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  • Drone Swarms

    not sure if this warrants its own thread, and most of the following come from once source, but it seemed like this stuff is at the point were it can stand alone.

    The US Navy Wants Its EA-18G Growlers to Drop Canisters With Drones Tucked Inside

    The disposable unmanned aircraft could then covertly launch electronic electronic attacks, spy on the enemy, and more.

    By Joseph TrevithickDecember 7, 2017

    Northrop Grumman says the U.S. Navy is interested in giving its EA-18G Growler jamming aircraft the ability to use modified cluster bomb canisters to deploy and control their own drone swarms to launch broader electronic attacks and collect signals intelligence data. Any fighter jet or bomber could conceivably carry the disposable unmanned aircraft, referred to both as Dash X and Remedy, as well, which might be able to take on covert surveillance and even strike duties in the future.

    On Oct. 26, 2017, Northrop Grumman conducted a flight test of the drone at Foothills Regional Airport in Morganton, North Carolina, but launched it from the ground rather than a canister attached to another aircraft. Once the Dash X was in flight, a modified de Havilland Dash-8 twin engine turboprop then successfully established a link to the drone, directing its activities and processing electronic signal information the unmanned aircraft was collecting. The next phase of the project will be to demonstrate the complete airdrop concept, which involves a cluster bomb-like shell containing one of the pilotless planes.

    Though Thompson did not elaborate on exactly how the Navy was considering blending the Growlers and Dash X together, it’s not hard to imagine the two aircraft working as a manned-unmanned team. The drone could extend the range and breadth of EA-18G’s capabilities, fanning out and searching for enemy radars, communication nodes, and other electronic signal emitters.

    The goal is obviously to feed at least basic information back to the controlling aircraft to help the crew find and prioritize targets and just give them a better sense of the overall battlefield environment and its electronic order of battle. Depending on the equipment that can fit inside a single Dash X, it might be able to act as a decoy, generating signals that make it look like a larger threat to air defense systems, or even conduct their own distributed electronic or cyber attacks, as well.

    “We did a demonstration where these [the Dash X] flew forward, looked for an unlocated RF [radio frequency] object, they went out and they found that vehicle,” Thompson told the assembled journalists. “They listened for the whispering and they pulled it back to this test airframe and they were able to detect, identify, and geolocate.”

    And though Northrop Grumman hasn’t yet settled on a final design, the company provided a picture of a mockup of the bomb-like shell looks almost identical to the U.S. military’s standardized SUU-64/B, -65/B and -66/B Tactical Munitions Dispensers, which can hold variety of different cluster munitions. According to Northrop Grumman, after release from the aircraft, whatever the eventual container used will be, it will break open and the Dash X will fall out, slowed by a parachute before its wings unfold and its motor starts.

    Using a modified cluster munition would make it relatively easy to load the system onto existing aircraft such as the EA-18G. It also means that a single aircraft would be able to carry more than one Dash X at a time, deploying swarms of unmanned aircraft that would be able to better monitor a certain zone for threats or faster search for particular points of interest across a broader area.

    “We’ll send in these as a swarm,” Thompson explained. “They’ll begin to do search patterns for where we believe — in this general area is — this object that we are searching for. Could be [searching for] theatre ballistic missile, long range engagement radar, short-range engagement radar.”

    Northrop Grumman is also pitching the air-dropped Dash X concept as a way for aircraft, such as the non-stealthy F/A-18 Hornets and Super Hornets and EA-18Gs in the Navy’s carrier air wings, to conduct electronic warfare and intelligence gathering missions deep into denied territory full of networked air defenses. There's no reason a low-observable aircraft, such as the F-35 with its already potentially impressive ability to vacuum up electronic signal data, couldn't carry them, as well.

    Thompson said that the drone’s small size and slow speed mean it has reduced radar and acoustic signatures that make it hard for opponents to spot on radar and difficult to quickly identify as a military drone. Even if they did see it on their radar screens, they might be inclined to dismiss the slow moving drone as something else entirely non-threatening.

    Below is video of another air-launched drone swarm test that the Department of Defense conducted in 2016, which you can read about in more detail here.

    “How does a company go from making B-21s to this?” Thompson posed to reporters. “It is actually survivable because it is absolutely so slow and so small, when you think about how military systems are designed, they’re designed to shoot down tactical jets and you actually build into radars gates that take away things just as birds.”

    Dash X is supposed to be able to fly high enough to be out of sight and earshot of personnel on the ground, but still low and slow enough as to not attract attention on radar. In additional to the electronic warfare systems, Thompson said it could carry electro-optical cameras, which could send a video feed back to a controlling aircraft or other friendly personnel in near real time.

    It might also be able to do so on the cheap, especially compared to more advanced manned and unmanned stealth aircraft, something Northrop Grumman already has significant experience with. In addition to the present B-2 Spirit and future B-21 Raider stealth bombers, the firm has also reportedly built a high-flying, long range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drone, the RQ-180, specifically to covertly gather information deep inside denied regions, and other classified projects.

    Unfortunately, the small size of the Dash X drone also limits how far it can fly and how long it can loiter over a particular area. The air-dropped “bomb” is supposed to help mitigate this issue, since a manned aircraft could carry it closer to the target area.

    Lockheed Martin

    A US Air Force F-16 carrying a pair of Tactical Munition Dispensers, another platform that could potentially launch and pair up with Dash X drones.

    Taken together, these capabilities open up the possibility for the Dash X taking on additional mission sets beyond just supporting the Navy’s Growlers. In particular, the system could help give carrier air wings some semblance of capability they might have otherwise gained from the Navy’s now cancelled Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike, or UCLASS, program.

    This effort sought to develop a stealthy, deep penetrating drone capable of both intelligence gathering and strike missions in denied areas that could take off and land from an aircraft carrier. The US Navy had extensively tested a pair of experimental Northrop Grumman X-47B drones as part of an initial technology demonstration program that was supposed to lead into the larger UCLASS project. The service is now looking to buy a tanker drone with a limited, secondary surveillance capability, to extend the range of its Super Hornets instead. The air-dropped Dash X is significantly smaller and less capable, but could offer the Navy a different kind of tool for penetrating into heavily defended regions.


    The Northrop Grumman's X-47B carrier-launched drone technology demonstrator.

    The complete system might be able to take on more novel roles in the future, too. Thompson said that the Navy’s present plan was to focus on a drone that could carry electronic warfare systems and other sensors, but that it might be possible to arm Dash X in the future to be able to attack targets on its own. It might even make sense to morph the drone into a covert loitering munition.

    Manned aircraft could then drop swarms of Dash X drones with explosive payloads to fly orbits around certain areas, unbeknownst to the enemy, ready to strike at exactly the right moment, whether the target was the crew of a road-mobile ballistic missile transporter-erector-launcher or a terrorist leader in their car. American special operations forces have already reportedly stepped up their use of man-portable loitering munitions, such as AeroVironment’s Switchblade.

    Northrop Grumman’s proposal isn’t without potential pitfalls, though. Regardless of whether Thompson’s comments about the potential for Dash X to slip by enemy radars unnoticed are accurate, many countries, the United States included, are becoming increasingly more aware of the threat of small drones. In turn, there has been a surge in development of new radars and associated short-range air defense systems. Small unmanned aircraft, including types readily available commercially, are only becoming more popular and common tools in conflicts around the world both for state security forces and insurgents and terrorists.

    The drones also may not be entirely invisible to the naked eye. Depending on how low it has to fly in order to best use its sensor package, enemy troops may be able to readily see it during the day. Only exceptionally large birds, such as the California condor, have anything approaching a 12-foot wingspan. They don’t dangle from parachutes, even briefly, either, but the idea is probably to launch this well outside of the target area.

    Joseph Trevithick

    A modified Bradley Fighting Vehicle, festooned with radars, jammers, and surface-to-air missiles, that BAE Systems is pitching to the US Army as a new short-range air-defense system.

    And unless the launching aircraft is also a low observable design, it may have to release the drones from safely outside an enemy air defense net. Depending on how far inside the denied area the target or targets might be this could then significant limit Dash X’s ability to offer persistent coverage of a particular point or reduce the time it has to search around.

