Related Video Above: Destroying Drones
What If an armored ground convoy were closing to contact with an enemy force in position to breach or penetrate a mechanized formation when two hostile armed drones suddenly appeared from behind a mountain? The approaching ground vehicles, primarily armored to engage in linear force on force ground combat, could be vulnerable to a drone air attack. This would be particularly true if the approaching force lacked air supremacy or any kind of air support.
This type of potential combat scenario is increasingly becoming more likely as adversaries continue to acquire and develop more technologically advanced armed attack drones.
Drone defense has long been emphasized in recent years, particularly when it comes to base protection or defending fixed infrastructure. Much progress has been made in the realm of sensing, interceptor missiles and AI-enabled threat detection… but what about drone defense from the ground while on the move? This challenge has been a large focus for the Army and its industry partners as it continues to evolve ground vehicles primarily designed for ground attack into platforms able to track and destroy enemy drones while moving on the ground.
With this in mind, the Army is now experimenting with arming a range of emerging platforms with different caliber cannons to establish an optimal blend of air-and-ground on-the-move attack capability.
The success of this kind of tactical approach relies upon a host of interwoven variables to include speed and weight of a vehicle and advanced targeting, sensing and computing intended to expedite sensor-to-shooter pairing while on the move.
These factors inform ongoing Army work on its new Robotic Combat Vehicle, Mobile Protected Firepower light tank and Optionally Manned Infantry Vehicle Bradley replacement while also contributing to continued modernization of upgraded existing vehicles such as the Stryker.
“We're keeping our options wide open and keeping everything on the table. Because there's some really interesting technologies being developed to allow a smaller caliber to perform what was once traditionally thought of as unique to a larger caliber weapon. We're really excited about the 25mm To 30mm to 50mm,” Maj. Gen. Ross Coffman, Director, Next Generation Combat Vehicles Cross Functional Team, told Warrior in an interview.
“These are providing trade spaces for Army senior leaders to make decisions that will absolutely change the geometry and the lethality of future data” Coffman said.
“What it comes down to is the base weight of the vehicle,” Coffman said.
Vehicle Mounted Guns
Vehicle mounted guns, such as those now under development with the Army were recently shot off during an impactful live-fire experiment in Arizona.
A Ford 250 pick-up truck was armed with a 30mm chain gun, remote weapons station, targeting system and advanced sensors for the purpose of tracking and destroying enemy drones while on the move from the ground.
This live-fire scenario, which took place recently at Northrop Grumman’s Bushmaster User Conference in Arizona, was intended to assess cutting edge sensing, targeting and integrated drone defense systems possible for armored combat on the ground.
The live fire demo was intended to evolve, refine and improve emerging counter drone technology combining new weapons applications, sensing, fire control and ammunition to track and eliminate drones from the ground.
The 30mm Chain Gun was operated from the passenger’s seat in specific scenarios intended to replicate warfare engagements with hovering and moving drone threats, Rob Menti, Business Development, Northrop Grumman, told Warrior while discussing the event in Arizona.
The Ford pickup truck was used in an experimental capacity to assess the ability of an integrated counter drone weapons and targeting system for a wide range of armored vehicles platforms. This kind of counter drone system could integrate onto the emerging Robotic Combat Vehicles and manned or optionally manned systems such as a Stryker or new Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) Bradley replacement.
In the Arizona desert in November of 2021, the pick up truck fired the XM 914 Lightweight 30mm Bushmaster cannon at drone targets using a “proximity fuse” that can detonate upon sensing enemy drones within attack range of the explosive.
“Utilizing Bushmaster cannons with proximity-fused ammo, we can engage drones with small 30mm out to about 1000 meters,” Menti said. A Mk 44 weapon, he added, can destroy small drone swarms out to 2,000 meters using a High Explosive Proximity round.
Certain small drones can hit speeds of 60-to-70 miles per hour, and some are small enough to fit in the palm of the hand. Swarms of these can be dispatched to blanket an area with ISR, build-in redundancy so a mission can continue if one is destroyed or even become explosives themselves programmed to detonate upon impact.
Attacking Drone Swarms
Attacking drone swarms can cause some real problems for the attacked force, according to a 2017 essay from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. The essay, called “The Upside and Downside of Swarming Drones,” discusses some of the reasons why drone swarms are difficult to defend against.
“Swarming is advantageous for offensive missions because it can overwhelm enemy defenses with a large number of potential targets. In a swarming attack the drones are dispersed, which makes it difficult and expensive for the adversary to defend itself. If 10 drones attack a target simultaneously and 7 are shot down, 3 will still be able to complete their mission,” the essay, written by Irving Lachow, stated.
Multi-Domain Attack Scenarios
F-35s sending enemy force location detail to soldiers maneuvering on the ground, Army soldiers using ground-radar data to alert Air Force fighter jets and drones or Navy ships using ballistic missile defense technology to send threat specifics about incoming attacks to ground units, are all scenarios increasingly being tested as part of The Army’s current emphasis upon multi-domain warfare. An entirely new sphere of technologies and multi-domain tactics are leading the Army to redefine its approach to traditional Combined Arms Maneuver warfare.
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“Combined Arms Maneuver has got to be joint. This will evolve and it will become more rapid. The battlespace will expand based on robotics and space as cyberspace. We have to do this faster. We have to do it more efficiently, so that we're making decisions that not only defeat our adversaries, but we're able to do it in such a manner that we can do it more rapidly than anyone on Earth,” Coffman told Warrior.
