Why This Matters
Uncrewed aircraft systems, or “drones,” can pose safety and security risks to critical U.S. sites and may be used for smuggling or other criminal activity. With over 2 million drones projected in the U.S. by 2024, these risks are likely to grow. Detection and mitigation technologies could counter these risks, but may face challenges around effectiveness and unintended impacts.
What is it? Uncrewed aircraft systems (UAS), or “drones,” have a variety of uses, such as photography, delivering packages, and monitoring crops. However, UAS can also pose significant safety and security risks if they enter airspace around critical U.S. sites without authorization or if used for illegal activities. To reduce these risks, counter-UAS technology can detect such unauthorized or unsafe UAS and, when needed, jam, capture, or disable them.
Several UAS incidents have been reported in the U.S. For example, in January 2019, Newark Liberty International Airport halted all landings and diverted planes for over an hour after a potential UAS sighting nearby. Furthermore, smugglers have used UAS to deliver illegal drugs into the country (see fig. 1).
Figure 1. Some of the risks posed by uncrewed aircraft systems.
Reported incidents like these may increase as the use of UAS increases. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has forecast that by 2024, the commercial UAS fleet will reach around 828,000, and the recreational fleet will number around 1.48 million.
Domestically, counter-UAS activities may be restricted or prohibited by existing federal laws such as the Aircraft Sabotage Act or the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. However, four federal agencies—the Departments of Defense, Energy, Justice, and Homeland Security—have been authorized to deploy counter-UAS technologies under certain circumstances, such as to protect sensitive government facilities, including domestic military bases and prisons, or to provide security during sports championships.
How does it work? Counter-UAS technologies generally fall into two categories: detection and mitigation. Detection technologies include infrared devices to track heat signatures, radio frequency systems to scan for control signals, and acoustic methods to recognize the unique sounds produced by UAS motors. According to a 2019 Bard College report, radio frequency and radar systems are the most common detection technologies (see fig. 2).
Figure 2. In this example, a critical site detects an unauthorized UAS nearby. An interference signal jams the connection between the UAS and its operator to reroute the UAS away from the site.
Mitigation technologies can repel or intercept an unauthorized UAS. For example, interference signals can jam or break the communications connection between the UAS and its operator, which can trigger the UAS to land or return to its operator. According to the Bard College report, jamming is the most common mitigation technology. Other mitigation technologies can use a net or kinetic force (such as lasers or projectiles) to disable or destroy the UAS. However, kinetic methods can be problematic because a falling or exploding UAS may cause unintended damage.
How mature is it? Although the Department of Defense has used counter-UAS technology abroad since at least 2014, domestic use has been limited. Over the last 4 years, the authorized agencies have deployed some counter-UAS technologies domestically. However, some of these technologies have limited ability to detect and track small UAS (less than 55 pounds). Furthermore, few can successfully jam or disable a UAS, and many of those that can are only effective at around 1,000 feet or less.
To counter UAS risks, the FAA (which has been authorized to conduct limited testing activities) and the authorized agencies are continuing to test, evaluate, and develop integrated counter-UAS platforms. These platforms’ capabilities are designed to address specific risk environments. For example, a powerful long-range signal jammer may be effective at mitigating UAS in rural locations, like near some domestic military bases, but this same technology could also disrupt legitimate and vital communications if used in a city or near an airport.
UAS technology continues to advance and become more accessible to the public. For example, UAS have become smaller and more maneuverable, making detection and mitigation more challenging. To stay effective, counter-UAS technology will need to adapt to such changes.
- Enhanced security. UAS have interfered with military and commercial aircraft operations, entered airspace over large sporting events, illegally accessed wireless networks, and been sighted over sensitive national security facilities. Counter-UAS technologies could address such threats to critical sites and assets.
- Better situational awareness. Counter-UAS platforms could allow tracking of UAS activity near critical sites and allow data analysis over time or locations to better understand the threat.
- Effectiveness. Electromagnetic interference (e.g., power lines and LEDs) and small airborne objects (e.g., birds) can decrease detection capabilities or generate false detections. Mitigation systems may have a limited effective range or have difficulty against UAS that are quick or move in unpredictable patterns.