    Still, as a disposable system, Dash X could be relatively low cost in its final form, which might help mitigate some of these issues. Replacing the air-dropped “bomb” idea with a dispenser containing a drone fitted inside an air- or surface-launched cruise missile or glide weapon could give the concept extra stand-off distance.

    Even if they detect the drone swarm, an enemy force might find themselves overwhelmed and unable to shoot down some or all of the unmanned aircraft before they can grab any important imagery or other intelligence information. This is one the main benefits of a swarming concept to begin with.

    There’s no guarantee that the Navy or any other service will even decide to turn the experiment into a fully fledged acquisition effort. ONR has already been experimenting with swarms of small, disposable drones for some time. The Office of the Secretary of Defense’s secretive Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency are also heavily invested in researching the potential applications of swarms and manned-unmanned teaming more broadly. The results of the Dash X tests could end up as part of that growing corpus of basic research data to support future developments.

    As it stands now, Northrop Grumman still has to prove its basic concept works and it can drop the Dash X out of a modified cluster bomb.

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  • #2

    60 Minutes Does an Infomercial On Drone Swarms For The Pentagon

    There's lots to look at, but not much substance.

    By Tyler RogowayJanuary 9, 2017

    Recently America’s premier TV news magazine, 60 Minutes, has pivoted toward more military technology segments than they featured in the past. As always, the Pentagon rolls out the red carpet for the iconic show; but much like the profiles they do on America’s wealthiest CEO’s and the “fascinating” companies they run, these segments can lean toward canned infomercials more than hard journalism. Last night’s segment “The Coming Swarm” was no different.

    You can watch the segment on the 60 Minutes site.

    David Martin did his usual oohing and ahhing on the capabilities the Pentagon is openly working on, most of which we talk about here regularly. The focus of the program was Perdix drone swarms, one of the DoD’s small, expendable, networked drone plays that has been in development for some time. We also got to see a silly demonstration of facial recognition and semi-autonomous networked fire (briefly featuring our old friend the M80 Stiletto), as well as an unmanned sub-hunting boat we are all familiar with—DARPA’s ACTUV, aka the Sea Hunter.

    Sure, seeing video of a trio of F/A-18 Hornets executing a mass drop of 100 little Perdix drones over NAWS China Lake was fun (check out this other story and video on the test), and there was some very light talk about autonomy and what it could mean for the future of warfare, but the topic was left feeling woefully underserved and unchallenged. It seemed as if someone made a call to the Pentagon public affairs office and asked “tell us about swarms” and that’s what the DoD cooked up. In other words, an infomercial for the Pentagon.

    Sure, the DoD is very happy to tout its unclassified miniature networked drone projects. But with all the talk about autonomous swarms, and how they can react faster as a team than humans—even little low-cost brick-sized ones—how was there no talk about larger, higher-end capabilities? In other words, it is all very DARPA-ish stuff, but as a defense reporter for decades, Martin seems to have very little insight into other capabilities that are supposedly out there, or worse, he's not willing to ask about it.

    You're left with the feeling that, once again, networked Unmanned Combat Air Systems (UCAVs) and even lower end UCAV-like systems do not exist, even at a conceptual level. It’s such a glaring omission, especially in a piece about flying drone swarms. The first question a well-briefed reporter would ask on the tarmac at NAWS China Lake while watching Pedix in action should be “Great, these flying shoe boxes are neat, but if they can do all this, what can fighter-sized drone swarms do, and why aren’t they flying around here too?”

    The UCAV has long disappeared from the USAF's public train of thought after showing revolutionary promise in the 2000s.

    Maybe even more of an issue is Martin’s lack of follow-through with officials over their concerns of the “ethics” of unmanned autonomous warfare. This topic is having a huge impact on the future of America's military and the ethical arguments surrounding it need more fleshing out at the highest levels. Although it may be an interesting topic to debate academically, the hard truth is that our enemies will have no problem handing over tactical decision making, including on what to kill and how to kill it, to a machine—if it means gaining a substantial tactical advantage.

    Take the Russians for instance, who have recently executed an entire air campaign over urban areas using unguided munitions. The thought that they would forestall development and deployment of unmanned autonomous weapon systems due to the ethical concerns is laughable. Another one of our potential peer-states, China, will leverage any weakness the US has in its collective armor. Choosing not to realize the massive increase in overwhelming force that fully autonomous drones could provide will be one of those weak links if we don't pursue it first. In the end, slowing down the effectiveness of autonomous weaponry considerably by keeping it "semi-autonomous," or maintaining a "man in the loop," largely defeats its purpose and future foes will not curtail their own development of these systems for similar reasons. In other words, regardless of what some philosophers and lawyers may say, giving up supposedly the biggest technological combat edge since the creation of nuclear weapons by choice is a fateful decision.

    This is why follow up questions and clarity on where key people within the DoD and industry stand on this issue is so important. Like asking if its smart for the US to knowingly be giving such an advantage while the enemy certainly would not and is not? And yes, our potential foes, and many others, are developing these things too. With all this in mind, wouldn't you think Martin would want to find out what these experts on the frontlines of swarm development’s arguments are for or against end-to-end autonomy for robotic combat systems? What about the opinion of experts who don’t make a paycheck from a DoD or an associated program? This is the autonomous swarm story—not a video rendition of what was in last month’s Popular Science magazine.

    At the end of his piece David asks: ”I’ve heard people say that autonomy is the biggest thing in military technology since nuclear weapons. Really?”

    Will Roper: “I think I might agree with that, David. I mean, if what we mean is biggest thing is something that’s going to change everything, I think autonomy is going to change everything.”

    We agree. Tell us why.

    If you are 60 Minutes, or any serious news organization for that matter, you should not have to “play ball” by not pushing the hard questions in exchange for cool visuals. Hopefully that’s not the case, as other 60 Minutes reporters, such as Lara Logan, don't seem as constrained in their questioning of military officials. If it isn’t, Martin should use his platform more aggressively to probe into the shadowy areas of the subjects he covers, and there are plenty believe me. If he doesn’t know where those shadows fall, there are many who can guide him.

    Without these elements, the masses may be wow’d with great imagery, strong-sounding narration and questions that seem like they have impact. but really, you're seeing a 15-minute prime-time infomercial for the cool stuff the Pentagon wants you to see, and opinions they want you to hear.

    In the end you can be nearly certain the high-end swarming autonomous combat craft are already here, albeit in small numbers. And, as I've stated in great detail before, if this is true then it’s a major problem. If it’s not true, and they don't exist at all, we are in far worse trouble. The power of good journalism at the highest levels could help effect this somewhat precarious situation and allow us to get to the bottom of what exactly the DoD plans on doing when it comes to unleashing the swarm on its own accord.

    Contact the author
    Last edited by bfng3569; 16 Jan 18,, 23:00.


    • #3

      mass drone attack on Russian forces in Syria has highlighted the very real danger that small unmanned aircraft increasingly pose, even in the hands of non-state groups. At the same time, it underscores how small drone swarms could be a game-changing capability for larger nation states, including the United States’ near-peer opponents, such as China, who are already developing this technology in more structured environments.

      In December 2017, researchers from the Chinese state National University of Defense Technology (NUDT), more formally known as the People's Liberation Army (PLA) National University of Defense Science and Technology, conducted an experiment involving approximately two dozen of small fixed wing unmanned aircraft. An official PLA publication said that the test consisted of the entire group of drones acting as a swarm to complete a simulated reconnaissance mission, according to the East Pendulum blog. The individual aircraft operated together as a single entity and performed certain, unspecified portions of the flight autonomously.

      “The team has been working for nine months on the preparation of this swarm test, sometimes we have to do a hundred test flights a day,” Professor Shen Lin Cheng, the Chair NUDT’s Institute of Artificial Intelligence Sciences and former head of its Institute of Electro-mechanical Engineering and Automation, said. “We have precise short, medium and long term objectives, which are consistent with those set by the government on the modernization of the Chinese armed forces by 2020, 2035 and 2050.”

      The December 2017 flight test followed an earlier experiment two months earlier that involved an unknown, but reportedly smaller total number of drones. These two events may have also included a number of small quad-copter style unmanned aircraft, which NUDT has also been working with.

      In June 2017, the state-owned China Electronics Technology Group Corporation, or CETC, conducted its own record-breaking swarm experiment with nearly 120 unmanned fixed wing aircraft, as well. This event included simulated missions where the entire formation acted as a whole and instances where smaller groups broke away to complete separate objectives.

