Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) open up an entirely new world for those looking to perform quick-strike, low-risk attacks on infrastructure, opposing forces or even civilian targets.
Due to their size and maneuverability, they are hard to detect and track. They are low cost and the fact that they can be built or modified using commercial off-the-shelf hardware makes them expendable. And if a pilot is sitting miles — or hundreds, or even thousands of miles — away, then there is no risk to them even if the UAS is destroyed.
All of those things add up to UASs quickly becoming a common part of the arsenal for militaries and non-military groups alike. That means technology and a counter unmanned aircraft systems (CUAS) strategy to meet the threat of UAS attacks is critical on the modern battlefield.
To learn more about CUAS, Defense News spoke with Abel Ghanooni, Senior Director of Short Range Air Defense and Rapid Development Programs, Raytheon Missiles & Defense. Ghanooni leads the company’s Counter-UAS portfolio, including the KuRFS radar and Coyote missile programs.
The transcript of this conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Defense News (DN): Abel, we keep seeing these threats from unmanned aircraft systems. They’re becoming more and more common. So what is it about CUAS that makes it so important on today’s modernized battlefield?
Abel Ghanooni (AG): We’ve seen the proliferation of these small UASs over a number of years; however, I think it’s just becoming more prevalent in the news over the last few years. We’ve been working with the Army in developing capabilities to counter this challenging threat. The reason why we’re kind of seeing this proliferating is primarily because of the ease of getting access to these small UASs — they’re low cost, and easily built by hand. So because of that, they’re being used by the adversaries, both OCONUS (outside the continental U.S.), and even CONUS more and more.
There’s a huge importance on being able to neutralize these threats. In addition to the ease of access and ease of use, they’re really difficult to see. They’re small, they can blend in with the biologicals like birds or things of that size, they are slow-moving, fly low and are very maneuverable. In the development of our capabilities, one of the critical things was a highly-effective sensor to be able to see them. Our KuRFS radar is a very precise radar, originally designed for the Counter-RAM mission, which is a very difficult mission in itself.
KuRFS was designed to be able to see very small things, see through clutter, be able to detect, and identify these small threats. Also critical, it is able to discriminate whether it’s a biological or non-biological, to determine that it’s a manmade threat. With that first line of defense, the next step is to be able to combat these threats.
DN: As you mentioned there, they’re the ideal tool for a stealthy attack. They’re very small, they’re hard to detect on radar, they’re cheap, and you aren’t putting a person at risk. So it really is a perfect storm of, ‘we’ve got to figure out a way to effectively stop these things because they open up so many more options for attacks,’ isn’t it?
AG: The contested airspace has changed with these small UAVs, which are now integrated and involved in that air picture. Like you mentioned, they’re easily accessible, and as we are gathering intelligence, we’re learning new things on the way they’re being used. They can fly low, they can hover, they can blend into certain areas and certain scenarios, which really requires you to need a specific radar to be able to first see them, identify them as a threat, and then be able to track them.
DN: So when you want to be able to do that, what technologies are involved here? What are the characteristics of a good CUAS system?
AG: First and foremost, you have to be able to see it and you have to keep track on it, and then you have to identify it as, is it a hostile or not a hostile? Is there a biological or non-biological? You also want to be able to see it a longer ranges to provide more time for the operator and decision maker to decide on what type of effect to use. KuRFS is best in class with regards to detecting these small UAS threats. Once you do that, that’s just the first part of the kill chain: detect and ID. Now you have to track it and make sure you keep track on it. What we’re seeing and what we have seen with other radars in this specific class is they might be able to see it, but then potentially lose track. Or there’re things called false alarms where you might see one and then another one pops up, but it’s not a real one. The one great thing about the KuRFS radar is it’s very precise, it’s 360 degrees, and so it has the ability to detect at long ranges, ID, keep track, and then the next step is, now how do you take it down?
There are multiple ways of taking it down. You can use a kinetic effector, like the Coyote Block 2, which goes out to farther ranges in this specific mission compared to other effects, and defeats the threat before it gets close enough to do any harm. And when I say other effects, you can look at electronic warfare (EW), so you can jam it, or you could look at what we have with Raytheon Intelligence and Space’s High-Energy Laser. RIS, in concert with the U.S. Air Force, developed and deployed a 10-kilowatt and a 15-kilowatt system. Recently, they have been working with the Army to build and deliver a 50-kilowatt laser integrated on a Stryker vehicle called DE-MSHORAD. In simplistic terminology, basically you put a lot of energy on a specific spot of the threat where it’s most vulnerable to take it down.
DN: We’ve talked a lot about how quickly this has changed and become more common, but as you look forward, what’s the next evolution of CUAS? How do you see it changing as we adapt to some of these threats and prepare for new threats that we just don’t know about right now?
AG: I think the next evolution includes continuous development to mature, advance and adapt solutions as well as driving down cost. Cost is a big player in this game. We talked about it, availability of these small UASs at a low cost point makes them appealing to our adversaries. You don’t need or want to expend a sophisticated or expensive missile to down a thousand-dollar drone. And so constantly looking at lower-cost methods or ways of taking down these threats is paramount. I truly believe, you’re always going to need a kinetic effector for this mission space as part of the front end of the layered defense. EW has effects, but these technologies will also need to continuously evolve as the threats evolve because they could potentially figure out ways how to get around the EW effectors. That’s where the mix of effectors is key. It’s very difficult to get around something that goes “boom.” And so in my eyes, I see evolution continuing on both types of effectors. On the kinetic effectors, more development or upgrades to our Coyote Block 2, and potentially a development of a new missile as we see differing requirements, or new improved requirements, to combat the threat maybe five to 10 years from now.
DN: It’s funny how often the answer to some really smart technological attack is ‘hit it with something dumb.’ Like you mentioned, the kinetic weapon is always going to be there because the others can be interfered with, but that really can’t.
AG: Right. When you talk about the non-kinetic stuff that’s matured very quickly over the last couple years and things that maybe a decade ago everyone thought was the future and it was never going to get here, and now it’s here. We talked about directed energy, high-powered microwave, high-energy lasers, kudos to those folks and those teams that have made them a reality. Like all counter-effects, these technologies will continue to evolve to safeguard against efforts to find ways to evade or fortify against those. But you have something that’s kinetic in the mix of defenses, an effector that essentially has a warhead with fragments that can take these things down, it’s very difficult to combat something like that. At the end of the day, we talk about layered defense of the UAS threat, where you have multiple different kinetic and non-kinetic effectors integrated as a single system of systems, since there isn’t one single bullet or way to defend against this complex and challenging threat set.