240L. observed with a single, solid white light off the port bow. At 0326L as PHM turned to course 180T, a second UAS was observed flashing the bow and bridge of PHM with what appeared to be a searchlight or photographic device. UAS closed to within 500 yds of PHM, repeatedly maneuvering aft to fwd. At 0330L, a UAS with four white lights and a flashing red light hovered approximately 200 yds above PHM and maneuvered from aft to forward. At 0332L, another UAS hovered with no lights approximately 300-500 yds off the bow of PHM and once again shined the bow and bridge with what appeared to be a searchlight or photographic device. PHM proceeded east after which the UAS maneuvered to match PHM course and speed, before departing the area to PHM's port side. UASs sighted in immediate vicinity of PHM from 0240L until 0530L. Point of origin of all UASs is unknown. UASs were observed visually, with optical sighting system, and night vision goggles. Three UASs were identified visually as quadcopters."
After analysis of similar events off both the East and West coasts of the U.S., the Defense Department expressed reasonable confidence that in both cases the small airborne objects were drones. As usual, DoD and the IC still do not seem to know where they originated, who is operating them, or for what purpose.

2019 | Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant

September of 2019 was also a busy time for UAS reportedly swarming around the Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant. Notably, in this case as in many others cited here, the drones had flashing red and white lights. Again, these drones flew without hindrance or restriction and no identification was made.

2020 | Eastern Colorado / Western Oklahoma

This is an exceptionally strange case because the UAS activity continued not for days or weeks, but months, in a remote rural region near U.S. nuclear missile weapons silos (the Air Force maintains these ICBM bases were not intruded upon). The occurrences were so frequent that local farmers and ranchers became very vocal in demanding answers. They were also notable because of the number of drones (sometimes 40 in a single group). This led to the formation of a task force involving the military, FBI, DHS, and local law enforcement. The State of Colorado even dispatched a reconnaissance aircraft fitted with infrared sensors to assist the search, all to no avail. Yet, despite these efforts and the small population of this remote rural region where strangers easily stand out, once again no UAS operators were identified, and no drones were recovered.

During the course of these events, I made contact with a Sheriff's Deputy in rural western Nebraska who recounted a curious incident. While responding to a call from a farmer reporting drones over his land, the Deputy stopped and pulled his truck to the side of the road for a better view. He and the Sheriff (at a different location) saw the swarm of drone lights. Then, a larger brightly lit object came into view. The smaller UAS soon disappeared inside it, after which the "mother ship" took off at an astonishing speed, passing almost directly over his truck. He said he's never seen anything move that fast. I asked if law enforcement had made any effort to identify the UAS operators. He told me the Sheriff's Department had stopped and searched vans and trucks but found no evidence of anyone operating these enigmatic drones. The Deputy was not alone as official documentation reveals several other officials also reporting what they described as "mother ships."

2023 | Arizona Air Force Training Ranges

Once again, by reviewing FAA records and using the FOIA process to obtain Air Force safety reports, War Zone reporters identified a cluster of significant intrusions of restricted military airspace in Arizona. FAA records show a wide range of reports of unmanned vehicles from both military and civilian pilots, some operating in groups and some at altitudes over 30,000 ft., vastly higher than the maximum altitude of recreational drones. The military likely has other reports that went to AARO and are not part of the FAA's unclassified reporting system.

2023 | Langley AFB

Last December, mysterious, brightly lit drones began appearing over Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. As the intrusions continued, security was enhanced, and fighter aircraft patrols were launched. When these efforts failed to identify or deter the drones, an aircraft with special sensors was borrowed from NASA- All to no avail as flagrant intrusions by the brightly lit craft continued for weeks. These intrusions were so extensive and persistent that fighter aircraft were relocated from Langley to other air bases. To date, the Air Force still does not know who was operating these drones, where they originated, or why they were flying over the Air Combat Command at Langley Air Force Base for several weeks in December.

Ironically, one of Langley's missions is to help secure the airspace over the National Capital Region. If Langley AFB cannot protect its own airspace, how can it protect the nation's capital?

If the recent incidents at Langley AFB were a singular event, it would be easier to understand the lack of discussion by the press, Congress, or the Department of Defense. After all, it takes time to process new information and time for the enormous wheels of government to turn. Unfortunately, as demonstrated above, the events at Langley are merely the latest in a string of incidents in recent years involving small UAS operating with impunity in U.S. military airspace.

