Needed: Short-range air defense systems to destroy drones

Needed: Short-range air defense systems to destroy drones

Thursday, March 22, 2018

One of the Army’s current priorities is development of a maneuver system to counter short-range air defense threats such as drones, officials said Wednesday, Feb. 28.

Over the past 15 years, the Army inventory of systems to defend against low-altitude and medium-altitude weapons has dwindled, said Barry Pike, the Army’s program executive officer for missiles and space.

Pike chaired a capabilities development panel discussion at the Association of the U.S. Army’s Hot Topic forum on air and missile defense (AMD) in Arlington, Va.

Barry Pike, program executive officer for air and missile defense, said at the AUSA forum that ‘the Army’s perceived need for a short-range air defense capability has changed.’ (AUSA News photo by Luc Dunn)

During the last decade, the U.S. military felt it had air superiority over potential adversaries, so Army leaders weren’t concerned about having a robust short-range air defense (SHORAD) capability. But now, with the worldwide proliferation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the Army’s perceived need for SHORAD has changed.

While the Army is now fielding new Stinger MANPAD (Man-Portable Air-Defense System) teams to counter drones and cruise missiles, more is needed, Pike said. Stingers have a new proximity fuse which can detonate near a target to destroy small threats such as mini-drones.

But in addition to the shoulder-fired Stingers and Avenger Humvees, the Army needs a modern maneuver SHORAD system, he said. It needs a system “on a survivable combat platform like a Stryker, to be able to move out with the maneuver force and protect the maneuver force.” One such system being developed is the Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC) Increment 2-Intercept.

IFPC Increment 2-I

The IFPC is a mobile, ground-based system specifically designed to defeat unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and cruise missiles, along with mortars, artillery and rockets. The Block 1 system uses an existing interceptor and sensor along with a new Multi-Mission Launcher, or MML, mounted on a medium tactical vehicle. The launcher, which entered a demonstration phase in 2015, can rotate 360 degrees in order to shoot down UAS or cruise missiles incoming from any direction.

The Army has already selected one interceptor for the system, the AIM-9X Sidewinder missile. It has also experimented with a number of other interceptor missiles, since the MML will be able to handle multiple types in its 15 tubes.

The Expanded Mission Area Missile, or EMAM, will be what the Army calls the next interceptor selected for the IFPC. Plans call for the missile manufacturer to be selected next fiscal year, and EMAM will be used with the IFPC Block 2 system.

The Army is also experimenting with directed energy or lasers on the IFPC to shoot down drones.

High-Energy Lasers

“I will tell you that we’re getting awful close” to developing a viable high-energy laser weapon, said Richard P. DeFatta, director, Future Warfare Center, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC).

The High-Energy Laser Tactical Vehicle Demonstrator will put 100 kilowatts of energy into the same vehicle being used for the IPFC, DeFatta said. The laser cannot yet be fired from one of the same tubes already on the IPFC launcher, but DeFatta said that’s what some officials would like to see.

This year, SMDC integrated a 60kW laser into a Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck or HEMTT, and DeFatta said that’s never been done before.

“We’ve never had that much energy out of a fiber-laser system – a solid-state laser system – on a ground vehicle that you can roll around and actually engage,” he said, explaining that’s a significant “knowledge point” moving forward to the 100kW.

“More power means less dwell time on a target,” he said. “If you want to engage more targets, you [need] higher power.”

SMDC is also experimenting with a 50kW laser in a Stryker-sized vehicle, he added.

The next step is to teach soldiers how to use such lasers, he said, so a low-power 5kW laser has been put on a Stryker as a technology demonstrator called the Mobile-Experimental High-Energy Laser. The MEHEL was fired last year by soldiers at Fort Sill, Okla. Today, the MEHEL is in Europe, DeFatta said.

There are still some challenges with the laser program that need to be overcome, DeFatta said. For instance, some naysayers point out that a laser can’t be fired successfully in a 100-mph sandstorm.

“That’s true,” he said, “but what are you shooting at in a 100-mile-per-hour sandstorm?”

Some other myths about lasers have been disproven, DeFatta said. SMDC has shown that a laser can be successfully fired in a rainstorm, for instance, though he said any degraded atmosphere requires more laser power.

Top funding priority

Air and missile defense is one of the Army’s top six priorities, and Pike said his missile and space budget has more than tripled in the last four years. The Army’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget for missiles and space was $2.8 billion, while the FY19 budget request is for $8.7 billion.

“When the Army talks about establishing priorities and resourcing priorities, I can tell you that the commitment is there,” Pike said.

While the research and development budget for air and missile defense has more than doubled since four years ago, Pike said much of the overall increase in funding is going toward increasing capacity, not just capability.

“Our inventory levels became astonishing low” for many of the AMD weapons over the last 10-15 years, he said. “A lot of that is in the process of being corrected – being ramped up – a lot of investment in ramping up our production rates.”

Along with funds for procuring and fielding greater numbers of systems, the FY19 budget request also beefs up AMD modernization and development of next-generation capabilities, he said. The AMD research, development, testing and evaluation FY19 budget request is for $1.2 billion, and Pike said a fair portion of that is for a common fire control system.

Integrated fire control

“Any discussion of air and missile defense modernization has to start with the common fire control system – the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System,” Pike said.

“That’s really harnessing all the sensor information that we can get together ... to work against air threats” ranging from ballistic missiles to unmanned aircraft system, he said.

The IBCS passed a major field test in October at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, during a Soldier Check Out Event, or SCOE.

The integrated fire control system is the “heart and soul” of AMD modernization, Pike said.