Next year’s big technology demonstration hosted by the Pentagon’s Joint Counter-small UAS Office (JCO) will pit contractors’ anti-drone capabilities up against as many as 50 unmanned aerial systems operating in swarms.
General plans for the event were first announced in August, but officials shared more details on Wednesday at the annual AUSA conference.
The evaluation, known as Demo 5, is slated for June 2024. Companies’ systems will be tested against a large number of Group 1 and Group 2 drones, which are on the smaller end of the UAS spectrum.
The JCO has been holding a series of counter-UAS demonstrations, but next year’s will involve many more airborne platforms than previous tests.
“We’re going to really test out the vendors this time around, even more so than in the past. They have a threshold objective. That threshold is … 20 Groups 1s and 2s. We’re gonna go as high as an objective of 50. So we’re really going to test out their capability with what they bring to bear and have them detect, track and ID but also have a phase where they can attempt to defeat” the drones, Col. Michael Parent, chief of the JCO’s acquisition and resources division, told DefenseScoop at the AUSA conference.
His team recently evaluated white papers and presentations from vendors. The next downselect will happen in the coming weeks and officials will decide which contractors will be invited to participate in the demo.
Officials haven’t yet decided exactly how many vendors they intend to select.
“It’s actually a little bit too early to tell. And the reason why is because we have a threshold objective, we really want to get to as many as potentially 50 targets. You have to look at what the solutions are, how good do we think they’re really going to be at getting after that … We’re hoping to have about a half dozen [companies]. It could be more though, based on what capabilities are out there. But it also could be less if we don’t really see anything new and novel out there to get after that threat,” Parent told DefenseScoop.
“We know we don’t want anyone to come out with a science project … We want to scrutinize it very thoroughly, make sure that we have the right vendors to go out there. We don’t want to spend money, U.S. government dollars and taxpayer dollars on vendors to go out … that can’t actually get after the threat,” he added.
Potential solutions could include directed energy systems, electronic warfare tools, or “kinetic” weapons that shoot down drones.
“We’re looking at what the vendors have come back with … This time around we didn’t want to limit them,” Parent told reporters. “This time around, we’re pulling back and we’re saying, ‘Come to us with what you have available and then we’ll look at that and we’ll make that determination as we get a little bit closer.’”
However, he noted that the demo could end up heavily featuring high-power microwaves and EW systems because missiles or other kinetic weapons would be “challenged” to take on 20 to 50 drones at a time.
JCO demos are intended to test out technologies that could tackle emerging threats and fill capability gaps. Two recent demos focused on kamikaze drones, which have figured prominently in the Ukraine-Russia war. Next year’s demo will be focused on countering a UAS swarm because that’s another growing threat that the U.S. military is concerned about.
“The threat is looking at ways how can they coordinate mass attacks where you have several hundred of these attacking you at one time, attempting to overwhelm the operator, our radars and saturate our system,” Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, director of the JCO, noted during a presentation at the AUSA conference.
After next year’s evaluation, “hopefully we’ll have some video [where] instead of seeing one UAS fall out of the sky you’ll see 50 or more fall out of the sky, to continue pushing us on that path moving forward,” he added.
Yuma Proving Ground in Utah has been the venue for previous JCO demonstrations. But next year’s event will take place at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, Parent told DefenseScoop.
“The reason why is because when you start looking at the different potential effectors involved, you really need a range that can take on those types of effectors,” he explained. White Sands appears to fit the bill in that regard.
The drones that are used for the demo may not be systems that were originally designed to operate as autonomous swarms. Instead, the JCO may have many human operators remotely operating a large number of systems in a swarm type of formation, according to Parent.
“One option right now, and the most prominent option, is to actually not use a swarm that’s manufactured to be a swarm because that’s expensive and also no one wants to shoot down their innovative swarm, right,” he told reporters.
If counter-drone prototypes at next year’s demo look promising, there could be follow-on development work and operational assessments.
“We are not in the procurement realm. We’re not in the sustainment realm. We are in the prototyping realm,” Parent said of the JCO. “We have a budget that is for prototyping and … demos. And that’s where it is. And then we have a two-year development cycle, if we do develop something, with a one-year operational assessment and we send something out to the … COCOMS or the services.”
However, the services ultimately decide if they want to move forward and buy specific counter-drone systems, Parent noted.