General James N. Mattis Professional Writing Award
while simultaneously decreasing in size, which is advantageous for friendly and enemy forces. Proliferation of UASs “complicates the tasks of providing force protection and attaining air superiority” for all services.1 Many nation states that have UAS capabilities employ air-to-surface fires with robust intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting capabilities. At the same time, non-state actors have expanding access to UAS technology combined with commercially available optical sensors and data transmission capabilities. The size and radar signature of the prevalent UASs make detecting and intercepting one almost impossible with current Marine Air-Ground Task Force (MAGTF) weapon systems and sensors. The Marine Corps has been discussing countering the UAS threat for almost ten years without fielding a solution. Effective MAGTF operations, and Marine lives, demand that we move more quickly to develop counter-UAS (C-UAS) weapon systems, sensors, and forces.
UASs are “systems whose components include the necessary equipment, network, and personnel to control an unmanned aircraft.”2 A UAS consists of an operator, radio frequency (RF) signal for navigation and data transfer, payload, and aircraft. UASs are categorized by their maximum takeoff weight, normal operating altitude, and speed: Group 1 being the lightest, with the lowest operating altitude, and slowest; Group 5 being the heaviest, with the highest operating altitude, and greatest speed.3 Of particular concern are the low-observerable UASs with a low-radar cross section (LO/LRCS) and low, slow, and small (LSS) UAS threats that legacy MAGTF sensors are unable to detect, and emerging sensors are unable to distinguish amid the clutter.
Most developed countries have reputable military UAS programs with numerous capabilities. Government UAS programs include operator training, logistical support, and integration into their nation’s defense strategy. Foreign military sales make military-grade UASs available on the international market. Commercial UAS capabilities are currently limited to ISR and small-payload delivery. They do not require extensive operator training, logistical support, or integration with other forces. The Chinese-based Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI), for instance, provides an example of the types of UASs available worldwide on the commercial market. DJI produces Group 1 UASs that are RF- and Global Positioning System (GPS)-guided, have automated piloting, provide a stabilized video feed, and can operate for up to 25 minutes at a range of more than 5.5 miles. Operating altitude is limited by DJI to 394 feet.4
Adversaries will most likely use UASs to detect, locate, and observe the MAGTF as part of their targeting process. The enemy’s most dangerous course of action, however, is to use RF-homing UASs to deliver munitions or flying a UAS into vulnerable assets. Flying a UAS into an air intake of an F-35B while taxiing, for instance, will neutralize a $251 million asset. Russia in Ukraine and China in the South China Sea have both demonstrated that developed nations are capable of using a Group 3 or 4 UAS for targeting. Non-state actor Group 1-2 UAS capabilities are also increasing. Marine Forces Central Command (MARCENT) issued Urgent–Universal Needs Statements (U-UNS) on 24 July 2015 identifying a capability shortfall in the Marine Corps’ ability to detect, track, identify, and defeat LSS UAS.5
Kinetic and non-kinetic solutions require evaluation. Kinetic solutions include small arms, machine guns, missiles, and indirect fires that focus on neutralizing the operator or aircraft. They expend high volumes of ammunition or single costly munitions. Non-kinetic solutions disrupt the RF link or the aircraft; they include electronic warfare and directed energy. Non-kinetic solutions expend energy stores that achieve a low-cost per shot but are costly to develop and acquire.
LO/LRCS and LSS UASs are difficult to visually observe and detect on current radio detection and ranging (RADAR) sensors. An advanced electronic means of detection, tracking, and identification is necessary to track multiple targets, maximize the use of weapon systems, and ensure fires achieve effects. Tactical RADAR sensors, coupled with electro-optical and infrared optics, are ideal for the detecting, identifying, and tracking UASs. Motorizing the weapon systems and sensors with a capacity to dismount is optimal. To maintain an amphibious capability and integrate with Expeditionary Force 21, a C-UAS must be integrated into the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle or the Light Strike Vehicle.
After ten years of inaction, reaction to the previously mentioned U-UNS should provide a limited solution being fielded for Group 1-2 UASs in 2016.6 To integrate a C-UAS solution we must first provide a baseline reference for C-UAS procedures, codify the UAS threat, and shape training for Marines conducting C-UAS operations. Next, integration with friendly aviation assets, identifying friend-or-foe (IFF) procedures, rules of engagement, and weapons-release authority must be established. To ensure the MAGTF understands C-UAS operations, how to identify the threat, the capabilities of the threat, and how to train Marines to conduct C-UAS operations, the Marine Corps must:
• Publish a Marine Corps interim publication titled MAGTF Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems Operations to provide developmental tactics, techniques, and procedures for personnel at all levels of the MAGTF to counter the growing threat
• Update the Marine Corps Intelligence Agency’s UAS Handbook that describes UASs and their capabilities to help Marines understand the threat
• Include C-UAS operations in the Ground-Based Air Defense Marine Corps Task (GBAD-T) in order to drive changes to the Low-Altitude Air Defense (LAAD) Training and Readiness Manual to include individual and collective C-UAS skills.
