US unable to defend against Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons, report warns

The U.S. lacks the defenses needed to protect against a new breed of highly sophisticated hypersonic weapons from China and Russia, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. “China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range … Continue reading “US unable to defend against Russian and Chinese hypersonic weapons, report warns”

The U.S. lacks the defenses needed to protect against a new breed of highly sophisticated hypersonic weapons from China and Russia, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

“China and Russia are pursuing hypersonic weapons because their speed, altitude and maneuverability may defeat most missile defense systems, and they may be used to improve long-range conventional and nuclear strike capabilities,” the report said. “There are no existing countermeasures.”

Earlier this year, the Russian military said it ran a successful test of a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile capable of sneaking through enemy defenses.

US AIR FORCE: WE'RE IN ‘DANGER’ OF FALLING BEHIND CHINA AND RUSSIA BY 2025

A video posted by the Defense Ministry Sunday showed a MiG-31 fighter jet launching a Kinzhal (Dagger) missile during a training flight. The ministry said the missile, which carried a conventional warhead, hit a practice target at a firing range in southern Russia.

The video screen shows the Kinzhal missile system as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin delivers an annual address to the Federal Assembly of the Russian Federation, at Moscow’s Manezh Central Exhibition Hall. (Mikhail MetzelTASS via Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Kinzhal flies 10 times faster than the speed of sound, has a range of more than 1,250 miles and can carry a nuclear or a conventional warhead. The military said it's capable of hitting both land targets and navy ships.

The U.S. military has been busily ramping up its hypersonic weapons capabilities.

AIR FORCE SETS SIGHTS ON HIGH-TECH LASER WEAPONS

In April, the Pentagon announced a deal with Lockheed Martin to develop a “hypersonic conventional strike weapon” for the U.S. Air Force. The deal for the air-launched Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon (HCSW) is worth up to $928 million.

Russia’s MiG-31 supersonic interceptor jets carrying hypersonic Kinzhal (Dagger) missiles fly over Red Square during the Victory Day military parade in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (YURI KADOBNOV/AFP/Getty Images)

Four months later, the Air Force awarded Lockheed Martin a contract of up to $480 million to design a second hypersonic prototype, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW).

“The ARRW and HCSW efforts are developing unique capabilities for the warfighter and each has different technical approaches,” explained the Air Force, in a statement. “The ARRW effort is ‘pushing the art-of-the-possible’ by leveraging the technical base established by the Air Force/DARPA partnership. The HCSW effort is using mature technologies that have not been integrated for an air-launched delivery system.”

In its response to the GAO, the Department of Defense described the report as "an accurate although sobering macro picture of how the US stands in the world against emerging threats."

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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New littoral combat ship weapons take aim at attacking small boat swarms

The Navy plans to launch two small boat attack craft raids against its Littoral Combat Ship to prepare the ship for major warfare by testing a new suite of integrated weapons systems and sensors – including missiles, guns, drones and inflatable boats.

The upcoming “fast inshore attack craft raid” events are intended as part of a formal Initial Operational Test & Evaluation plan for an-LCS mounted Surface-to-Surface Missile Module designed, among other things, to “counter potential swarms of attacked armed small craft,” a Navy statement from Naval Sea Systems Command, Program Executive Office Unmanned and Small Combatants said.

The Missile Module is comprised of 24 ship-fired Longbow Hellfire Missiles, 30-and-57mm guns, 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats, helicopters and vertical-take-off-and-landing ship-launched drones. Ship launched Hellfires, for instance, can utilize all-weather millimeter wave radar, inertial guidance or semi-active laser targeting to fire upon enemy ships, helicopters, fixed-wing assets or drones attacking the LCS. The concept with the overall module is to enable each platform to function as a “node” on a larger network.

Forward-operating drones, for instance, can send real-time images to helicopters and ship-based fire control radar, enabling faster response time. Armed helicopters can more quickly find and attack targets if they are identified and transmitted from other assets such as drones, submarines or ship-based sensors. By extension, all of these systems could cue deck-mounted small arms for the closer in threats, such as 30mm and 57mm guns. These warfare tactics, mirrored by larger platforms such as Carrier Strike Groups, is to create an integrated, layered defense system designed to provide defenses at different ranges and against a wide sphere of potential attack systems.

Small, fast-transport 11-meter inflatable boats are also regarded as an indispensable element of the Surface Warfare Mission Packages the Missile Module is engineered to support. Often used as rapid entry or small attack vehicles for Navy SEALs and other Special Operations Forces, these boats can provide ship crews with an ability to leave the ship and “engage” approaching small-boat attackers, providing yet another element of defense.

