The widespread use of small, armed UAS in recent conflicts has added a new dimension to vehicle protection. What lessons have been learned, and what solutions is industry working on to deal with the challenge?
Images of combat vehicles being attacked and destroyed by UAVs have made regular appearances in news outlets and on social media channels since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine.
The air reconnaissance unit Aerorozvidka, part of Kyiv’s armed forces, has released much footage showing Russian AFVs neutralised by drones. Aerorozvidka even claimed to have prevented a 65km-long column of combat vehicles from reaching the Ukrainian capital.
Deployment of these tactics was also highlighted during the Armenia-Azerbaijan war as well as in Iraq and Syria. Their popularity comes from the fact that UAVs are low-cost solutions that are able to destroy valuable assets such as MBTs and other heavy vehicles.
Once weaponised, UAS can strike ground targets, directly attacking armoured platforms using lightweight munitions and providing laser designation for indirect fire. These systems also allow armies to collect intelligence and conduct operations with greater presence while remaining at a distance.
This use of drones is changing the land warfare environment and challenging both military doctrine and the assumptions made by ground forces. In this sense, UAVs have been pushing armies worldwide towards developing or acquiring C-UAS capabilities in order to protect their land vehicles.
Shephard talked to several experts in industry and academia to establish the best techniques and solutions for protecting land platforms from UAS attacks, both when stationary and on the move.
Rob Menti, C-UAS expert at Northrop Grumman, explained that almost all the technology relevant to uncrewed systems is commercially developed and fully shared on the Internet, which enables people across the world to learn, change and adapt UAS at ‘unbelievable rates’. From this perspective, drones can be a powerful weapon even for armies with low defence budgets and for paramilitary organisations.
For Cynthia Cook, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and senior fellow of the International Security Program at US-based think tank CSIS, UAS represent a ‘thorny problem for ground forces’ in addition to being ‘a complex challenge that evolves as the technology evolves’.
Due to the low cost of small- and medium-size drones, ‘an enemy can attack a unit with a large number of systems and outnumber the vehicle’s self-protection capabilities’, Cook explained.
For his part, Oleg Vornik, CEO of Australian company DroneShield, claimed that UAS are ‘an integral part of modern land warfare, either as dropping charges, distracting or directing fires’.
Detect and engage
A number of methods can be used to detect the presence of hostile or unauthorised drones. These can range from the deployment of traditional air defence systems to the use of one vehicle equipped with C-UAS capabilities to protect a formation, all the way to equipping each vehicle with its own self-protection system.
Drones can be detected by their visual, heat or sound signatures. In terms of solutions, C-UAS capabilities include EO, IR and acoustic sensors alongside radars and RF systems to identify the signals used to control the drone. Countering these aerial threats requires multiple sensors and effectors. According to Menti, ‘there is no one solution, no silver bullet solution as it takes a layered approach’.
Mark Radford, Blighter Surveillance Systems’ CTO and co-founder, noted that the threat has changed in the past five years and requires solutions able to provide multiple capabilities. He explained that vehicle-mounted radar can either protect the entire area where platforms are operating using a small number of long-range systems or each platform can protect itself ‘thanks to technological improvements in [SWaP] which allow onboard multi-mode system capability’.
A report issued in June 2021 by the US Congressional Research Service pointed out that protection methods should be combined to provide a ‘more effective, layered detection capability’.
Detection can be more challenging than it appears at first glance.
However, detection can be more challenging than it appears at first glance. Since UAS can range from very small – micro or nanosystems weighing less than 100g – to large (around 600kg or more), finding different types requires different methods and approaches.
In this sense, the hardest task is detecting sUAS as they are agile and do not follow the operational patterns of larger systems, or established protocols. Vornik stressed that ‘traditional sensors, such as SHORAD systems, are not well equipped to detect drones as they are small, plastic objects flying close to the ground’, adding that counter-small drone (Class 1-3) solutions need to be cost-effective and receive regular software updates ‘to stay in front of the threat’.
As Radford explained, very small targets are now more commonplace, and drones of all types flying close to the ground, among clutter and friendly assets, ‘can overwhelm existing systems that are trying to detect them’. Additionally, he highlighted that most images of C-UAS systems show them deployed in open areas, but the ‘ability to operate in urban areas is also essential’.