- Unintended effects. Counter-UAS platforms may pose safety hazards by interfering with nearby communications, such as devices that use navigation systems. For kinetic mitigation, errant projectiles or falling UAS could damage property or injure people on the ground.
- Limited number of authorized agencies. As of March 2022, only four federal agencies are authorized to conduct counter-UAS operations under certain circumstances, and no state or local agencies (or individuals) have such specific federal authorization. According to the Bard College report, local agencies generally rely on a small number of federal counter-UAS units to respond to and protect against UAS threats in their area.
- Privacy concerns. Counter-UAS detection methods could collect personally identifiable information, such as information about the operators or camera images of bystanders.
Policy Context & Questions
With increased use of UAS and, along with it, increased demand for counter-UAS technologies, key questions for policymakers include:
- What research and development might lead to innovative counter-UAS solutions that can more effectively address UAS safety and security risks while minimizing unintended effects on airspace or the public?
- What are the potential trade-offs if policymakers consider authorizing the use of counter-UAS by others, including state and local law enforcement agencies, and expanding the use of these technologies?
- If policymakers consider expanding authorization, what is the appropriate level of jurisdictional coordination and regulatory oversight for the use of these technologies among federal agencies and others?
For more information, contact Brian Bothwell at (202) 512-6888 or BothwellB@gao.gov.
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In March 2020, the pandemic’s economic shock temporarily disrupted the mortgage-backed securities (MBS) market by causing many investors to sell assets. This overwhelmed market intermediaries and created conditions where MBS could not be sold. Continued market dysfunction could have limited mortgage availability and caused other credit markets to freeze. GAO analysis of the 2019 housing finance reform plans issued by the Department of the Treasury and Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) identified recommendations that align with these vulnerabilities and GAO’s 2014 housing finance reform framework. The plans made 81 administrative recommendations to agencies and 35 legislative recommendations to Congress. The plans contained 34 recommendations focused on federal fiscal exposure, three related to nonbank liquidity risks, and one related to MBS market stability. Regarding fiscal exposure, the recommendations included steps to help ensure the enterprises and the Federal Housing Administration’s (FHA) mortgage insurance programs are financially sound. Some steps, such as strengthening the enterprises’ capital framework, were implemented. Others, including certain recommendations to improve the financial viability of FHA’s program for reverse mortgages (a loan against home equity), were not. Each of the plans’ recommendations aligned with an element of GAO’s framework, and the recommendations collectively addressed all the elements to some degree (see figure below). The elements include control of fiscal exposure, alignment of policies with goals, capacity to manage risks, and borrower protections and access to mortgages. As of January 2021—the latest point at which Treasury and HUD systematically tracked implementation—agencies implemented or took partial action on 57 of 81 administrative recommendations, focusing primarily on framework elements for control of fiscal exposure and capacity to manage risks. For example, FHA substantially implemented a recommendation to develop and integrate automated tools for managing mortgage origination risks. As of September 2021, Congress had not enacted legislation to implement any of the 35 legislative recommendations. Alignment and Status of Recommendations in 2019 Housing Finance Reform Plans, by GAO Framework Element (Administrative Actions as of January 20, 2021, and Legislative Actions as of September 30, 2021) While the current administration has stated its interest in helping shape future reforms, it has not issued its own plans, or performed an analysis similar to GAO’s. GAO’s analysis showed that the 2019 reform plans are relevant to future planning efforts. Although the plans were issued shortly before the pandemic, they contain implemented and unimplemented recommendations relevant to vulnerabilities the pandemic highlighted. While mitigated by federal actions and market conditions thus far, the vulnerabilities remain relevant for risk assessments that may support future Treasury and HUD planning efforts. Considering recommendations from the 2019 plans could help agencies identify options for mitigating the vulnerabilities and aid assessment of steps already taken. The plans also contain recommendations related to each element of GAO’s framework. Attention to each framework element is important for establishing an effective housing finance system. While future housing reforms may emphasize different policy goals, considering the prior plans in the context of the framework could help identify actions that would cover all the framework elements. As Treasury and HUD develop future reform plans, considering the recommendations in the 2019 plans and addressing all GAO framework elements could help ensure the plans address key risks, are comprehensive, and account for prior actions that complement or diverge from current policy priorities. Why GAO Did This Study Since 2013, GAO has designated the federal role in housing finance as a high-risk area because of the significant risks the current role poses. In September 2019, Treasury and HUD began implementing housing finance reform plans, which included steps to transition the enterprises from federal conservatorship. But pandemic-related strains on the housing finance system and the transition to a new administration have increased uncertainty about the future of reform. The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to monitor federal efforts related to COVID-19. Congress also included a provision in statute for GAO to annually review financial services regulations. This report examines (1) vulnerabilities in the housing finance system highlighted by the pandemic, and (2) the nature and status of recommendations in the 2019 reform plans and the extent to which they align with system vulnerabilities and GAO’s housing finance reform framework (GAO-15-131). GAO reviewed housing finance system research and regulations and agency documents on system reforms and pandemic responses. GAO aligned recommendations in the 2019 plans with system vulnerabilities and its 2014 framework elements. GAO also analyzed information on the status of the plan recommendations and interviewed agency and industry representatives.
