Recent developments in swarm technology raise the question of whether acquisitions of direct energy (DE) weapons systems are on Australia’s horizon, and how DE might factor into decisions on the Future Frigate, either now or in the future.
Last week ADM covered the increasing need for counter-UAS solutions, such as the DroneShield DroneGun MkII, at major events such as the Commonwealth Games.
A number of Australian companies, such as Department 13 and DroneShield, are getting in on the action. D13’s Mesmer technology, for example, manipulates UAS radio protocols to tell a targeted drone, or swarm of drones, to leave an area or return home. DroneShield’s DroneGun forces a controlled descent by jamming communications between an operator and the targeted drone.
Yet this week’s announcement that DARPA’s OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET) program has called for proposals for its second stage highlights the future need for a defence against autonomous swarms.
The OFFSET program imagines that future infantry forces will use small unmanned air and ground systems, in swarms of 250 robots or more, to accomplish missions in complex urban environments.
The program’s second stage aims to improve swarm autonomy. The goal is to use a swarm of 50 air and ground robots to isolate an urban objective within an area of two city blocks in less than half an hour.
“As operations in urban environments continue to evolve, our warfighters need advanced capabilities to keep up with the ever-changing complexity of the urban scenario,” Timothy Chung, program manager in DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office (TTO) said. “The focus on enhancing autonomy in operational contexts will further advance future swarming capabilities, allowing the warfighter to outmanoeuvre our adversaries.”
The disadvantage of non-kinetic counter-UAS systems, such as those being used in Queensland for the Games by police forces, is that they depend on their ability to essentially override or manipulate communications between a drone(s) and the operator. This exploits existing radio protocols or default programming that tells commercial drones to return to ground.
It is not difficult to imagine that this ability might be negated by swarms that are programmed to respond otherwise to interference, or that use alternative radio protocols. An adversary might also overwhelm existing non-kinetic manual systems with a vast number of cheap, autonomous robots.
The existing alternative is to use kinetic systems like Raytheon’s Stinger counter-UAS missiles. These destroy targets through a collision or proximal detonation. Yet these systems, with limited magazines and rates of fire, might also be overwhelmed by a large swarm of 250 robots or more. There is also the value for money argument when it comes to detonation-based kinetic solutions.
In early March, the US Navy awarded Lockheed Martin a $150 million contract, with options worth up to $942.8 million, to develop and deliver a DE weapons system known as HELIOS (High Energy Laser and Integrated Optical-dazzler with Surveillance) by 2020.
HELIOS will use a high-energy fiber laser to counter swarms of UAS and unmanned surface vessels (USVs). According to Norman Friedman of the US Naval Institute, this technology combines the advantages of kinetic weapons, which destroy the target, with the ‘bottomless magazine’ advantage of non-kinetic systems such as the DroneGun or Mesmer.
One unit will be installed on an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, where it will be integrated with the ship’s AEGIS system.
This raises the potential for HELIOS, or a similar system, to be mounted on RAN’s Future Frigate. Yet DE weapons require lots of energy, which means that the future frigate’s ability to operate such weapons depends on the choice of propulsion and energy management systems.
HELIOS may not be the counter-UAS/USV solution that RAN is after in the short term for Sea 5000. The lifespan of the Future Frigate, however, will likely extend into a future in which DE weapons are the go-to defence against swarms of autonomous robots - something worth thinking about today in designing margins for growth.