Cook added that detecting drones can require ‘powerful radars’ coupled with complex software, which can end up alerting the adversary to the location of a vehicle. She pointed out that, in a dense environment, filled with friendly and hostile aircraft, ‘figuring out if the target the radar is seeing is an enemy UAS relies on a closely integrated network of systems’.
In Vornik’s opinion, the countering sensor needs to be integrated into the vehicle’s command system, in addition to working for a ‘distracted operator’ in a way that it will not require the user’s undivided attention. From this perspective, solutions equipped with AI and machine learning capabilities can play a key role in the detection of enemy airborne assets.
The threat environment also ‘demands edge computing capability to provide all the processing and decision-making within the sensor before declaring targets on the C2 network’, according to Radford.
Disable or destroy
Once detected, a drone may be disabled using jamming devices to interfere with its communications link to its operator, or neutralised with guns, nets, other kinetic and non-kinetic weapons or even traditional air defence systems. This also represents a complex process.
From Cook’s perspective, it makes the most sense to use ‘cheaper per-use’ systems, such as electronic attack and directed-energy weapons; however, these ‘are difficult to manufacture and may have limited range’.
Another option would be targeting the ground station that controls the UAS rather than the aircraft, which would generate a wider impact across the battlefield by preventing operation of the entire enemy fleet of drones.
Against this background, Cook explained that ground vehicles specifically designed to counter aerial threats need to be equipped with powerful radars and optical sensors as well as networking systems to develop a common battlefield picture with an air component, and weapons to defend itself.
For Vornik, the protection ‘needs to be a complete bubble’ around the vehicle, and not a ‘doughnut’ or a ‘cone’, in a way to not leave blind spots at the top or around the hull.
In Radford’s opinion, it might be appropriate to ‘layer different capabilities across multiple vehicles’ in a convoy, for instance, distributing sensors and effectors across different platform types moving in a group, since high-performance C-UAS systems occupy ‘valuable real estate and resources on a vehicle’.
Researching the problem
To face this growing aerial threat, companies worldwide have been researching, developing and launching new solutions.
DroneShield supplies the DroneSentry-X, which is a cross-vehicle-compatible, automated 360° detect and defeat device. It uses integrated sensors to locate and disrupt UAS moving at different speeds by providing awareness and protection.
The system is suitable for mobile operations, on-site surveillance and on-the-move missions, and it can be mounted to standard vehicle roof racks or fixed on a mast or tower. It can also be deployed at a fixed site or as a temporary pop-up solution, with on-site or remote operator access.
DroneSentry-X also features non-kinetic jamming and allows users to control, access and view real-time data and live maps of local UAS activity. Designed to meet military durability standards, with resistance to shock, weather and UV exposure, it can be automatically or manually set and is described as capable of swarm defence.
Vornik asserted that DroneShield’s systems are portable, long-range, directional, low-false-alarm, cost-effective and with low lead time to supply. The company has already provided its solutions to the Australian Army, Brazilian military, French Army, UK MoD, Ukrainian Armed Forces, US DoD and Middle Eastern nations.
In April, it introduced a software upgrade to its devices that was added in response to end-user requirements. This included, inter alia, a ‘Site Install Wizard’, which supports a new ‘Spectrum Viewer’ mode that enables detection devices to scan the deployment area for optimal sensor placement.
The company is currently working on development of other new systems, according to Vornik, and plans to release new products this year.
The UK’s Blighter Surveillance Systems markets complete C-UAS systems to detect, track and defeat drones. One of them is AUDS, which is a smart sensor and effector package capable of remotely detecting small UAVs and tracking and classifying them before providing the option to disrupt their activity.
The system combines electronic scanning radar target detection, EO tracking/classification and directional RF inhibition capability. It can be used in remote or urban areas to prevent UAS from being used for terrorist attacks, espionage or other malicious activities.
Blighter also supplies the A800, which is a 3D multi-mode radar capable of detecting very small drones operating in congested environments as well as providing long-range ground and coastal surveillance.
Radford explained that the company is working on its next generation of radar technologies ‘to enhance performance, increase multifunction capabilities and make the sensors as simple as possible to integrate with fixed and mobile C2 systems’. Blighter is also developing a set of sensor connectivity and radar data processing applications. Called BlighterNexus, it will allow low-risk integration of multiple networked radars into a wide variety of C2 platforms.
