Getting 'Left-of-Launch' in the Counter-Drone Fight


(War on the Rocks)

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney defeats Houthi missiles and UAVs in the Red Sea, October 19, 2023, photo by PO2 Aaron La/U.S. Navy via Reuters

The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Carney defeats Houthi missiles and UAVs in the Red Sea, October 19, 2023

Photo by PO2 Aaron La/U.S. Navy via Reuters

by Caitlin Lee and Paul Lushenko

January 17, 2024

America's adversaries, including both state and non-state actors, have developed creative ways of using cheap, commercially available, and easily weaponized drones to assassinate opponents, destroy tanks, wage surprise attacks, smuggle drugs, and even conduct aerial dogfighting. Most recently, extremist groups such as the Houthis in Yemen have used drones to attack commercial shipping in the Red Sea. The democratization of drone technology means that countries, as well as terrorist organizations and “lone wolves,” are now able to conduct attacks with near impunity. This includes attacks against U.S. military forces deployed abroad, America's commercial interests on land, sea, and air, and even critical infrastructure and population centers on the homeland.

In response to this drone proliferation crisis, the U.S. government has largely focused on a narrow “right-of-launch” approach. This relies on defeating tactical drones after they are en route to their targets with a variety of point and stationary defenses—small-arms fire, arresting nets, dazzling lasers, frequency jammers, and even other drones. This prevailing approach is reflected in the administration's Domestic Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Action Plan, as well as the Department of Defense's Counter Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Strategy (PDF), both of which focus mostly on mitigation technologies.…

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Caitlin Lee is the director of acquisition and technology policy in the national security research division at RAND and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Paul Lushenko is an assistant professor at the U.S. Army War College, where he also serves as the director of special operations. He is the co-author of The Legitimacy of Drone Warfare: Evaluating Public Perceptions (2024).

This commentary originally appeared on War on the Rocks on January 17, 2024. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.