Chinese-manufactured drones purchased by the Pentagon months after their use was prohibited because of cybersecurity concerns are being used as "targets" and are not being deployed with elite U.S. forces on missions, the Pentagon official in charge of acquiring military equipment has said.
A VOA investigation last month revealed the U.S. Air Force and the Navy had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on drones made by market-leader Da Jiang Innovations (DJI) for some of the military's most sensitive and secretive operators, including the Air Force's only special tactics wing and Navy sea, air and land (SEAL) teams.
In each case, the services used special exemptions granted by the Pentagon's acquisition and sustainment office "on a case by case basis, to support urgent needs," Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews told VOA at the time.
Speaking to reporters on Oct. 18, Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said her office wrote these waivers in order to use the drones "on ranges in highly controlled conditions," to test the U.S. military's counterdrone capabilities.
"We are not authorizing utilization of Chinese[-made] drones out in the field. We are using them for targets," Lord said.
The Pentagon approved the purchase of DJI equipment for a "training operation" as late as June 28, 2019, according to a DOD memo seen by VOA and confirmed by a defense official.
Members of Congress have become so concerned about the Pentagon's continued use of Chinese-manufactured drones that a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation last month that would bar federal agencies from buying drones from any country deemed a risk to national security.
The American Security Drone Act of 2019 would prohibit federal departments and agencies from purchasing any commercial, off-the-shelf drone assembled or manufactured in China. Federal officials would have 180 days to stop using the equipment.
Earlier this year, the Senate Armed Services Committee also included a provision in the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act banning the use of Chinese-made drones.
Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut who penned the provision, said the measure would protect national security and support U.S. manufacturing.
For its part, DJI said that its customers have complete control over how their information is collected, stored and transmitted.
Michael Oldenburg, a spokesman for DJI's innovation in the United States, wrote in an e-mail to DJI's U.S. customers that reports of DJI cybersecurity vulnerabilities were "completely false."
The Department of Defense issued a ban on the purchase and use of all commercial off-the-shelf drones, citing "cybersecurity vulnerabilities," in a memo from then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan dated May 23, 2018.