Large Drones Find New Tactics to Avoid Being Shot Down

Kris Osborn

Video Above: Northrop Grumman & Eastern Shipbuilding Group Build New Weapons into The New Coast Guard OffShore Patrol Cutter

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Zooming in on moving targets and threats from even higher altitudes with improved sensor range and resolution, networking real time data and video feeds across a wider sphere of air, surface and land nodes and extending mission dwell time over high-value areas … all seem to be part of the Pentagon’s rationale for adding more than $600 million to the 2021 budget for the Air Force Global Hawk and newer Navy Triton.

Part of the Air Force and Navy’s continued emphasis upon larger drones such as the Global Hawk and Triton, despite the changing threat environment and advent of smaller and stealthier drones, is due to a series of interesting factors contributing to their continued added value. Of course with endurance and high altitudes, these larger drones bring survivability advantages, despite potentially being more vulnerable to certain kinds of advanced air defenses when compared with stealthier drones or swarms of mini-drones operating with built-in redundancy. Much of this pertains not only to advancing technologies for the platforms, but also tactical adaptations intended to improve mission effectiveness and survivability for the drones.

Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of U.S. Forces Europe, told reporters last year that senior U.S. military leaders are now amidst a decided effort to increase mission survivability for combat drones operating in high-risk areas. When addressing the issue of how an MQ-9 Reaper was shot down over Yemen in recent years, Harrigian emphasized that drone operations are working on becoming less predictable to enemies.

“There is something to be said for operating in a manner that offers us an opportunity to not be as predictable as we have been. We’ve been too predictable, so we are working to facilitate tactics that allow us to be less predictable, which includes having an idea where the threat is and how to avoid it,” Harrigian said during a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies interview forum last year.

Being less predictable may involve a number of interesting tactics, such as varying routes or surveillance locations to confuse potential adversaries about which areas are of greatest interest. It could also mean changing altitude, dwell-time or mission frequency, as well. In addition, there are a host of possible methods through which drones might become more survivable, to include longer-range, higher fidelity sensors and weapons and, perhaps of greatest significance, network “hardening” against hacking attempts or various intrusions.

Yet another way to increase drone survivability would simply be to quicken the pace of information and video-feed data processing. The faster gathered ISR data can be received, organized and transmitted to identify the points of greatest relevance, the less time a drone may need to fly to accomplish its objective. As Harrigian explained, much if not all of these methods hinge upon fast-improving methods of command and control now being refined through the Pentagon’s Joint All Domain Command and Control program.

“We want warfighters to have the awareness to make decisions faster by understanding what the warfighter at the tip of the spear needs. The goal would be to refine the timelines to take the data from different sensors and provide those to shooters,” Harrigian explained.

This kind of efficiency, massively truncating sensor-to-shooter time by pinpointing moments or objects of pressing relevance, in part comes to fruition through the use of common standards. Common sets of interoperable IP protocols, software integration and the collective use and maintenance of essential hardware components can preserve and extend the operational life of platforms such as the Global Hawk and Triton. These two drones in particular lend themselves greatly to this kind of technical strategy because, while the Triton is differently engineered with specific sensors and technologies unique to a maritime environment, the Global Hawk and Triton are built upon a common hardware and software foundation.

Right now, there are Air Force-Northrop Grumman efforts to modernize and sustain Global Hawk drones well into the 2040. The Pentagon is reinforcing this through a Global Hawk-Triton deal with Northrop to provide repair services for common items related to the air vehicles, sensors packages and mission control elements. There are likely many reasons for this, a central one being that technological enhancements are increasingly enabling these drones to out-perform previous mission standards by reaching much higher levels of image fidelity at vastly longer ranges, enabling fewer drones to effectively accomplish surveillance missions previously slotted for many unmanned systems.

Of course, performing highly-precise ISR (Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) at safer ranges improves survivability, to some extent making less-stealthy platforms better performing in high-risk areas. This streamlining is also made manifest by advanced algorithms enabling AI which gather, pool, analyze and organize huge volumes of fast-arriving ISR data. Instead of needing human operators to, for instance, pour through hours of video streamed surveillance of high-value areas, computers can be programmed to quickly identify moments of relevance for commanders and human decision-makers. Using computer analytics, algorithms can bounce new intelligence off of an existing database to identify otherwise difficult to discover details, solve problems, compare and organize seemingly separated data streams simultaneously or present “optimized” courses of action to commanders.

The increased information processing and network proficiency now possible with advanced systems means vulnerability may also be increased as adversaries attempt to jam, intercept or destroy drone signals and targeting technologies. Adversaries have also studied how drones target and destroy areas of interest, and adjusted to new tactics such as obscuring high-value assets such as vehicles and forces beneath various coverings or in rugged terrain. In more advanced cases, adversaries may have learned which shapes and signals are targeted successfully and made adjustments to change heat signatures, external configurations or locations to complicate or confuse drone sensor systems.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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