      The specific objectives of the NUDTs drone swarm experiments are unclear, as are those related to the CETC’s tests, but it seems almost certain that it is foundational research to see what small unmanned aircraft can and can’t do as a single entity within the limits of existing technology. The U.S. military is also engaged in a host of similar technology demonstration efforts regarding drone swarms.

      The NUDT's latest experiment looks very similar in concept to the U.S. Department of Defense's Strategic Capabilities Office's tests with Perdix, a miniature air-dropped unmanned aircraft, and the U.S. Navy's Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology project, which used Raytheon's Coyote, another small fixed-wing drone. Both of these efforts focused as much on the software, which allowed the swarms to respond in unison to commands and operate autonomously based on pre-programmed instructions, all while avoiding running into each other, as the hardware itself.

      Small groups of networked drones could significantly change how military forces operate in the future. Our own Tyler Rogoway explained some potential scenarios in a feature last year on the need for new short-range air defenses, or SHORAD systems, writing:

      “Being networked together, and being autonomous in nature after being loaded with a target area location, along with other mission parameters, these swarms will be extremely hard to defend against using even the best SHORAD systems in development today. It's the saturation nature of the attack, the size of the attackers, and the fact that they work as a coordinated swarm, employing dynamic tactics to see as many in their company survive long enough to make their suicidal attack, that make them so deadly. They could even drop micro-munitions and be reused for a later attack. Just the knowledge that such an attack is possible would be psychologically stressful and demoralizing for troops on the ground.

      Similar swarming strikes could be unleashed behind the front lines as well, with hugely expensive and low density/high demand combat aircraft being especially vulnerable to this sort of tactic—something General James Holmes alluded to inadvertently while speaking to the Air Force Association, stating:

      "Imagine a world where somebody flies a couple hundred of those and flies one down the intake of my F-22s with just a small weapon on it."

      “Actually, it would be even easier to just strike the jets as they sit idle and vulnerable on the flight line. One swarm could see a whole squadron of tightly packed fighters destroyed without even having a chance to fight back.”

      Future swarms of small drones might also be able to carry electronic warfare jammers, emitters that mimic the signals of larger aircraft, equipment capable of conducting cyber attacks, or other systems to confuse or overwhelm an opponent’s defenses ahead of or during a more complex operation. A swarm of drones with small electro-optical or infrared cameras might be able to rapidly search a broad area for targets of interest discreetly and, with miniaturized data links, feed this information to other aircraft or other assets where it can be fused and exploited, giving their friendly force a more complete view of the battlefield and any potential hazards or targets of opportunity.

      Even a swarm of small drones each with different modular capabilities installed could potentially conduct a broad array of tasks at once and in a resilient manner. Navigation system carrying types could help guide armed versions over long distances. Some armed variants could be capable of homing in on certain types of radiation—like radar emitters, air defense nodes, or even individual communications devices, while others can be capable of attacking prescribed targets that visually match images in their memory database. In this way, developments may be able to reduce the overall size and complexity of the basic underlying aircraft. This is an especially important consideration since the cost of launching dozens, or even hundreds of drones, could otherwise become prohibitive quite quickly, especially if the user doesn't expect some or even all of them to necessarily survive.

      Systems that are ostensibly for scientific research purposes, but that have sensors designed to monitor visual or other changes across a wide area could easily have military applications, too, acting as early warning nets or helping guard borders. According to East Pendulum, Chinese research agencies and institutions have published at least a dozen public studies regarding drones working in unison, including on land and at sea, as well as in the air, but not all for explicitly military applications. China is surely doing more work on the potential uses of drone swarms in more classified settings.

      Whatever the goals and state of China’s drone swarms developments are, the potential threats are definitely real and rapidly evolving. Militants in Iraq and Syria, including ISIS, have already shown what they can do with limited resources and facilities. Between January and December 2017, these groups went from conducting very limited attacks using individual commercial type drones with improvised munitions to a mass attack using a home brew autonomous design with GPS guidance.

      Writing about the incidents in Syria, Tyler Rogoway noted that we should expect more advanced nation states to produce even more threatening swarm technologies, writing:

      “But regardless of the direct implications this new tactic has on Russia's Syrian operation, it does give us our first glimpses of a new age in modern warfare – one where dense swarms of low-cost drones armed with high-explosives will be able to wreak havoc on targets. Russian defenses, and those of other countries for that matter, may be able to fend off a handful of these improvised drones executing a very loosely coordinated attack, but a near peer-state competitor could field a much denser, more nimble, adaptable, and networked force. And as we have mentioned before, there is no known kinetic defense to counter such an attack.”

      On top of that, future parallel developments in artificial intelligence could help intelligence analysts more readily parse large amounts of data from many individual sources, like from a localized swarm, making the prospect of distributed wide-area persistent monitoring, especially from the air, more manageable in general and speeding up the process of getting that information into the hands of the individuals who need it the most. The United States is already conducting tests of one such system to help U.S. military personnel sift through visual imagery.

      Chinese authorities are reportedly turning the country’s western Xinjiang province into a dystopian laboratory to test even more extreme methods of artificial intelligence-driven intelligence collection and persistent monitoring in order to help maintain control. Members of the region’s predominantly Muslim Uighur population, a Turkic ethnic group, has often been critical of Han Chinese rule, either as peaceful activists or members of international terrorist groups.

      The video below shows how China is harnessing artificial intelligence to rapidly sift through surveillance imagery

      And at least at present, all of this technology is evolving faster than countermeasures can keep up, too. Directional jammers and solid-state lasers, as well as other ultra-short range defenses, are generally best for disabling or destroying one target at a time rather than a whole group of small drones simultaneously. Omnidirectional jamming equipment could just as easily disable friendly tactical drones using the same frequencies or other communications and surveillance systems as the incoming enemy. As the Russians found out in Syria earlier in January 2018, a combination of traditional short-range air defense and electronic warfare systems is not enough to guarantee the destruction of all the drones in even a modestly sized swarm.

      We at the War Zone have been warning about this emerging threat for some time, and Tyler Rogoway has posited on more than one occasion that the only defense against small swarms may be a friendly one, noting:

      "Maybe wide-area electronic warfare could help counter such a threat, at least to some degree. But clearly the best defense of all is to not let the enemy get close enough to launch such an onslaught in the first place. But this is a tough proposition when it comes to defense from such an attack in friendly areas or behind the lines, where even the fastest fighter jets sit stationary on flightlines, the coordinates of which are readily available on Google Earth.

      "Although it may sound like a page out a science fiction novel, the only thing that could probably counter such a dense swarming attack on ground forces or a garrisoned force would be for those forces to have their own counter-swarm swarms at the ready. This would result in dozens or even hundreds of mini kamikaze dogfights in the sky—a life and death suicide struggle among diminutive hive-minded flying robots."

      Though the technology is still in an experimental stage, the Chinese military is clearly looking forward to a future full of deadly small drone swarms.

      Contact the author:


      • #4
        Armed UCAVs are also already being utilized by a variety of non-state entities.

        Interesting times we live in.

        Home-made drones now threaten conventional armed forces

        February 08, 2018
        The Economist - Drones and Guerrilla Warfare

        An attack on Russian forces in Syria on January 5th by 13 home-made drones is a good example of "asymmetric" warfare. On one side, exquisite high-tech weapons. On the other, cheap-as-chips disposable robot aircraft. Ten of the drones involved attacked a Russian airbase at Khmeimim. The other three went for a nearby naval base at Tartus. Rather than being quad-copters, the most popular design for commercial drones, the craft involved in these attacks (some of which are pictured above) resembled hobbyists' model aircraft. They had three-metre wingspans, were built crudely of wood and plastic, and were powered by lawnmower engines. Each carried ten home-made shrapnel grenades under its wings.

        According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, which has so far refused to say who it thinks was responsible for the attack, the drones were guided by GPS and had a range of 100km. The electronics involved were off-the-shelf components, and the total cost of each drone was perhaps a couple of thousand dollars. The airframes bore a resemblance to those of Russian Orlan-10 drones, several of which have been shot down by rebel forces in Syria. The craft may thus have been a cheap, garage-built copy of captured kit.

