Army Buys Small Suicide Drones To Break Up Hostile Swarms And Potentially More

Raytheon's Coyote is an inherently modular system that the United States has already tested as a possible weapon and a scientific tool.

Raytheon

U.S. defense contractor Raytheon says the U.S. Army has begun buying a version of its expendable Coyote drone that can operate alone or in a swarm, along with a compact fire control radar, to bring down small hostile unmanned aerial vehicles. Since the unmanned defenders have a small warhead, the service may also be able to readily employ them as loitering munitions and the entire system could eventually take on other roles.

The Massachusetts-headquartered company announced that it was in the process of delivering the Coyote Block 1B variants to the Army in response to an “urgent operational need” at a press conference on July 17, 2018, at the biennial Farnborough Airshow in the United Kingdom. At present, the firm has provided more than 32 drones to the service and it is set to fulfill the full order of an unspecified number of the unmanned aircraft by the end of 2018, according to Shepard.

“We modified these vehicles to have small warheads to take down a quadcopter, for example, or other types of Class I or Class II UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles],” Thomas Bussing, Raytheon's Vice President for Advanced Missile Systems, said at Farnborough. The two categories of drones he mentioned cover designs that are less than 55 pounds heavy, can’t fly higher than 3,500 feet, and have a top speed under 280 miles per hour, per the U.S. military’s official definitions.

The complete system consists of two four-tube launcher on the back of a standard Army 6x6 tactical truck, along with Raytheon’s own Ku-band Radio Frequency System, or KRFS, and a generator to provide the necessary power. This fire control radar cues the unmanned aircraft to intercept their targets. 

Raytheon

A low-quality image showing the KRFS-equipped launch vehicle Raytheon developed for the US Army.

“First, you’ve got to see it, but then you need to track the target with high accuracy,” Don Williams, in charge of Raytheon’s Multi-Function Radio Frequency System, or MRFS, product line, which includes the KRFS, said in a company statement. “It’s a true multi-mission radar.”

Coyote, by itself, weighs less than 10 pounds. Operators otherwise fire it like a traditional missile from a launch tube that is readily adaptable to air-, sea-, and ground-launched applications. After leaving the launcher, the drone’s six-foot wide main wing, rear stabilizers, and signature twin tail all pop out. An operator remains “in-the-loop” at all times and can make course corrections or issue other commands.

The firm said that in tests, the KRFS-directed modified Block 1B versions successfully hit 11 out of 12 targets, according to Military.com. It is unclear whether or not the drone can spot and engage threats autonomously or if it requires some user input, if even just to get it into the right general area.

It’s also not clear how long the warhead-equipped Coyotes can fly or how far away from the control station they can go. As of 2016, Raytheon had developed a version with approximately 1 hour of loiter time and a 50-mile range, but this might be the more advanced Block 2 rather than the Block 1B version the Army is buying. Raytheon offered few details about the Army’s specific requirements, but the company suggested that the complete system would supplement existing point defenses at potentially remote and austere forward operating bases.

Raytheon

A Coyote in flight.

“Enemy unmanned aircraft are among the biggest threats facing our ground troops today,” said Bussing, the Raytheon VP, said at Farnborough. “Our small expendable Coyote provides the army with an affordable and highly effective solution for countering the growing UAS [unmanned aerial systems] threat.”

The ability for small unmanned aircraft to observe friendly forces and even launch harassing attacks is very real and will only become more ubiquitous as time goes on. The Army has already begun including examples in official manuals, along with instructions for how soldiers should respond, and troops playing mock enemies now employ quadcopter style drones during training exercises for increased realism.

US Army

A graphic from a 2016 US Army manual warning about the threat of small unmanned aircraft conducting indirect attacks.

The conflicts in Iraq and Syria have shown that this capability is well within the reach of non-state actors, as well as nation-state military forces, as well. In January 2018, a mass drone attack on Russia’s main outposts in Syria – the Khmeimim air base and the naval base in Tartus – demonstrated that these improvised attacks could still be relatively sophisticated and launched from a stand-off distance.

The potential for more mass attacks, as well as the danger of hostile autonomous or semi-autonomous drone swarms, will only add to the list of emerging threats the Army and other military forces have to defend against. “It's almost impossible to defend against [swarms of UAVs],” Pete Mangelsdorf, Director of Unmanned Air Systems at Raytheon's Missile Systems, said in another company statement.

