Inside Black Dart: How the Military Prepares for a Future Drone War

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
POINT MUGU, Calif. — On a strip of marshland abutting the Pacific Ocean, the buzz of drones could be heard flying overhead. In the adjacent flight line, a handful of unmanned aerial systems — ranging from a tiny hexacopter to a massive MQ-9 Reaper — waited their turns to take to the skies.

It was here at Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range that the Defense Department’s largest live-fly, live-fire counter-drone demonstration took place in late July. The two-week long exercise, known as “Black Dart,” drew about 700 military personnel and members of industry to test new anti-unmanned aerial vehicle technology.

High profile drone-related events around the globe — from an unmanned aerial vehicle crashing into the lawn of the White House to a mysterious remotely piloted aircraft flying around the Eiffel Tower — have thrown unmanned aerial technology, and some of the risks they pose, into the spotlight, said Air Force Maj. Scott Gregg, director of this year’s Black Dart. The military is taking that potential threat seriously, he said.

“It’s getting a lot of attention now, but it’s something that DoD has been focused on for several years,” he told members of the media. “We’re concerned about it just like everybody else.”

Black Dart started in 2002 under the Defense Intelligence Agency. In 2006 it was transferred to U.S. Northern Command, and then in 2010 to the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization, its current operator.

“Initially, it started out as just a UAS development capabilities demonstration, and over time transitioned into a counter-unmanned aircraft systems technology demonstration,” Gregg said. “Black Dart is probably a combination of technology demonstration, test and evaluation, and exercise. I’m not sure Black Dart neatly fits into any of those bins, but it’s a little bit of everything.”

Fifty-five systems were tested during this year’s exercise — its 14th iteration — and 16 drone targets were employed. More than 100 sorties were flown, he said.

Black Dart was classified until its 2014 demonstration. Exercise coordinators opened it up to the media last year because they wanted the public to know the government is not only aware of the growing drone threat, but is actively working to mitigate it, he said.

“It’s a burgeoning market and the threats keep expanding rapidly. Proliferation is expanding rapidly,” Gregg said. Remotely piloted aircraft are “not just a military threat. It’s not just used for military purposes anymore. Governments are using them. Our allies are using them. Our coalition partners are using them. But our adversaries are using them, too.”

More than 90 nations and non-state groups currently operate unmanned aerial systems, and many of them can carry weapons, according to a recent Center for a New American Security report titled, “A World of Proliferated Drones: A Technology Primer.”

It has been reported that the Islamic State has surveillance drone capabilities. Additionally, experts say that countries such as Russia and China are both hard at work developing advanced drones that could pose a threat to the United States.

This year’s exercise had a particular focus on small UAS, said Navy Cmdr. David Zook, chief of JIAMDO’s capabilities assessment division.

“I think we’ve definitely focused on it more than we have in the past,” he said. “The proliferation of the smaller, micro and mini UAVs — the Group 1s, Group 2s — has increased our need and our demand signal to operate in that environment.”

Group 1 aircraft weigh less than 20 pounds. Group 2 systems weigh between 21 and 55 pounds.

Even though small UAVs can only carry light payloads, sometimes just a few pounds, they could be loaded with dangerous materials, Gregg said. The increased focus on small aircraft is a response to concerns expressed by combatant commanders, he added.

Additionally, smaller drones are harder to detect, he said. “In many cases, those small UASs are similar in size — and even performance and speed — to birds.”

Tackling the growing drone threat requires cross-service cooperation, Zook said.

“This is a joint problem. This is more than just what individual services can handle,” he said. “We’re presenting opportunities and profiles of these targets to systems that don’t work together everyday. We don’t fight in mass, joint wars very often. So this is an opportunity to come here and exercise like this.”

Collaborating with industry and all four services is also important in times of reduced military budgets, Zook said.

“As we start running into sequestration-related … funding challenges, we need to be able to find the best” systems, he said. “We need to find ways to use our systems that we have right now and work them in different ways or different combinations so we can work that integration piece to get us more advantage.”

The counter-drone systems used at Black Dart weren’t necessarily new, Gregg noted. Some were established technologies that were used in different ways during the exercise.

“Many of the systems that have participated in Black Dart over the years are currently fielded programs of record, currently fielded systems that were never designed for counter-UAS because at the time they were designed, UAS wasn’t really a threat,” he said. “What we found here is that our forum provides a great venue for discovery and innovation.”

In many cases, systems that were tested at Black Dart later had their software or algorithms tweaked to improve the probability of detecting, tracking and identifying the small aircraft, he said.

