Addressing the proliferation of cheap, widely available uncrewed aerial systems (UAS) will require a range of technical and tactical solutions, including projectile and energy weapons.
That is the latest assessment by the Pentagon’s top officer for counter-UAS (CUAS) issues, US Army Major General Sean Gainey, who describes the increasing battlefield use of remotely piloted aircraft as a “real and growing threat”.
Gainey, an air defence officer by training, says a mix of “kinetic and non-kinetic” options will be needed to address the challenge.
“There is no silver bullet, no one system to rule them all,” Gainey said on 14 November at an event in Washington DC hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
Current systems capable of countering remotely piloted aircraft include low-cost guided rockets and small interceptor vehicles, such as the Raytheon Coyote and the L3Harris Vampire, which Washington has provided to Ukraine.
However, the Pentagon is exploring more futuristic options, including directed-energy (DE) lasers, microwave emitters and radio-frequency jammers.
“We continue to invest in some of the future technology like DE and high-powered microwave, to bring additional capabilities… to bear as we move forward,” says Gainey.
Much like US Navy ships have layered defences against interceptor missiles, electronic countermeasures and guided projectile cannons, Gainey says land forces will also need multiple systems to counter UAS.
Conflicts in Ukraine and Nagorno-Karabakh make clear CUAS should become a universal responsibility for all ground troops, something more akin to rifle marksmanship than a specialised air-defence skill.
“It’s going to impact every soldier,” says Sergeant Major Demetrius Johnson, the top enlisted soldier at the Pentagon’s CUAS office.
“Everyone must look up,” according to Shaan Shaikh, a fellow at the CSIS Missile Defense Project.
Shaikh was lead author of a CUAS report released by the CSIS on 14 November. The analysis concludes that the impact of small UAS on military operations will be equivalent to the introduction of infantry mortars and anti-tank missiles in the 20th century.
The report’s top line recommendation is that airspace defence can no longer be the sole responsibility of small, specialised ground units, which have historically focused on protecting critical infrastructure such as airfields, supply areas and command posts.
“The high demand and low density of air defence formations requires that air defenders and non-specialists work together,” Shaikh and his co-authors write.
Gainey says the US Army is already embracing that approach.
Each of the service’s primary infantry divisions contain a specialised air-defence battalion, within which one battery will be dedicated exclusively to CUAS operations.
The army also plans to begin training non-air defence soldiers to employ CUAS weapons and react to the battlefield presence of UAS, much as all soldiers drill on how to respond to ambush or artillery fire.
“It’s going to become a basic soldier requirement to be able to identify, report and in some cases react to the threat,” says Johnson.
Those requirements present a substantial new opportunity for industry, much as the introduction of UAS to military operations did over the preceding two decades.
Exactly which CUAS solutions the Pentagon will adopt remains a matter of study, according to Gainey. “There will be tough decisions as we move forward,” he says.
“Depending on how the capability works out and delivers the effects that we want it to deliver, we’ll then be able to make a decision on where we want to invest.”
One thing the two-star general is sure of is that dangers posed by small UAS will continue to increase, with adversaries reacting to CUAS technologies. They will try “anything to evade the capabilities of our radars and interceptors”, including using smaller craft with less radar reflectivity, he notes.
Recent advancements in autonomous aircraft will also significantly alter the CUAS picture, Gainey says. Earlier efforts using jamming and electronic warfare focused on disrupting links between a UAS and remote pilots, causing the craft to crash.
Autonomous aircraft will require a different approach. Gainey says high-powered microwave emitters show early promise at disrupting pilotless craft. “We believe [that] is going to be very good against this type of autonomous threat.”
The general declines to specify strengths and weaknesses of various CUAS systems, citing security concerns. “It’s too early to make a decision on which [are] working better without highlighting system vulnerabilities.”