        These particular drones, the Russians claim, were intercepted before they could cause any damage. However, several Russian aircraft were apparently damaged in an attack in Syria four days earlier, which was also, according to some accounts, carried out by drones. And there will certainly be other assaults of this sort. Guerrillas have been using commercial drones since 2015. Islamic State (IS), one of the groups active in Syria, makes extensive use of quad-copters to drop grenades. In 2017 alone the group posted videos of over 200 attacks. IS has also deployed fixed-wing aircraft based on the popular Skywalker X8 hobby drone. These have longer ranges than quad-copters and can carry bigger payloads. Other groups in Syria, and in Iraq as well, employ similar devices. Their use has spread, too, to non-politically-motivated criminals. In October, four Mexicans allegedly linked to a drug cartel were arrested with a bomb-carrying drone.

        Compared with military hardware, drone technology is both readily available and cheap. In 2014 a team at MITRE, a security think-tank based in Virginia, made a military-grade drone using commercial electronics, a 3D-printed airframe and open-source software. It cost $2,000. A whole squadron of such craft could thus be assembled for less than the cost of a single shoulder-fired missile, let alone a modern combat aircraft. America's F-22 fighter, for example, costs over $300m. A B-2 bomber is even more expensive.

        Even a lone drone can do plenty of damage. In Ukraine last year, drones operated by Russian separatists (or perhaps by Russian special forces) attacked several ammunition dumps with incendiary grenades. They destroyed a number of these dumps, in one case setting off explosions which blew up a staggering 70,000 tonnes of munitions.

        A growing appreciation of the threat from small drones has led to a rush for protection. Lieutenant-General Stephen Townsend, a former commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, America's anti-IS campaign, has called weaponised drones "the number one threat facing soldiers fighting IS". An American navy budget document describes the navy as "scrambling to improve defences against the rapidly evolving capabilities of remote-controlled devices". Existing defences are not geared up to cope with small drones, which are difficult to spot, identify and track, and which may be too numerous to stop. Jamming might be thought an obvious solution. Breaking the radio links between the operator and the drone, or confusing its GPS navigation, would make a drone crash or send it off course. Many jammers, with names like Dedrone, DroneDefender and DroneShield, have already been employed by various countries. Six of the drones in the Syrian attack were brought down by such jammers, the others by guns and missiles.

        Drones are, however, becoming increasingly autonomous. This means there is no operator link to jam. The Syrian drones were vulnerable to jamming because they relied on GPS and so crashed when their link to it was blocked. But new technologies such as optical navigation (which permits a drone to compare its surroundings with an on-board electronic map, and thus to know where it is) will make even GPS jammers useless. Hence the need for "kinetic solutions", to shoot drones down.

        Small drones are surprisingly hard targets, however. Iraqi forces in Mosul used to joke that trying to deal with an IS drone attack was like being at a wedding celebration: everyone fired their Kalashnikovs into the air with no effect. A recent American army manual describes small drones as "very difficult to defeat using direct fire weapons". A single rifle bullet is likely to miss. A shotgun would work, but only at close range, and would mean that squaddies had to carry around an extra weapon all the time on the off chance of a drone attack. Also, since drones are not of standard sizes, the range to one is hard to estimate. The manual therefore suggests that rather than aiming directly at a drone, the entire squad should fire their weapons at a fixed point ahead of it, hoping to bring the craft down with a curtain of fire. The manual also advises commanders that the best course of action may be "immediate relocation of the unit to a safer location".

        Among other projects, the American army is hurriedly upgrading its shoulder-launched Stinger missiles, which are used to attack low-flying aeroplanes and helicopters. Stingers were not designed to hit small drones, though, so the upgrade adds a proximity fuse which detonates when the missile is close enough to destroy a drone without actually having to make contact with it. Up to 600 "Manoeuvre Short Range Air Defence" teams equipped with these upgraded missiles will join American infantry units around the world. But the upgrades cost about $55,000 each (on top of the basic $120,000 cost of a Stinger), so only 1,147 are being purchased—about two per team, which is hardly enough to tackle a swarm of drones.

        Another approach being tried out by the American army is a system called BLADE (Ballistic Low-Altitude Drone Engagement). This fits armoured vehicles' existing machine-gun turrets with radar guidance and computer control. That should provide some protection, but may still be impotent against a mass attack.

        A similar problem applies at sea, where billion-dollar ships might have their defences overwhelmed by squadrons of cheap, jerry-built drones. The mainstay of American naval air defence is Aegis, an orchestrated arrangement of radars, computers, missiles and cannons. The short-range element of Aegis is a Dalek-like, rapid-fire cannon called Phalanx, which spits out 75 rounds a second and can shoot down incoming cruise missiles. This will not cope well with lots of small drones, though. The navy is now upgrading Aegis's software to handle multiple simultaneous incoming targets by scheduling bursts of fire to destroy as many members of a swarm as possible. It is doubtful, however, whether one gun could account for more than a handful of attackers coming in from all directions at once. An unclassified study suggests that it could be overwhelmed by as few as eight.

        Developers of drone-countering measures hope to overcome that by using laser weapons. Lasers hit their targets at the speed of light, have an unlimited supply of ammunition and cost less than a dollar a shot. Though such weapons have yet to achieve their designers' intentions of being able to shoot down crewed aircraft, they have been tested extensively and successfully against target drones. A variety of specifically anti-drone laser systems are now being developed, including Lockheed Martin's Athena, Raytheon's dune-buggy-mounted anti-drone laser, and LaWS, a creation of the American navy itself.

        The crucial question is how rapidly such a laser system can spot, track and aim at its target, and how long the beam must play on the target in order to destroy it. The whole process is likely to take several seconds, and until it is complete, the laser cannot move on to repeat the procedure on another target. As with Phalanx, a simple calculation suggests individual anti-drone lasers would be able to deal with only a small number of attackers. If even one drone got through, the laser would probably be the priority target—for destroying it would leave the way open for a subsequent, unchallenged attack.

        An American army document from 2016 thus emphasises the importance of stopping drones "left of launch"—that is, before they can take off. IS drone workshops and operators have been attacked to stop the drone threat. The Russians say they destroyed the unnamed group responsible for the mass drone attack in January, along with their drone-assembly and storage facility in Idlib, using laser-guided artillery. But when there are no runways or hangars, and drones can be operated from houses and garages, finding bases to attack is far from easy. Until adequate defences are in place, then, guerrilla drone swarms will be a real danger.



        • #5
          Countering Small Unmanned Aircraft
          Marine Corps Gazette
          February 1, 2018

          Warren W Choi; Olivia A Garard


          SUASs (small unmanned aircraft systems) are, literally and figuratively, exploding. For the Super Bowl LI Halftime Show, Intel programmed a swarm of 300 drones to dance and spiral above Lady Gaga.1 Just a few weeks later, China showcased 1,000 illuminated drones in another fireworks-like drone display for the annual Lantern Festival ?n Guangzhou.2 While swarms are dazzling crowds, adversaries are using the same assets to attack our forces.

          FULL TEXT

          It takes a system

          SUASs (small unmanned aircraft systems) are, literally and figuratively, exploding. For the Super Bowl LI Halftime Show, Intel programmed a swarm of 300 drones to dance and spiral above Lady Gaga.1 Just a few weeks later, China showcased 1,000 illuminated drones in another fireworks-like drone display for the annual Lantern Festival ?n Guangzhou.2 While swarms are dazzling crowds, adversaries are using the same assets to attack our forces. With techniques improving daily, militants with SUAS will continue to wreak havoc on the battlefield with more than just LEDs. In the dynamic interaction of war, enemy SUAS employment will be an evolving problem. In this article, we explore our vulnerabilities to enemy SUASs and propose frameworks that can structure our counter.

          New Possibilities

          War is a great impetus for innovation. As Clausewitz pinpoints, "the necessity of fighting very soon led men to special inventions to turn the advantage ?n it in their own favor."3 The SUAS is one such advantage. For our warfighters, the SUAS brings reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, and other capabilities to the lowest tactical level, but as with any emerging technology, whenever we are innovating, so too are our enemies.

