As drones become smarter, cheaper, more nimble, easier for rogue adversaries to acquire and more advanced adversaries to evolve, they pose a unique threat for the U.S. military that grows in importance as the objects themselves diminish in size. This year, trends in autonomy will reshape drone capabilities and concepts, making them more offensively useful and even harder to defend against.

“Drones and most likely drone swarms are something you’re going to see on a future battlefield…I think we’re already seeing some of it,” said Army Gen. John Murray, who leads Army Futures Command. “Counter drone, we’re working the same path everybody else is working in terms of soft skills and hard kills via a variety of different weapons systems. It just becomes very hard when you start talking about swarms of small drones. Not impossible but harder.”

The U.S. military plans to spend $83 million this year to buy lasers, electromagnetic devices, and other means to take down small drones. By year’s end, the destroyer Preble will get a 60-kilowatt laser and an optical dazzler, while the Air Force will deploy a Tactical High Power Microwave Operational Responder, or THOR. But the Pentagon will spend $404 million — almost four times as much — to develop new anti-drone defenses, the Congressional Research Service reported Jan. 11.

Future counter drone efforts will be coordinated by the year-old Joint Counter Small Unmanned Aerial System Office, or JCO, which released its first strategy document on Jan. 7. The office was established after individual services had spent “a couple billion dollars” to develop and deploy counter-drone tech, Army Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, who leads the 60-person JCO, told a CSIS audience recently.

Such efforts managed to field a few systems, like the Marine Air Defense Integrated System that the Navy used in July 2019 to down an Iranian drone. (The system was mounted on a truck on the deck of the USS Boxer.) But the services’ hurried, disorganized efforts produced “several redundant systems” and “not all of it worked as advertised,” Gainey said. Even the best and promising solutions couldn’t meet their fullest potential in such an environment. “We never followed up” on maturing the technology that worked, he said. He said the JCO’s “enterprise” approach should help to fix that, allowing a much more organized development of counterdrone tech that’s better matched to current intelligence and technology trends.