(Washington, D.C.) - When confronted with a swarming drone attack, defenders need to operate with the understanding that each mini-drone could itself be an incoming explosive, a surveillance “node” for a larger weapons system or even an electronic warfare weapon intended to disrupt vital command and control systems.
Defenders under drone attack from medium and large drones need to recognize that the attacking platform can be poised to launch missiles or find targets for long-range ground based missiles, air assets or even approaching forces. Modern technology enables drones to use high-resolution sensors and targeting systems to both find and attack targets at very long ranges, thus compounding the threat. Drones can increasingly operate with less and less human intervention and be programmed to enter enemy airspace, crossing into well-defended areas with decreased risk. Many of them can now fire weapons with little human intervention, due to technical advances in autonomy.
For instance, should an Army armored convoy be “moving-to-contact” with an enemy, consisting of heavy, medium and light combat vehicles supported by dismounted infantry - they might be vulnerable to a fast -emerging drone attack from multiple angles. It might even be an extremely sudden attack emerging from an obscured location such as behind a mountain. Many counter-drone systems now under development by the Army and its industry partners such as Raytheon, are engineered to address this kind of circumstance; they are designed to use new applications to destroy, jam or disable attacking drone swarms as well as medium and even large-scale unmanned systems.
Not only are attack drones easily purchasable on the commercial market, but they are rapidly becoming more and more advanced given the lightning speed at which technology is now advancing. Video can be gathered with much higher fidelity at longer ranges, navigational systems can more accurately merge with sensors and targeting technologies and larger numbers of drones can increasingly operate in tandem - in a more coordinated fashion. Battery technology, to cite another example, is progressing so quickly that drones are increasing dwell time over targets, complicating any effort to defend against them.
All of this explains why the Army is fast-tracking what could be called an entire sphere of counter-drone weapons; these include Electronic Warfare (EW) innovations to jam enemy drone signals, vehicle-mounted Stinger missiles to shoot drones out of the sky and even fast-emerging laser weapons. Many small and large industry-developed weapons systems, such as a portfolio of technologies now being developed by Raytheon, are based on “sense-track-hit” counter-drone kill chains.
Raytheon’s strategic and tactical approach uses an integrated system of systems to track, target and destroy enemy drones with Stinger missiles, High-Power Microwave weapons, mini-drones such as Coyotes -- and laser weapons such as the High Energy Laser, HEL.
This approach aligns with research findings outlined in a 2018 Defense Science Journal essay titled “Countering UAVs - The Mover of Research in Military Technologies.” The essay highlights the increasingly difficult technical task of actually “detecting” various kinds of drone attacks -- especially mini-drone attacks.
“The processing of initial information about the possible location of the UAV can often be highly challenging, since the size of signals containing this information is often only barely above (or even below) the threshold of a clutter,” the essay states.
This is why radars and integrated sensors need to be increasingly precise, and quickly analyzed. This is a challenge made more difficult by certain weather conditions, obscurants related to uneven terrain or other air traveling entities such as small planes or even flocks of birds. The return signal of various kinds of attacking drones can therefore present significant discernment or detection complications. This specific difficulty has, among other things, inspired some of Raytheon’s counter drone applications, many of which can be greatly improved through the networking of sensor and radar nodes; Raytheon’s systems are designed with the technical architecture to network with other sensors and detection nodes -- such as the now operational Sentinel Radar, company officials explain.
When it comes to effectors intended to defend against, “take out” or disable attacking drones, the Defense Science Journal essay cites several specific possibilities.
The essay mentions what it calls “scatter” technologies such as shotguns or pellet guns, single bullets and “concentrated beams of electromagnetic energy.” Interestingly, the methods cited in the research findings seem to align with a number of evolving technologies central to the Raytheon programs.
“Scatter” or area blanketing interceptor defenses correspond to the current use of guns or High-Power Microwave - which can either fire hundreds of small interceptors per second into a specific threat area or blast targets with crippling electromagnetic energy. These weapons can approximate a “shotgun” type approach on a larger scale.
There are also more narrowly fired missile interceptors such as a Stinger missile able to find and seek the heat signature of approaching drones, target them -- and explode them. In addition, certain kinds of missiles can be programmed for increased fragmentation or air burst effects to counter groups of attacking drones. Finally, the essay cites directed energy, which calls the HEL system to mind. Lasers or microwave weapons might be of particular relevance in urban areas where excessive collateral damage is not an option. In fact, the Defense Science Board specifically mentions the unique challenges presented by urban drone attacks.
Overall, Raytheon engineers describe this in terms of a layered defense system, offering different drone kill options depending upon range and combat conditions. It may be that weather complications make lasers more difficult to fire, or heavily populated urban areas require a non-kinetic solution, such as High-Power Microwave weapons. In the event that an incoming target might be larger or threatening in a specific way, it may be that a Coyote drone missile or even Stinger will be needed for defense.
“These technologies operate throughout the kill chain. We start with sense and detect using our radars, then we use Command and Control which is the brains...and then our effectors,” Cliff Johnson, business development director for tactical radars, Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, told Warrior.
Interestingly, Raytheon’s system is inspiring interesting from the U.S. military services as well as large-scale commercial entities such as stadiums or expansive public places possibly in need of additional protection. These technologies, therefore, are engineered to operate as both major war weapons as well as counterterrorism systems.
Broadly speaking, Raytheon’s war on enemy drones could be described in terms of a three-pronged system; mobile or ground fixed radar detect enemy drones before the signals are analyzed by computerized fire control, leading to the firing of a wide range of “effectors,” or methods of destroying drones.
“It is integrated, so we can have various effectors, whether it be Stinger, laser, high-powered microwave or Coyote. We have an architecture that supports all of those. It is a system of systems,” Johnson said.
One system using this drone-destroying technology , as referred to by Johnson, is an Army program called Howler; this particular program, now operational with the Army, can fire interceptors, such as Raytheon’s Coyote 1 and Coyote 2 mini attack drones. Equipped with an advanced seeker and small warhead, Coyotes can launch from a range of locations, including fixed locations and armored vehicles on-the-move. Coyote Block I is more of a drone form factor, whereas Coyote 2 is more of a missile, Johnson said.
The Howler system hinges upon Raytheon’s KuRFS radar, or Ku band Radio Frequency. It is a hemispherical 360-degree detection radar, which uses a specific technology to achieve this effect without rotating, Johnson explained. The KuRFS is engineered for greater precision, meaning it is designed to discern the difference between individual mini-drone swarms and large floating massess or “blobs,” Raytheon developers said. The entire system can be mounted on a vehicle where it has a Coyote launch tube, operating near a separate vehicle that has command and control. The KuRFS radar could detect threats, pass the information to a central Command and Control system before launching the Coyote interceptor drone.
Despite much of this progress, and the broad promise of emerging methods of drone destruction, many yet-t0-be resolved challenges present themselves. What if drone heat signatures were eliminated or reduced - making an attacking platform more stealthy? What if an attacking drone were built with radar absorbent materials? What if sensors and weapons continued to leverage new technologies with vastly increased ranges? What if AI-enabled algorithms allowed attacking drones to detect various defensive systems and alter course to avert them? Overall, the essay puts it this way:
“---If we summarise all the typical technical-tactical characteristics of a flying UAV, we are left with a synergic effect in the form of a challenge like none that air defenders have faced for several decades ---_
Defense Science Journal - Sept. 2018. “Countering UAVs – the Mover of Research in Military Technology.” (Department of Air Defence Systems, Faculty of Military Technology, University of Defence, Brno, Czech Republic)
*Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.****-*