Legal Impediments to Countering the Small Unmanned Aircraft System Threat in the USA

Living reference work entry


The development of small unmanned aerial systems (SUAS) is filled with promise and peril. The benefits of aerial surveying and photography stand in contrast with risks of adversary surveillance, hostile actor weapon delivery, and disruption of important government and commercial activities. Most US aviation law was enacted prior to the widespread commercial availability of SUAS. Only recently have meaningful efforts at SUAS regulation begun. Historically, there have been significant legal impediments to taking direct action against SUAS flights of concern. Administrative reviews and litigation have established that most laws applicable to “aircraft” also apply to SUAS. As a consequence, broad protections designed to ensure the safety of commercial passenger jets tended to work restrict commanders from taking action against small, unmanned SUAS overflying critical national security infrastructure. The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) granted a limited authority to engage SUAS operating in the vicinity of certain nuclear, space control, and other sensitive critical national infrastructure. For military infrastructure and other key facilities not covered by this new authority, legally available response options are limited. Implementing the counter-SUAS provisions of the 2017 NDAA will require several significant policy decisions, including to what level SUAS engagement authority should be delegated. Additional counter-SUAS authorities may be required in the future, but the newly enacted authority is a good start.


Counter-UAS Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) Critical infrastructure Security Positive identification Detection Command and control (C2) Privacy Aircraft sabotage statute Trespass Pen/trap statute Wire Tap Act Self-defense 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Office of the Staff Judge AdvocateHeadquarters Pacific Air Forces, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-HickamHonolulu CountyUSA
  2. 2.United States Air Force (USAF)El Paso CountyUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Dawn Zoldi
    • 1
  1. 1.ColoradoUSA

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