How the Army plans to counter massive drone attacks
The U.S. Army is accelerating a number of emerging counter-drone weapons in response to a warzone request from U.S. Central Command — to counter a massive uptick in enemy small-drone attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Theater has asked for a solution, so we are looking at what we can apply as an interim solution,” Col. John Lanier Ward, Director Army Rapid Equipping Force, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
New electronic warfare weapons, next-generation sensors and interceptors, and cutting edge improved targeting technology for the .50-Cal machine gun to better enable it to target enemy drones with more precision and effectiveness — are all key approaches now being pursued.
Ward said the Army is fast-tracking improved “slue-to-cue” technology, new sensors, and emerging radar-based targeting technology to give the .50-Cal more precision accuracy.
“Targeting is getting better for the .50-Cal…everything from being able to detect, identify and engage precise targets such as enemy drones,” Ward added.
In service for decades, the .50-Cal has naturally been thought of as largely an area weapon able to lay down suppressive fire, enabling troops to manuever and blanketing enemy targets with rounds. The weapon, of course, still has this function, which could seek to eliminate attacking drones. At the same time, technical efforts are underway to make .50-Cal targeting more precise, such that it could shoot down swarms of quadcopters or other commercially avail mini-drones configured for attack.
Precision-guided weaponry, such as JDAMs from the air, have been operational for decades. GPS-guided land weapons, such as Excalibur 155m artillery rounds or the larger GMLRS, Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems, have been in combat since 2007 and 2008; engineering comparable guidance for smaller rounds, naturally, is a much more challenging task.
Non-Kinetic EW approaches have already been used effectively to jam signals of ISIS drones by the Army and Air Force; Ward explained that these tactics would be supplemented by emerging kinetic options as well.
Various technical efforts to engineer precision guidance for the .50-Cal have been in development for several years. In 2015, a DARPA program called Accuracy Tasked Ordnance (EXACTO) demonstrated self-steering bullets to increase hit rates for difficult, long-distance shots. DARPA’s website, which includes a video of a live-fire demonstration of the technology, states that EXACTO rounds maneuver in flight to hit targets that are moving and accelerating. “EXACTO’s specially designed ammunition and real-time optical guidance system help track and direct projectiles to their targets by compensating for weather, wind, target movement and other factors that can impede successful hits,” DARPA.mil states. Laser range-finding technology is a key element of EXACTO in order to accommodate for fast-changing factors such as wind and target movement; since the speed of light is a known entity, and the time of travel of a round can also be determined, a computer algorithm can then determine the exact distance of a target and guide rounds precisely to a target.
Also, according to an article in Jane’s Defence, Orbital ATK is developing a range of new advanced medium-calibre ammunition variants drawing upon EXACTO-like technology for use with its 30/40 mm calibre MK44 XM813 and 30 mm calibre lightweight XM914 Bushmaster Chain Guns.
From Janes Defence: “The EXACTO effort has resulted in a guided .50 calibre round – equipped with real-time optical sensors and aero-actuation controls – that improves sniping performance in long-range, day/night engagements. The EXACTO system combines a manoeuvrable bullet with a complementary laser designator-equipped fire-control system (FCS) to compensate for weather, wind, target movement, and other factors that can reduce accuracy.”
C-RAM FOB Protection
C-RAM is deployed at numerous Forward Operating Bases throughout Iraq and Afghanistan and the system has been credited with saving thousands of soldiers’ lives and is now being analyzed for upgrades and improvements.
C-RAM uses sensors, radar and fire-control technology alongside a vehicle or ground-mounted 20mm Phalanx Close-in-Weapons-System able to fire 4,500 rounds per minute. The idea is to blanket an area with large numbers of small projectiles to intercept and destroy incoming artillery, rocket or mortar fire. As an area weapon, the Phalanx then fires thousands of projectiles in rapid succession to knock the threat out of the sky.
Engineers with Northrop Grumman integrate the Raytheon-built Phalanx into the C-RAM system; C-RAM was first developed and deployed to defend Navy ships at sea, however a fast-emerging need to protect soldiers on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the Army to quickly adapt the technology for use on land; C-RAM has been operational on the ground since 2005.
Northrop developers are assessing new optical sensors, passive sensors and lasers to widen the target envelope for the system such that it can destroy enemy drones, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and cruise missiles. Engineers are also looking at new interceptor missiles to compliment the Phalanx, Northrop developers said.
The basis for integrating emerging technologies is grounded in a technical effort to construct the system with “open architecture” and workable interfaces able to accommodate new sensors and weapons. This hinges on the use of common IP protocol standards engineered to facilitate interoperability between emerging technologies and existing systems.
“Regardless of what is used to defeat the threat, we are looking at changing the sensors as technology evolves. You can also integrate new weapons as technology changes. In the future, we plan to have weapons talk to the interceptor,” said Sean Walsh, C-RAM project management, Northrop.
