Pentagon Memo Grounds Air Force Special Ops Quadcopters

A Marine holds up an MK-2 Instant Eye quadcopter unmanned aerial system during exercise Spring Storm 2018, Capu Midia Training Area, Romania, March 10, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Austin Livingston)
A Marine holds up an MK-2 Instant Eye quadcopter unmanned aerial system during exercise Spring Storm 2018, Capu Midia Training Area, Romania, March 10, 2018. (U.S. Marine Corps photo/Austin Livingston)

Like the Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force has suspended using commercial off-the-shelf drones following a Pentagon memo released May 23.

The memo, signed by Under Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, has suspended the use and purchase of commercial drones, predominantly used by Air Force Special Operations Command, according to AFSOC spokeswoman Capt. Amanda Farr.

"The Air Force as well as AFSOC is in full compliance with a memo and have ceased buying and flying commercial off-the-shelf unmanned aircraft systems," she told Military.com in a statement Thursday.

Farr said AFSOC uses the small systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; terrain mapping; and airfield surveys. A small number of unmanned aerial systems are also used by public affairs troop for covering AFSOC stories, she said.

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In all, Farr said the Air Force has stopped using approximately 70 small UAS.

While the brands were not specified, Farr said, "AFSOC employs various COTS UAS manufactured by 10 different companies. The majority of AFSOC COTS UAS are vertical-lift quadcopter type systems."

The ban was proposed after a May 14 Defense Department Inspector General report found that military units did not have sufficient procedures to evaluate or detect cybersecurity risks associated with using smaller drone systems -- some of which are produced by Chinese companies and could be embedded with malware.

"The ban will remain in effect until the Defense Department develops a strategy to adequately assess and mitigate potential cybersecurity risks associated with using COTS UAS," Farr said. "The DoD has implemented a process which allows military departments to request exemptions to the ban, on a case-by-case basis, to support urgent needs.”

The Marine Corps recently obtained an exemption in order to allow infantry squads to fly quadcopters for battlefield surveillance, according to recent reports. The quadcopters had been grounded for roughly a month in keeping with the memo.

The service had distributed about 600 InstantEye MK-2 Gen3 quadcopter systems to its rifle squads, with another 200 systems awaiting shipment when the memo was issued, Capt. Joshua Pena, spokesman for Marine Corps Combat Development Command, told Military.com on June 15.

It’s not clear that the Air Force plans to request any exemptions.

"The Air Force and AFSOC continue to purchase and operate non-COTS UAS," Farr said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck contributed to this report.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214

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