ROBOTICS AND AUTONOMOUS SYSTEMS

Counter-UAS Measures Go Beyond Materiel Solutions

12/13/2023
By Laura Heckmann

Defense Dept. photo

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a…drone.

As small unmanned aerial systems proliferate in the skies above battle zones, the threat has grown more sophisticated, more lethal and more unpredictable, forcing the Pentagon to look beyond materiel solutions to training and doctrine.

Since standing up the Army-led Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, or JCO, in 2020, the Defense Department has seen the UAS threat “rapidly evolve,” its literature stated, with the department typically focusing on technologies that can neutralize drones.

However, there is growing emphasis within the office and the Defense Department that the solutions will be both materiel and non-materiel.

That requires a focus on training, an area that “wasn’t on the forefront,” Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, the JCO’s director, said during a panel discussion at the Association of the United States Army’s annual meeting. But it’s “probably the most important aspect.”

The “rapidly proliferating” threat has no “silver bullet” solution, Gainey said. “It’s going to take a layered approach, several systems, to get after different compartments of these threats,” making training not only more complicated, but more important.

“We … have to continue to build a training capacity,” he said. The military’s existing counter-UAS systems are having “success against this threat,” but keeping up, or ahead, is going to require both capability development and a focus on training and doctrine, he added.

The JCO looks at doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, education, personnel and facilities to tackle the drone scourge, Gainey said. “When you look at training … and policy implications, all of them have a [bearing] on getting after this problem set.”

When assessing the UAS threat, the JCO undergoes an exhaustive, year-long joint effort to identify gaps. Once approved, the gaps become the focus, he said. The solution could be materiel, but not necessarily.

Lt. Col. Johnathan Hester, division chief of the JCO’s requirements and capabilities division, said: “What are those things we need to add to the materiel solution in order to enhance it or complement that capability to ensure that we mitigate the small UAS threat as we move forward?”

Even when a gap has a materiel solution, warfighters need to know how to use it, he said.

“If I give you a multi-million dollar capability, but I don’t teach your staff how to plan and incorporate it in your scheme of maneuver, or I don’t teach your operators how to be proficient with the piece of equipment that I’ve just spent millions of dollars on — or … maybe we didn’t relook the policy that even allows you to turn that piece of equipment on — then I haven’t given you that decisive competitive edge that you need to win on today’s battlefield,” Hester said.

Training and doctrine integration are part of what Hester called the “lightning striking” and “driving the energy” of the requirements process — the “intelligence.”

Col. Michael Parent, division chief of JCO’s acquisition and resource division, said: “In this day and age, what we have learned is that every soldier, sailor, Marine and airman is a counter-small UAS defender. It is not brand-specific anymore. Everyone has to have some kind of capability and some kind of training to make sure that it happens.”

The JCO’s increased focus on training includes five virtual C-sUAS training modules, including basic awareness, system familiarization, installation protection and tactical techniques and procedures.

The Joint Counter Small UAS University at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, formerly located at the Army’s Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona, kicked off its inaugural two-week C-sUAS Operators Course Oct. 19, with more than 20 students from across the services. The university will facilitate three separate courses: operations, installation protection and a planners course.

“Every soldier has a responsibility for training when it comes to counter-UAS,” Sgt. Maj. Demetrius Johnson, the JCO’s senior enlisted advisor, said. But “not every unit is going to get the capability at once. And that’s where we can lean forward and do training at home … using digital platforms until we get materiel solutions,” he said. “You got to start with doctrine.”

Beginning with doctrinal publications allows soldiers “to get ahead of the curve and start getting familiar with the threat and how to counter this array,” he said. And with a threat that is increasingly unpredictable, staying ahead is paramount.

Johnson also emphasized mobile training teams, “available to train soldiers on the capabilities that they’re going to receive,” and assist units as they prepare for mobilization and deployment.

While the JCO is focused on training, materiel solutions are still an important piece, and will require “aggressively developing capability, working with our industry partners, to get after this evolving threat,” Gainey said. As a result, the JCO revises an operational requirements memorandum at least every 18-24 months, or “as needed.”

Gainey stressed integration and interoperability with partners as “critical.” Part of the JCO’s flexibility in countering UAS technology is constant interaction with joint partners, industry and academia, ensuring no innovation goes unnoticed.

Industry demonstrations are hosted by the JCO, the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office and the services to evaluate and make recommendations on emerging technologies that “close gaps, inform requirements and promote innovation,” JCO literature stated.

“We know our industry partners very well, we work with them very closely,” Gainey said. “We highlight our problem sets, our requirements, to our industry partners and academia to be able to get after this threat, because we can’t do it in isolation alone.”

Finding ways to facilitate and capitalize on defense and civilian collaboration is part of the mission of the newly formed Massachusetts-based National Counter UAS Center of Excellence, a partnership between the Air Force, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation’s Aeronautics Division and Mass­Autonomy, a non-profit focused on autonomous aviation systems.

Announced at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Future Force Capabilities conference in September, the center began as an answer to civilian drone incursions in Massachusetts and developed into a program to support partners throughout the state and the federal government against drone threats.

Rudy Cuevas, Counter-UAS Program Lead at MassDOT Aeronautics Division, said when he first entered the field, the conversation “really centered around the needs and requirements for the federal and defense industries” that have statutory authority for executing “the full spectrum” of counter-UAS operations.

Limitations existed when it came to the needs of state, local, tribal and territorial agencies, he said. “There was a lack of focus, a lack of direction, lack of capabilities that were geared toward their specific needs.” There was also an opportunity to help each other.

The center’s work with the Air Force and MassAutonomy represents a strengthened relationship between civil, federal and military, creating more avenues for industry to contribute to the counter-UAS effort.

One major benefit of the center as a bridge between defense and industry will be validated testing processes and accessible testing facilities, Cuevas said. While the main center will be based in Massachusetts, satellite locations and country-wide support are planned.

“I think, at the … most fundamental level, we really need to understand ways to test and evaluate these systems for state, local, tribal, territorial needs that also … correspond to the needs of our federal partners,” Cuevas said.

To that end, the center is looking to build a “robust, repeatable test process — one that has … the acceptance of all stakeholders so that when tests are executed … at a Center of Excellence test site … these test results can then be seen as valid for the needs of the stakeholders,” he said.

Cuevas said the center looks to be a “trusted, independent” source of performance data that can be shared with agencies “that really don’t have the resources to conduct their own testing, their own evaluation of systems, and to facilitate the sharing of that information.”

Cuevas said Massachusetts has “a rich innovation culture and … many companies that spring off and develop counter-UAS equipment and, more broadly, airspace sensors that can be leveraged for counter-UAS operations.” The center will provide industry innovators a place to test and evaluate those systems, he said.

Encouraging and enabling industry to put its best foot forward is built into the JCO strategy.

Parent said the office engages with industry on a bi-weekly basis, identifying “what is required to get after that gap.” Solutions are investigated with industry and academia, producing assessments that help “inform follow-on capability assessments and procurement,” he said.

While much of the JCO’s partnership with industry revolves around materiel solutions, the underlying process is part of its holistic focus on a constantly evolving approach.

“There’s no silver bullet capability that’s going to solve all your problems,” Gainey reiterated. “It’s going to take a layered approach … to get after that problem set with the foundation of training behind it. It’s that easy.” ND

Topics: Defense Department, Emerging Technologies

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