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Safeguarding the Skies: US Department of Defense’s Cutting-Edge Approach to Countering Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (sUAS) Threats

Introduction

The world has witnessed a significant rise in the use of small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS), commonly known as drones, for both commercial and recreational purposes. While these advancements have brought about numerous benefits, they also pose new security challenges. The increasing potential for sUAS to be used maliciously for surveillance, smuggling, or even carrying out acts of terror has become a pressing concern for governments worldwide. The United States Department of Defense (DOD) has recognized this threat and has been actively pursuing countermeasures to mitigate the risks associated with the misuse of sUAS technology.

 

Criminals have been using drones in a variety of ways. They use them to prepare house break-ins, observe larger targets, spot security gaps, and determine security guard patterns. Militant organizations have started employing drones to further their terrorism. The small drones such as a quadcopter or model airplane are readily available and they are increasingly used by terrorists to retrofit them, giving the aircraft the ability to deliver weaponized explosives or hazardous materials. In their hands, drones could, fly IEDs through the air to a target, or disperse a biological or chemical agent while its pilot remains safely distanced from contamination.

 

Understanding the Threat

Small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), also known as drones, pose a significant challenge to military and civilian organizations because of their small size and agility. Because they are difficult to see and detect, they can evade conventional air defense systems and penetrate restricted airspaces, making them a threat to military installations, critical infrastructure, and populated areas.

 

sUAS technology has become increasingly accessible, leading to its proliferation among both state and non-state actors. Their small size, agility, and ability to carry payloads make them attractive tools for a range of illicit activities. These threats can include unauthorized aerial reconnaissance over military installations, attacks on critical infrastructure, and even the potential for transporting explosives or harmful substances into sensitive areas.

 

The ability of sUAS to operate in swarms only exacerbates the problem. In a swarm, multiple sUAS can coordinate their movements to overwhelm air defense systems and evade interception. This makes it even more challenging to detect and neutralize sUAS threats, particularly in cluttered or urban environments.

 

To address these challenges, military and civilian organizations are developing new technologies and tactics to counter sUAS. This includes developing new sensors, radar systems, and weapons specifically designed to detect and engage small, low-altitude unmanned aircraft. Additionally, organizations are exploring new tactics and techniques for using electronic and cyber-based measures to disrupt the control and communications links between sUAS and their operators.

 

The US DOD’s Response

Recognizing the urgency of the situation, the US DOD has initiated a multifaceted approach to counter the growing threat of sUAS. This approach encompasses a combination of technological advancements, regulatory measures, and collaborative efforts with other government agencies, industry partners, and international allies.

  1. Technology Development: The US DOD has invested significantly in research and development to enhance its ability to detect, track, and neutralize sUAS threats. This includes the development of advanced radar systems, electronic warfare technologies, and specialized sensors capable of identifying sUAS even in challenging environments.
  2. Collaboration with Industry: The DOD has partnered with private industry players to develop cutting-edge counter-sUAS technologies. This collaboration ensures a steady flow of innovative solutions that can keep pace with the evolving threat landscape.
  3. Regulatory Measures: The US DOD has worked closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to establish and enforce regulations that address the safe and responsible use of drones. These regulations aim to restrict flight operations in sensitive areas, such as military bases and government facilities, without proper authorization.
  4. Interagency Coordination: The DOD collaborates with other federal agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the FBI, and the CIA, to share intelligence and coordinate efforts to detect and counter sUAS threats across various sectors.
  5. Training and Education: The DOD ensures that its personnel are well-trained in identifying and responding to sUAS threats effectively. This includes developing standard operating procedures and conducting exercises to enhance readiness in dealing with potential sUAS incidents.
  6. International Cooperation: Recognizing that sUAS threats transcend national borders, the US DOD actively engages with its international allies to exchange best practices, intelligence, and technological solutions to combat the global sUAS threat.

For understanding Counter UAV technologies in detail please visit: Mastering Counter UAV Technologies: Defending Against Unmanned Aerial Threats

U.S. Army’s Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-sUAS)

The U.S. Army’s Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-sUAS) refers to the measures and technologies used by the U.S. Army to detect, track, and neutralize small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) that may pose a threat to military operations, installations, or personnel.

 

sUAS can be used by adversaries to conduct surveillance, gather intelligence, or deliver weapons. The U.S. Army’s C-sUAS program aims to protect military assets and personnel by providing the ability to detect and defeat sUAS threats.

 

The U.S. Army’s Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-sUAS) development program is tasked with providing military personnel with technology to detect, track, identify, and defeat various adversary UAS platforms. Just one effort among many, Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems advance high power microwave technology, command and control decision aids, and high energy lasers, among several other capabilities. This includes the development and deployment of a wide range of technologies such as electronic warfare systems, directed energy weapons, and physical barriers.

 

The U.S. Army’s C-sUAS program is a critical component of the military’s overall defense strategy, and it continues to evolve and adapt to the changing nature of the threat posed by sUAS. The military is constantly researching and developing new technologies and tactics to address this threat. For example, the military is exploring the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to help detect and track sUAS more effectively.

 

The U.S. Army’s C-sUAS program is a critical component of the military’s overall defense strategy, and it continues to evolve and adapt to the changing nature of the threat posed by sUAS. The military is constantly researching and developing new technologies and tactics to address this threat. For example, the military is exploring the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to help detect and track sUAS more effectively.

 

The military is committed to providing a layered defense system that can effectively neutralize sUAS threats while minimizing the risk of collateral damage.

