WASHINGTON — To address the challenging threat of one-way attack drones seen most prominently in Ukraine over the past year, the Pentagon’s Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office tackled how to defeat them in a June demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona.
The JCO, together with the U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office, chose five companies to demonstrate capabilities that could defeat one-way attack drones, which are typically Group 3 sized unmanned aircraft systems that are preprogrammed to fly without control of an operator once launched, which “creates an additional challenge for countering them,” Col. Mike Parent, the JCO’s acquisition and resources division chief, told reporters on July 13.
The U.S. Army defines Group 3 UAS as featuring a maximum gross takeoff weight of less than 1,320 pounds.
In Ukraine, Russia has used Iranian one-way attack drones on Ukrainian forces, highlighting an urgent need to counter this type of threat.
The demonstration featured one high-power microwave system — Lockheed Martin’s Mobile Radio Frequency-Integrated UAS Suppressor (MORFIUS) — and two kinetic capabilities — Thales’ Lightweight Multi-role Missile (LMM) and the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS).
Lockheed’s MORFIUS is a tube-launched, fixed-wing UAS that flies close to the enemy target and defeats it using a HPM pulse.
The LMM is a tripod fired, laser guided missile that defeats threats with an explosive warhead triggered by a proximity fuze when it gets close enough to the target.
Invariant, MSI Defense and SAIC each fired APKWS — a 70mm Hydra rocket with a laser guidance kit and a proximity fuze – using different configurations.
The capabilities were tested at roughly a 4-kilometer range or greater based off of one-way attack drones’ typical ranges observed in theater.
The JCO was established in late 2019 with the Army selected as the military branch to lead the office. It is focused entirely on bringing counter-sUAS capability into the force. The office has now conducted four demonstrations. Two in the spring and fall of 2021, another in the spring of 2022, and the most recent event this summer.
In the first demonstration, the office looked at low-collateral interceptors for C-sUAS; in the second demonstration, it examined cheap, ground-launched and hand-held capabilities, and in the third, HPM was evaluated as well as countering UAS as a service.
The JCO participated in another demonstration earlier this year to evaluate capability to defeat Group 3, one-way attack UAS at shorter ranges – just 2 kilometers – with the goal of finding candidate systems that could be rapidly delivered within 30 to 90 days of contract award. While the demonstration was open to looking at other capabilities, only kinetic systems were ultimately evaluated there, Parent said.
While Parent would not discuss detailed performance results from the demonstration, he said the plan is to move as quickly as possible to either get prototypes out in the field or into operational assessments to deliver capability. He added there is particular interest among U.S. partners and allies.
The JCO plans to issue a report by the end of the month, he said, that will include suggested solutions along with costs and delivery schedules. “This information is packaged together and provided to our partners and within the DoD,” Parent said, “and then the services and partners can make decisions based on their gaps and needs.”
The office anticipates having additional funding in fiscal 2024 to proceed in a prototyping effort for a capability to defeat one-way attack drones as well.
Initial observations from the demo are showing that the capabilities are “readily available at this time to be prototyped and operationally assessed,” Parent said, however, he added, “some might need additional work and more to follow once information fully comes out with the report.”
For instance, the HPM capability is able to defeat UAS, but there is a particular challenge using the technology to defeat longer range Group 3 one-way attack drones, Parent explained, and more work to refine addressing the range challenge is likely required.
The JCO would not share what capability gaps it plans to address in its next demonstration planned for June 2024, but Parent said the office plans to release a request for white papers in August and will make selections of participants in the late October, early November timeframe.