Multi-domain attack scenarios such as those referred to by Coffman were recently tested by some of the Army’s industry partners at a live-fire event called the Bushmaster Users Conference in Kingman, Ariz. During the demonstrations, various kinds of cannons, sensors and integrated radar technologies were used to track and destroy a combination of air and ground threats. Emerging command and control technologies were used to ensure the optimal effectors, interceptors or methods of countering enemy targets were identified and used.
“So while you're looking for air threats we're also able to very quickly pick up those ground threads that might threaten the forces. Multi-domain sensing can be air, ground or even littorals. We could put this on a boat or even a Navy vessel for those types of threats to those surface water threats. You know, it could even be used against pirates or some other small moving mass,” Rob Menti, Business Development, Northrop Grumman, told Warrior from the demo in Ariz.
For example, new Army Robotic Combat Vehicles can use smoke grenades, EW jamming systems, kinetic effectors such as anti-tank missiles or cannons and may even fire lasers in the future.
“It’s important to bring all of the effectors that are available to bear on different threats. You know, whether that's a drone or a ground system or whatever it might be. …. everybody's got to be on the network, because being on the network is probably the key to survivability on tomorrow's battlefield,” Menti said.
Video Above: Waging War on Enemy Drones
Multi-domain connectivity can help fill in or eliminate “gaps” in radar defenses or sensors intended to find, track and target approaching enemy drones or ground targets. The concept is to network air, ground and even maritime assets into a single ground of “meshed” nodes on an interconnected battlefield to ensure seamless, real time targeting.
“If you're on the network, it doesn't matter if you're an air defense guy or not. Your radars and your sensors are going to fill in those gaps where Sentinels or Gator (ground-based radars aren't), so you don't have holes in your defense,” Menti said.
Artificial Intellgience (AI)
Much of the increased networking efficiency and data-processing success is made possible by applications of AI. The tactical advantages of AI-enable warfare and weaponry may seem far too numerous to cite, yet the majority of them pertain to one clear, simple concept …. Speed.
The speed of decision making, when mere seconds can decide life or death in warfare, is being completely redefined through the advent of AI. AI-empowered computers can take pools of incoming data from otherwise disparate sensor streams of information, organize and perform analytics on the information, bounce it off of a vast or seemingly limitless amount of information and solve problems, make determinations and recommend courses of action.
“We're trying to reduce the decision time and we're trying to reduce the cognitive burden on the commander on the battlefield. If you look into the future, the battlefield will be more expansive. Decisions will be required more rapidly,” Coffman said.
AI-capable algorithms are only as effective as the scope of the database they draw from allows, so much of the cataloged information can at times pertain to previous instances of elements of history relevant to the current matters being analyzed.
“All domain awareness on today’s battlefield is a key survivability tool for soldiers,” said Kent Savre, director for precision weapons, Northrop Grumman. “However, soldiers can quickly become overwhelmed by air and ground threats that are coming at them from all directions. That’s why it’s important that we provide a way to help them make decisions quickly and help alleviate some of that ‘cognitive load.’”
During the Bushmaster demonstration, counter-drone targeting was assisted by a Northrop Technology referred to as the Mobile Acquisition Cueing and Effector (M-ACE).
MACE was used to detect frequencies and help determine “friend or foe” to identify targets quickly, Savre explained. The system has a memory as well as part of its ability to shorten the “kill chain.” “The cue that the operator receives places the gun system and optics directly on the drone and the operator knows that there has been a vetting process that has already occurred letting them know that the drone is most likely a threat. This helps the gunner make an informed decision and can very quickly decide whether or not to engage the target,” Savre said.
The concept is to utilize the attributes and faculties unique to human cognition in the most optimal way by leveraging high-speed analytics and AI-capable computing to perform otherwise time consuming procedural tasks. The intended effect is often described as easing the “cognitive burden” to better empower battlefield Commanders with an ability to make decisions on an exponentially faster timetable.
“We're leveraging artificial intelligence. We're leveraging computer generated machine learning to create decision space for commanders on the battlefield. There's no doubt in our mind who the customer is. The customer is the commander of the future,” Coffman said.
Various applications of AI and Machine Learning were explored recently at a Northrop Grumman sponsored live-fire event in Arizona as a way to expedite the targeting process and greatly decrease the time needed to find enemy targets, identify them and quickly decide which weapon or “effector” is most optimal for destroying the target.
“We use that to help the gunners identify ground and air targets because as you know, at the extended ranges, the human eye cannot see the target or identify it. So we use machine learning to amplify the image,” Rob Menti, Business Development, Northrop Grumman, told Warrior during a Bushmaster Users Conference Demonstration this past October demo in Arizona.
AI-enabled computing can work in tandem with new levels of autonomy to ease the “cognitive burden” and greatly improve targeting.
“We're also working towards increasing our autonomous capability to reduce the cognitive load on the operator. We are committed to shortening the kill chain and reducing operator cognitive load,” Menti said. “You're not gonna have a soldier or marine or border patrol agent staring at a screen 24 hours a day, if the system has to do it itself and then alert you to do something, When we send a cueing message from a vehicle to the gun truck, what happens is it pops on the screen. The gunner hits accept, and then the gun automatically moves into the general direction of where the target is,” Menti said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest and President of Warrior Maven -the Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.