Information gleaned from the demonstration can be used to help the services make acquisition decisions or even change concepts of operations, Zook said. That in turn helps the warfighter, he noted.

One of the unmanned aerial vehicles participating in the demonstration was the MQ-9 Reaper. It was the Reaper’s second year at the exercise and was used as a large-sized target to assess various systems’ performances against high-altitude, long-endurance drones, Gregg said.

Also present was an S-100 Camcopter, which is classified as a Group 3 system. It was the first time a rotary-wing system had been brought into the exercise, he said.

Testing at Black Dart included everything from identifying to negating the aircraft, Zook said. “I say ‘negation’ rather than ‘destroy’ because sometimes in some of the situations here, if we’re talking about urban environments … we don’t want to destroy it over [the] top of a lot of people. We want to find a way to get control of it and then move it somewhere.”

First Lt. Morgan Sawyer, an air defense control officer with Marine Air Control Squadron 1, said Black Dart was a way for the service to gauge what its equipment could do. The squadron, which is based in Yuma, Arizona, brought its AN/TPS-59 air search radar system to the exercise. Marines in a tactical air operations center monitored radar data that could identify and track drones flying during the demonstration.

“The radar’s ability to detect smaller aircraft … [is] a challenge, which is why we are out here. We’re determining what our capabilities are, what our limitations are, so we can get out in front of those threats,” he said.

The DJI Phantom that crashed into the White House was able to elude many radar systems, Sawyer said. Black Dart gives his squadron the opportunity to train for a similar threat with a small aircraft, he said.

Army Master Sgt. Christopher Williams of the South Carolina National Guard said the exercise gave his unit the opportunity to train its Avenger air defense system mounted on an M1097A1 high mobility multi-purpose wheeled vehicle against Group 1 and Group 2 drones. 

Black Dart is “very helpful because this is the only place that we can get training on these different classes of UAS and on this large scale,” he said. It “provides us a lot of things that we don’t get anywhere else just because of the amount of UAS here.”

Avenger has trained against Group 3 systems before, but Black Dart was the first time it went against smaller drones, he noted.

Avenger is equipped with eight Stinger missiles and a .50-caliber machine gun, Williams said. He was confident a Stinger missile could take down a drone, but noted that its effectiveness would depend on the distance of the system.

“The farther away they are the better chance you have of an intercept,” he said. Additionally, because small drones can often be slow moving, it can be difficult for fast moving missiles to hit such targets, he noted.

During Black Dart, the Avenger was equipped with training missiles, which could go through the entire engagement sequence except firing, he noted.

Two years ago, the Navy brought its famous directed-energy laser weapon system, known as LaWS, to Black Dart while it was being tested on the USS Dewey, Zook said. The system — which is currently outfitted on the USS Ponce — runs on electricity and is less expensive than kinetic weapons, costing less than $1 per shot. Demonstrating LaWS’ capability was made possible by Naval Base Ventura County Sea Range’s proximity to the Pacific Ocean, he said.

The range is based on marshland, which is advantageous because it allows officials to operate on water and land at the same time, he said.

It’s a unique area because it can replicate the environments of several combatant commands, he said. U.S. Central Command has a similar desert-like landscape that is present at Point Mugu, he said. A U.S. Pacific Command environment can be replicated “because the depth of the water out in the Pacific … [is] ideal for us.”

Officials can also simulate an urban U.S. Northern Command environment, he noted.

“We build our scenarios with cooperation from the intel communities and with our combatant commander communities so the … people representing the warfighters can make sure that we’re doing what is going to help them the most,” he said.

Now that Black Dart is no longer secret, industry is taking note, said Rear Adm. Jesse A. Wilson, Jr., director of JIAMDO.

“We decided last year that it was important to let the public know that we are working tirelessly to assess and improve our counter-UAS capabilities in order to stay ahead of our adversaries’ capabilities. Additionally, the added transparency often leads to linking up with additional partners who can assist in our innovation efforts,” he said.

JIAMDO provided the range and targets and invited industry and the services to bring in their technologies and test them out. It spent about $4.2 million on this year’s demonstration.

“Industry remains actively engaged in improving existing capabilities as well as developing innovative solutions for future systems,” Wilson said in an email. “Our partners in industry are committed to providing warfighters the tools they need to counter the rapidly evolving UAS threat, and we value the partnership we share. We are ready to double-down on our collaboration with industry as we move forward.”

Ultimately, there is no “silver bullet” to solving the drone problem, Gregg said. It will take a multitude of systems working together to mitigate the threat.

Topics: Counterinsurgency, Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Science and Engineering Technology

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