Our Counter-UAS Tech is Mighty

Caveat emptor…. Let the buyer beware.

It’s a red ocean of counter-UAS tech now. We are currently tracking over 130 different systems. So, it’s not surprising to see misleading claims as suppliers struggle to maneuver around their competition and stay ahead of the rapidly evolving threat.

Buyers of counter-UAS tech should be aware of these claims and be ready to challenge the supplier when they hear or see them. Here’s a few to look for…

 

Claim #1: Our detection technology cannot be circumvented…

Every counter-UAS system is going to have vulnerabilities. Some are easier than others to exploit. For example, if your counter-UAS system only relies on radio frequency detection, a simple adversary countermeasure is to just turn the data links off. Radars, on the other hand, require more complex efforts such as aircraft shaping and mission planning for low observability. A good counter-UAS system will utilize multiple approaches to detection to compensate for individual vulnerabilities. This approach makes the adversary’s job more difficult, but not impossible. Our Villains’ Guide to Drones (a red team tradecraft compilation) can attest to the art of the possible.

Also, detection is not the end game, it’s just the beginning of an engagement. Your next steps are going to depend on the type of threat. For instance, if the adversary is conducting surveillance, detection is generally a bad thing. The adversary prefers to be clandestine (undetected) or at least covert (detected, but non-threatening).  Otherwise, you can employ surveillance countermeasures and possibly attempt to interdict the drone and operator. But if the adversary is attempting a strike, detection may become less relevant. They may try to delay detection and use speed to get to the target faster than you can respond. They may also use deception or many drones (e.g. swarms) to create confusion in the identification and defeat phases of the engagement. In today’s domestic environment, defeat is still a question mark. A great deal of effective defeat tech exists, but they come with many legal and liability issues. A well-prepared adversary should know this and be ready to exploit it.

 

Claim #2: We’ve successfully been through government testing…

You cannot completely accept or reject government testing of counter-UAS tech. In some cases, especially for defeat effectors, it may be the only type of objective testing the system will ever receive due to technical hurdles, legal issues, etc. That said, it is important to recognize the government test objectives may not align with your security requirements. For example, a given military exercise may be driven by current threats in a conflict zone such as Syria and Iraq. In a domestic setting though, the target and general operating environment can be drastically different and there is no guarantee an actor will operate in the same manner.

Then there is the matter of scenario difficulty. You should be on the lookout for cherry picking of results. Developers and their supports certainly want to see their solution succeed. So, they may purposely choose to avoid scenarios with low probabilities of success or occurrence. Too often, testing is oriented towards demonstrating requirements or capabilities rather than exploring what-if scenarios. The problem is one of those what-if scenarios may be your situation. Fundamentally, the best evidence of effectiveness is real-world engagements in a relevant environment.  In the absence of this information, you should press the supplier for test data to determine if it is relevant to your situation.

 

Claim #3a: Drone technology must be met with counter-drone technology…

Claim #3b: We don’t think adversary tactics are important…

We need to remember the adversary is really the person or group which acquires and operates the drone. The drone is just a tool. Their motivation and capabilities will dictate how that tool gets used against you. You may draw an unsophisticated adversary, flying well-known consumer drones in straight and level flight in the middle of the day. Then again, you may draw the well-trained, sponsored group who is adept at building their own drones and countering various types of defenses with denial and deception. The sophisticated adversary may know how to turn the data link off, how to design the drone for lower signatures, how to maneuver their drone in response to a hunter-killer drone, … how to use your counter-UAS tech against you. The fact is the drone cannot be divorced from the operator. Drone threats cannot be placed in neat groups based on weight, speed, etc. alone. The threat must be categorized based on the tech and who’s behind the tech, otherwise surprise is inevitable as the drone threat matures.

Now, the best place to stop unwanted drone activity is before the drone gets in the air, left of launch. Here, the human element is just as, if not more, important than the tech.  You want to influence the planning and preparation phases as much as possible. An example is working with local model aircraft clubs and law enforcement to identify suspicious drone activity. Also, you want to influence from where a drone is launched. Using existing security measures and tech, it is possible to either deter potential launches or interdict operators in real-time. Is it foolproof? No. Hence the reason we recommend layered approaches. Old-school and new-school. No tech, low tech, and high tech.

 

These examples are based on actual claims by well-known companies, so you are likely to come across them. The saying “trust but verify” certainly rings true. Unfortunately, the verification is the difficult part.

 


Rapidly evolving technology is creating new security challenges for many organizations. If your organization finds itself in the position of discovering or mitigating drone threats and needs another perspective, consider hiring the threat. Consider hiring a red team like AISC. Contact us for a consultation.

 

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