US Army

A US Army soldier, playing the role of a member of the enemy forces, pilots a quadcopter style drone during a training exercise in Germany.

But Raytheon says multiple Coyotes might be able to defeat drone swarms, too. The company can load the drones with software that it developed as part of the U.S. Navy’s Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology effort, or LOCUST, which lets them operate as a group themselves.

"You may have a swarm of UASs engaging another swarm of UASs,” Raytheon’s Bussing explained at the airshow in the United Kingdom. This may be the only cost-effective and functional method of neutralizing especially dense swarms with hundreds of small drones in the future.

Our own Tyler Rogoway noted this could be a possibility in August 2017 when examining the U.S. military’s desperate need for new and improved short-range air defenses to counter these and other threats, writing:

“Being networked together, and being autonomous in nature after being loaded with a target area location, along with other mission parameters, these swarms will be extremely hard to defend against using even the best SHORAD systems in development today. It's the saturation nature of the attack, the size of the attackers, and the fact that they work as a coordinated swarm, employing dynamic tactics to see as many in their company survive long enough to make their suicidal attack, that make them so deadly. They could even drop micro-munitions and be reused for a later attack. Just the knowledge that such an attack is possible would be psychologically stressful and demoralizing for troops on the ground.

“Although it may sound like a page out a science fiction novel, the only thing that could probably counter such a dense swarming attack on ground forces or a garrisoned force would be for those forces to have their own counter-swarm swarms at the ready. This would result in dozens or even hundreds of mini kamikaze dogfights in the sky—a life and death suicide struggle among diminutive hive-minded flying robots.”

Coyote’s relatively low cost could make this an even more practical option, especially compared to many existing alternatives, too. The basic drones, without the warhead, cost around $15,000 each and Raytheon is hoping to trim that cost back further. It’s unclear how much higher the price is for the complete counter-drone system with the KRFS radar.

That base price, though, is approximately half that of a FIM-92 Stinger short-range shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile and exponentially less expensive than a Patriot surface-to-air missile, though. This has already pushed the Army to seek out lower-cost interceptors to shoot down smaller, more numerous threats such as rockets, artillery shells, and mortar bombs, as well as small drones.

And using Coyote to blow up enemy drones could easily be a stepping stone to other capabilities, as well. Raytheon already says that the truck-mounted radar can cue other air defense systems, including future directed energy weapons, to engage the targets instead, potentially using additional information from the drones already in flight.

The video below shows Raytheon's own counter-drone laser weapon system, one of many now in development.

Coyote is inherently modular, too, meaning that Raytheon could add in a set of day- and night-capable full motion video cameras to create a man-in-the-loop weapon. Israel pioneered this sort of munition, where an operator can make precise adjustments in the terminal phase of flight to be more precise, engage moving targets, or even abort a strike almost at the last moment to avoid inadvertent civilian casualties.

That same modularity means that the Army, or other services interested in the platform, could look into Coyote as a pure surveillance and reconnaissance platform, either singly or in a swarm, too. There are reports that an unknown operator may have used the drones in this role in Syria in the past.

If Raytheon can continue to extend the drone’s flight time and range, it might be possible to launch electronic warfare attacks or conduct other missions that require longer range in support of more dynamic operations. The easily adaptable nature of the launch and control systems – which can fit on the back of a trailer or light truck – means that troops may be readily able to add these capabilities even to smaller units.

They could also easily operate more than one variant at a time or launch entire swarms with a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities. In this case, certain versions could use sensor packages to act as pathfinders and spotters for armed versions flying behind.

Unarmed or dedicated training versions could be recoverable, further lowering the cost of operating them. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has used Coyotes to monitor hurricanes and other extreme weather and has used parachute-equipped types to train personnel on their operation.

Other services are almost certain to be interested in where the Army takes Coyote, too. The U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Special Operations Command are both looking to acquire more multi-purpose loitering munitions themselves.

NOAA

A member of NOAA holds a Coyote set of up with a parachute so personnel can recover it after a training flight.

Whatever happens, the Army’s order does underscore the flexible potential of Raytheon’s low-cost unmanned aircraft. Even if the service sticks with Coyote as a point defense weapon against small drones, it could still jump start further developments that take the design in new and interesting directions.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com