Another available solution to engage aerial threats is the Lockheed Martin Morfius. Compatible with various military architectures, it is a compact, reusable, high-power microwave-based interceptor for C-UAS and anti-swarm scenarios that provides extended range and an onboard seeker.
Additionally, Northrop Grumman provides the Mobile, Acquisition, Cueing and Effector System (M-ACE). This modular solution is designed to support C-UAS missions against single or multiple threats and can address Class 1- and Class 2-sized drones.
It is equipped with 3D radar, RF sensors, EO and IR cameras, GPS and secure radio for transmitting data over C2 networks. Its radar ‘can handle moving targets in all three domains (naval, land and air) while it is sitting’, according to Menti.
M-ACE also runs on an open architecture that is a networked and integrated system of systems with the capability to detect, identify, track and defeat threats. It uses a machine learning capability called Dragonfly for automatic target recognition.
Menti explained that M-ACE can be mounted on one vehicle and can easily have its configuration modified to meet individual customer needs, with multiple effectors and sensors that can be ‘hooked up’ to it.
Northrop Grumman is now working on a smaller radar that will allow vehicles on the move to drive, acquire targets and share information. This ‘mobile capability is going to be critical to enable artillery formations, armour formations, infantry formations to drive around and move,’ Menti stressed.
Moreover, Raytheon Intelligence & Space has developed a new version of the High-Energy Laser Weapon System (HELWS), which is a 15kW-class system optimised to defeat Class 1 or 2 UAVs. The solution was seen mounted on a Polaris Dagor tactical vehicle at the AUSA 2021 exhibition in Washington, DC.
It features an attachable/removable beam director turret for ease of transportation and supports onboard radar and jammer options. HELWS works in conjunction with a radar that acquires the target at a distance and then hands it off to the laser weapon. This upgraded solution is described as larger and more rugged than its predecessor.
Another direct-energy system available is Rheinmetall’s Skyranger 30 HEL (high-energy laser). Introduced in February this year, it is a hybrid solution designed to thwart future airborne threats including UAS and combines a 30mm automatic cannon, guided missiles and a laser.
Countries worldwide have been trying to pave their own ways to protecting their ground vehicle fleets from UAS attacks. The US DoD, for instance, plans to spend at least $636 million on C-UAS R&D and at least $75 million on procurement of C-UAS capabilities in FY2022.
In 2021, the department additionally issued its Counter-Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (C-sUAS) Strategy. In the document, Christopher C Miller, then Acting Secretary of Defense, noted that although ‘sUAS were previously viewed as hobbyist toys’, now ‘it is evident that the potential for hazards or threats has the ability to impact the Joint Force’.
The C-sUAS Strategy emphasised that technology trends are ‘dramatically’ transforming applications of sUAS while making them ‘increasingly capable weapons’. According to the paper, ‘the emergence of sUAS as both hazard and threat has complicated an already complex and challenging security environment’.
Initially, the DoD sought deployment and employment of government and commercially built solutions to address the immediate risks posed by sUAS. However, it resulted in many non-integrated, redundant systems, which lead the DoD towards adopting a ‘department-wide holistic strategy for countering sUAS hazards and threats’, according to the document.
From this perspective, the Pentagon is now working towards integrating and synchronising its forces to detect, identify, track, deter and defeat this type of threat as well as leveraging R&D, test and evaluation to pursue the next generation of C-sUAS capabilities.
US forces have also been working on their own efforts in the area, and in July 2016, the US Army published its C-UAS strategy.
Countering these aerial threats is also part of the service’s Combat Capabilities Development Command’s six-layer air and missile defence concept, composed of: Ballistic, Low-Altitude Drone Engagement; Multi-Mission High-Energy Laser; Next-Generation Fires Radar; Maneuver Air Defense Technology High-Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator; and Low Cost Extended Range Air Defense.
Even with these systems in development, the US Army has fielded some portable, vehicle-mounted and airborne C-UAS systems.
In 2020, the service selected, as C-sUAS solutions, ten interim systems with interoperable components, including the Fixed Site – Low, Slow, Small Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Defeat System (FS-LIDS). FS-LIDS combines radar, EO sensors and an IR camera to find and target low-flying, smaller UAS.
