DHS plan to shoot down drones near airports challenged
The Department of Homeland Security recently put forth a plan that would allow for shooting down drones near US airports, angering Republican lawmakers, who argued that it is “irresponsible” and exceeds the department’s authority.
In response to the potential airport threats, DHS, the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Department of Justice drafted a “concept of operations,” which designates the Transportation Security Administration as the lead federal agency to counter unmanned aircraft that threaten national airspace.
TSA’s Federal Air Marshal Service would operate a Defense Department counter-unmanned-aircraft system to “mitigate” the risk near airports, according to a letter last week from the ranking members of the House Homeland Security Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee to acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf.
TSA briefed Congress earlier this month on the airport drone proposal, and staffers expect discussions with the agency to continue.
A DHS official told CNN that TSA has means to counter drones short of shooting them down, such as technology that causes drones to immediately land.
The DHS plans went into high gear after an incident at London’s Gatwick Airport last Christmas season, when reported drone sightings at the airport grounded flights and disrupted the travel plans of hundreds of thousands of people, according to a DHS official.
The letter to Wolf from Republican Reps. Mike Rogers of Alabama and Sam Graves of Missouri argues that the DHS plan “goes far beyond” the authority provided by Congress to take measures to combat the threat from drones in the US.
DHS had asked Congress for shoot-down authority over federal assets and is now “trying to use some loophole” to shoot down drones near airports, which is “well beyond the current authorities,” said a congressional staffer.
Last year, Congress authorized DHS to take counter-drone action “up to and including its destruction” if there is a threat to the safety or security of a “covered facility or asset,” which includes certain federal buildings and DHS-protected events like the Super Bowl or presidential inaugurations.
US airspace and the area around an airport do not fall under that category, Rogers and Graves wrote in the letter to Wolf.
The department “does not have the authority or experience” to operate the equipment needed to counter drones in the manner it proposes, they wrote.
In response to the letter, a spokesperson for TSA told CNN the agency is “committed to a unified federal response to a persistent disruption of airport operations due to an unmanned aircraft system (UAS),” adding that “federal entities will only seek to mitigate a UAS in limited, emergency circumstances in order to ensure the safety and security of the national airspace.”
CNN has reached out to the FAA for comment.
A Democratic House aide told CNN that DHS “owes Congress significant information” on how it will implement counter-drone authorities. “We look forward to receiving the report the department was required to submit over a month ago,” the aide added.
“Nobody wants drones to cause disruptions at our airports, but to hastily hand over authority to shoot down drones to an agency that doesn’t have the critical knowledge or experience of how our airspace system functions is irresponsible and dangerous,” Rogers and Graves said in a statement.
According to the two Republican House members, the FAA is the only federal agency that fully understands the “incredible complexity” of the national airspace system.
DHS’ experience operating the Defense Department counter-drone system “particularly within complicated airspace with civilian air traffic over populated airspace (is) sorely lacking,” the lawmakers wrote to Wolf.
DHS has raised concerns about the potential for terrorists to use drones in attacks on the US.
Some terrorist groups overseas are using wartime experiences to pursue technologies — including unmanned aircraft — that could be used outside the conflict zones, according to the department’s 2019 terror advisory bulletin.
Former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen praised Congress last year when it granted the department the new authorities, saying the laws had prevented DHS from addressing drone threats and protecting the American people.
“The evolving threat posed by malicious drone technology is quickly outpacing the federal government’s ability to respond,” she said at the time.
CNN’s Gregory Wallace contributed to this report.