Growing up some distance from the equator, the same admonishment echoed in my head every year as the weather turned cold: “Remember your layers! You never know where you will be, so be prepared!” The wisdom of being responsive to conditions through different layers is well learned, and in cases like my own, well taught.
Layers of Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD) are as doctrine as layers of defensive fortifications. Layers of requirements and procurement procedures are as cumbersome as layers of bureaucratic approvals. Some layers are necessary; Some are cumbersome. Each layer needs to be considered anew in the context of detecting and defeating Uncrewed Aircraft Systems (UAS), also known simply as drones.
The Drone Revolution
It should be noted that the focus here is airborne, though drones are equally effective submersed, on water surfaces, and on the ground. The arrival of UAS is heralding a range of changes in long-horizon strategic plans. While drones can be crudely thought of as inexpensive missiles, long range flight capabilities at very low altitude with high maneuverability and quiet operation create an inexpensive airborne weapons platform of varying sizes that challenges all existing doctrine.
It is straightforward to purchase a high-performance, fully equipped reconnaissance drone for a few thousand dollars. Easy retail accessibility of drone components, like GPUs, other advanced processing platforms, stabilized night optics, cutting-edge electronics, and numerous YouTube video guides for building a custom drone all indicate a genie that is well outside its bottle. This revolution in tactics and technology is being televised.
The use of drones in Ukraine each day represents not just another piece of war materiel, nor even another delivery vehicle. These highly attritable aircraft are nothing short of revolutionary across every aspect of the battlespace. The Counter-UAS (CUAS) revolution should be at least equal, if not greater across every aspect of planning, preparation, deployment, and operation.
Defensive postures started with concepts related to countering fast, high altitude objects like jets, bombers, and missiles. These systems bristle with technologies, networks, and weapons to defeat traditional threats. Systems like SHORAD have gone through rapid adaptation, adding very short range and mobility as key solution attributes.
Unlike the state financing required to design, test, and deploy missile systems, each drone used by Houthi rebels in the Aramco 2021 attack cost less than a cheap used car. Activity in the Middle East and Ukraine demonstrates the risk of fast (>200 m/s) larger UAS at low altitude. Aircraft such as the Shahed-136 or ZALA Lancet demonstrate missile-like destructive and lethal capabilities and cost $20k and $35k, respectively. The defensive side is designed to counter surface-to-air and cruise missiles and has adapted its multi-million-dollar system, distributed command, expensive sensors infrastructure, and $400k per missile costs to the counter-UAS need. As history demonstrates, though, expensive victories can be pyrrhic.
The answer to CUAS cost asymmetry is COTS technology. If the cost of one high Tx/Rx ESA radar could acquire one hundred COTS radars of equivalent performance, if at shorter ranges, networked to provide the same coverage, the only obstacle is the unchanging nature of the acquisition process. The asymmetry in CUAS cost requires different thinking, eschewing strict requirements and gold-plated solutions delivered across years for innovative ideas and solutions that can be deployed tomorrow and replaced the day after.
Times Have Changed
The separation of capabilities for GBAD or ground fortifications are paired with different choices in systems and technologies, fitting nicely into long-standing divisions of responsibility with laborious procurement cycles built on precise requirements developed over years. These are layers to shed and reconsider.
While the recent mantra has focused on Change! in procurement, especially rapid procurement, slight change has come into practice. The common procurement activity remains a prolonged, multi-year program to meet requirements established in prior years. Large, fixed programs have proven ill-suited for the drone threat, yet few programmatic pivots are evident.
A RAND article from 2000 titled “Understanding the Extraordinary Cost of Missile Defense” remains the template for programmatic development within rigid, hierarchical Ministry of Defence (MOD) – Supplier relationships. The twenty-three-year interval since publication is unique to the decades preceding it, though, in one important way – the growth in technological capabilities across the private sector.
