Masking is vital to a credible C-UAS defence. It is the full-spectrum,
multi-domain effort to deceive enemy sensors and disrupt enemy targeting.
The Importance of Winning Against Drones
Hunter and prey in the Ukrainian battlespace. A BAYRAKTAR TB2 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) flew within range of a Russian BUK Air Defence System (NATO reporting name SA-6 GAINFUL) that was halted along a road near Zhytomyr, Ukraine. The Ukrainian TB2 pilot recognised there were no active Russian air defence countermeasures. As the TB2 swooped into missile range, the drone’s high-resolution camera zeroed in on the target and the operator launched its deadly payload. In seconds, the SA-6 exploded into a brilliant fireball.
Robotic, top-attack systems like the Turkish-made TB2 play a critical role in modern warfare, which is only now being fully appreciated. UCAVs and Loitering Munitions (LMs) provide a relatively inexpensive sense-and-strike capability to speed up the kill-chain. These unmanned aerial sense-and-strike systems are hard to counter. They came of age during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, when Azerbaijan won a decisive 44-day victory over Armenia. Armenia held the high-ground and had prepared their defences in mountain strongholds for 26 years, but those advantages did not matter.
The Armenians had no means to counter the Azeri UCAVs and LMs. Few expected the Russians to have a similar problem against such slow-moving drones, but the evidence is clear, as Ukrainian UCAVs have inflicted devastating attacks on the Russian army. High-end air defence systems that were built to detect fast-moving aircraft and missiles appear to have a difficult time identifying and engaging these slow-moving and relatively stealthy, drones.
Importance of the TB2
Although Ukraine only has a limited number of TB2s, they are having a dramatic impact on the tactical situation. The TB2’s camera transmits a real-time streaming video back to the operator. These videos confirm battle damage, and in consonance with information from other sources, render the battlefield transparent. Information from UAS and satellite images provided by commercial satellite companies such as Maxar have depicted the exact location of Russian movements. The battlefield is now “naked” and transparent, day and night, and everything on it can be seen by a wide range of sensors that are deployed by modern military forces.
Unable to mask their forces, the Russians become extremely vulnerable to the accelerated kill chain. If the Ukrainians had invested in more UCAVs and LMs, they may have stopped the Russian invaders early in the war. Recognising this, the US offered shipments of AeroVironment’s SWITCHBLADE to Ukraine on 17 March 2022. The SWITCHBLADE LM saw combat in Afghanistan with US Special Forces. Working together in small groups or swarms, the TB2s and SWITCHBLADEs are expected to form a deadly combination.
Masking and C-UAS
Masking is vital to a credible C-UAS defence. To move, fight and win in today’s transparent battlespace and against a new array of cost-effective UCAVs and LMs, modern armies must develop tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP) and field systems and organisations to mask their forces and defeat these threats. Masking is the full-spectrum, multi-domain effort to deceive enemy sensors and disrupt enemy targeting. Military forces in the modern battlespace must train and equip to mask from optical, thermal, electronic, acoustic and quantum sensors. While quantum sensors are currently quite exquisite and primarily the concern of the most sophisticated stealth aircraft, masking in the optical, thermal, electronic, and acoustic areas requires immediate attention.
The Optical Spectrum
The optical spectrum is as old as warfare itself. UCAV systems, such as the TB2, see the battlespace with excellent optical sensors. Camouflage is the solution but few armies today are adept at it. Camouflage requires equipment, TTP, and leaders to enforce camouflage discipline. Antiquated camouflage netting does not hide from the unblinking eyes of the latest drones, as their sophisticated electro-optical cameras are too discerning. New multi-spectral camouflage netting and systems are required. Ineffective camouflage that cannot hide personnel and equipment in a transparent battlespace is a recipe for casualties.
Masking Thermal Signatures
As in the optical spectrum, masking thermal signatures demands new equipment and new thermal camouflage. We do not build armoured vehicles and trucks with masking in mind, nor design them from the start with the thought of reducing the system’s thermal signature. The M1A2 SEPv3 ABRAMS Tank, the mainstay of the US Army’s armoured force, has a powerful gas-turbine engine that is nearly impossible to hide from thermal sensors. Thermal camouflage is available that can reduce thermal signatures, such as the SAAB CoolCam Mobile Camouflage System, but this is expensive. Most assuredly, UCAVs, with state-of-the-art optical and thermal sensors, will spot unmasked vehicles and turn them into easy targets. The cost of destroyed armoured vehicles and the loss of personnel must be weighed against the price of effective, 21st century thermal camouflage.
Electronic signatures are another, significant masking challenge. Today, nearly every piece of military equipment generates an electronic signature. UAS armed with electronic sensors see the electronic emissions from radios, radars, and electronics, and can target the source. During the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijani HAROP LMs located and destroyed most of the Armenian radar, air defence, and command posts in the first few days of the war. Many of these targets were found by their electronic emissions. Masking electronic signatures, by fooling the enemy’s sensor network with “false positives” and decoys, or hiding within the noise of a city, must become a training priority. Vehicles and command posts that cannot mask will not survive in a transparent battlespace. Masking, therefore, must become a criterion for systems design.
