As coalition forces close in on Islamic State militants in Mosul, a veteran Marine officer in Congress is asking the Air Force to specify how it will defend the skies against improvised explosive drones at home and abroad.
"It is my firm belief that we must expedite the development and acquisition of this technology due to the Islamic State's use of commercial UAS, as well as the potential for UAS use among other hostile actors," he wrote.
Service leaders are keenly aware of the issue, however.
The U.S. military urgently needs to develop affordable ways to fight the "emerging threat" of drones on the battlefield, James said Monday at a Center for a New American Security panel discussion in Washington.
"It’s not necessarily the development of a new thing to defeat it," she said. "It could be taking what we’ve gotten already and packaging that in a different way to go after that threat, but we need to do that more rapidly."
Hunter's letter comes in the wake of two coalition deaths caused by an explosives-laden drone early this month, believed to be the first time the militant group has inflicted such casualties.
After being shot down around Irbil, Iraq, the drone exploded as it was being inspected, killing two Kurdish peshmerga troops and wounding two French paratroopers.
"While this incident occurred amid operations in Iraq, I am no less concerned about the use of this method by the Islamic State, and other actors, to launch domestic attacks against soft targets," Hunter wrote.
But in at least one instance recently, the Air Force successfully met this new threat head on.
Hunter's concerns extend beyond the battlefield. Many intelligence analysts believe that as pressure mounts on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the group increasingly turns to terrorist attacks abroad. There have been 10 or more terror attacks connected to or inspired by ISIS in Europe in the past year.
In November 2015, three suicide bombers in Paris struck the packed Stade de France during a soccer game, followed by mass shootings and a suicide bombing at restaurants and cafes throughout the city, and finally a mass shooting during a concert at the Bataclan theatre. In all, 130 people were murdered and 368 wounded.
British Prime Minister David Cameron warned other Western leaders in April of the imminent threat of ISIS flying a "dirty bomb" — a commercially available drone rigged with radioactive material — over a Western city, potentially killing thousands of residents.
However, the effort to counter the drone threat has the potential to echo a pattern all-too-familiar on the asymmetric battlefields of the past 15 years: our enemies' inexpensive adaptation of commercially available technology items met with million, even billions, of dollars invested to defeat them.
In 2013, the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization put together a price list for IEDs. A pressure-detonated IED, the most common type used in Iraq and Afghanistan, cost insurgents $416 a pop. By contrast, JIEDDO alone received over $18 billion in funding from fiscal 2006 to 2011.
ISIS has nothing as sophisticated — or lethal — as an Air Force Predator.
The ISIS drone fleet consists of relatively cheap gear: either homemade electronics or adapted, ready-to-fly products available on the consumer market, and the militants are already using them on a regular basis to film propaganda videos, conduct surveillance, spot for indirect fire, and now weapons delivery.
Air Force Times reporter Stephen Losey and Defense News reporter Valerie Insinna contributed to this report.