Directed Energy And Unmanned Systems

Directed Energy And Unmanned Systems

The accelerated pace of technology evolution continues to change the ever-expanding landscape for unmanned systems. In our current environment, we are seeing large connected swarms of more than 1000 drones working in tandem on the global stage and threats like the Aramco attack on the Saudi Oil Field have demonstrated a sophisticated combination of unmanned systems that are increasing the level of risk to our way of life. Private sector development of the drone delivery service shows just a tip of the iceberg concerning the challenges on the horizon for base defense given the capabilities touted by Amazon Prime Air, with payloads (up to 5lbs), ranges (up to 10 miles), and speeds (100mph). They also have shown an increasing question in terms of attribution, potentially allowing adversaries to strike from a distance and maintain anonymity on the global stage. Artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy, complex sensors, and cheaper hardware are forcing some of this change, and the Department of Defense (DoD) is looking at using the same technology to match or gain a cutting edge against it. Emerging technology, such as the use of directed energy (DE), offers unique offensive and defensive capabilities that need to be considered as we work to meet the strategy to compete, deter, and win as laid out by the National Defense Strategy (NDS).

Directed energy, which includes high energy lasers and high power microwaves, are being explored by all services as a potential solution or augmentation to existing base defenses. Directed energy touts the ability to provide extended or unlimited magazines based on power source availability, exceed the engagement range of current kinetic or electronic warfare solutions, and offer speed-of-light hard kill capabilities to aid against large volumes of threats. High-energy lasers deliver a narrow cone of energy to provide a thermal effect on a target, and high power microwave systems use very high power bursts of energy that can interact with and disrupt electrical components. When you look at the potential for swarm threats, especially with the threat of overwhelming existing defenses on sheer numbers, there are very few technological capabilities that can match what Directed Energy can do for defense.

In the case of high power lasers, they can mitigate unmanned systems very quickly and then move on to the next target in rapid succession. Conversely, high-power microwaves can affect and mitigate multiple threats at one time within a directed area.

Conversely, providing a directed energy capability on an unmanned system, whether it is for offense or defense, is another option the DoD is exploring. Programs like the Air Force’s SHiELD or SOCOM’s AC-130 Gunship Laser offer an airborne capability that extends our area of influence and provides surgical precision to mitigate hardware threats and enable better protection of our warfighter.

As the technology is being used to enhance the threat capabilities, it can also be used to improve the systems used to defeat them. Directed Energy weapons in the hands of war fighters can provide a formidable defense capability, but as the DoD experimentation activities realize the combination of directed energy with artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomy, and immersive training, can be a force multiplier in of themselves.

"Directed Energy, Which Includes High Energy Lasers And High Power Microwaves, Are Being Explored By All Services As A Potential Solution Or Augmentation To Existing Base Defenses"

Directed energy, combined with artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms, has the potential to reduce operator oversaturation and enhance safety and operations by reducing steps in the overall processes. These operations that would typically require user interactions, inputs, and ongoing training to improve operator proficiencies. Ultimately, the operator stays in the decision loop, but they become more active and they respond quickly. These capabilities are in some cases essential to reducing the timelines for rapid firing solutions and ultimately enabling the defeat of massive swarming attacks or other attacks with the potential to over saturate base defenses.

Besides, directed energy with its speed-of-light engagements has proven to be a unique proving ground for the implementation of immersive training technology. Directed energy weapons do not have dedicated firing ranges like kinetic weapons, negating the ability to test fire weapons or qualify operators on their use on a firing range. To address this challenge, the DoD has engaged with immersive technology developers to create virtual reality and augmented reality-based training capabilities that can provide the necessary training environment for operating these weapons. These technologies are a significant step away from traditional training simulators as they leverage commercial off-the-shelf technology and reduce the need for large military construction projects and infrastructure to support the trainers. The added advantage for trainers to utilize these systems without the need to procure unmanned targets and supplies makes them cost-effective, given recent budgetary constraints.

The combination of emerging technologies to deliver enhanced capabilities to the warfighter is not a novel concept, instead directed energy experimentation activities are attempting to make the practice the new normal when it comes to rapid acquisition. It sets the standard for middle-tier purchases and provides the catalysts for delivering emerging capabilities from different fronts simultaneously to the warfighter for an expanded return on investment by the DoD. The DoD must continue to accelerate the adoption of new technologies, and the policies associated with them, to maintain an ability to use and defend against unmanned systems.

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