 

The U.S. Army’s C-sUAS program is designed to be flexible and adaptable, allowing the military to respond quickly to new sUAS threats as they emerge. This requires close collaboration between the military, industry, and academia to develop and integrate new technologies and tactics into the overall C-sUAS strategy.

 

The U.S. Army is leading the effort, but all the U.S. military branches are expected to benefit from the program. Since the Army announced the release of the DoD C-sUAS Strategy in January 2021, the program has been progressing steadily and devoting significant time to testing and evaluating the many C-sUAS devices already being offered for sale by multiple contractors.

 

Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office

In addition to the U.S. Army, other branches of the military and government agencies are also involved in C-sUAS efforts. The U.S. Department of Defense has established a Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office to coordinate and integrate C-sUAS efforts across all military branches and government agencies.

 

Contract Awards

The multiple contract awards and fielding announcements over the past year for C-sUAS systems to enhance security efforts within the U.S. military are a good indicator of the types of technology the Army is seeking to advance.

 

In April 2022, Liteye Systems announced the delivery of its SHIELD system to the U.S. Army in 2021 through a multiyear contract to integrate the system payload into a high laser energy (HEL) C-sUAS effort. According to Liteye, the system can be layered with multiple effectors and battle management systems to detect, track, identify and defeat multiple threats.

 

The objective of the C-sUAS HEL prototype effort is to develop, integrate, manufacture, and ultimately test a prototype HEL System(s) in an operationally relevant environment. This contract enables the rapid prototyping of a near-production representative, cost-effective HEL System(s), which will be integrated with current military battle management systems.

 

Liteye’s SHIELD payload will provide the detection, tracking, and identification of Group 1 & 2 UAS in a range of combat environments which will utilize the new 3D SPYGLASS Radar developed in Colorado by Numerica Corporation.  The HEL “hard kill” capability will be provided by a partner company and integrated with Liteye’s SHIELD payload to be tested and demonstrated during operational tests and evaluations.  The platform integration of SHIELD will support the US Army’s maneuver capability in the Brigade Combat Teams and will also be compatible with robotic vehicles like Pratt & Miller’s Expeditionary Modular Autonomous Vehicle (EMAV).

 

In July 2022, the U.S. Marine Corps announced the fielding of the Installation-Counter small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (I-CsUAS) which is intended to defeat commercial off-the-shelf Group 1 and Group 2 UAS. I-CsUAS also provides detection, tracking and identification capabilities.

US Marine Corps official Maj. Kyle Yakopovich explained that the ICsUAS fuses multiple modalities into a single system, making it more accurate in detecting and identifying small aircraft.

He added that the system utilizes machine learning and artificial intelligence to constantly and autonomously analyze sensor data faster and more precisely than a human operator.

 

The tech reportedly enhances the capability to track threats while reducing the manpower necessary. “In previous years, we had the same components: the radar, the camera, and the RF (radio frequency) detection,” Yakopovich stressed. “But it was time-intensive, training-intensive and manpower-intensive.”

 

With the new ICsUAS, operators do not need to dedicate much time to have 24-hour continuous coverage of critical infrastructure. The system automatically alerts operators if suspicious activity is detected near a protected facility.

 

Valkyrie C-UAS software from Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC)  can detect, track, identify and mitigate UAV threats (including small drones) and provides ‘over 90 percent’ total mission effectiveness, according to the company.

 

Valkyrie has been tested at the US Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. In a  memorandum, the Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office (JCO) recommended the system, stating that SAIC has developed a ‘robust SoS [system of systems] architecture, with layered sensors and effectors’.

 

EnforceAir, a solution that counters small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS), has been recommended by the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) Joint Counter-sUAS Office (JCO). Developed by D-Fend Solutions, EnforceAir was recommended as a subcomponent integrated within SAIC’s Valkyrie C2 system.

 

EnforceAir was recognized for its RF detection and mitigation, its demonstrated impressive effectors and its ability to force land certain drones. D-Fend Solutions’ EnforceAir was the only RF cyber takeover technology named. EnforceAir automatically executes cyber drone detection and takeover mitigation of rogue drones for safe landings and outcomes, empowering security agencies and professionals with control while preserving operational continuity. The JCO recommendation is the result of a formal U.S. government evaluation event held at Yuma Proving Ground in April 2022.

 

Based on an estimated projection of the FY23 U.S. defense budget, $208 million will be spent on the U.S. Army’s Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Development program effort through 2031.

 

In conclusion, the Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office (JCO) is a critical component of the U.S. Department of Defense’s efforts to counter the threat posed by small unmanned aerial systems. The JCO works to ensure a coordinated and integrated approach to C-sUAS efforts across the military and government agencies, and to integrate new technologies and capabilities into the overall C-sUAS strategy.

 

Conclusion

As the use of small unmanned aircraft systems continues to proliferate, so does the risk of misuse for nefarious purposes. The US Department of Defense has responded proactively to this emerging threat, dedicating resources and expertise to develop and deploy effective countermeasures. Through collaboration with industry partners, interagency coordination, and international cooperation, the DOD is taking a comprehensive approach to safeguarding critical assets and maintaining national security.

In this ever-evolving landscape of drone technology, staying ahead of the game is crucial. The US DOD’s continuous efforts to counter sUAS threats set an essential example for other nations facing similar challenges, reinforcing the importance of collective action in addressing this growing security concern. By remaining vigilant, adaptive, and collaborative, the US DOD is striving to maintain the upper hand in the fight against the misuse of small unmanned aircraft systems.

 

About Rajesh Uppal

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