At this year’s current Counter-small Unmanned Aerial Systems Symposium, Oct. 9 and 10, attendees and presenters discussed operational and acquisition challenges and all were in agreement that countering UAS is a difficult problem.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Platform and Weapon Portfolio Management Chris O’Donnell, the government keynote speaker on Oct. 10, said C-UAS is a top priority at the Pentagon right now.
“This has been a real team fight over the last few years,” he said to the combined industry and government audience. “We’ve been getting good gear downrange to the warfighters.”
He added that now the services need to go beyond that. He provided an example of a C-UAS exercise in 2016 where all the systems worked “very well,” and after two weeks of training, no matter if it was Air Force force protection personnel, a Marine Corps air defender or an Army infantry soldier, all were able to operate the gear.
Then personnel from Hanscom Air Force Base’s Force Protection Division, who co-hosted the conference, worked to help get the equipment into theater within a few months. However, the feedback from the field was not positive. They wanted more effective equipment, and to get it quicker.
O’Donnell went with a senior steering group to Iraq to see the challenges for himself.
“We were providing good technical solutions, but not capabilities for the warfighter,” he said.
In the rush to field, there was not a lot of time to train. Therefore government employees and field service representatives were providing just-in-time training, maintenance and sustainment, and in some instances, operating the equipment themselves.
“There was variation on who was using the systems, from air defenders and electronic warfare officers to infantrymen and force protection personnel,” O’Donnell said. “Often there was no understanding of how to use the system; the user expected to be able to just turn it on.”
O’Donnell also mentioned the ingenuity of personnel on the battlefield, citing as a prime example a time in Iraq when a group of Soldiers took a defeat mechanism off one system and strapped it to a vehicle, and the Iraqis praised it as “the day the drones died.”
Although the DOD then took on the challenges of a mobile system, it took nine months to get it to the field.
“We want to have the ability of our acquisition system to keep up with the ingenuity of the American Soldier,” O’Donnell said.
Another issue at the forefront is whether this is a contingency or homeland defense issue, and O’Donnell said it’s both.
“These are different communities we’re dealing with,” he said. “On the battlefield, we have a lot of flexibility. In the homeland, who is going to be trained to do this?”
He said personnel standing watch at bases already have multiple screens, messages and display consoles they need to view and adding more items such as radar and electronic warfare imagery will not work.
“There are lots of great technical ways to do this, but simplifying the information flow to the watch stander has yet to be overcome,” he said. “How we define the user experience for force protection personnel will be the critical link for any of this equipment.”
O’Donnell said the UAS operators our personnel might need to counter fall into three categories – dumb, deceitful or dangerous. He said with the dangerous ones, in addition to beating the threat, the tool should be able to help find the controller as well.
He mentioned three main goals for C-UAS going on at the DOD level right now. First, how does DOD improve reporting to understand the threat? Personnel need to ensure the data they are getting is accurate, so DOD is looking at a standardized reporting chain. Next, DOD wants to ensure equipment is working the way it should be. Therefore, the director for Operational Test and Evaluation has an independent team in theater talking to the government employees, the field service representatives and the true operators. And third, DOD personnel are completing a security classification guide. The guide will allow government personnel to know what they can share with industry or allies.
O’Donnell emphasized C-UAS should be more effective and efficient.
“There is a lot of concern about the speed of change in the small UAS world, driven by commercial markets,” he said. “It moves at speed we don’t see in peer-to-peer competition. We need plug-and-play open architecture systems, more lethal, low-collateral, damage-defeat mechanisms that are much simpler and easier to operate. And we need to use all the tools in our acquisition toolbox. [Program managers] are encouraged to tailor their acquisition strategies to get the capability in the warfighters’ hands as quickly as possible.”
The Paul Revere Chapter of the Air Force Association co-hosted the event, which also included a brief from the Air Force Program Executive Officer Digital, industry briefings and exhibits, and an acquisition challenges panel.