The National Guard is increasingly deploying and experimenting with drones of different sizes, as well as advanced technologies to defend the military against intensifying threats associated with enemies’ unmanned aerial systems.
During a press briefing at the Pentagon on Thursday, the chief of the National Guard Bureau, Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson and Senior Enlisted Advisor Tony Whitehead discussed how these aims fit into the organization’s priorities for 2024.
“With an aggressive China asserting influence in the Indo-Pacific and around the globe, over to a belligerent Russia invading a peaceful neighbor, North Korea developing long-range offensive weapons — and numerous violent non-state actors at work in the Middle East and beyond — the mission of the National Guard, and the capabilities we bring to the fight, have never been more important,” Hokanson told reporters.
His team has moved deliberately in recent years to test out how drones can advance their efforts related to hurricane relief, infantry training, active shooter response, nuclear operations, and more.
Last December, the Texas Air National Guard’s 147th Attack Wing announced it had recently received the Block 5 variant of the large MQ-9 Reaper drone, developed by General Atomics.
“Obviously, we’re very vested in the MQ-9. And when we look at the smaller drones, we’re trying to learn everything we can from what we’re seeing in the Ukrainian and Russian conflict. I was just in Poland two weeks ago and I met with our folks there and they’re looking very closely at what’s working, what’s not working — and we’re trying to learn from that so that we can develop the capabilities that we need to not only defend our forces, but also look at those that provide offensive capability. I think it’s too early to tell exactly what those systems will be,” Hokanson told DefenseScoop during the briefing.
The general added: “But I will tell you, it is very important — based on what we’re seeing in the Red Sea and what we’re seeing with some of our locations in [U.S. Central Command] — to learn as much as we can and develop counter capability, but then also develop that capability as well.”
Three U.S. troops were killed by a one-way attack drone in Jordan late last month. In that same attack, 41 guardsmen were also injured, Hokanson noted — including one who he and his wife visited at a hospital earlier this week.
“It is a reminder that the National Guard serves alongside our active duty and reserve teammates on the frontlines as an operational force in a turbulent and ever-changing global security environment,” Hokanson said.
He and Whitehead both acknowledged their recognition of the critical importance of air defense capabilities for their personnel — both now and in the future.
“So, as a result, we work pretty closely with the Army. If they’re going to grow capability in air defense, of course they’ll consider putting some of that stuff in the National Guard. And historically, we’ve had large numbers of air defense units that have changed over time. So, we have the capability to regrow that if we need to,” Hokanson said.
When asked whether he’s happy with the current state of U.S. capabilities to counter enemy drones, Hokanson responded that “none of us will ever be happy until we have a 100% system that’s going to work and protect everybody and everything” all the time.
“But the beauty of our nation is we have a lot of researchers and folks looking at all these problems and really using technology, and what we’re learning on the ground, to improve the systems we have and develop future ones that are going to be even more capable. So, that said, I’m very supportive of the work that we’re doing. We know that there are issues and things that we need to face. We’re working on those each and every day,” he told reporters.