WASHINGTON — The internet is awash in videos claiming to show Russian and Ukrainian forces dropping shells and grenades on each other from small commercial drones. And while the veracity of the footage can’t be proved in every case, Pentagon officials say there’s no question the threat of small unmanned aerial systems is growing.
Indeed, the problem existed in the Middle East well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, but DoD leaders say the European theater is making clear the importance of effectively countering drones.
The Pentagon established the Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, or JCO, in 2019 to develop enduring solutions to address the problem.
Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey is the JCO’s first director and has led the new office through a variety of demonstrations to evaluate technology. He has also established a new process to train soldiers how to effectively counter drones.
Defense News sat down with Gainey at the Pentagon on Feb. 24 to talk about the JCO’s progress and what comes next. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
How is the threat of drones influencing the development of countermeasures?
The Defense Department made a decision a few years ago to make the Army the executive agent to essentially frame this problem set, have a service lead and direct the effort with all of the services. In that process, we essentially focused on three areas: developing a joint materiel solution, joint training and joint doctrine. We want to ensure we are not just going after the materiel solution, but putting a framework around the materiel solution with training and doctrine so there is a holistic capability when fielding to the warfighter.
So specifically, what are we doing? What we decided earlier is having a system-of-systems, layered approach to a common command-and-control method is the best way to get after this type of threat. There is no one capability that will defeat the range of threats that you will see with these unmanned systems out there, whether they’re small quadcopters, or a large, one-way attack.
What have you learned from the Russian invasion of Ukraine about the use of drones in battle? Has the capacity exceeded your expectations?
What we’ve seen is the validation that the threat is real, the threat is evolving. And we at the DoD are taking this seriously. What we’re seeing in Ukraine really is a validation of what we’re seeing inside of U.S. Central Command’s [area of responsibility]. And our methodology of how to get after this threat is a layered approach integrated in a common C2.
Globally, we’re seeing the threat continues to grow, and you’ll see a range of employment of that threat from large to small amounts, depending on where you are.
The U.S. Army is starting to evaluate how to deploy its own drone swarms, which are already a threat. But is that technology overhyped?
I wouldn’t say “overhyped.” Anytime you can saturate an operator with the capability is something you have to take seriously, and we’re taking counter-swarm seriously. In one of our recent demonstrations, we demonstrated how to get after a swarm using a high-power microwave.
And we’re looking at other ways, from an operator-overload perspective, to be able to get after this threat and then provide the operator the tools to be able to defeat this threat.
You’ve held several rodeos and demonstrations to find counter-UAS technology for different requirements — to address gaps or fulfill operational needs, for example — while acknowledging there’s no silver bullet. How have those rodeos gone?
We decided early that giving industry an opportunity to come out every six months or so to show us what they’re doing and focus it on a capability gap area has been extremely helpful. If you look at the three demonstrations that we’ve executed to date, the first one was a dismounted hand-held capability. We are seeing some of those capabilities perform well with the services.
The next demonstration, working with the Air Force, we did a low-collateral intercept demonstration. That capability is also out with the services right now. And I talked to you about the high-power microwave; in looking at the future threat of things like swarming, we found a [high-power microwave] capability that performed better than some of the other capabilities, and the Army purchased four prototypes after the demonstration that will eventually get into the Army system for us to try and decide if we want to move forward with that capability.
And our next demonstration is focused on Group 3 one-way attack. So we are looking at different areas out there and inviting industry into the process to help us get after this in a more expedient manner.
[Editor’s note: The U.S. Army defines Group 3 UAS as featuring a maximum gross takeoff weight of less than 1,320 pounds.]
What technologies and capability areas are you yet to evaluate but would like to do so?
One of the areas that I didn’t highlight is that we did a demonstration on counter-UAS as a service. This involved taking another look at how to employ capability, not in your traditional acquisition manner, but pay industry as a service to employ the capability, to spiral that capability as necessary.
We identified five industry partners that performed well and met the criteria we were looking for. I essentially signed a memorandum, and highlighted to the services and [combatant commands] that these are some of the partners that we’ve looked at and can provide a sound business model for you to do that.
We then funded the Marines; they are now doing a pilot on behalf of the DoD, employing this capability at some of their sites. The Army is also planning a pilot to deploy to a couple of sites, and then the Air Force has a few sites. So that’s a model where we’ve taken the demonstration and then looked to the services to employ that capability. So we are studying it through a pilot lens.
As you talk swarming, directed energy sounds like a great way — if you get the technology to a point and have the magazine depth — to be able to get after multiple and not have to shoot a lot of interceptors. We’ve selected the Air Force as our service lead, working closely with the Army Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office to deliver a directed-energy capability. We have that capability out in the field for operational assessment; now we’re just seeing what wattage is right for this particular problem set.
How will individual soldiers contend with or defeat drones? How are you training them?
Every soldier needs to have that baseline knowledge of how to employ counter-UAS capability; how to do passive measures; and how to understand what the threat can do, and see from their perspective, and what you can do to prepare yourself.
Providing the individual soldier a capability, which we’re doing now, to be able to defeat this threat is critical; but not only that — also providing them the training. We’ve done a lot of work in developing Joint Knowledge Online modules. Those are focused on operator understanding, overall orientation to the problem set and orientation to the systems, with an intent of eventually making that a mandatory class for every soldier.
More importantly, we’ve also stood up the joint counter-UAS academy that’s currently at Yuma, Arizona, but will move to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, with the air defense school and fires schoolhouse, and really consolidate a joint school where all the services will be able to provide an operator’s [course] and a planner’s course to give the warfighter that ability to not only execute the system, but also to plan it out, which we haven’t had in the past.
How do you plan to adapt technology not necessarily designed to counter drones, like active protection systems for combat vehicles, for such a mission?
We’re looking at different platforms, different technology. For example, with the high-power microwave, right now it sits on a gimbal. The Army purchased four of those, but also through the Navy, working with the Marines, we’re looking at different ways to employ that same type of technology on vehicles.
Industry is doing a really good job of saying: “Hey, here’s an innovative way to employ this to maximize the use all the way down to the operator level.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.