• Smoke rises from an unmanned aerial vehicle after it was engaged by a counter system in March during the Hard Kill Challenge in New Mexico. Sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO), the challenge focused on stopping the growing threat posed by unmanned aerial systems. Photo by 1st Lt. Chelsi Spence, USAF, DTRA
     Smoke rises from an unmanned aerial vehicle after it was engaged by a counter system in March during the Hard Kill Challenge in New Mexico. Sponsored by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) and the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO), the challenge focused on stopping the growing threat posed by unmanned aerial systems. Photo by 1st Lt. Chelsi Spence, USAF, DTRA

Unmanned Systems the New Weapon for Terrorists

July 1, 2017
By Robert K. Ackerman
E-mail About the Author

JIDO fears that improvised threat devices may be the latest drone delivery packages.


Long a tool of allies trying to foil improvised explosive devices, unmanned systems now may be entering the fray against friendly forces. Both terrorists and nation-states are striving to employ these systems, especially airborne platforms, to deploy new types of improvised threats against U.S. and coalition forces.

Many elements of the U.S. Defense Department are working on ways to counter enemy unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization (JIDO) has joined the fight in part because the vehicles now are being used to deliver improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. JIDO’s rapid capability delivery gives it an edge in being able to rush countermeasures to the front.

Among the many tools JIDO is counting on to combat the UAV-IED threat is advanced information system technology. Better sensors for detection and tracking, coupled with new ways of data processing, could be key to defeating growing and emerging dangers in the battlespace.

JIDO is examining the different ways unmanned systems are being used today as well as how they might be used in the future. The organization’s red team is focusing on the unmanned systems challenge, and it is viewing several different unmanned technologies as burgeoning and potential threats. JIDO’s approach is to try to position itself to address new threats as, or even before, they appear.

“We anticipated this threat, as did many in the [Defense Department] community a few years ago,” relates Lt. Gen. Michael H. Shields, USA, JIDO’s director. “What we have done is organize in a way to both understand the threat and then be able to react and respond to it. Relatively recently, we were able to move and provide [countering] capability to theater with relatively quick turnaround.”

JIDO is addressing the new threat holistically, as it does with most improvised threats, he continues. This entails understanding adversarial networks that are leveraging the capability and technology; detecting, tracking and identifying; and assessing and exploiting the threat. 

“Our adversaries are innovating,” the general states. “They are focusing on research and development. We continue to focus on the IED threat—the different methods of delivering those IEDs—and we are as busy as ever.”

One irony is that JIDO used robots extensively in its early days of combating IEDs in Iraq. The organization remains closely connected to the explosive ordnance disposal community, Gen. Shields allows, but JIDO also focuses on future enabling technologies that might enhance its existing capabilities. 

“I can’t think of an organization that has transitioned and adapted to the threat more than JIDO,” he declares.

The Defense Department and political leadership continue to fund JIDO, especially through the Overseas Contingency Operations budget, with sufficient money to move rapidly as a quick reaction capability within the department, Gen. Shields imparts. He adds that, as JIDO’s director, he has the requisite authorities to act quickly to counter emerging threats. The organization also has modified its contract framework to provide greater flexibility and agility, along with cost savings, which the general describes as huge for JIDO.

The general continues that budget support for JIDO is solid, but if the organization were to receive more funding, he would invest it in capabilities to battle burgeoning threats, including unmanned aerial systems. Wish list aside, JIDO is focused on quickly delivering capabilities to the warfighter. That means within two years, he points out. He describes the organization’s approach as anticipatory rapid acquisition. 

Given the holistic take on its mission, JIDO is pursuing innovations in several areas. Computing and advanced analytics are high on the list, Gen. Shields offers. Deep machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language processing are targets of opportunity in industry and academia, he says. JIDO is performing secure DevOps—integrated development of operations, security and quality assurance—on its own classified networks.

Data processing is critical to JIDO’s mission as well, the general points out. “[With] the amount of data that our analysts are trying to make sense of, we have to find a way to shift the paradigm where they spend two-thirds of their time querying data and 30 percent thinking about the information,” he offers. The goal is to flip the equation so analysts spend 30 percent of their time querying data streams and 70 percent thinking about problems.

The number of JIDO analysts has declined as the risks and requirements of the job have grown. Technology must compensate for that reduction, Gen. Shields says. 

Information systems represent a prime example of how JIDO has evolved and continues to evolve, the general offers. The organization’s computing and advanced analytics architectures keep progressing, and JIDO is “posturing itself for the future” so it can bring in deep machine learning and artificial intelligence, he continues, describing this process as detailed and well thought out.

“You have to have the infrastructure to do that, and it must be done in an ‘eyes wide open’ way, especially when dealing with the multiple domains that JIDO collaborates in,” Gen. Shields declares.

The organization is moving forward with its long-standing effort to develop and integrate sensors, the general notes. It also is striving to reduce size, weight and power consumption among its technologies while increasing capability across a broader number of systems. “We’re very much interested in the third offset,” he allows, referring to the Defense Department’s strategy geared toward maintaining military pre-eminence for years to come by tapping innovation.

New technologies to counter vehicle-borne threats are part of ongoing JIDO research thrusts. The organization also seeks new capabilities to aid in tunnel detection, Gen. Shields says. 

“We have a broad portfolio from a detect-defeat perspective,” he comments.

Naturally, with technology comes people, and JIDO is working to combine the two in the most efficient way possible. “We’re looking at how we can leverage digital natives in JIDO,” the general offers. The organization is seeking ways to attract talented digital natives to provide disruptive ideas for problem solving. One challenge is that JIDO is competing for these people with other, more senior defense organizations, he notes.

JIDO already is heavily engaged in outreach to industry to tap technology that supports its mission. Gen. Shields relates that he spent a week meeting with Silicon Valley startups and big businesses to identify capabilities that could provide advantages to U.S. forces. “We have a large number of mission partners—a community of action, if you will,” he says. “The speed at which the commercial sector is developing these products is unbelievable.”

The organization’s traditional mission partners include national laboratories, and nontraditional partners include several new programs such as Hacking for Defense, which allows college students to solve complex technology problems critical to national security. Academic institutions such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, James Madison and Princeton universities are another group of partners, the general offers. This variety of partners could help JIDO stay up to date on emergent disruptive technologies.  

Gen. Shields emphasizes that JIDO is not interested in black boxes as much as it is in specific capabilities. Organizations frequently offer a complete package system when JIDO wants just a single element, such as an algorithm, he says. “I want to be able to have a conversation with a company, startup or organization where I can describe what capability we specifically want, and that is what we are essentially pursuing,” the general states. 

This flexibility is enabled by JIDO’s own rapid capability development approach. The organization leverages it for all three lines of operations: attack the network, defeat the device and train the force. JIDO also uses it throughout the combatant commands, Gen. Shields says, adding, “We need help in finding the latest and most capable technology to help us with our problem set.

“We’re about creating value for our service members, but also at a reduced cost, while being good stewards of the resources we’ve been given.”

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