Military refines techniques to counter hostile drones

Doctrine and training lacking to detect enemy UAVs

The U.S. military is heavily reliant on unmanned aerial systems to serve as its eyes and weapons on the battlefield. But other nations have also been active in acquiring their own platforms, which raises the possibility that future warfighters may have to face a UAS-equipped opponent.

To test out how such a scenario would work and what steps the services could take to counter such a threat, the Defense Department began a series of exercises to test doctrine and technology, top DOD officials said Aug. 16 at the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s conference in Washington D.C. 

One of the events discussed was Black Dart, a yearly exercise designed to test the military’s capability to detect and counter enemy UAS systems. The goal of the exercise is to bring in programs of record and emerging technologies to see how they perform, said Air Force Maj. Spencer McKenna, Black Dart’s project manager. Rather than focusing on specific systems, he said that the goal of the exercise is to see how broad technology and doctrine capabilities work.

The first Black Dart was held in 2010 at China Lake, Calif. During the eight-day event, a variety of manned and unmanned platforms were tested for their ability to detect and identify enemy UAS systems in flight. Antiaircraft systems, including a high energy laser, were tested for their effectiveness against a variety of target drones, ranging in size from small tactical platforms with 18-inch wingspans to larger models with 15 foot wingspans.

For the 2011 event, Black Dart moved from the high desert to the California coast at Point Mugu. One of the goals of the latest test was to see how a different environment affected operations, McKenna said. This year’s event included a variety of unmanned and manned systems. Among the latter was a Navy destroyer.

The large size of the operational area also allowed nearly limitless operating space. The exercise involved 47 UAVs flying 120 sorties. The event has grown as a venue from the last event. “Really all we’re providing is a venue for some of the systems to come out and test here,” he said.

The destroyer conducted live fire tests and shot down a variety of UAS platforms. One of the goals of the exercise is to determine what works and what does not in terms of detecting and countering UAS platforms, he said.

While efforts such as Black Dart test existing systems and new technology against new threats, the Joint UAS Center of Excellence is working to create operational doctrine. Although unmanned platforms have been used by the U.S. military for years, they have not been integrated into everyday mission activities very well, said Navy Capt. Greg Maguire, the center’s concept division chief.

Besides doctrine, another important consideration the is possibility of air to air combat between unmanned aircraft—with each other and with manned platforms. “In the long run, that’s what’s going to happen,” Maguire said. To simulate this possibility, JUASC ran a one-off demonstration called Blue Knight at Nellis Test and Training Range, Nev.

The test saw manned fighter aircraft and attack helicopters coupled with ground based radars attempting to detect and classify incoming threat unmanned aircraft. During the event, it proved difficult for human pilots in fast flying jets to visually identify the slow-flying UASs. It also was difficult for air and ground units to determine if the unmanned platforms were friendly or if they were remotely controlled or autonomous, Maguire said.

As far as unmanned-versus-unmanned platforms are concerned, it is difficult for a platform such as a Reaper UAS to detect another aircraft because of its narrow view electro optical sensors. However, Maguire said that future aircraft may have their own air to air radar, which would make the process much easier. “This mission isn’t going away,” he said.

The JUASC will shut down in January as part of the larger decommissioning of its parent organization, Joint Forces Command. Before it closes its doors, the center has published a joint UAS concept of operations document in 2010 and is awaiting approval for version two of its counter UAS concept of operations. “We need to figure out how to train our current forces and better integrate our current capabilities,” Maguire said.

About the Author

Henry Kenyon is a contributing writer for Defense Systems.

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