          The centers of modern conflict are hotbeds for jerry-rigged weaponry. In Iraq and Syria, both pro-ISIS and antiISIS militants are working with backyard engineers to quickly bring assets to the fight.^ The prevalence and relative affordability of commercial SUAS has resulted ?n what T.X. Hammes describes as the "democratization of air power ."5 Non-state actors now have unprecedented access to aviation assets and the mobility that airspace affords. The air is no longer only the domain of large, conventional militaries: "Drones may be doing for airpower what the AK-47 did for firearms."6

          At the moment, we may be able to dismiss the immediate strategic threat. In "Flying IEDs: The Next Big Threat," Ulrike Franke analyzes that, in the short term, current militant SUAS employment will not "fundamentally change the fight." In the future, however, "troops are likely to encounter more sophisticated systems that will be much harder to intercept."7 Each SUAS simply serves as a platform to carry weapons systems, and the methods of employment are limited only by the user's imagination.

          Enemy quadcopters releasing 40mm grenades over friendly forces are just the beginning.8 Existing commercial technology, coupled with disposable delivery platforms, can produce unconventional effects upon our operations. Equipped with onboard processors and simple shape charges, $5,000 worth of equipment can deliver the nightmare storm-a swarm of SUASs autonomously destroying a billion-dollar flight line of F-35s.9 Micro-UASs can ground F-22s10 as easily as a swarm of bees did in Virginia.11 A quadcopter could carry radioactive materials,12 and a SUAS could distribute biological toxins, tear gas,13 sarin, or VX through existing commercial crop-dusting technologies.14 A fire-breathing SUAS could bring chaos,13 and SUASs could conduct sophisticated espionage on our information technology systems.16 The possibilities are endless, and the innovation has just begun.

          Hidden Gaps

          In 2015, a recreational operator crashed a SUAS on the White House grounds, and the only prior warning was the visual and auditory recognition by Secret Service agents.17 The security gap at the highest level of our government also exists for Marines in country. The only known C-SUAS (counterSUAS) asset currently deployed with our Marines ?s the DroneDefender.18 This device jams radio frequency communications links and/or the GPS signals that the SUAS uses to navigate. The intent is to disrupt the link, causing the aircraft to lose navigation and rendering the pilot unable to control the SUAS.

          Unfortunately, options like the DroneDefender are easy to bypass by using self-contained navigation.19 Commercial SUASs typically come equipped with lost-link programming, which allows them to follow a pre-programmed route without a communication link. It is even possible to leverage the fact that the SUAS will lose link by programming enemy positions into the lost link route, as was demonstrated at TALON REACH 2016. Furthermore, SUASs can navigate without GPS-other methods like INS (inertial navigation systems), visual navigation,20 heat-seeking payloads, RF (radio frequency) seekers, or LIDAR (light imaging, detecting, and ranging) can substitute.21 The ability to find intended targets without external input will only increase as onboard processing and machine learning allow SUASs to perform missions with greater autonomy.

          Detecting SUAS activity ?s a particularly intractable problem for which we are not well prepared. Commercial SUASs are most often low, slow, and small, defeating existing radars built for larger, faster aircraft.22 23 The variety of threats-from low, slow, and small SUASs to loitering munitions24 like the Harop23-forces us to utilize a multipronged approach. Detection requires multiple sensors, principally because the detection methods that exist today do not offer sufficient fidelity. Promising solutions for finding the aircraft and the pilot include video analysis, groundbased and UAS-borne radars,26 acoustic detectors,27 and RF detectors,28 but none of these are independently sufficient.

          Defeating SUASs ?s just as difficult as detecting them, and for the same reasons. The limited effectiveness of jammers has brought to the forefront the need for a "hard-kill" solution, and fly-swatter style UASs are demonstrating potential for both civilian29 and military uses.30 But again, its only a matter of time before our adversaries figure out a way to outmaneuver a UAS trawling a net. Meanwhile, a U.S. ally has resorted to shooting down a $200 drone with a Patriot missile.31 We lack assets dedicated to detecting and neutralizing the SUAS threat other than visual acquisition and our organic direct fire weapons. We also lack ways to find operators directly controlling the SUAS. The military response is so inadequate that the French Army, after proof of concept from the Dutch Police Force, is training eagles to take down SUASs.32 The only place eagles should have in our national defense strategy is on the Marine Corps emblem.

          Rethinking the System

          A C-SUAS system must consist of a combination of assets, orchestrated through a modular, networked architecture. Traditional IADS (integrated air defense systems) couple together different requisite functions (e.g., detection, battle management, neutralization) in order to provide air defense-a C-SUAS must do the same, but given the fast tempo and difficulty of detection and neutralization, the system must become quicker and more accurate by leveraging networked technology. The ideal system will synthesize information from various detectors, evaluate the nature of the threat, and then quickly task an appropriate counter-mechanism. We need a system of systems with modular components that can adapt to changing circumstances on the battlefield.

          The focal point is not any individual capability but rather the networked integration of various sensors and weapons. The consensus is that there is no singular materiel solution to the problem, at least for now.33 The SUAS threat is too varied and the enemy's tactics too flexible for any single technology to bring a lasting reduction in enemy SUAS capabilities. A C-SUAS system must integrate multiple disparate sources in order to collect accurate, actionable information. On traditional IADS, early warning radars provide the range but not the detail on aerial threats. Conversely, target acquisition radars provide the detail but not the range that early warning radars do. Similarly, a thermal imager or an optical camera may not be able to detect SUASs with sufficient fidelity on their own, but used together, one could provide additional information that could verify a potential SUAS detected by the other source. Leveraging capabilities like MINOTAUR, the CSUAS system can combine, condition, correlate, and overlay various sensor inputs to maximize chances of detection.34 Artificial intelligence can sift through the mass of sensor information, and deep-learning algorithms can continuously improve the accuracy in identifying threats and determining the appropriate method to neutralize or destroy. 35

          With the arrival of the Internet of Things on the battlefield, there is an abundance of new sensors, but we need to figure out better ways to connect them and distribute the data. The Marines of 3d Battalion, 5th Marines highlighted the problem at ITX (Integrated Training Exercise) 1-17: "the increase in sensors on the battlefield from SUAS, UAS, MUTT optics, SABER systems, etc., are not currently shared across the ground network." The foundation of a C-SUAS system is the communications architecture- like what is possible with medium altitude long endurance UAS-that can link the sensors, software, and weapons systems.36 Not only do we need the communications architecture to transmit information, we also need to standardize the way the information is integrated-all the way from the physical infrastructure of data links to the languages and protocols of software. We need to utilize standard methods by which disparate software can communicate so that diverse tools can be integrated and new tools can be easily built. This is the necessary information technology backbone:

          Broadly shared standards like HTML are the sparks that create new territories ultimately leading to the culture, inhabitants, and businesses that form there. At the heart of this catalytic power is a simple technical contract: follow the rules of the protocol, but otherwise, do whatever you want.32

          The result will be a structure that can be modified in an incremental yet responsive manner. We need answers to enemy SUASs now, and the complex, multidimensional nature of the problem requires a system that incorporates multiple tools. The modular nature will allow units to customize assets based upon what the conditions allow and how the enemy reacts. The flexibility gives way to increasing levels of autonomy as technology develops. Man can stay "?n the loop" as necessary, for example, by reading sensor feeds and judging friend or foe, until ?t can be better performed by a man simply directing the task. The benefit of creating an integrated, modular C-SUAS network is that it will allow the existing tools to work together now, making ?t easy to incorporate future technological developments.

          The Rusty Wheel

          In order for C-SUAS systems to adapt adequately, our institutions must quickly recognize change and respond. That means fully utilizing existing tools like the Rapid Capabilities Office and overseas contingency operations funds for rapid testing and fielding. We should concurrently advocate for formalizing alternative tracks of rapid acquisition.38 Furthermore, we need adaptability in country, like forward-deployed software engineers immediately changing lines of code,39 rather than having new versions of software mired in bureaucracy.

          Given the significant role of commercial technology and increase in research and development in other countries, the United States can no longer rely on technological superiority.40 The majority of commercial SUAS manufacturing is done in China, and what were considered the most promising U.S. companies have failed to compete.41 When breakthrough capabilities can be amalgamated through common technologies defined by software, we need to find ways to best utilize existing technologies rather than seek unique access.4 2

          The innovation cycle against which we are competing is a guy scrounging parts locally and improvising in his backyard-much like how IEDs have evolved. In addition to developing a SUAS defense system agile enough to quickly adapt, we must ensure that our institutions can quickly respond to the changing environment. It ?s the same lesson that the private sector has learned ?n a faster-paced economy- "Instead of being really good at doing some particular thing, companies must be really good at learning how to do new things."43 Our institutions must be agile enough to pry loose the rusty wheel.