Integration of civilian and friendly assets with a C-UAS system is a significant challenge, the highest concern being the prevention of fratricide. IFF procedures are vital to mitigate risks associated with C-UAS operations. UAS rules of engagement must articulate what actions qualify as hostile and who has weapons-release authority. Inevitably, commanders will want to centralize the authority to engage hostile targets in their area of operations. With the detecting, tracking, and discrimination challenges of LO/LRCS and LSS UASs, delegation of the authority to release weapons will need to be given to the shooter. Moreover, digital interoperability will also be necessary; the shooter’s situational awareness is extremely important to prevent fratricide and unintended effects.
Merging C-UAS solutions with the GBAD program of record could give the MAGTF a comprehensive defense from all air threats. This will ensure that the shooters of UASs are the LAAD Marines that “provide the three-dimensional defense of the MAGTF” through employing surface-to-air fires.7 Fielding solutions in the LAAD battalions requires no increase in manpower. Furthermore, integration of Group 1-2 C-UAS solutions in the GBAD-T program of record will transform the Marine Corps’ GBAD capability to a kinetic and non-kinetic weapons solution that can be controlled on the move.8
An interim solution known as “DroneDefender” provides a non-kinetic solution that disrupts a UAS’s RF and GPS link. DroneDefender provides a limited capability at close range against a specific threat codified in the U-UNS, but it does not address the greater UAS threat. Another solution is to advance the acquisition of the Boeing Compact Laser Weapon System (CLWS) by gaining Secretary of Defense approval for use while defining restrictions. The CLWS will provide a greater capability and lethal non-kinetic fires, but it still does not address the comprehensive threat of Group 1-4 UASs. The U-UNS leverages immediate funding to acquire readily available capabilities within a two-year time period, but the result is a temporary solution that does not mitigate the full UAS capability gap. U-UNS will “serve as a testing and information source to feed into a future GBAD weapon system” that can defeat Group 1-4 UASs. The GBAD-T program, if fully funded, would:
• Close the UAS and cruise missile (CM) capability gaps identified in the current GBAD systems
• Provide command and control across the detect, track, identify, and defeat cycle
• Ensure digital interoperability with joint integrated air and missile defense
• Field non-kinetic/kinetic capabilities versus UAS in defense of a maneuver force.
Unfortunately, the long-term C-UAS solution and the GBAD-T programs are not fully funded in the Program Objective Memorandum (POM) for 2017. Competing programs continue to receive higher priority. Some argue that a C-UAS solution does not require funding beyond the current reactive U-UNS. This demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the threat and fails to recognize the momentum the U-UNS provides to develop an exclusive Marine Corps capability.
Further hindering the Marine Corps’ initiative to develop and acquire its own solution is the belief that the C-UAS and GBAD capability gaps are joint problems. Arguably the Army, Air Force, or Navy will fund development and testing of a solution that the Marine Corps can acquire. While other services will field various options, joint solutions do not meet the Marine Corps’ requirement of being expeditionary and amphibious. Unique weight, size, sustainment, and interoperability requirements oblige the Marine Corps to develop and acquire similar but different C-UAS solutions.
On 12 January 2016, an Iranian UAS overflew the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) unhindered, demonstrating the boldness and elusiveness of the UAS threat and how adversary UAS capabilities pose an imminent threat to the MAGTF.9 With the momentum of the U-UNS, the Marine Corps must transition to an active C-UAS strategy. Fully funding the GBAD-T program will close the associated gaps more effectively than the U-UNS and ensure the Marine Corps does not waste an opportunity to guarantee that the MAGTF has an organic solution to a serious vulnerability in its defenses.
1. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-01: Countering Air and Missile Threats, V-6, 2015.
2. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Publication 3-30: Command and Control of Joint Operations, GL-7, 2014.
3. Ibid., III-30, Figure III-13.
4. Da-Jiang Innovations, “Phantom 3 Professional,” 30 January 2016, http://www.dji.com/product/phantom-3-pro/info#specs.
5. Marine Forces Central Command, “Urgent Universal Needs Statement #15205UA,” 24 July 2014.
6. Captain Matthew Sladek, “Urgent UNS Solution Recommendation Brief,” version 5, slide 25, 8 January 2016.
7. Headquarters United States Marine Corps Aviation, Marine Aviation Plan 16, 2016, 27.
8. Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kutsor, “APX SHORAD Working Committee Brief,” slide 6, Headquarters United States Marine Corp Aviation, Aviation Command and Control, Short Range Air Defense, February 2016.
9. Nasser Karmini and Jon Gambrell, “Iran Flies Unarmed Military Drone over US Aircraft Carrier,” Associated Press, 29 January 2016, http://bigstory.ap.org.