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August 24, 2021Since September 2001, the Department of Defense (DOD) has relied heavily on the reserve component primarily in support of ongoing contingency operations for the Global War on Terrorism, which is now known as the Overseas Contingency Operation. As of February 2009, approximately 691,000 reserve servicemembers have been activated in support of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with many of these servicemembers being called for multiple deployments or extended for more than one year. This increased use of the reserve component servicemembers has led to questions by Congress about whether reserve component servicemembers might be experiencing a decline in earnings as a result of extended and frequent activations. Citing the nation’s increased reliance on the reserve component, Congress mandated in 2002 that we review compensation programs available to reserve component servicemembers serving on active duty. In September 2003, we reported that DOD lacked sufficient information to determine the need for compensation programs and recommended that DOD obtain more complete information on the magnitude of income change, the causes of any such identified change, and the effect of income change on retention. The results of DOD’s 2004 Status of Forces Survey of Reserve Component Members showed that about 51 percent of reserve component servicemembers responding to the survey reported that they had experienced a decline in earnings while activated. However, our 2003 report noted that survey data are questionable primarily because it is unclear what survey respondents considered as income loss or gain in determining their financial status. The Ronald W. Reagan National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 20056 directed DOD to conduct a survey to determine the extent to which such members sustained a reduction in monthly income during their active duty service compared to their average monthly civilian income during the 12 months preceding their mobilization. DOD was also required to include a survey question that would solicit information regarding the likely effect that a reoccurring monthly active duty income differential while serving on active duty would have on the servicemember’s decision to remain in the armed forces. The Secretary was required to analyze the data and to submit a report, containing the results of the survey, results of the required analysis, and any recommendations the Secretary considered to be appropriate regarding alternatives for the restoration of any lost income.Although most reserve component servicemembers in response to surveys conducted in 2004 and 2005 reported earnings losses when activated, DOD-sponsored technical studies determined that for calendar years 2004 and 2005, on average, reserve component servicemembers earned more income while serving on active duty than they had earned as civilians before being activated. In 2008, RAND Corporation (RAND) produced its most recent technical study on the effect of activation on reserve component servicemembers’ income, which compared survey responses with pay reported to the Social Security Administration and with military pay records. RAND determined that on average, reserve component servicemembers experienced a net gain of approximately $1,400 a month in 2004 and approximately $1,600 a month in 2005, after activation. However, RAND found that reserve component servicemembers in three enlisted military occupations–sonar operator, general; investigations; and military training instructor–earned less income on average after activation in 2005 than they earned before activation in 2004. Further, the study also identified 48 enlisted military occupations and 14 officer occupations for which more than 20 percent of sampled reserve component servicemembers experienced any earnings loss after activation. RAND noted that these identified occupations represented 18 percent of activated enlisted members and 31 percent of activated officers. Seniorlevel reserve component servicemembers and officials from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs told us that they concurred with RAND’s findings. 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DOD has not determined whether attrition can be attributed specifically to income loss. In discussions with Reserve and National Guard personnel officials, they told us that reserve component servicemembers leave the service for many reasons other than income loss, such as length of deployment, frequency of deployment, and degree of support from employers and family members.