LONDON — While the U.S. Army is in the throes of evaluating full-on, short-range air defense systems to fill a critical capability gap rapidly, industry at a defense conference in London are pitching what they believe is the most important aspect to defeating air threats: interceptors.
Munitions and effectors designed to defeat larger aircraft are nothing new, but emerging as a battlefield threat around the world, particularly in the Middle East and Eastern Europe, are unmanned aircraft systems used to support enemy fires or arrive to the scene armed and dangerous.
Defeating drones using what is already in the inventory doesn’t quite make the cut, industry sources said, and therefore, companies are developing effectors that are better at taking out enemy drones.
The U.S. Army identified a major capability gap in SHORAD well over a year ago and has been moving full speed ahead to ensure that gap is closed.
The U.S. Army is sending Avenger air defense units resident in the National Guard into Eastern Europe and is working to field a dismounted system to fire Stinger missiles, but it’s also relying on European allies that have SHORAD systems as part of their own military to step forward, as well.
Raytheon’s Stinger missiles are already fired from Avenger systems and so far have been the interceptor of choice in exercises in Eastern Europe showcasing SHORAD capabilities.
Yet those are still designed more to go up against enemy aircraft than drones.
So the company is developing and has successfully tested new proximity fuzes on Stingers against unmanned aircraft system targets, according to Kim Ernzen, Raytheon Missile Systems’ vice president of land warfare systems.
The fuzes allow the effector to either take out a drone by making contact or exploding close to the target to knock it out.
“This is really going against the class 1 through 3 UAS that is an emerging threat, something that we all are looking to make sure we can counter out in the battlespace,” Ernzen said.
Raytheon is also working on a man-portable air defense system configuration for Stinger “as we continue to see where the forces are wanting to head. Particularly from a maneuverability standpoint and for the nondedicated forces, we know Stinger is the go-to weapon system,” Ernzen said.
Raytheon will also be demonstrating a Stinger missile integrated onto a Common Remotely Operated Weapon Station on top of a Stryker combat vehicle for the U.S. Army next week at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
The demonstration is meant to “support exactly that SHORAD mission,” Ernzen said. “We see that really as the immediate play to help support the Army’s evolving need for a [medium-range] SHORAD kind of capability.”
Raytheon also has some interim and objective solutions that it is starting to put into play for the U.S. Army that would include many of its other effectors, such as the AIM-9X Sidewinder and its Accelerated Improved Interceptor Initiative, or AI3, interceptor, according to Ernzen.
The AI3 and Raytheon’s SkyHunter missile, the U.S. version of Israel’s Tamir interceptor, will be used in the U.S. Army’s developing Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2 system to defend against rockets, artillery and mortar threats, as well as UAS, she added.
The Stinger with the proximity fuze is not yet in production, Ernzen said, but the target for that is 2019. “We just did our initial development tests, and we are continuing to move through qualification,” she said.
The U.S. Army will be the launch customer for the proximity fuze Stinger, Ernzen noted.
Nammo, a Norwegian ammunition company, has also developed an innovative way to upgrade munitions to defeat UAS.
The company’s “programmable ammunition” can be fired from any larger gun without altering the gun itself.
The shells can be programmed to detonate with “pinpoint accuracy,” Endre Lunde, a spokesman for Nammo, said. That air burst-like explosion can happen anywhere around or in a target, but is perfect for using in a dense urban environment due to the ability to explode the munition in a controlled way to avoid damaging its surroundings rather than letting it continue and hit whatever is in its path, he explained.
The company has already adapted 40mm grenade launchers for an undisclosed customer and is moving forward to develop programmable ammunition for 30mm guns, 120mm tank ammunition and M72 rockets, Lunde said.
Observing recent instances where drones are cropping up in Eastern European countries, like Lithuania, and how the Islamic State has incorporated drones as weapons into its arsenal on the battlefield in Iraq, Nammo went to work to apply the programmable ammunition technology to counter the threat. The company started development on the ammunition in 2002.
The cost of integrating the capability into munitions is low because no alteration is required for the gun or ammunition handling system. To convert to programmable ammunition, a programming unit and an antenna is mounted on either the weapon or vehicle.
“The distance to the target is entered into the programming unit either manually or based on input from an automated range finder,” Lunde explained. “Then, in contrast to competing systems, instead of programming the ammunition before it is fired, or inside the barrel, it receives its instructions just as the shell leaves the gun.”
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.