Can the US Upgrade Its Infrastructure to Defend Against Drone Attacks?

Is critical infrastructure in the U.S. protected at all?
Ameya Paleja
A computer-rendered image of an attack drone (left), and a power grid (right).1, 2

No one is invulnerable forever.

In a first-of-its-kind attack on U.S. soil, a drone was used to attack an electrical substation in Pennsylvania in 2020. While the location of the attack wasn't revealed, a new document from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center are in circulation with U.S. law enforcement agencies, according to a recent New Scientist report.

And it turns out we may need an infrastructural overhaul to defend against drone attacks.

Lack of infrastructural surveillance leaves gaps drones can leverage

In their combat versions, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones are likely to become the first choice of attack for military establishments. While deploying and countering drones at the battlefront is the new challenge for militaries, consumer drones can also pose a risk to national security. A few years ago, an amateur drone landed on the Royal Navy's biggest warship and nobody noticed. Warships today are preparing to strike down any unknown vehicle in the air or at sea, but critical infrastructure like electrical grids still lacks such technological protections.

This is why the modified drone that flew over the substation in Pennsylvania posed such a threat. The seemingly harmless drone had a trailing tether of a copper wire, says the report. Had it come in contact with the high-tension equipment at the substation, it could've potentially caused a short-circuit. Or, worse still, spawned a fire and damaged equipment. The U.S. intelligence establishments know this all too well, not because they know the science behind this but more so because the U.S. Air Force deployed such tactics when fighting Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999. What is called the 'graphite bomb,' the USAF dropped dense clouds of extremely fine carbon filaments over high voltage equipment like transformers and power lines, causing short circuits and disrupting power supply across the country.

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Counter-terrorism still largely assumes attacks are ground-based

That wasn't the first time the U.S. used these sabotage-focused tactics. It had used it at the beginning of the decade during the Gulf War, reportedly taking down 85% of Iraq's electrical supply. Reports suggest that almost three decades later, South Korea wants to deploy similar tactics against its northern neighbor. The military may also be considering directed energy or high microwave weapons to counter drone threats, but, infrastructure protection is threadbare inside the country.

As New Scientist reports, even today counter-terrorism defenses assume threats to be ground-based. This is why we see fences and obstructions placed everywhere. Drones are easily accessible and do not need to carry heavy payloads to cause massive damage. Counter-drone tech is deployed only at a few places leaving much at risk. And in the wake of the Afghanistan pullout and compounded by rising tensions with Russia and China, the U.S. has a long way to go in its efforts to upgrade its counterterrorism efforts for the 21st century of soft power and guerilla-style drone warfare.

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