FARNBOROUGH, England — Defense electronics firm Leonardo DRS in June moved to bolster its position in the military’s force protection market when it announced plans to acquire Israeli radar company RADA Electronics Industries.
Now, Leonardo DRS Chairman and Chief Executive Officer William Lynn says, the company is working on ways to advance capabilities such as sensor integration and using directed energy and electronic warfare to take out drone swarms. Leonardo DRS is the U.S subsidiary of the Italian defense firm Leonardo SpA.
Speaking July 18 at the Farnborough Air Show in England, Lynn said the RADA merger will directly help it with two of its four primary markets: force protection, which includes its Mobile Low, Slow Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Integrated Defense System, or MLIDS, counter-drone system used by the U.S. Army, and advanced sensing. Leonardo DRS also concentrates on network computing to create battle management systems, and electric propulsion systems for Navy vessels like Columbia-class submarines.
When it comes to advanced sensing, Lynn said, bringing RADA’s radars into Leonardo DRS’ portfolio “provide[s] the one sensor we don’t have.” This will be crucial as sensor integration becomes increasingly important in Army vehicles like tanks, Strykers and Bradley fighting vehicles, he said.
“Think Tesla,” Lynn said. “You have a backup camera and you have the side mirrors with collision detection. What Tesla’s done now is integrate all that into a single picture — so good, in fact that it can drive the car.”
That’s where the Army is headed with integrated sensing and battlefield management, he added.
“You get a comprehensive picture of the battlefield [with integrated sensing], you’re able to take all that data [collected by various sights and sensors] and make it actionable and decision-quality data,” Lynn said. “We want to be a part of that, and having a radar is critical. We think what’s going to happen is the sensors and the computing are going to fuse.”
This interview was edited for clarity and space.
What are some of the biggest challenges in trying to weave together these various sensor systems and getting them to talk to each other reliably and accurately?
That’s where the network computing, the battle management system that’s already in the computer, can take all of these feeds and give you a single picture. It’s technology that’s within our grasp. It’s more a matter of, how do you take the existing systems and bring them all together? If you use the existing network computing, you actually don’t need to replace them all. Instead of having each individual in the vehicle have a separate screen, you give the same picture to all of them with all of the inputs.
It’s the infrared sensors, the weapons sights, it’s the driver vision and enhancement system. And on the ones that have the active protection systems, each has radar that supports that, so you can use that as an additional input as well.
This is something we’re working on. The sensors are already in the field, and the network computing is already in the field, but the fusion of all of it together is not yet there.
How long do you think it’s going to be before that becomes a reality?
I think it could be done in three or four years. But it takes putting together a program of record and moving forward on it. The Army is definitely talking about it, but they haven’t gotten to the point of setting up the program.
What benefit does knitting all those sights, infrared and other signals together provide?
You get far better data by using all of the sensors together so that you’re able to pull in a better quality of information, and you’re able to use that information to set the options for the commander. For example, identifying a target, giving the coordinates where that target is, ensuring that target is indeed an adversary, not a friend, and giving them a firing solution could all be done in a single integrated picture.
Counter UAS is a big area of focus for DRS. Where do your efforts stand there, and what capabilities do you feel have promise in the next couple of years?
We’re producing the current system that’s in the field now, the MLIDS system. That’s the current generation, that’s a two-vehicle solution. [One vehicle carries the sensors to detect the drone, and the second has the weapons used to take it out.] We’re investing in a single vehicle solution with some of our other industry partners. That would be more compact, more mobile, less vulnerable. We’re in the testing phase right now [for a one-vehicle MLIDS], hoping to complete that within a year.
And ultimately, [Leonardo DRS wants] to focus on the next-generation threat, which will be swarming drones. With single drones, you can deal with them kinetically [and] shoot them down one at a time. With swarming drones, you could have too many to really do that. And so you’re going to want to look at solutions that are not kinetic, like electronic warfare, jamming, directed energy. There’s some of that right now in the current generation, but you’re going to want to expand those capabilities to deal with a swarming drone threat. We’re looking at what kind of upgrades you can do with MLIDS [to handle swarming drones].
When might these capabilities be ready for the field? Are we talking five years or so?
It’s more how fast the Pentagon wants to move, how urgent they see the need. It could be much faster than five years if you want to accelerate.
There’s always going to be a balance between kinetic and non-kinetic, but you’re going to want to shift it more in favor of non-kinetic to deal with that [swarming] threat. [Capabilities such as electronic warfare and directed energy to take out drone swarms] are all programs in R&D that are underway now. It’s a question of how fast do you want to accelerate that development and move it into production.
The Pentagon is moving forward on directed energy [and] a single vehicle solution. We’ve got to do some more testing to show which technologies are going to prove out the best, and then you need to put those into production.
What’s the trickiest part of trying to adapt capabilities like directed energy and electronic warfare to deal with a swarm of targets that may be coming from multiple directions?
The single hardest piece is the power requirements for directed energy, and how do you make that power mobile. It takes a lot of power, and so you need to develop more efficient ways of producing that power such that you can do it in a package that you can put on a vehicle, rather than use it just in a fixed site.
Where do things go next for the RADA merger?
Both boards have approved the deal. The next step is an [Securities and Exchange Commission] filing, which will be in the next couple of weeks. Once the SEC has reviewed that [data submitted by Leonardo DRS], there’s a vote of the RADA shareholders. We’re looking at sometime mid-fall as the closing date. I don’t think we’re going to see regulatory challenges.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.