The rationale for these potential upgrades and improvements is grounded in the recognition of a fast-changing global threat environment. Drone technology and drone-fired weapons, for instance, are proliferating around the globe at a rapid pace – therefore increasing the likelihood that potential adversaries will be able to surveil and attack forward operating bases with a wider range of air and ground weapons, including drones. Army base protections will need to identify a larger range of enemy attack weapons at further distances, requiring a broader base of defensive sensors and weaponry.
Adding new sensors and weapons to CRAM could bring nearer term improvements by upgrading an existing system currently deployed, therefore circumventing multi-year developmental efforts necessary for many acquisition programs.
“There is some work being done to add missiles to the system through an enterprise approach,” Walsh said.
Lasers & Missile Interceptors
Northrop’s plan to develop ground-fired laser technology is consistent with the Army’s current strategy to deploy laser weapons to protect Forward Operating Bases by the early 2020s.
Adding lasers to the arsenal, integrated with sensors and fire-control radar, could massively help U.S. soldiers quickly destroy enemy threats by burning them out of the sky in seconds, Army leaders said.
Other interceptor weapons are now being developed for an emerging Army ground-based protective technology called Indirect Fire Protection Capability, or IFPC Increment 2. Through this program, the Army plans to fire lasers to protect forward bases by 2023, senior service leaders say.
Army weapons testers have already fired larger interceptors and destroyed drones with Hellfire missiles, AIM-9X Sidewinder weapons and an emerging kinetic energy interceptor called Miniature-Hit-to-Kill missile. The AIM-9X Sidewinder missile and the AGM-114 Hellfire missile are typically fired from the air. The AIM-9X is primarily and air-to-air weapon and the Hellfire is known for its air-to-ground attack ability.
Made by Lockheed Martin, the Miniature Hit-to-Kill interceptor is less than 2.5 feet in length and weighs about 5 pounds at launch. It is designed to be small in size while retaining the range and lethality desired in a counter-RAM solution. As a kinetic energy interceptor destroying targets through a high-speed collision without explosives, the weapon is able to greatly reduce collateral damage often caused by the blast-fragmentation from explosions.
Integrated Battle Command System
The Army has been testing many of these weapons using a Multi-Mission Launcher, or MML — a truck-mounted weapon used as part of Integrated Fire Protection Capability – Inc. 2; the system uses a Northrop-developed command and control system called Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS.
IBCS uses a netted-group of integrated sensors and networking technologies to connect radar systems — such as the Sentinel — with fire-control for large interceptors such as Patriot Advanced Capability – 3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense.“If I lay down my sensors, I can see any kind of attack coming from those origins to take kill vectors as far forward as possible. If an enemy has a cruise missile, I want to kill them over the top of the enemy,” said Kenneth Todorov, Director, Global Air and Missile Defense, Northrop Grumman.
With IBCS, sensors can be strategically placed around a given threat area or battlespace to optimize their detection capacity; IBCS is evolving more toward what Pentagon strategists called “multi-domain” warfare, meaning sensors from different services can interoperate with one another and pass along target information.
While some of the networking mechanisms are still being refined and developed, the idea is to enable ship-based Aegis radar to work in tandem with Air Force fighter jets and ground-based Army missile systems.
Synergy between nodes, using radio, LINK 16 data networks and GPS can greatly expedite multi-service coordination by passing along fast-developing threat information. IBCS, an Army program of record, uses computer-generated digital mapping to present an integrated combat picture showing threat trajectories, sensors, weapons and intercepts, Todorov explained.
C-RAM utilizes several kinds of radar, including an upgraded AN/TPQ-37 Firefinder Radar which, operating at a 90-degree angle, emits electromagnetic pings into surrounding areas as far as 50-kilometers away. The radar technology then analyzes the return signal to determine the shape, size and speed of an attacking enemy round on its upward trajectory before it reaches it full height.
The AN/TPQ-37, engineered by ThalesRaytheon, has been completely redesigned, incorporating 12 modern air-cooled power amplifier modules, a high-power RF combiner and fully automated transmitter control unit, according to ThalesRaytheon information.
“Radar Processor Upgrade The new radar processor combines the latest VME-64x architecture and full high/low temperature performance with AN/TPQ-37 Operational and Maintenance software programs. Containing only three circuit cards, maintenance and provisioning are simplified while overall reliability and power consumption is improved,” ThalesRaytheon data explains.
Army “Red-Teams” Forward Operating Bases
Army acquisition leaders and weapons developers are increasing their thinking about how future enemies might attack —and looking for weaknesses and vulnerabilities in Forward Operating Bases.
The idea is to think like an enemy trying to defeat and/or out-maneuver U.S. Army weapons, vehicles, sensors and protective technologies to better determine how these systems might be vulnerable when employed, senior Army leaders said.
The Army is already conducting what it calls “Red Teaming” wherein groups of threat assessment experts explore the realm of potential enemy activity to include the types of weapons, tactics and strategies they might be expected to employ.
