In today’s defense environment, the surge in small, affordable Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UASs) has presented a notable challenge. These agile, cost-effective drones have maneuverability and size advantages, making their detection and interception a complex task.
Efforts to counter these UASs have led to the development of sophisticated systems designed for detection, identification, and response. Continuous evolution remains important as adversaries constantly adopt new tactics to attack and even overwhelm defenses. The adaptability and ongoing evolution of Counter-UAS systems remains crucial in keeping up with the ever-changing UAS capabilities. Continuous testing and innovation are both part of the commitment to staying ahead in this intricate battle against small, elusive UAS threats.
To learn more about CUAS and the role they are playing in the current defense landscape, Defense News spoke with Abel Ghanooni, Senior Director of Short Range Air Defense and Rapid Development Programs at Raytheon, an RTX business. 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): What are some of the specific challenges posed by the proliferation of small low-cost UAS threats in recent years, and how are CUAS systems addressing those challenges? Furthermore, how are those threats shaping the thinking around defense?
Abel Ghanooni (AG): These small UASs are and have been proliferating for a number of years now, and we’ve been working very closely with our Army customers to develop and evolve capabilities to combat these threats. They’re small, they’re low-cost, they’re very maneuverable and they’re very easy to deploy without a lot of infrastructure.
Because they’re small, they’re very difficult to detect. We talk about the kill chain, right? Detecting them, identifying them, and launching countermeasures to defeat them. The first step in the kill chain is detecting and identifying and ensuring that they are a threat. Because they’re small, they can hover and maneuver, they can fly low or fly high, you really need those eyes to be able to detect them at long ranges to provide time to decide on the proper countermeasure. So, we talk about the combative – or being able to combat them. We’ve been working with the U.S. Army on a system called LIDS, which is the Low, slow, small-unmanned aircraft Integrated Defense System, for small UASs using Raytheon’s KuRFS radar, which was originally designed to support the counter-RAM mission back in 2013 and essentially repurposed to support the counter-UAS mission. Because it’s in the Ku-band frequency, it has the ability to detect very small objects in the air at very long ranges. It makes it a perfect sensor for this mission set to essentially have eyes in the sky to detect these small UASs.
The other reason they’re very challenging is that these threats can essentially deploy as either singles or as multiples. Fast moving, highly maneuverable UASs – alone or in a swarm – could overwhelm a single defensive system.
When we talk about ground-based air defense or full-spectrum, ground-based air defense, we talk about a layered defense capability. Counter-UAS is just one piece of that layered defense. You’ve got a short-range air defense, a medium-range air defense and a long-range air defense. The ideal solution is a layered defense approach covering the full gamut of ground-based air defense. From a counter-UAS standpoint, it is a dedicated solution for UASs, addressing threats at its own distance within that. With KuRFS, it’s a persistent, 360-degree radar with the necessary precision to detect and identify small, moving, multiple targets at great distances. And, we’ve got our Coyote effector that can handle longer ranges compared to some of the non-kinetic type effectors out there, whether it’s lasers or electronic warfare that can support the closer ranges. And with that range, Coyote can defeat targets – singles and swarms – at a distance, before they get too close or within range to do harm.
DN: That leads us right into our next question – how have the tactics and strategies employed by adversaries using small UAS systems evolved in recent years, and how does that impact the development of counter-UAS systems?
AG: As this kind of threat has proliferated and we’re seeing more of it used across the world, I think the tactics show that adversaries are consistently trying to understand how to better use them. Our job is to stay ahead of that threat, to think three steps ahead: if I had this capability, how would I use it? We’ve gathered some of that information and used it to help evolve and develop our capabilities. An example is with our KuRFS radar, we have the ability to discriminate between biological and non-biological. When we first started out in this mission set, it would be very hard to discriminate between a bird and a quadcopter. We’ve done a lot of work from a discrimination standpoint to be able to identify what is and isn’t a threat. This ability allows an operator to confirm that a threat is real and take the necessary action.
As mentioned earlier, the other tactic adversaries are using is deploying more than just one – and maybe you deploy smaller, lower-cost stuff out in front, and then the bigger UASs with larger capabilities behind it. There’s this contested environment out there with a bunch of clutter, so we continue to evolve and improve the radar’s capability to be able to discriminate within that.
DN: You’ve previously mentioned the importance of tracking these small UASs. Could you explain the role of tracking in the counter-UAS process and the significance of that? Also, what are the primary detection and tracking technologies, and how those have evolved to keep up with the emerging UAS threats?
AG: Our primary radar, from a counter-UAS mission standpoint, is obviously the KuRFS radar. We’ve got a couple different variants of it: one that supports the fixed site emplacement, and then a variant that supports mobile. The mobile is obviously smaller and doesn’t have the detection range of the larger KuRFS, but has the same capability from a precision standpoint. Both are persistent, 360-degree radars that use an AESA technology and provides that discrimination of being able to identify threats. The other thing that’s really important about this mission is not just tracking and identification – it’s maintaining track.
You can imagine seeing something at a certain range and losing it, bringing it back, losing it, bringing it back – it has an effect on the mission set, and an effect on being able to defeat that threat. KuRFS continues to demonstrate exceptional performance at maintaining tracks on targets. There are also false alarms. KuRFS is best in class for its minimal false alarms – we’re really low from a false alarm standpoint. And I will add, KuRFS was originally developed for counter-RAM, which is counter rockets, artillery and mortar. So, you’re talking about really small projectiles going at really fast speeds. We have the ability with our radar to track an incoming nine-millimeter bullet. So, when we talk about really small, that’s what we’re talking about. And it’s being in that Ku-band frequency that allows us to be able to pick up those really small targets.
DN: That’s very impressive. You’ve touched on this a bit already, but could you discuss more about the effectiveness of counter-UAS systems?
AG: So, there are a number of systems that exist today. You can talk about the traditional air defense with kinetic capabilities like a LIDS system that we’ve been working with the U.S. Army for over the last six-plus years, where you’ve got a traditional radar and command and control. You’ve got an EO/IR camera to do positive ID visually, and then you’ve got a kinetic effector, or essentially a ground-to-air missile - Coyote. For us, we believe that’s the traditional ground-based CUAS capability with innovative technologies to be able to combat this threat.
We talk about maturity and being battle-proven, and the Army has recognized this. Major General Gainey, director for the Joint Counter-UAS Office, commented at the annual AUSA conference that LIDS with Coyote is the signature counter-UAS capability that the Army has today.
But there are also a number of non-kinetic type of things that exist out there as well. You’ve got electronic warfare jammers, high-powered microwaves, high-energy lasers. What we have seen is their capability against the UAS threat also seems to be working very well.
DN: Let’s discuss how CUAS systems are keeping up with tactical changes, as the UASs are changing so rapidly themselves. Is it possible to keep up with tactical changes given the flexibility of UASs?
AG: To the question “Is it possible?” My answer is yes. Over the last few years, we’ve developed and evolved our capability to stay ahead of the UAS threat. We take the information we’ve gained, lessons we’ve learned from how UASs are being deployed, and feedback from the soldiers operating our systems to influence capability improvements. Then we demonstrate those at a capabilities and limitations test every year out at Yuma Proving Grounds, usually in the summer. The Army essentially goes and proves that the capabilities we’ve developed are effective. We do the analysis upfront to go understand what capabilities we need to stay ahead of this threat – and so I believe we have proven it is possible.