          In Scales on War, MG Robert Scales describes both today's and tomorrow's battlefields as "amoebic in shape ... distributed, nonlinear, and essentially formless in space and unbounded in time."44 What we are likely to see in the coming years in the SUASs and C-SUASs ?s a series of moves, countermoves, and counter-countermoves, as we, and our enemies, adapt to stay ahead. We cannot rely on linear and antiquated industrialism to develop our military technology.43 Just like Scales' battlefield, our response must be distributed, nonlinear, andformless. Stopping one enemy SUAS is only a part of a system tackling an evolving problem ?n an institution attempting to adapt to change. Countering SUAS threats is going to take more than a single technological breakthrough. We must attack the larger structural fallacies prohibiting possible solutions. It takes a system.

          "In actuality, it only requires broadening ones outlook a little and being uninhibited in thought to be able to avail oneself of the lever of the great volumes of new technology and new factors springing up from the age of integrated technology, thus prying loose the wheel of the military revolution rusted as a result of lagging behind in terms of thinking." -Unrestricted Warfare, Col Qiao Liang and Col Wang Xiangsui (1999)


          1. Jacob Brogan, "How Intel Lit Up the Super Bowl with Drones-and Why," Slate, (Online: February 2017), available at http://www.slate, com.

          2. Keely Lockhart, "China Launches 1,000 Illuminated Drones into Night Sky in RecordBreaking Display," The Telegraph, (Online: February 2017), available at

          3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. Col J.J. Graham, (New York: Barnes and Noble Inc., 2004).

          4. Adam Rawnsley and Austin Bodetti, "The Warbot Builders of the Middle East Spill Their Secrets," Wired, (Online: February 2017), available at

          5. T.X. Hammes, "The Democratization of Airpower: The Insurgent and The Drone," War on the Rocks, (Online: October 2016), available at https: //waronther ocks .com.

          6. Ryan Faith, "Inside 'Black Dart,' the U.S. Military's War on Drones," Vice News, (Online: October 2014), available at

          7. Ulrike Franke, "Flying IEDs: The Next Big Threat?" War on the Rocks, (Online: October 2016), available at

          8. David Hambling, "The Quadrotor Drone That Carries a Warhead," Popular Mechanics, (Online: April 2016), available at http://www. po pular me chanics .com.

          9. Authors personal interview with LtCol Noah M. Spataro, UAS Capabilities Integration and Requirements Officer.

          10. Judy Dutton, "Drones' Future: Supersonic Swarms of Robot Bugs," Wired, (Online: June 2012), available at

          11. David Cencíottí, "F-22 Raptor Grounded by Swarm ofAlmost 20,000 Bees," TheAviationist, (Online: August 2016), available at https://

          12. "Japan Radioactive Drone: Tokyo Police Arrest Man," BBC News, (Online: April 2015), available at

          13. David Hambling, "These 6 Drones Are Ready and Waiting to Tear Gas You," Popular Mechanics, (Online: February 2016), available at

          14. Friederike Nielsen, "Drones Could Deliver Biological Weapons," Dedrone, (Online: December 2015), available at

          15. Matt Novak, "Power Company Sends FireSpewing Drone to Burn Trash Off High-Voltage Wires," Gizmo do, (Online: February 2017), available at

          16. Andy Greenberg, "Malware Lets a Drone Steal Data by Watching A Computer's Blinking LED," Wired, (Online: February 2017), available at

          17. Andrew Grossman and Jack Nicas, "White House Drone Crash Said to Be 'Recreational,'" The Wall Street Journal, (Online: January 2015), available at

          18. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, "The U.S. is Apparently Using Anti-Drone Rifles Against the Islamic State," The Washington Post, (Online: July 2016), available at This technology puts electronic attack capabilities into the lower echelon in the name of force protection. Our jammers will then become just huge homing devices for targeting.

          19. Kelsey D. Atherton, "American Anti-Drone Rifle Deployed in Iraq," Popular Science, (Online: July 2016), available at

          20. Nick Summers, "'BeeRotor' Drone Uses an Insect-Style Eye to Navigate Tight Spaces," Engadget, (Online: March 2015), available at

          21. Lora Kolodny, "Exyn Unveils AI to Help Drones Fly Autonomously, Even Indoors or off the Grid," Tech Crunch, (Online: 21 February 2017), available at See also Gabriel C. Birch, John C. Griffin, and Matthew K. Erdman, "UAS Detection, Classification, and Neutralization," Sandía National Laboratories, (Online: Market Survey, 2015), available at

          22. Lauren Walker, "Obama Responds to Drone Crashing at White House," Newsweek, (Online: January 2015), available at http://www.

          23. Jules Hurst, "Automated Eyes in the Sky," The Strategy Bridge, (Online: February 2017), available at

          24. J. Noel Williams, "Killing Sanctuary: The Coming Era of Small, Smart, Pervasive Lethality," War on the Rocks, (Online: September 2017), available at

          25- Thomas Gibbons-Neff, "Israeli-Made Kamikaze Drone Spotted in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict," The Washington Post, (Online: April 2016), available at

          26. Allistair Moses, MatthewJ. Rutherford, and Kimon P. Valavanis, "Radar-Based Detection and Identification for Miniature Air Vehicles," 2011 IEEE Multi-Conference on Systemsand Control, available at

          27. "Copping a 'Copter: Dealing with Rogue Drones," The Economist, (Online: May 2015), available at

          28. Carl Engelking, "Malicious UAV Pilots Can't Hide From This Righteous Drone," Discover, (Online: April 2015), available at http://

          29. Kelsey D. Atherton, "Watch Japan's Police Drone Catch A Quadcopter," Popular Science, (Online: December 2015), available at http://

          30. Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization's Counter-Unmanned Aerial System (C-UAS) Hard Kill Challenge, (Washington, DC: 2016), available at

          31. Chris Baraniuk, "Small Drone 'Shot with Patriot Missile,"' BBC, (Online: March 2017), available at

          32. Radio French Internationale, "Born Killers: French Army Grooms Eagles to Down Drones," (Online: February 2017), available at http:// See also Amar Toor, "Holland's DroneHunting Eagles are Ready to Fly," The Verge, (Online: September 2016), available at http:// w w w.thever ge .com.

          33. United States Army, Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS) Strategy Extract, (Fort Eustís, VA: Army Capabilities Integration Center, October 2016), available at http://www.

          34. Leigh Giangreco, "Newest P-8A Poseidon Upgrade Includes 'Minotaur' Software," Flight Global, (Online: August 2016), available at

          35. Steven Melendez, "The Eye in the Sky Gets a Brain That Knows What It's Seeing," Fast Company, (Online: January 2017), available at

          36. Cummings et al., "Open Your Eyes and See the 21st Century MAGTF," War on the Rocks, (Online: September 2017), available at https:// war ontherocks .com.

          37. Reid Williams, "Living Data Streams for Humans and Machines," Medium, (Online: January 2017), available at https://medium. com.

          38. Ben FitzGerald and Kelley Sayler, "Creative Disruption: Technology, Strategy and the Future of the Global Defense Industry," Center for a New American Security, (Washington, DC: June 2014), available at

          39. Author's personal interview with Capt Brett A. Friedman, Warga me Analyst, Ellis Group.

          40. Ben FitzGerald, Alexandra Sander, and Jacqueline Parziale, "Future Foundry: A New Strategic Approach to Military-Technical Advantage," Center for a New American Security, (Online: December 2016), available at https://

          41. Harry McNabb, "Eight Reasons Why Chinese Drone Manufacturers Are Dominating the Industry," DroneLife, (Online: September 2016), available at

          42. "Future Foundry."

          43. Martin Reeves and Mike Deimler, "Adaptability: The New Competitive Advantage," Harvard Business Review, (Online: July-August 2011), available at

          44. MG Robert Scales, USA(Ret), Scales on War: The Future of America's Military at Risk, (Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, 2016).