“Red Teams” essentially act like an enemy and use as much ingenuity as possible to examine effective ways of attacking U.S. forces. These exercises often yield extremely valuable results when it comes to training and preparing soldiers for combat and finding weaknesses in U.S. strategies or weapons platforms.
This recent push, within the Army acquisition world, involves a studied emphasis on “Red Teaming” emerging technologies much earlier in the acquisition process to engineer solutions that counter threats in the most effective manner well before equipment is fully developed, produced or deployed.
Teams of Warfighters, weapons experts, engineers and acquisition professionals tried to think about how enemy fighters might try to attack FOBs protected with Deployable Force Protection technologies. They looked for gaps in the sensors’ field of view, angles of possible attack and searched for performance limitations when integrated into a system of FOB protection technologies.
They examined small arms attacks, mortar and rocket attacks and ways groups of enemy fighters might seek to approach a FOB. The result of the process led to some worthwhile design changes and enhancements to force protection equipment, Army leaders explained.
Results from these exercises figure prominently in planning for weapons upgrades and modernization efforts such as the current C-RAM effort; technologies added to a weapons system can be tailored to address a specific vulnerability which could emerge as enemy weapons become more advanced.
Major Power War & New Army Doctrine
Upgrades to C-RAM, along with development of emerging launchers and interceptors, are fundamental to a broader Army strategic equation aimed at engineering weapons and technologies able to succeed in major-power, force-on-force mechanized warfare against a near peer.
Forward bases will no longer need to defend only against insurgent-type mortar attacks but may likely operate in a much higher-threat environment involving long-range, precision-guided ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and drone-fired weapons, among other things.
New sensors, laser weapons and more capable interceptors, such as those being explored by Northrop, are being evaluated for both near term and long-term threats.
The Army is increasingly working to develop an ability to operate, fight and win in what many Pentagon planners call contested environments. This could include facing enemies using long range sensors and missiles, cyberattacks, electronic warfare, laser weapons and even anti-satellite technologies designed to deny U.S. soldiers the use of GPS navigation and mapping.
The Army recently unveiled a new combat “operations” doctrine designed to better position the service for the prospect of large-scale, mechanized, force-on-force warfare against technologically advanced near-peer rivals – such as Russia or China – able to substantially challenge U.S. military technological superiority.
It is intended as a supplement or adjustment to the Army’s current Field Manual, Rickey Smith, Deputy Chief of Staff, U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, told Scout Warrior in an interview.
“This field manual for operations, which looks at where we are and where we are going. You cannot view the current force as the only answer. Things are evolving and you do not want to wait for some perfect end state,” Smith said.
When it comes to land combat, the renewed doctrine will accommodate the current recognition that the U.S. Army is no longer the only force to possess land-based, long-range precision weaponry. While JDAMs and GPS-guided weapons fired from the air have existed since the Gulf War timeframe, land-based precision munitions such as the 155m GPS-guided Excalibur artillery round able to hit 30 kilometers emerged within the last 10 years. This weapon first entered service in 2007, however precision-guided land artillery is now something many potential adversaries now possess as well.
While the emerging “operations” doctrine adaptation does recognize that insurgent and terrorist threats from groups of state and non-state actors will likely persist for decades into the future, the new manual will focus intently upon preparedness for a fast-developing high-tech combat environment against a major adversary.
Advanced adversaries with aircraft carriers, stealth aircraft, emerging hypersonic weapons, drones, long-range sensors and precision targeting technology presents the U.S. military with a need to adjust doctrine to properly respond to a fast-changing threat landscape.
For instance, Russia and China both claim to be developing stealth 5th generation fighters, electronic warfare and more evolved air defenses able to target aircraft on a wider range of frequencies at much farther distances. Long-range, precision guided anti-ship missiles able to target U.S. carriers at ranges up to 900 miles present threat scenarios making it much harder for U.S. platforms to operate in certain areas and sufficiently project power.
In addition, the Army’s Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) is a GPS-guided rocket able to destroy enemies at ranges up to 70 kilometers; the kind of long-range land-fired precision evidenced by GMLRS is yet another instance of U.S. weapons technology emerging in recent years that is now rivaled by similar weapons made my large nation-state potential adversaries. GMLRS warheads are now being upgraded to replace cluster munitions with a unitary warhead to adhere to an international anti-cluster munitions treaty.
Drones, such as the Army’s Shadow or Gray Eagle aircraft, are the kind of ISR platforms now similar to many technologies currently on the global marketplace.
All of these advancing and increasingly accessible weapons, quite naturally, foster a need for the U.S. to renew its doctrine such that it can effectively respond to a need for new tactics, concepts, strategies and combat approaches designed for a new operational environment.
The new manual will also fully incorporate a fast-evolving Pentagon strategy referred to as “multi-domain” warfare; this is based upon the recognition that enemy tactics and emerging technologies increasingly engender a greater need for inter-service, multi-domain operations.