The large programs even today resemble a world where traditional suppliers are thought to be the only ones capable. Much of that may be true, but it can be changed. In fact, the mix of technologies and suppliers must become more dynamic. Private companies today possess hardware and software expertise and capabilities that rival and surpass those of traditional Suppliers.
The goal of rapid innovation, as often heard at conferences and expositions, necessitates a faster procurement cycle based on agile requirements of capabilities. As recently described by Gen. James Rainey of the U.S. Army Futures Command:
“The amount of disruption and the character of warfare right now is unprecedented, so inside two years we need to do a better job of seeing something that’s happening on the battlefield, in technology, out in the Pacific, and turn that into no-kidding capability in a formation … It’s my responsibility to write a clear requirement document, not for a specific piece of material but a requirement for a capability, and then work with [Army] acquisition guys, work with the contracting guys, work with industry to be able to get inside of two years.” (Defense News, Aug 8, by Jen Judson)
To achieve the goals of rapid turns from requirement to capability, innovative solutions built on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware and software must become a key element of a rapid, low-friction procurement practice. Such cycles create layers that can added and attritted and added again, maintaining tactical and financial pace with enemy actions.
The Testing Layer
The idea of COTS has been around for some time. The words in support of COTS are often warmly given while the actions following remain rooted in schedules across months and quarters. Change is difficult but essential.
There has been genuine change in considering novel technologies from private companies. The doors are open wider than normal. Interactions with large Suppliers looking to add to their portfolios are mirrored by MODs taking meetings with private sector companies. These are positive signs and more focused interaction should be encouraged.
The men and women in uniform that focus on understanding the needs of their fellow warfighters do want what is best. The process, end to end, is built for bespoke manufacturing, restraint, and zero tolerance of inadequate performance. This makes sense when programs require hundreds of millions and billions of capital investment in bespoke manufacturing, training, operational support, and maintenance. But does it make sense when your adversary requires quite small, even tiny fractions of capital and time to build offensive capabilities?
In a 2022 Blog, Peter Modi from MITRE Corporation introduced a graphic in the context of Disrupting Acquisition. It has become known as DoD’s Valley of Death but is localized easily enough. It remains a singular view of the challenge of matriculating from Interesting to Actioned.
Field testing in multiple scenarios and environments is obviously critical to evaluation. Consistency and reliability are attributes to be emphasized and rewarded when found. When private companies clearly demonstrate capabilities or innovation that meets need, layers of bureaucracy must be shed to enable speed. A further challenge with drones is they fly across every swim lane of responsibility and authority, further delaying acquisition activities with inter-branch and inter-agency procedures.
Simultaneously a Low Airspace and a High Ground Problem
Drones conflate ground and air, merging disparate streams of safety and security. The drone challenge is as much about inter-organizational data sharing as it is about technology and cost. The activity underway promises increasingly effective solutions over the coming years. How do we increase velocity and reduce time from years to months? These solution sets will include modifying existing programs, creating new programs, and new acquisition paths to accelerate COTS evaluation that create layers of detection and effector systems, each with its own role to play, in the CUAS toolkit.
The Achilles heel of the current drone platforms is its communications medium. A design choice to use unlicensed spectrum to enable industry growth created the current detection and defeat capabilities in radio frequency (RF) tools. This is a fleeting drone weakness. Use of multiple media such as low earth orbit satellites, ad hoc networking capabilities, unusual spectrum, or just a mobile SIM all change and reduce the drone’s digital attack surface. Maturing video analytics and high-resolution maps combine with rapid capability growth in AI autopilots enables autonomous flight, without need for communications to reveal itself. Such drones will be impervious to electronic warfare (EW) tactics, techniques, or platforms. The RF tools of today will always remain a layer, just a less and less effective one.
Even as UAS technology matures, one sensor delivers dependable and comprehensive detection of all things moving in the sky. Radar remains the most effective sensor for detecting, tracking, identifying, and targeting all movement in the airspace, and electronically scanned array (ESA) radars with high Tx/Rx module counts remain the gold standard for performance. Radar data creates the baseline for situational awareness, scanning large volumes of space for movement, slewing secondary sensors for eyes-on-object identification, and training sensors for targeting and mitigation of intruding drones.