Customs and Border Patrol

To its credit, Customs and Border Patrol posted a number of UAS videos they acquired while conducting border surveillance and running counter-narcotics operations. These official videos provide yet more evidence of strange unidentified UAS operating in U.S. airspace. In one of these incidents, a strange UAS flying was filmed following an Air Force A-10 Warthog. In other cases, police jet ranger helicopters were outmaneuvered and outrun by sophisticated, unidentified drones.

Conclusions, Unanswered Questions, and a Solution

Our lack of preparedness to defend against this rapidly evolving threat is disturbing but not altogether surprising. After all, just last year NORAD and the Air Force were completely blindsided by China's use of high-altitude balloons for strategic surveillance. Similarly, the tragic events of September 11th, 2001, revealed the Air Force had no plans to deal with the hijacked civilian airliners. That scenario was not something our enormous bureaucracy had considered or prepared for. However, as bad as it was, hijacked civilian jetliners were never going to sink the fleet or change the global balance of power. By contrast, if a potential adversary has developed the ability to fly through U.S. air defenses with impunity, we'll soon find ourselves at a grave military disadvantage.

To date, the most unusual and concerning feature of these UAS is not their aeronautical capabilities but their seeming total immunity to U.S. counter-UAS technologies. In fact, rather than acting like furtive spy craft, these drones are flying brightly lit after dark, seemingly without concern for detection or U.S. countermeasures. Some are even brazenly using spotlights to illuminate and perhaps film U.S. military systems. This has happened not only on Guam but to Navy ships far out to sea and at least one nuclear power plant. Sometimes these UAS are shining spotlights right into the bridge of Navy warships, as though deliberately seeking to provoke a response. This behavior suggests that they are either trying to get our attention, trying to send a message, or they are utterly unconcerned by U.S. military countermeasures. Such lack of concern may be reasonable as nothing we have done to date has been effective. That's right- we've not managed to capture, disable, track to its point of origin or identify any of these UAS. Nor do any seem to have malfunctioned, which is also extraordinary given the number of drones in these swarms (sometimes swarms of 40) and the number of incidents and their duration (hours at a time).

Although there are numerous cases where military operations have been disrupted, it seems doubtful the government itself knows the total number of such incidents in recent years. It also seems doubtful there is any single location in the government where all this information comes together. Perhaps AARO should become a fusion center for all unidentified vehicles, not just those demonstrating anomalous performance characteristics.

These incidents are certainly more troubling than a lumbering Chinese balloon that can be easily spotted and if necessary destroyed thousands of miles from our borders. Rather than floating uncontrolled at 60,000 feet, these mysterious UAS seem able to monitor military bases and training areas indefinitely at close range where they can collect granular intelligence. During wartime they might be able to inflict crippling damage to critical military systems and facilities or civilian targets. Anyone watching news coverage of the war in Ukraine realizes how grave a threat UAS are today. If these UAS prove to be Chinese or Russian, that would be alarming, but we'll never know (until perhaps it is too late) if we don't get serious about identifying the source of these intrusions and deploying effective countermeasures. In that regard, I was thrilled to see an op-ed in the Washington Post last week by the Chairman and Ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee discussing this issue, even if their article did not reflect an awareness of the full extent of the problem or suggest a solution.

This has been going on for far too long. I believe we should set about downing and recovering some of these drones ASAP to get the answers we need. We shot down a Chinese balloon operating at high altitude in civilian airspace last year and confirmed it was a Chinese spy platform engaged in intelligence collection. Isn't it past time to get serious about recovering some of these drones as well?

Title 18 of the U.S. Code authorizes the use of deadly force to protect national security information. If we can shoot down a high-altitude balloon in civilian airspace, why can't we take down a drone shining lights directly down upon something as important and sensitive as the THAAD missile battery on a U.S. Air Force Base in Guam? This can surely be done without putting civilians or base personnel at risk. It might require nets or lasers or electronic warfare or missiles or a 12 gauge shotgun, but certainly we can find some effective means to protect our facilities, identify the perpetrators, and hold them accountable.

In conclusion, I am not suggesting America is under imminent threat of drone attacks. What I am saying is that we are clearly vulnerable, and like the unlocked cockpit doors on commercial aircraft prior to September 11th, 2001, that vulnerability will someday be tragically exploited if we fail to take corrective action. Now that we are aware of the problem, there is no excuse for inaction.