Enabling and Enhancing Agile Combat Employment (ACE)

Epirus News
SEP 15 2022

From hypersonic missiles to autonomous drone swarms, the rapid pace of near-peer adversaries’ military modernization threatens the ability of the U.S. and her allies to maintain overmatch in a future conflict.  

Adversaries' development of sophisticated technologies, alongside the rise of asymmetric threats such as low-cost Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), is undermining U.S. air superiority at home and abroad. “I never had to look up because the U.S. has always maintained air superiority,” Army General Richard D. Clarke said at the Aspen Security Forum in July, adding that because of the growing UAS threat “we will not always have that luxury.”

The fact that a future near-peer conflict may take place in INDOPACOM also presents new challenges to the joint force, which has spent the past few decades focused on CENTCOM throughout wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Horn of Africa. Shifting from the deserts of central Asia to the airspace over the Pacific Ocean and its islands has led the U.S. Air Force to reimagine how it conducts multi-domain operations.

To confront these challenges, secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall formulated seven operational imperatives, such as building base resiliency with Agile Combat Employment (ACE). Achieving these imperatives will require a diverse ‘system of systems’ approach, and several core elements of ACE can be enabled and enhanced with solid-state, software-defined high-power microwave (HPM) technology, such as the Leonidas counter-electronics system.

“My highest personal goal as Secretary has been to instill a sense of urgency about our efforts to modernize and to ensure that we improve our operational posture relative to our pacing challenge — China, China, China.”

- Secretary of Air Force Frank Kendall at a recent Air Force Association (AFA) Warfare Symposium

Agile Combat Employment: An Overview

Per Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, Agile Combat Employment:

“Concurrently with the global footprint reduction, adversarial technological advances in pervasive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance” (ISR), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) [and] ...all-domain long-range fires have placed air bases at significantly increased risk. Just as the Soviets placed Cold War bases in Europe at risk, new weapons systems now place bases at risk that were previously considered sanctuaries. Additionally, fiscal and political constraints limit the establishment of new permanent air bases. To address these challenges, the Air Force introduced Agile Combat Employment (ACE): a proactive and reactive operational scheme of maneuver executed within threat timelines to increase survivability while generating combat power.”  

To achieve this, Secretary Kendall promotes moving to multiple, mobile sites with maneuverable forces. Dispersed, satellite bases allow for two primary advantages: (1) enabling operations from multiple locations and (2) making forces more difficult to target.  

“To achieve freedom of action,” Secretary Kendall affirmed, “ACE enables convergence across domains, presenting an adversary with dilemmas at an operational tempo that complicates or negates adversary responses and enables the joint force to operate inside the adversary’s decision-making cycle.”  

Considering Secretary Kendall’s remarks, creating multiple dilemmas at a fast pace and in a flexible capacity to complicate enemy targeting is a key aspect of ACE. Enabling this involves a wide range of capabilities, such as counter unmanned aircraft systems (c-UAS), air and missile defense, command and control, logistics, as well as both offensive and defensive cyber and space capabilities.  

ACE consists of five core elements:  posture, command and control (C2), movement and maneuver, protection, and sustainment. We believe Epirus capabilities are particularly relevant to at least two of these elements--protection and movement and maneuver.  

Figure 1: Base resiliency with Leonidas HPM layered defense

ACE Core Element: Protection  

The proliferation of UAS and the advent of next-generation threats such as swarm drones and hypersonic missiles are seriously threatening the uncontested air superiority that the U.S. has maintained for decades.  As Brigadier General Curt Taylor said in a recent statement, “drones will be as important in the first battle of the next war as artillery is today.”  

These advances have made bases vulnerable to constant attack. Enemy UAS can conduct ISR to improve adversary targeting and deliver payloads in a capacity that is difficult (and costly) to defend against with traditional air defenses. Examples of this include an alleged drone attack in August 2022 against a U.S. Air Force base in Kuwait, where an Iraqi militant group claimed to launch an explosive laden UAS.

On top of this, China’s development of UAS swarm technology, where tens to hundreds of UAS work in concert to achieve a range of effects, holds the potential to easily overwhelm current base defenses. A 2,000 drone light show welcomed the new year in Shanghai in 2020. The ceremony was stunning, but it also appeared to be a show of force where China could demonstrate its drone and AI capabilities; it is not a far stretch of the imagination to imagine these LEDs being replaced with IEDs, or any other payload.  A solution is thus needed that moves away from the “one-shot, one-kill" engagement process and toward a capability that can simultaneously down multiple UAS.  

Achieving effective base defense and defensive counter air (DCA) to protect the force is the core of integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) capability. This involves c-UAS and counter-swarm capabilities in addition to defense against cruise missiles, ballistic missiles and other future threats (i.e., hypersonic weapons). With its ability to neutralize UAS and UAS swarms, high-power microwave technology has become a key element of a modernized approach to layered IAMD.

Epirus’ flagship product, Leonidas, a solid-state, software defined HPM system, has a demonstrated counter-swarm capability, as well as a precision strike option that can neutralize individual UAS near friendly force assets. Leonidas’ capabilities extend beyond c-UAS and counter swarm to deliver counter-electronic effects against a range of targets and can improve its performance on the battlefield by leveraging increases in power output, optimizing array size, and applying software weaponeering. Epirus is also actively exploring future capabilities that can defend against a range of next-generation threats.  

ACE Core Element: Movement and Maneuver  

ACE also calls for greater agility and ability to rapidly create multiple dilemmas through movement and maneuver. Air Force Doctrine Note 1-21, Agile Combat Employment, defines maneuver as including “movement of forces to pre-determined, dispersed location and flow of dispersed forced back to an enduring location.”  

To enable movement and maneuver, it is important that IAMD systems be mobile themselves to protect the maneuver force. And though HPM systems are a key component of modernized IAMD, their historically large size, weight, and power (SWaP) complicates their deployment in ACE scenarios.  

Fortunately, revolutionary advances in power management have enabled the Leonidas family to achieve next-generation capability within a radically reduced SWaP compared to traditional HPM system. These Leonidas systems are built with a modular, scalable architecture that can comprise a wide range of form factors, including versions mounted on a trailer, UAS, or combat vehicle. This leads to reduced size, while retaining power output capabilities, allowing certain form factors to fit into planes as small as the C130.    

Figure 2: A prototype of a reduced form factor Leonidas exits the back of a CV-22 Osprey

The variety of form factors provided by the Leonidas family of HPM systems creates a ‘force field’ that could extend around a base and protected airspace. Balancing those form factors with the need for maneuverability can provide the capability to generate a force field capable of following the maneuver force wherever it needs to go, be it land or sea. Custom form factors can also be created to fit individual customer needs, bringing the power of HPM to any mission, in any domain.  

Secretary Kendall has stressed, “the most important thing we owe our Airmen and Guardians are the resources they need, and the systems and equipment they need, to perform their missions.”  

With Leonidas, Epirus stands ready to equip our warfighters to fight the future fight—and win—with next-generation HPM systems.