CENTCOM chief: US troops can't keep up with the flood of cheap drones downrange

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Lance Cpl. Brian A. Fentresstaglisferi, an intelligence specialist with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, launches an InstantEye quadcopter during embassy reinforcement training at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 5, 2018.

Lance Cpl. Brian A. Fentresstaglisferi, an intelligence specialist with Battalion Landing Team, 1st Battalion, 4th Marines, launches an InstantEye quadcopter during embassy reinforcement training at Camp Hansen, Okinawa, Japan, Dec. 5, 2018.

U.S. service members deployed to Middle East are unprepared to deal with the rising proliferation of small unmanned aerial platforms among adversaries in the region, the head of U.S. Central Command warned on Wednesday, raising the specter of drone swarms as an looming threat to U.S. forces abroad. 

"I argue all the time with my Air Force friends that the future of flight is vertical and it's unmanned," Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said during an event hosted by the Middle East Institute. "And I believe we are seeing it now."

Related: Drones are dropping bombs on US troops in Syria, and it's not clear who's doing it

According to McKenzie, the proliferation of commercial, off-the-shelf drone systems has allowed militant groups such as ISIS has increased to the point where it's harder for U.S. forces to defense against these platforms than it is for adversaries to create them.

"I'm not talking about large unmanned platforms which are the size of a conventional fighter jet that we can see and deal with, as we would any other platform," McKenzie said. 

"I'm talking about the one you can go out and buy at Costco right now in the United States for a thousand dollars, four quad, rotorcraft or something like that that can be launched and flown. And with very simple modifications, it can make made into something that can drop a weapon like a hand grenade or something else."

"Right now, the fact of the matter is we're on the wrong side of that equation," he added. "We're working very hard to fix it. It concerns me."

U.S. Marine Cpl. Jacob Morrell, an intelligence specialist assigned to Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (BLT 2/6), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), releases an unmanned aerial system (UAS) quadcopter to survey the surrounding area during Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) riot control training as part of exercise Eager Lion, in Jordan, April 23, 2018

U.S. Marine Cpl. Jacob Morrell, an intelligence specialist assigned to Battalion Landing Team, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (BLT 2/6), 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), releases an unmanned aerial system (UAS) quadcopter to survey the surrounding area during Non-combatant Evacuation Operation (NEO) riot control training as part of exercise Eager Lion, in Jordan, April 23, 2018

This isn't the first time McKenzie has sounded the alarm on small drones in the CENTCOM area of responsibility. In March, he stated that personnel deployed to Syria had in recent months come under attack from drones laden with explosives that were "possibly" operated by ISIS fighters in the region.

"The Russians have had some significant casualties in this regard, as have other nations that are operating there," McKenzie told lawmakers at the time. "So yes, it is a problem. We look at it very hard. It's one of my highest priorities."

According to Business Insider, counter-drone systems were a major part of in CENTCOM's 2020 unfunded priorities list, which contains funding requests not included in the command's fiscal year budget request submitted to Congress.

Hostile drones "have expanded in size, sophistication, range, lethality and numbers" and are being used throughout CENTCOM's area of responsibility, McKenzie wrote, noting that "low velocity and altitude makes them difficult to detect on radar and limited options exist in effectively defeating them."

The unfunded priorities list requested $67.6 million for systems to "help counter these airborne IEDs and intelligence gatherers," Business Insider reported.

The counter-drone mission has gained increasing scrutiny elsewhere in the Pentagon: While the Air Force has whipped up a number of directed energy weapons explicitly to counter small UAS downrange, Defense Secretary Mark Esper in 2019 appointed the Army to lead a joint counter-UAS mission within the Defense Department.

"We're seeing is the emergence of, really, it's not a new form of warfare, but it's a new component of warfare," McKenzie said at the MEI event on Wednesday. 

"And eventually, I think you're going to see manned aircraft that are going to be supported by unmanned aircraft flying as parts of that system. This could be a system of systems. But on the ground right now, I worry about our ability to protect against swarms of those craft."

Related: US special operations forces are testing a 'guaranteed hit' smart rifle system in Syria