Targets can also be unmasked by their acoustic signature. Several UAS and C-UAS systems operate with acoustic sensors. Sydney-based DroneShield uses acoustic sensors as part of an AI-enabled C-UAS solution. DroneShield acoustic sensors use advanced detection technology capable of sensing drones that are invisible to radar or operate without radio-frequency links. Research in the acoustic arena, to both detect drones and for drones to detect targets on the ground, continues to advance. Autonomous systems researchers from the University of South Australia and Midspar Defence Systems recently announced that they had perfected a way to reverse engineer the bio-visual systems of hoverflies – an insect — to detect drone movement up to four kilometres away. This bio-inspired processing is a glimpse into the future of UAS detection.
There are four general categories of C-UAS technologies:
- electronic jamming
- kinetic attack
In January 2022, the director of US Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office announced that the US Army will prioritise the development of non-kinetic technologies to combat the growing threat posed by unmanned aircraft. Tests in April 2022 will focus on high-powered microwave technology, directed-energy technology, and electronic warfare to build on existing capabilities. Despite this publicly announced priority, the US Army is also approving the development and testing of kinetic C-UAS weapons, which may be the most effective solution for the near term.
High-Energy Lasers (HEL) are almost ready for prime time – almost. An example is Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Test High Energy Asset, or ATHENA. The system employs a 30-kilowatt laser weapon that combines the power of three 10-kilowatt fibre lasers into one 30-kilowatt beam. This system successfully knocked out multiple rotary small UAS (sUAS) in a demonstration at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, in 2019. ATHENA is a transportable system, but not yet a mobile system. In 2022, Israel has announced that it will produce IRON BEAM, a high-power solid-state laser system designed to intercept rockets, mortars, and UAVs to supplement its IRON DOME system.
Lasers require a reliable and powerful energy source, making most of these systems suitable only for the defence of fixed areas and installations. To fill the tactical capability gap for ground manoeuvre forces, the US Army wants an armoured, mobile, laser C-UAS and contracted Raytheon Intelligence & Space in McKinney, Texas to build and deliver three combat-capable 50kW-class high-energy laser weapon systems mounted on eight-wheeled Stryker armoured fighting vehicles. Three, however, at a cost of US$123M, hardly fills the gap. As power source technologies improve, the use of powerful mobile lasers to knockout UAS and incoming projectiles at the speed of light will become a reality, but fielding a viable C-UAS today, rather than in 3-10 years, is a critical requirement.
Advances in microwave technology offer another option for effective C-UAS weapons. An example is the Tactical High Power Operational Responder (THOR), a high-energy microwave, laser directed-energy weapon. THOR, developed by the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), uses a focused beam of energy to counter UAS swarms. It is relocatable, but not a mobile air defence system. As with lasers, the requirement for a reliable and high-energy power source relegates most microwave or electronic beam weapons to protect bases and fixed locations.
Electronic Warfare (EW) Jamming
Electronic means to disrupt UAS involves the transmission of Radio Frequency (RF) signals to jam, interfere with, or take over the UAS control signal. Black Sage, an Idaho based C-UAS Defence company, has developed the GOSHAWK Long Range Jammer (named after a North American bird of prey). GOSHAWK is a directional non-kinetic effector that disrupts global navigation satellite systems, or GNSS, signals at a range exceeding 35 km. While GOSHAWK is transportable, it is not yet deployed in an armoured and mobile configuration that could keep up with advancing tactical formations. EW C-UAS are very promising and should be part of a layered air defence network, but newer UAS are being designed to operate without the need for GNSS and are fitted with anti-jam antennas which will make them much harder to disrupt.
Kinetic C-UAS technologies offer an immediate, reliable, and cost-effective means to counter drones in the close battle area. Systems such as DroneBullet, developed by Canadian company ArialX, employ drones to hunt and destroy drones. DroneBullet is a beyond visual line-of-sight, “kamikaze” counter-drone solution that defeats enemy drones by crashing into them. DroneBullet is portable, fire-and-forget, and fully autonomous. It uses onboard Artificial Intelligence (AI) and advanced machine vision processing to destroy enemy drones. Another promising kinetic system, the Raytheon COYOTE Block 2+, is tube-launched, weighs 5.9kg (13lb) and can carry a variety of interchangeable payloads, including a proximity warhead to destroy enemy drones. It has a maximum airspeed of 70 kt and a cruising speed of 55 kt. It can fly at altitudes of 30,000ft and can operate up to one hour. The US Army recently selected the COYOTE drone for its near-term counter-UAS solution.
Winning against drones will require masking and fielding an effective network of new C-UAS weapons. The lessons of recent wars send a clear message. In the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, and the current Russo-Ukrainian War in 2022, the lack of an effective C-UAS capability to protect ground forces led to heavy casualties and impeded ground manoeuvre. On 16 March 2022, a Jamestown Foundation analysis of the effectiveness of Ukrainian TB2 UCAVs against Russian forces reported: “Of the 15 SAMs eliminated by kinetic hits, nine platforms were targeted by Bayraktar TB-2s. All in all, the Turkish drones secured about 30 percent of the total SAM kills, and 60 per cent of the direct, kinetic salvos.” The military force that understands how the methods of warfare are changing, and executes masking and fields C-UAS weapons in today’s transparent battlespace, will gain a decisive advantage.
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