During the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, a flock of 1,200 commercial drones made by Intel formed a giant snowboarder then swarmed in sync to form various other shapes, including the Olympic Rings logo.
Such sophisticated swarming technology being used to entertain during a sporting event has U.S. Army leaders worried that the same capabilities are already in the hands of enemy militaries.
Because enemy drones come in all shapes and sizes and their ability to harm U.S. forces varies greatly, there is no catch-all solution for defeating them, forcing the Army to field a layered defense that incorporates everything from conventional projectiles to missiles and lasers.
“Our approach to this is a tiered and layered approach,” Brig. Gen. Randall McIntire, leader of the Army’s Air and Missile Defense Cross Functional Team (CFT), said recently at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual Global Force Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama. “There’s no silver bullet to get after this particular threat as it continues to proliferate day by day. All you have to do is watch the Olympics.”
To tackle the problem, McIntire said his team has focused on marking up quick wins by examining the Army’s current arsenal and repurposing old weapons for new uses like knocking low, slow-flying drones from the sky.
In just two and a half months, the CFT was able to begin producing mobile short-range air defense platforms by marrying old Avenger surface-to-air missile systems with Stryker wheeled vehicles as a short-term solution for units in Europe.
The Army has also trained 208 soldiers to operate Stinger man-portable air-defense missiles, which comprises 104 MANPADS teams that are being deployed as needed. The goal is to field a layered, “formation-based,” combined-arms approach to protecting maneuver formations from everything from quadcopters to ballistic missiles, he said.
“We can’t have enough air-defense systems out there, so we’re taking a look at who’s got primary and secondary roles,” he said. “We’re going to have to use electronic warfare measures as well as a gun-missile mix. This will be a total team effort to get after the UAS threat.”
The Army already has sent an experimental mobile high-energy laser (MHEL), a 5kw beam aboard a Stryker, to Europe for evaluation by the 2nd Cavalry Division during a Joint Warfighting Assessment. Two soldiers operating the MHEL vehicle were able to identify, track and destroy all the UAS threats thrown at them with no other weaponry, McIntire said.
Plans are to develop more-powerful lasers in the near future including a 50kw laser mounted on a heavy extended mobility tactical truck and test-firing a 100kw laser in coming years.
Barry Pike, the Army’s missiles and space program officer, said the service already has fielded 300 air-defense systems. He likened the ongoing air-defense requirement to efforts launched during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to combat improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
“It’s really kind of like the counter-IED fight,” Pike said. “We know how to adapt and respond. As soon as we do something, other people are going to watch what we do; they’re going to respond. What we have to continue to do is think not one step ahead (but) five, 10 steps ahead.”
Because of the urgency of the need for counter-UAS systems in particular, the CFT has been able to turn funding into fielded systems in record time, according to Lt. Col. Dave Benjamin, product director for counter UAS at PEO Missiles and Space’s counter-rocket, artillery, mortar division.
For counter-UAS, initial funding was received in three months, he said. A month after that, equipment was fielded to operational units. That accelerated timeline has fielded at least 295 counter-UAS systems to soldiers in combat zones. At least 17 industry partners are working with the PEO on 13 different contracts to find counter-UAS solutions.
“While this equipment isn’t perfect, and we improve upon it with each test, it is in the hands of soldiers now,” Benjamin said. “This equipment doesn’t fully address all the known requirements. … Commercial vendors are releasing newer, better UAS every few months. If you want to counter commercial products that have been modified to become a threat, you have to move at commercial speed. … That requires staying abreast daily of assessments from the (intelligence) community.”