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Pentagon opens 'university' to prep troops against evolving drone warfare

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The opening hours of the horrifying attack on Israel by Hamas militants included the use of cheap, surprisingly effective, small drones. They're a weapon that has also become a constant in the war in Ukraine and one that the Pentagon has watched with growing concern. It is opening a university later this month to train troops to fight a threat that is rapidly changing the nature of war. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: This is probably not the best way to knock out a drone. In a video from Ukraine to 5 Kanal TV network, two soldiers crouch in a trench. They hide as a Russian drone buzzes overhead.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

PRICE: "I can't see it," he says. Then the soldier does.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Speaking Ukrainian).

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)

PRICE: And in desperation, the hunted becomes the hunter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: Yeah. Yeah.

PRICE: The Ukrainian soldier got really lucky. One of the flurry of shots from his assault rifle somehow downed the platter-sized quadcopter, maybe only seconds before it revealed his position to Russian artillery. The U.S. military is keen to figure out how to knock small drones from the sky, but not with haphazard approaches like spraying bullets from an assault rifle. The urgency has been underlined by the war in Ukraine, where both sides routinely use small drones to pinpoint each other's location. Some drones also can drop small bombs or fly into a target loaded with explosives.

STACIE PETTYJOHN: You're seeing drones used on a scale that has never been seen before.

PRICE: Stacie Pettyjohn is with the Center for New American Security. So many drones are being used that one British think tank estimated Ukraine alone was losing 10,000 a month. That figure may be high, but Pettyjohn says there's no question the numbers are substantial.

PETTYJOHN: Here you see both sides using them and adapting and sort of learning from each other and then developing new ways to counter them.

PRICE: And for the U.S. military, the mission to counter small drones has become critical. General James Rainey leads Army Futures Command, which helps keep pace with changes in technology and other aspects of warfare.

JAMES RAINEY: We don't have five years to wait for the perfect system. We got to rapidly innovate with what's possible now and keep getting better, because even when we figure it out, they're going to make a countermove.

PRICE: The Pentagon calls drones UAS, for unmanned aircraft systems. And at the Army's Joint Counter-small UAS Office, Colonel Glenn Henke is a deputy director. His office coordinates anti-small drone efforts for all service branches. He says even before Russia invaded Ukraine, the military began planning a new counter-small UAS university. It's at Fort Sill, Okla., and the first classes begin this month. Henke says it will eventually train about a thousand troops a year to plan, install and operate a variety of anti-drone defenses.

GLENN HENKE: There's no silver bullet in any of this. There's no one system that will do everything. So you have to have a system of systems approach, and that allows us to address the threats that can be employed against us and our allies.

PRICE: He says the military already has more than a dozen systems. Some strike drones with objects such as shrapnel or even other drones. Some use microwave energy or lasers. Others try to disrupt the signals that control drones. Pettyjohn, the think tank drone expert, says having a wide range of approaches is crucial against today's drones and more sophisticated looming threats, such as drones controlled by AI and drone swarms.

PETTYJOHN: Even right now, you're seeing with these smaller drone attacks where two or three sometimes are operating together. That is enough to overwhelm the air defenses. So you have to imagine that - the challenges associated with that if you move into dozens or hundreds of drones.

PRICE: Several nations - some friendly, some not - are developing swarm drones. Henke's office recently put out a call for proposals for systems to counter those. It wants manufacturers to have working versions ready to demonstrate in June.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF MINUTEMEN'S "COHESION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jay Price is the military and veterans affairs reporter for North Carolina Public Radio - WUNC.