          45. Aleksandr A. Svechin, Strategy, ed. Kent D. Lee, (Minneapolis: East View Information Services, Inc., 2004).




          • #6

            This Is Our First Glimpse of a DARPA Gremlins Drone Being Launched or Recovered From A C-130

            A brief clip of an official video from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, has appeared online, showing what looks to be a C-130 Hercules-type aircraft deploying or recovering a prototype unmanned system as part of the Gremlins drone swarm program. This is the first actual footage to emerge regarding the project, which is focused on demonstrating the feasibility of having groups of low-cost, air-launched, reusable drones perform a variety of roles.

            The clip is presently available through the public hosting service Giphy, but it is unclear how long it has been online. We first noticed it earlier in April 2018 after Twitter user @MIL_STD posted it along with a quote from Eric DeMarco, who is President and CEO of Kratos Defense & Security Solutions.

            Kratos, along with Dynetics, General Atomics, and Lockheed Martin, took part in the first phase of the Gremlins program, which ended in March 2017. DARPA subsequently awarded additional contracts to Dynetics and General Atomics, but Kratos continued to be involved in the project as a subcontractor to the former firm.

            “We have consistently demonstrated our success in rapidly designing and delivering low-cost, high-performance unmanned jet aircraft, and we see this as critical with respect to the Gremlins requirement,” DeMarco said in a press release in March 2017. “Our strategic focus is consistent with the Department of Defense's Third Offset Strategy, which emphasizes the need to rapidly prototype innovative technologies to counter emerging threats and provide the United States with an asymmetric advantage over our adversaries.”

            Gremlins, which first began in August 2015, envisions a cheap, short-life drone swarm that one or more aircraft can release in flight and another set of planes can then retrieve in mid-air after a mission. The basic concept of operations envisions a C-130-type aircraft – as seen in the video – as well as combat aircraft, such as fighter jets and bombers, releasing the swarm of Gremlins at a stand-off distance from enemy defenses.

            The drones would then conduct this missions and another C-130 would retrieve them and return to base with them, where ground crews would be able to have them ready for another sortie within 24 hours. The minimum threshold requirement is for the low-cost unmanned systems to remain functional for just 20 missions.

            DARPA says the primary tasks it envisions for Gremlins, at least at present, are intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and as a platform for other “non-kinetic” payloads, which could include electronic warfare systems. This would make sense since swarms offer significant potential as distributed sensor nodes and as a means of overwhelming enemy integrated air defenses ahead of a strike.

            But this is just a small portion of the potential mission sets for swarms of small drones able to act autonomously or semi-autonomously, based on a fixed set of parameters and potentially in concert with other, larger unmanned or manned systems. As I wrote in a piece detailing Chinese swarm developments in January 2018:

            Future swarms of small drones might also be able to carry electronic warfare jammers, emitters that mimic the signals of larger aircraft, equipment capable of conducting cyber attacks, or other systems to confuse or overwhelm an opponent’s defenses ahead of or during a more complex operation. A swarm of drones with small electro-optical or infrared cameras might be able to rapidly search a broad area for targets of interest discreetly and, with miniaturized data links, feed this information to other aircraft or other assets where it can be fused and exploited, giving their friendly force a more complete view of the battlefield and any potential hazards or targets of opportunity.

            Even a swarm of small drones each with different modular capabilities installed could potentially conduct a broad array of tasks at once and in a resilient manner. Navigation system carrying types could help guide armed versions over long distances. Some armed variants could be capable of homing in on certain types of radiation—like radar emitters, air defense nodes, or even individual communications devices, while others can be capable of attacking prescribed targets that visually match images in their memory database. In this way, developments may be able to reduce the overall size and complexity of the basic underlying aircraft. This is an especially important consideration since the cost of launching dozens, or even hundreds of drones, could otherwise become prohibitive quite quickly, especially if the user doesn't expect some or even all of them to necessarily survive.

            Systems that are ostensibly for scientific research purposes, but that have sensors designed to monitor visual or other changes across a wide area could easily have military applications, too, acting as early warning nets or helping guard borders.

            Drones swarms might even be able to eventually attack targets directly with small munitions or launch suicidal strikes against ground vehicles or ground-based elements of an integrated air defense system, such as radar arrays. When it comes to Gremlins in particular, a modular strike package of some sort, with a combination of sensors and a kinetic payload, could squeeze extra capability out of the aircraft on their last operational flights.

            The clip does not appear to show Kratos’ Gremlins prototype, though. A public affairs representative for DARPA confirmed that the clip was from an official video, but said that it had been released yet and declined to comment further.

            We do know that it is not General Atomics’ design. The company is, so far, the only one to publicly display its offering, which it simply calls the Small Unmanned Aerial System, or SUAS.

            The unmanned system in the DARPA video has a distinctly different and more bulbous planform with four fins at the rear. General Atomics’ SUAS only has two rear fins in a completely different arrangement.

            The rear fins on the vehicle in the animated picture have what appears to be of a grid or lattice design. This point towards Dynetics, which produces the GBU-69/B Small Glide Bomb, a precision-guided munition that has three fins of a similar shape. Kratos’ existing target and multi-purpose drone designs feature traditionally shaped control surfaces.

            In addition, the C-130 visible in the video appears to be one that belongs to International Air Response. This firm offers a variety of specialized air services, including making their aircraft available for flight tests, and is a member of Dynetics Gremlins team.

            Of course, grid fins are a well-established technology at this point and, among other benefits, offer a relatively easy way to fold control surfaces near flush against the cylindrical body of a missile, rocket, or other types of projectiles. This can help make the weapon or air vehicle more compact for storage and carriage before launch, which would almost certainly be an important consideration for the Gremlins project.

            The video itself is almost certainly from the first phase of the project, which was supposed to include tests to examine methods for both launching and recovering prototypes from the rear of a C-130-type aircraft. The clip appears to show a winch system with a physical tether to the drone, but it is not clear whether this is part of the launch or recovery process, or if that system performs both functions. Reeling the vehicle in either direction would be good test points.

            But while a tether could offer a low-cost means of releasing the unmanned systems, it might present greater difficulties in attempting to recover them and do so rapidly. It is possible that there is a secondary arm or another mechanism to quickly snag a returning aircraft that is not visible in the clip. General Atomics' Gremlins’ concept art has depicted underwing pylons releasing drones via a fixed line, but with a more complex robotic arm for retrieving them afterward.

            The complicated nature of this proposition is not entirely new. During the Cold War, the U.S. Air Force and the Central Intelligence Agency employed the Fulton Recovery System, also known as the Skyhook, to catch the parachutes on falling film canisters from spy satellites and early reconnaissance drones in mid-air, as well as snatch up downed aviators, special operators, and secret agents right off the ground.

            This arrangement consisted of an aircraft with a large V-shaped frame at the front to snag the parachute or a line attached to a balloon. The object would then trail behind the aircraft, where personnel at the rear would use a separate line and winch to haul it aboard. The C-130 was the primary Fulton platform until the Air Force retired the system completely in 1996

            Physical hooks that allow one aircraft to retrieve another are an even older concept, dating back to the 1930s with the U.S. Navy airship USS Akron. This massive dirigible could launch and release Curtiss F9C Sparrowhawk biplane fighters from a large internal hangar.

            During the 1950s, the Air Force experimented with a number of air-launched and recovered aircraft schemes, both to provide fighter escort for long-range bombers and to extend the range of small reconnaissance aircraft. Modified B-29 Superfortress and B-36 Peacemaker actually flew experimentally carrying modified F-84 jet fighters and RF-84 reconnaissance aircraft, as well as the purpose-built XF-85 Goblin "parasite fighter."

            In the 1970s, Boeing revived the concept, suggesting that it could convert 747 airliners into flying Airborne Aircraft Carriers (AAC). In addition to being able to launch and recover 10 "microfighters," the modified airliner would've be able to refuel them in flight, at least in theory.

            So there is definitely a significant amount of existing history out there with launching and recovering aircraft in mid-air that Dynetics and General Atomics could tap into as they proceed with the Gremlins project. It will be fascinating to see what concepts they ultimately propose as the program moves forward.

            DARPA’s first phase also included studies to examine ways to keep the individual drones cheap and easy to modify in order to accept new systems as necessary. There was also work on developing digital flight control systems to enable the aircraft to work together as a swarm.

