Why the U.S. Military Is So Worried About Hobbyist Drones and Plans to Shoot Them Down

Recreational drone
A drone is flown for recreational purposes in the sky above Old Bethpage, New York on August 30, 2015. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Among the dangers faced by the U.S. military, drones flown by hobbyists would probably not feature highly on the lists of most Americans.

Yet on Monday, the Pentagon gave 130 military bases across the country the green light to shoot down private and commercial drones. So why are military chiefs so concerned?

The number of unmanned aircraft in American skies has grown rapidly in recent years and the Federal Aviation Administration estimates there could be as many as 21 million operating in American skies by 2021.

In 2015, officials from the U.S. military, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the FAA gathered at the DHS headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, to discuss the potential use of hobbyist drones by terrorists or assassins.

Wired reported that at the conference, officials showed footage of low-cost drones firing semi-automatic weapons, said that Syrian rebel groups were buying up drones for use in combat, and flashed images showing drones worth $5,000 fitted with weapons taking out a convoy of armored vehicles.

Earlier that year, a drone had landed on the lawn of the White House. The drone did not contain explosives and was piloted by a civilian who had lost control of the device, but the incident exposed flaws in the security of the site.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) has used drones to attack U.S. Special Operations soldiers and disrupt airstrikes near the Syrian city of Raqqa, its remaining stronghold in the country, as well as to attack forces battling to oust it from Iraq.

Some of the countermeasures devised by the U.S. defense department to bring down drones have already been deployed to Syria and Iraq, CNN reported.

Marine Corps Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April that "In the past year, ISIS's use of unmanned aerial systems (drones) for surveillance and delivery of explosives has increased, posing a new threat to civilian infrastructure and military installations."

Lieutenant General Stewart's warning was echoed by a Pentagon spokesman announcing the new measure Monday.

"The increase of commercial and private drones in the United States has raised our concerns with regards to the safety and security of our installations, aviation safety and the safety of people," Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said, quoted by Reuters.

Attacks by drones aren't the only thing that has the military concerned about the devices, however. The armed forces also fear they could be used to spy on the U.S. too. On Friday, Small UAS News reported that the army had banned drones by Chinese manufacturer DJI over concerns about their "cyber vulnerabilities." Hackers have previously been able to breach the devices, altering security features.

The newly given green light to destroy drones follows an April Pentagon order, banning drones from flying over military bases. The measure saw U.S. military bases join a growing list of spaces other than airports where drones are banned from flying, including Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Drones are already banned from sensitive sites, including the airspace around Washington, D.C.