In January this year, soldiers of the 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division trained with Mobile (M)-LIDS at Camp Buehring, Kuwait. M-LIDS can be mounted on vehicles and is designed to target and disable or destroy hostile drones.
In June 2021, the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office awarded a $35 million-plus Other Transaction for Prototype Agreement to advance research in detecting, tracking, identifying and defeating sUAS hazards and threats using high-energy lasers.
Under this agreement, SAIC will develop, integrate, manufacture and ultimately demonstrate a prototype of a C-sUAS HEL system featuring a small logistics footprint, a modular open systems approach and low life-cycle costs.
Also in 2021, Raytheon was awarded a $123 million contract by the US Army to build three 50kW-class laser weapon systems under the Directed Energy M-SHORAD programme.
These will be mounted on Stryker combat vehicles that the service plans to deploy for field operations to protect manoeuvring ground forces and equipment from UAS, rotary-wing aircraft, rockets, artillery and mortars.
Additionally, as part of its GBAD programme, the USMC tested and acquired in 2019 the Compact Laser Weapons System. It is a drone-killing, directed-energy weapon prototype and was the first ground-based laser approved by the DoD for use by warfighters on the ground. This system comes in variants of two, five and ten kilowatts.
The UK MoD’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) has also been researching ways to provide increased protection against current and future threats to armoured vehicles. In collaboration with Leonardo, Dstl has developed Modular Integrated Protection System architecture under the Icarus Technology Demonstrator Programme.
Designed to enable the flexible teaming of a range of technologies to create a suite of active protection systems, it combines sensors to detect and countermeasures to disrupt threats, in addition to forming a protective electronic ‘bubble’ around the vehicle.
The European Defence Agency (EDA) has also been increasing efforts to protect ground forces. A spokesperson for EDA explained to Shephard that, among other efforts, the agency is conducting studies and research to counter UAS and to develop New Active Protection Solutions (NAPS) for land platforms.
In the case of the first study, the intention is to identify and understand the threat posed by isolated drones and swarms of small systems to mobile land and maritime platforms and develop system-of-systems solutions by using a scalable and redundant approach for targeting and neutralising.
The official explained that a special focus will be devoted to ‘homogeneous and heterogeneous sensor fusion capability’ and the use of AI in support of ‘autonomous and faster functionalities’ such as detection of ‘difficult targets with low signature, stealth or camouflaged’.
Under NAPS, the objective is to analyse the process flow for new active protection solutions for land platforms, through a structured analysis in three main areas: sensors, control systems/processors and countermeasures.
This study has already revealed that ‘AI will represent a game-changing technology, especially for prediction of flight direction/positioning of threats and for sensor and data fusion’, according to the EDA.
C-UAS solutions are also being sought at NATO level. Under the Defence Against Terrorism Programme of Work, the alliance conducts tests, evaluations and exercises in order to advance concept development and technical standardisation. To date, the programme has supported activities involving detection, identification, tracking, engagement and the use of C2 capabilities.
The sources consulted by Shephard were unanimous in claiming that the threats posed by UAVs will become an even more pressing concern for land forces in the short term.
These systems are expected to see improvements in terms of performance, reliability and survivability. Also, they are likely to be employed in more novel offensive or defensive ways that have not yet been considered. Menti pointed out that this ‘threat is going to continue to get faster, to get more lethal, to get more autonomous, more stealthy and harder to detect’.
The DoD’s C-sUAS Strategy further warns that UAS are ‘a constantly evolving problem’ and will feature extended range, payload, high-speed digital communication networks and employment options in the near future. The impending integration of artificial intelligence with autonomous sUAS will introduce yet another dramatic change to the character of warfare,’ the paper states.
Cook pointed out that ‘as [UAS] capabilities evolve, counter-UAS technology will need to evolve also [to] efficiently and safely detect and disable hostile UAS systems on the battlefield’. As she pointed out, the conflict in Ukraine and the demonstration of the operational utility of UAS made this issue ‘an even more pressing one’.
From this perspective, it seems likely that the budget allocated to development and acquisition of C-UAS will be higher in the short term, supporting a growing number of demonstrations, experiments and trials of new solutions.
Countering these aerial threats will also require agile acquisition processes from armies around the world to enable them to keep pace with the fast evolution in this area.