Unmanned aircraft were tracked and destroyed during Black Dart, a counter unmanned aerial systems demonstration run by the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization. The demonstration was designed to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the military's counter-UAS capabilities. (Josh Stewart/Staff)
Marines from Air Control Squadron 1 from Yuma, Arizona, track unmanned aerial systems during Black Dart, an annual counter-UAS demonstration run by the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization. (Josh Stewart/Staff)
POINT MUGU, CALIF. — The next big threat to American forces might be a flying IED.
Officials are worried that proliferation of drone and improvised bomb technology means something as amateurish and cheap as a remote control plane could be turned into a low-tech but deadly weapon.
“If a hobbyist can do it, I might be facing it and I’ve got to pay attention to it,” said Navy Capt. Andy Arnold, chief of the capabilities assessment division of the Joint Integrated Air and Missile Defense Organization.
From July 27 through Aug. 8, he and others from JIAMDO immersed themselves in Black Dart, an annual event that evaluates the military’s ability to counter emerging UAS threats. The demonstration, held at Naval Base Ventura County and Sea Range, Point Mugu, California, focused on how joint forces can fight against a cheap, low-end UAS with deadly capabilities.
“It’s not a big warhead, but if you put it in the right spot at the right time it can do a lot of damage,” Arnold said.
Black Dart included around 1,400 participants, 85 systems including active and passive sensors as well as negation systems. It was the first time that media was invited in the event’s 10-year history.
Eleven different types of manned aircraft as well as the littoral combat ship Coronado and cruiser Mobile Bay participated.
The military doesn’t have a sensor or weapon designed to neutralize low-end, pint-size unmanned aircraft, but Arnold wants to see existing hardware repurposed to counter the weapon.
“You may have seen in the news that we’re not getting anymore money. There is a fiscal reality to what we’re trying to do here,” Arnold said.
He said a few options have been evaluated. They include:
■ An AH-64 Apache helicopter outfitted with a modified Longbow radar, armed with a Hellfire missile.
■The Navy demonstrated a laser fired from the destroyer Dewey, destroying a drone.
■ The Navy shot down a drone with a 5-inch gun.
■The Phalanx close-in weapons system targeted drones in drills.
In a lot of ways, fighting drones at Black Dart is like air missile defense, Arnold said. It requires a sensor, a launcher, and command and control modules. Of those three parts, the sensor element, particularly the ability to identify a recently-launched UAS from a long distance, is the military’s biggest weakness, he said. Most systems currently in the field weren’t designed when small unmanned systems were a possible threat and as unmanned systems developed, a gap in sensor technology followed, he said.
Black Dart demonstrates how existing technology can be adjusted to counter unmanned systems, Lt. Cmdr. Shane Tanner, the event’s test director, said. Military and civilian UAS operators and hardware lined the naval base’s flight line to play the red forces tracked by allied sensors and, in some cases, hit with missiles or electronic attacks.
“We give them something to look at,” said Maj. Noah Spataro with Marine Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Squadron 1. VMU-1 flies the RQ-7 Shadow.
Meanwhile joint forces scanned the base with radar and other sensors to practice tracking the unmanned aircraft. Operators sent images from the sensors to a command unit responsible for evaluating threats and coordinating responses.
“You need something to tie it all together,” Tanner said.
Observers monitor how joint forces handle the fake threats, and their analysis helps develop counter-UAS procedures, methods and technology, he said.
“If you’ve got a sensor, we want to see how good you are,” Arnold said.
There were also 13 different types of unmanned aircraft that played the bad guy, ranging from weapons large as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, a UAS that has a 116-foot-wingspan, to as small as the Bandito, a UAS that’s small enough to be carried under the wings of the Tiger Shark, a larger unmanned plane. Most of these aircraft were flown just so that forces could practice identifying and tracking them with sensor systems, but others were destroyed with missiles or hit with electronic attacks.
“We are going to negate them in a meaningful way,” Tanner said.
This year’s demonstration emphasized the role electronic warfare can play in counter-UAS missions and included the first appearance by an E/A-18G Growler. Also, while the military is interested in finding cost-effective solutions to makeshift unmanned systems, they aren’t ignoring threats from larger UAS’s as well, Arnold said.