Modernizing the U.S. Army’s Air and Missile Defense Against Present and Future Threats

Epirus News
AUG 4 2022

China has debuted an impressive semi-autonomous drone carrier that can launch, recover, and coordinate the actions of swarms of unmanned aerial systems (UAS). China is clearly aggressively developing autonomous drone swarms as well as the tactics to deploy this technology. The question remains as to whether the U.S. is properly identifying and preparing for this future threat.

The present drone threat is also rapidly evolving. Russia has extensively used both military and commercial drones in its conflict with Ukraine and recently purchased hundreds of combat drones from Iran.

These drones not only provide reconnaissance capabilities, but also deliver payloads in ways that are difficult to counter with kinetic weapons. For example, these drones can fly low, come in close to the target, and then rapidly gain altitude, or fly directly over trees to avoid interception before they strike.

As China and Russia continue to significantly advance their air and missile capabilities, achieving uncontested air superiority will likely be a challenge for the U.S. military in future near-peer conflicts.

In response, the U.S. Army has made air and missile defense one of its six main modernization priorities. This includes formations such as Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD) and Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC). Forms of directed energy, including high-power microwave (HPM) systems, play a key role in advancing these modernization efforts, thus accelerating the Army’s transition toward a multi-domain capable force.

Leonidas executing a swarm kill at a customer field demonstration.

High-Power Microwave Indirect Fire Protection Capability (HPM-IFPC)

IFPC is intended to protect fixed and semi-fixed sites from adversary UAS and other air threats such as rotary aircraft and cruise missiles. This effort includes a kinetic component, but also includes multiple forms of directed energy (DE), namely, high-energy lasers (HEL) and high-power microwaves. Ultimately, the kinetic and directed energy components will work in concert to provide layered defense in what forward thinking Army leadership coins as “multiple solutions to create multiple dilemmas.”  

The rising threat of swarm drones highlights the need for HPM systems. This is because HPM provides a unique capability to kill groups of adversarial air threats simultaneously.

This counter-swarm capability is one of HPM’s primary advantages over other forms of directed energy, such as lasers. Lasers are “just bullets made out of light ... like kinetic energy ... a sequential shot,” as Lieutenant General L. Neil Thurgood   explained at the 2022 AUSA LANPAC Symposium. LTG Thurgood then affirms that “high power microwave is a group killer.” With HPM, collections of UAS can be rendered non-mission-capable in a single waveform.

HPM for Directed Energy Maneuver-Short Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD)

The Army’s current efforts in DE M-SHORAD focus on lasers as a form of directed energy. However, considering the comparison made above between HEL and HPM, microwave systems can function as an added layer of defense that improves the overall effectiveness of DE M-SHORAD.

HPM is needed for DE M-SHORAD in order to put the counter-swarm capability at the frontlines. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, we are already seeing collections of two to three drones being used in close coordination to strike both fixed and semi-fixed targets. It is plausible that the maneuver force will have to defend against collection of 20 to 30 drones in future conflicts, especially considering China’s advancements in drone swarm technology.

For DE M-SHORAD to feasibly incorporate an HPM system, drastic improvements need to be made to legacy HPM systems, which are typically fragile, large, and require significant amounts of power.

A shift from vacuum tubes to solid-state hardware effectively makes HPM systems less fragile. The size and weight of HPM systems can become highly variable with the help of modular systems that comprise a range of form factors. Innovative approaches to power management also reduce the size and weight of HPM systems, in addition to drastically reducing the amount of power required to create each waveform.

These advancements in HPM systems — including a solid-state, modular architecture and machine intelligent power management — have allowed Epirus to create a mobile variant for its Leonidas HPM system that can travel with the maneuver force.

Epirus has teamed together with GDLS to integrate Leonidas with GD’s fleet of Strykers and other ground combat vehicles, bringing counter-swarm and a range of other counter-electronic effects to mobile formations. The Leonidas integration with Stryker will close a crucial capability gap, bringing counter-swarm capabilities to the frontline to empower the Army’s Multi-Domain force, as well as other branches of the Joint Force, with technology to combat present and future threats.

Software Weaponeering in HPM Systems Increase c-UAS, c-Swarm Lethality

Software plays a key role on today’s battlefield, where brains matter as much as brute force . A clear demonstration of this occurred when SpaceX thwarted Russian jamming attempts   of its Starlink satellites with a mere software upgrade, effectively avoiding the need for costly hardware replacements.

HPM systems that are weaponeered with software will similarly provide an upper hand in future conflicts, constantly improving performance and interoperating across a systems-of-systems architecture.

Being a software-weaponeered system, Leonidas can have its waveforms tuned to optimize its ability to defeat each target, be it a single fixed-wing drone, a swarm of rotor copters, or a novel threat. By constantly learning and rapidly improving its performance with software upgrades, Leonidas enables the Joint Force to keep pace with emerging threats, crucially, without having to buy new hardware each time there is a new threat.

The software backbone of Leonidas also maximizes interoperability to meet mission needs. For a modular open system approach (MOSA) and system-of-systems architecture (SOSA), Leonidas’s flexible application programming interface (API) enables it to integrate with a variety of complementary technologies, such as the Stryker vehicle and a range of command-and-control (C2) platforms. This flexibility means that Leonidas can integrate with ground-based, airborne and maritime systems to operate across multiple domains.

Against China’s rapid military modernization and Russia’s continued aggression, the U.S. must rapidly  modernize its own capability to achieve overmatch in future near-peer conflicts. Next-generation HPM systems play a key role in this modernization mission by defeating drone swarms and opening a range of other counter-electronic effects that will dominate the future battlefield.