But not all radars are equal. What separates wheat from chaff is the fidelity of the data acquired.
Data increases knowledge. Knowledge is a decisive advantage. Sensors are only as good as the data acquired and transmitted to systems of systems. The better the data, the better the system. Information architectures are becoming more distributed and layered, aligning with command structures and deployed capabilities. Sensors must follow a similar path and, as with information systems, commercial companies have intriguing offerings.
To be effective, deployed radar systems must excel at detecting, tracking, identifying, and targeting drones and integrating with complementary sensors, targeting systems, and remote weapons stations and other weapons platforms for mitigation. Mobile sensor and effector platforms challenge enemy counterfires, contribute local details to command-level situational awareness, and protect forces in operating areas.
The industry challenge has been data fidelity in a small radar format. Large radar systems will deliver fidelity but remain far removed from active areas, creating gaps in coverage. If ESA radar were the size and weight of a paperback book with a small energy footprint and produced actionable data, it would be used everywhere.
Industry has produced, delivered, and thoroughly tested low-SWaP radar systems with equal or greater data fidelity, but lack a program anchor and become lost in yesterday’s radar requirements and acquisition processes.
In every conversation with operators and integrators, the instinct is to deploy more capable systems with greater and greater range for maximum response times against incoming enemy UAS. This is a well-taught response but eschews layers for the conventional choice. Large radar systems built on their own transportation platform offer key advantages in detecting and tracking objects at long range but cannot by themselves solve the challenge.
In Ukraine, reports of counter-UAS success caused by the data sourced from radar platforms like Hensoldt’s TRML-4D, and the focus by Ukraine on disabling similar Russian platforms all point to the high value placed on these large radar systems and the data they generate. With significant range and excellent performance, these radars are important data acquisition elements in the situational awareness puzzle that must be protected from the same inexpensive drones they seek.
Losing one or more of these large radar systems creates a knowledge gap that is not easily or cheaply replaced. Consequently, large radar systems are placed further and further from harm, which in turn requires greater and greater range – an endless cycle of range requirement escalation that leads to greater and greater capital requirements.
The obvious answer is a distributed, attritable network of sensors fielded by forces of varying sizes and capabilities. ESA radar has proven highly resistant to efforts to reduce cost, size, weight, and power without impacting performance. Defence agencies have expended significant capital and labor in search of rapidly deployable, high-performance radar, without much success in miniaturizing ESA designs.
Echodyne’s metamaterials ESA (MESA®) technology creates the only compact, high Tx/Rx module count, true beamsteering radar. This patented platform offers breakthrough size, weight, and power (SWaP) formats, simple manufacturability, and commercial pricing. With short- and medium-range options, Echodyne radars fill coverage gaps, are portable, mobile, and easily integrated into higher-level systems, and generate reliable, consistent data of exceptional fidelity.
COTS, Attritability, and Resilient CUAS Systems
The addition of COTS radar adds resilience to every layer of the CUAS system. COTS radar generates data accurate enough for effector systems, such as Northrop Grumman’s M230LF Bushmaster Chain Gun, to eliminate UAS targets with extraordinary efficiency. Large ESA radars, like the TRML-4D, will always have their role in battlespace but need complementary layers for resilient operation.
Deploying data acquisition assets, like sensors, must consider COTS to achieve attritability while maintaining performance. A large ESA radar combined with hundreds of low-SWaP ESA radars creates a powerful sensor network that matches remarkable airspace acuity with high attritability. High-performance radars, such as Echodyne’s EchoShield pulse-Doppler MESA® radar, offer comparable to often much better data fidelity at a tiny fraction of the cost.
While edge cases will always require pinnacle systems, the benefits of layered redundancy, layered commands, and layered systems of systems remain clear. Adding COTS to the formula creates capital symmetry for the MOD and properly equips warfighters with adaptive layers of CUAS protection.