Army acquisition chief sees autonomy, system hardening as key to overcoming comms challenges in future drone wars

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As drones and counter-drone systems become more ubiquitous, developing hardened platforms with greater autonomy will be critical for reducing the burden on Army networks and defeating enemy jammers, the service’s top weapons buyer said Wednesday.

Robotic systems are a top modernization priority for the Pentagon, and Department of Defense officials are taking note of what’s happening in the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

“We in the Army have seen a few things so far. First, this is by far the largest drone war — to use a loose term — with both sides using unmanned aircraft of all sizes for a wide variety of battlefield missions. Second, this is also the largest anti-drone war with both sides again using all kinds of technologies from simple to high tech to try to counter their adversary’s unmanned aerial systems. We’ve even seen drone versus drone aerial combat. I’m sure a lot of you may have seen those videos online — a likely harbinger of something that will become ever more common in the future,” Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Doug Bush said at a DARPA Forward event in College Station, Texas.

One of the challenges the service is facing as it looks toward the future is the need to develop autonomous UAS and ground vehicles which are higher tech than the robotic platforms that are currently in the inventory.

“I want to differentiate between autonomous systems and simply unmanned systems which we have in great numbers today,” Bush said. “Most of our current unmanned systems require data links for control and operation links that are both vulnerable to a sophisticated enemy and extremely burdensome on our communication networks to maintain, especially at large scale. As a result, the smarter our unmanned systems are, the more they can do on their own without direct human control, the less vulnerable they will be to the enemy and the less demand they will put on our networks.”

The Army is pursuing a variety of new drones as it seeks to modernize its forces to be better prepared to take on advanced adversaries, such as Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicles, Robotic Combat Vehicles and Future Tactical UAS. The service is also eyeing technology for uncrewed helicopters.

Other services, such as the Air Force and Navy, are also intent on acquiring new unmanned systems.

For situations where robotic platforms do need to communicate with commanders and troops, they need to be hardened against electronic attack, Bush noted.

“We have to have systems that can communicate when they need to. As smart as they are, they still have to talk to the human at some point. We need them to be able to do that in a way that is very difficult to intercept and very difficult to detect and jam. So those data links and comm links often are just as important as actually having the system itself be able to do what it needs to do,” he said.

As it pursues capabilities such as autonomy the Army wants to leverage technology advancements from the private sector. However, in some cases DOD organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency will need to help make them military grade.

Civilian systems, even those equipped with autonomy and AI, aren’t necessarily designed to be robust enough to survive on the battlefield, Bush noted.

“They don’t operate in combat. They might have to deal with interference, but they don’t have to operate in an environment where someone is actively trying to destroy them. So there’s a level of hardening that has to be there in military-specific systems, which I know is a challenge,” he said.

Additionally, “in a civilian system, you might have more leeway with size, weight and power on a platform. But now you bring it to a military context and someone wants it to be really small, stealthy and impervious to various forms of jamming. Now you’re in a much more challenging engineering environment where … going that extra 10% to make it militarily useful is often where we spend a vast amount of our effort and time,” he said. “But of course, our systems are sometimes different and have to have that.”