            The second phase, which began in 2017, is working toward maturing the experimental components into more functional prototypes for full-scale tests of a complete system. DARPA hopes that demonstration, phase three of the Gremlins program, will begin in 2019.

            And though the agency said it couldn’t tell us anything more about the video, they did say there’s a new announcement about Gremlins coming soon. So it might not be long before we get more details about the project’s actual progress.
            Contact the author:


            • #7
              a follow on to the MALDS talk... not sure if there was a separate thread or not...


              The Miniature Air-Launched Decoy (MALD) program has matured fairly quietly over the last two decades. At first glance, the mini-cruise missiles, which are used to distract and deceive an enemy air defense system so that a real strike package can succeed and survive, seem fairly unglamorous. But the growing MALD family is among the most exciting and important programs in the Pentagon's air warfare portfolio.

              Now it has been announced that that the latest iteration of the system, the MALD-X, has successfully flown twice, on August 20th and 22nd, over the test ranges off NAWS Point Mugu. This demonstration kicks open the door for a whole new set of MALD capabilities, and tactics to go along with them, that will be essential to America's air dominance in the decades to come.

              The ADM-160 MALD program dates back to the 1990s, but at its heart, MALD is based around a tactic as old as warfare itself—the feint.

              The original idea was to use the missile to mimic an attack into enemy airspace by spoofing the radar signatures and flight profiles of American combat aircraft. Rudimentary drones have done similar jobs in decades past, from Vietnam to the Golan Heights to Baghdad. B-52s even had an air-launched decoy system during the Cold War. But MALD differs in that it is a modern, purpose-built, and expendable weapon that can be lugged into combat by an aircraft as small as an F-16 or as large as a ramp-equipped transport plane. It also has a Signature Augmentation System (SAS) that can make it look to radar like a big transport or a stealthy F-117, and everything in between. You can read all about MALD and how it would be used in combat in this past feature of mine.

              The concept has grown in size and capability over the years. Today MALD has a range of roughly 500 miles and a flight time of about an hour. The MALD-J version includes a jammer that brings forward deployable, close proximity to threat, airborne electronic warfare to the table. It can be incredibly effective as it zips near known anti-aircraft and radar-surveillance sites as well as communications nodes. It can be programmed to loiter over a particular area, jamming a certain target for an extended period of time.

              So basically, when you talk about 'day one' air combat operations against a peer-state adversary, MALD will likely go into enemy airspace before anything else does.

              Now MALD-X has been successfully tested. This work is also notably under the management of the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office, which has been overseeing a number of other advanced and novel missile and drone programs, including the shadowy Sea Dragon submarine-launched supersonic missile and the Perdix air-launched drone swarm project.

              This new iteration of the MALD is an interim bridge of sorts that will allow the Navy to develop a high-end and smarter MALD-N, as well, which will work in conjunction with its electronic warfare community that is dominated by the EA-18G Growler. It will also provide a conduit to evaluate enhanced capabilities for the USAF's MALD-Js, hundreds of which are in the inventory today.

              MALD-X enhances the modular nature of the mini cruise missile with the ability to accommodate different electronic warfare payloads that are more advanced than those found on MALD-J. What is planned to come out of MALD-X is a networked decoy that can use its adaptive electronic warfare payload to deliver electronic attacks on air defense nodes autonomously or at the direction of operators from a afar in a semi-autonomous fashion. These operators will likely end up being EA-18G Growler crews.

              This advanced MALD derivative will also be able to be re-tasked in real time via an onboard data-link and will capable of low altitude penetration through enemy territory, this could help them get into a target area successfully before they begin employing their electronic warfare magic.

              The data-link is really key here. It totally changes the nature of the MALD mission from a pre-planned route flying decoy to a dynamic player that can be ordered to adapt to a changing electronic order of battle on the fly. This will help with keeping 4th generation fighters alive in medium and elevated risk combat environments and to help Wild Weasels and destruction of enemy air defenses tasked aircraft to dismantle an enemy's air defense network—or at least tear open avenues through it. But above all else, it will give stealth aircraft a critical layer of protection as they strike forward into enemy territory with minimal support.

              There is no such thing as an invisible aircraft, and this is particularly true to stealthy fighter aircraft that are optimized for decreased detectability specifically from higher frequency fire control radars. Low frequency radar systems are being produced that have the potential to detect these aircraft under certain circumstances at relevant ranges. But just because they can detect them fleetingly it doesn't mean they can produce target quality track so that air-defense systems can engage them successfully. You can read more about modern integrated air defense systems, including their weaknesses and strengths in this past article of mine on the S-400.

              Still, even though they can't produce high fidelity targeting information on stealthy aircraft, these systems could cue a wide variety of enemy air defense sensors nearer to the target to look in a certain portion of the sky. In the future, with the help of advanced computer processing and automation, this could result in the creation of engagement quality tracks of a stealth aircraft and especially those optimized to elude a narrow set of bandwidths.

              This is where MALD-X can come in, offering the ability to deceive, confuse, and even temporarily blind various radars and air defense nodes, including those that pop-up on the move, deep into enemy territory so that the actual strikers can get to their targets unmolested. The potential for them to also make pinpoint cyber attacks on communications nodes is also a possibility.

              Bombers like the stealthy B-2, and even wider-band stealth aircraft, will also increasingly rely on the help of MALD, and electronic warfare in general, to survive. In essence, as stealth's armor begins to degrade, electronic warfare and the creative use of decoys will become increasingly important. And short of an undisclosed penetrating electronic warfare platform that may or may not exist—and if it does it's only in small numbers—stealth fighters and bombers go where EA-18G Growlers simply cannot, and the Growler's jamming capabilities only have limited standoff capabilities. This is why enhanced electronic warfare variants of MALD will become increasingly critical components of America's air warfare master plan as the years go on.

              Considering this new MALD is networked, swarming and cooperative tactics among a group of MALD-Xs/MALD-Ns could work to achieve their full potential as a team. This includes classifying, prioritizing, and delegating jamming and decoy duties on the fly during their relatively short lifespan. By working together autonomously they can act at speeds that can break the enemy's decision cycle and cripple their ability to respond fast enough to impact what's going on in the battle-space.

              So even at hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop, these sacrificial craft will be absolutely essential when it comes to breaking down the enemy's door, or at least confusing its gatekeepers long enough so that a strike package can deal their damning blows.

              It will be interesting to see what the MALD concept morphs into in the coming years. Larger and longer-ranged optionally reusable cruise missile/drones may replicate some of MALD-X's capabilities in the future, namely the air-launched and recovered Gremlins program that DARPA is working on today along with concepts like Kratos XQ-222 and the Air Force Research Lab's Gray Wolf missile initiative.

              Whereas MALD has been designed with the combat radius of a fighter and tactical strikes in mind, these weapons may provide a better option for projecting similar capabilities even deeper into enemy territory. This could assist in strikes aimed at the heart of an enemy's command and control, data-fusion, and war fighting machine that would be carried out by long-range bombers such as the upcoming B-21 Raider.

              It's also quite logical to assume that MALD, now in a more modular and adaptable form than ever before, will also add a kinetic attack option in the future. One in which its jammer is replaced with a warhead. By mixing explosive MALDs with a higher-end electronic warfare MALDs, formations of these missiles could destroy enemy air defenses in their path as well as jam them. Ideally, since MALDs are on a one-way trip anyway, incorporating a small warhead into electronic warfare capable MALD-X/Ns would make even more sense. That way they can attack targets if need be or at the end of their flights, self destruct in flight.

              The bottom line is that MALD is one of the biggest little programs going on in the entire Pentagon's air warfare portfolio. It represents a critical capability that will become more important with each passing year. Stealth, networking, and standoff kinetic weapons aren't an antidote for what will be the increasingly complex problem of successfully piercing into anti-access combat environments. MALD-X, and what comes after it, is also a major part of this solution.

              With all this in mind, it is really exciting news that MALD-X is in flight testing. Its existence should lead to a more rapid evolutionary pace for the concept and quicker fielding of new capabilities in an operational form. And that is great news for America and really nasty news for its potential enemies.

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              • #8
                Wonder who's going to be the first to try and export a UCAV swarm?