US Defense Department develops counter drone SWAT team

The Defense Digital Service (DDS) unit within the US Department of Defense (DOD) has set up a “SWAT” team that draws on the Defense Department’s in-house talent according to an article published in Breaking Defense. Under the leadership of the director of the Defense Digital Service, Brett Goldstein, the unit has pulled together existing DDS personnel and a Defense Innovation Unit project called Rogue Squadron to focus on countering small drones.

According to the article:

“Just how Goldstein plans to detect and down these drones is classified, but his personnel picks strongly suggest a focus on hacking and jamming their control systems, instead of physically stopping them.” It quotes Goldstein: “A fear of mine is there will be a new small-UAS [Unmanned Aerial System] threat which we don’t have a modality to detect and defeat, and that can put our troops and our partners at risk…..We’re going to use commercial [technology] where we can, but instead of letting folks be exposed to a threat… we’ll maintain a SWAT team of folks who can immediately respond.” That way, he said, “when there is a gap and commercial isn’t there — [if] a new threat appears this appear afternoon in the small-UAS space — we will work the problem right now, [and] we don’t have to wait for something to come up in the commercial space.”

Breaking Defense says that is a departure from the original concept for the DDS, which was to recruit Silicon Valley tech gurus with no prior defense-sector experience, bring them into the Pentagon for a few months to a year to work on a project, and then release them back into the wild. That remains the core model for DDS, but Goldstein, who succeeded founding director Chris Lynch in April 2019 strongly believes some problems require a longer-term commitment.

“Historically, we had projects that had a life cycle and then we exited out,” Goldstein said. “I’m putting a longer commitment into this space.” Now, “big” for DDS is still pretty tiny by Pentagon standards. The Defense Digital Service had only about 70 people when Goldstein started this project. It adds another 14 by absorbing Rogue Squadron, formerly part of the Defense Innovation Unit. The Rogue Squadron staff will remain co-located with DIU HQ in Palo Alto.

“We are top-notch engineers, and every engineer I assign to anything is a critical decision,” said Goldstein. “That is a big investment to us and that level of engineering and technical talent… will be very high impact.” According to the article, the basic technical problem here is data. An effective counter-drone defense needs to network different and incompatible sensors, each with its own fragmentary view of the battlefield, and then fuse their disparate data into a single, accurate and intelligible picture so human operators can make the correct decisions in real time.

But that’s not just a counter-drone question. It’s fundamental to the whole problem of coordinating far-flung Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps forces over land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Goldstein said: “This isn’t just about S-UAS; this is about broader DoD systems. It is exceptionally important that, as we have more things collecting data, that it’s easy to access and to integrate them. That’s where the nuances of design, APIs, data schema, things like that, become really relevant.”

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