Magazine article National Defense

Special Ops Community Seeks New Drone Technology

Magazine article National Defense

Special Ops Community Seeks New Drone Technology

Article excerpt

TAMPA, Fla. - U.S. Special Operations Command is seeking new drone technology as it prepares to face more advanced enemies. Meanwhile, industry is offering solutions to help elite warfighters deal with growing threats.

Unmanned aerial vehicles currently in the fleet are at risk of obsolescence as adversaries enhance their counter-drone capabilities, SOCOM officials said during a panel discussion at the Special Operations Forces Industry Conference in Tampa, Florida, which was hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

"Our UAVs are not designed for the kind of threat environments ... [they will face] in the future," said Lt. Gen. Kenneth Tovo, commander of Army Special Operations Command.

U.S. military drones have operated with near impunity over the past 15 years of war against terrorists and insurgent groups, noted Capt. Keith Davids, deputy commander of Naval Special Warfare Command.

But potential foes are developing weapons - including cyber and electronic warfare tools - that could make them much more vulnerable.

"In a contested environment how effective will they be? How survivable will they be?" Davids said. "Frankly, I think some current and certainly future projected capabilities of some of our competitors will render many of our current systems obsolete."

To address the problem, SOCOM is partnering with the Pentagon's Strategic Capabilities Office to create a new organization dedicated to advancing drone technology.

The outfit, known as DRONEWERX, was modeled after Special Operations Command's SOFWERX initiative, which opened the door to nontraditional partners in industry and academia to do fast prototyping and experimentation.

The goal is "to build a DRONEWERX equivalent to SOFWERX to really get at, how do we leverage this combination of swarm technology, commercial drone technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and actually create near-term combat capability?" James "Hondo" Geurts, SOCOM's acquisition executive, said at the conference.

Buying smaller and less expensive assets might be the best option for dealing with a more dangerous operating environment, officials said.

"The large [drones] that we're relying on now perhaps could be replaced by a multitude of essentially throwaway swarms of UAVs," Tovo said.

The U.S. military divides drones into different classes based primarily on weight: Group 1 drones weigh 20 pounds or less; Group 2s weigh between 20 and 55 pounds; Group 3s weigh 55 to 1,320 pounds; and Group 4 and 5 drones like the iconic Predator and Reaper weigh more than 1,320 pounds.

SOCOM acquisition officials are looking for miniaturized sensors that would enable drones such as the Puma and ScanEagle to have the same intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities as the much larger Predators and Reapers.

"The intent ... is to take Group 4 and Group 5-type capabilities and push that down into a Group 1, Group 2, Group 3-type configuration," said Mike Fieldson, airborne ISR division chief at SOCOM's program executive office fixed wing.

Officials want improvements in runway independence, acoustic signature, range and payloads. "Those are areas that we're looking for help from industry," Fieldson said.

SOCOM plans to issue a solicitation for demonstrations of Group 2 and Group 3 capabilities, most likely in the fall, he noted.

Lockheed Martin has developed a Group 2 extended-endurance drone known as Stalker XE. The Stalker's original endurance of four hours has been increased to eight as a result of fuel cell technology that was added to the aircraft, said Maggie Macfarlane, a strategy and customer requirements manager for advanced development programs at the company's Skunk Works division.

The Stalker XE weighs less than 30 pounds and has an open system architecture that enables integration of third party payloads. It also flies with a silent propulsion system up to 700 feet above ground level, she said. …

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