Swarming small boat attacks are regarded as extremely serious combat concerns for Navy war-planners, who operate with a decided recognition that this kind of threat is quite substantial when it comes to both counterterrorism and major warfare on the open ocean. The strategy with small boat attacks against larger platforms is multi-faceted; multiple, fast-moving points of small missile and gunfire attack are naturally much more difficult to recognize and target. The intention with these tactics is to overwhelm, confuse or simply outnumber ship-defense weapons systems such as sensors, interceptors and deck-mounted guns.

This phenomenon can be explained in terms of what’s called “dis-aggregated” operations, if on a smaller scale than is typically thought of. Not only are a more dispersed group of small boats more difficult to target, but emerging networking technology can enable them to coordinate, share target information and stage integrated missions while farther away from one another. Navy and Marine Corps strategists, now planning for future amphibious warfare, are employing these concepts regarding ship-to-shore amphibious attacks. Dis-aggregated, yet closely networked attack nodes provide attacking commanders with a wider range of options and increase possibilities to defend against incoming shore attacks by avoiding a more condensed or linear ocean assault.

The proliferation of longer-range mobile guns, to include possible emergence of lasers, electronic warfare or boat-launched drone attacks, all make the prospect of facing swarms of armed, fast-moving small boats even more dangerous for surface ships. Furthermore, there is no reason small boats with manned crews could not carry and fire portable land weapons such as RPGs, Anti-Tank Guided Missiles aimed at ship structures or hand-launched attack drones filled with explosives.

Of potentially even greater concern, quite possibly, is the advent of unmanned small attack vessels unconstrained by any need to protect a manned crew. They could approach much closer, without having to avoid incoming fire from ship defense weapons. The U.S. Navy is already testing and developing a “ghost fleet” of unmanned small ships to perform a range of missions to include, reconnaissance, mine and submarine detection and of course forward-operating attack missions – firing weapons while manned crews remain at safer distances. The U.S. Navy, however, is of course no longer the only nation with the technological sophistication to develop and operate unmanned small boats. The current global threat circumstance is such that the U.S. Navy recognizes it needs to know how to defend against these kinds of attacks.

Pentagon threat assessment analysts have long expressed concern that small boat attacks could, for instance, be used by Iranian forces to stop the flow of naval traffic through the dangerous and narrow Strait of Hormuz – the only passage from the Persian Gulf into the open ocean. Concurrently, small attack craft could just as easily be launched on the open ocean by host ships launching offensive operations from safer distances. Not only could the boats perform sensing and reconnaissance missions, but they could of course also themselves become explosives or seek to jam a ship’s radar by flooding it with dispersed attack nodes.

These are the reasons the Navy is moving quickly to prepare its ship-based offensive and defensive weapons from these kinds of very serious threats. The formal test and evaluation phase is slated to finish up by early next year, as a key step toward operational status.

The service is also arming its LCS fleet with a long-range, over-the-horizon Naval Strike Missile to extend the ship’s offensive attack reach. The Navy is also now advancing plans to arm the Littoral Combat Ship with an emerging ship defense soft-kill countermeasure able to identify, track and destroy incoming enemy torpedo fire, Navy officials said. The Navy plans to outfit its entire LCS fleet with the AN/SLQ-61 Lightweight Tow Torpedo Defense Mission Module (TDMM) as a way to fortify the ship’s ability to succeed in both shallow water and open or “blue” water warfare, Navy officials told Warrior Maven.

The new TDMM completed two days of at-sea testing several months ago in order to prepare for operational service on LCS ships. The technology uses an underwater acoustic projector, attached to a cable dropped from the ship’s stern to identify acoustic homing and wire-guided enemy torpedoes, service information describes.

The digitally-controlled system, traveling underwater beneath the ship, uses acoustic technology. In a manner quite similar to radar above the ground, the return signal, or ping, is then analyzed to determine the distance, shape and speed of an approaching enemy threat. In the case of the Navy, the “ping” is, of course, acoustic sound waves and not the electronic pings known to surface radar.

"The torpedo defense capability the TDMM provides is envisioned for eventual deployment on all LCS ships, and potentially other small combatants," a Navy statement from earlier this year said.

Offered as a lighter-weight alternative to the currently-operational AN/SLQ-25 “Nixie,” the new TDMM is specifically engineered for smaller warships, such as the LCS, Navy statements said.

LCS Mission Evolution

The addition of this combat technology to the LCS is consistent with the Navy’s evolving strategy for the ship, which seeks to broaden its mission scope to incorporate a wider range of surface combat possibilities.

While the ship was conceived and developed as a multi-mission countermine anti-submarine surface warfare platform for littoral operations, the Navy is trying to move quickly to further arm the ship for major maritime combat as well.

The LCS’s shallow draft enables it to approach island and coastal areas inaccessible to larger, deeper draft ships, adding offensive and defensive weaponry to give commanders more options.

For instance, as an LCS approaches shallow waters, it may operate in a more autonomous, or disaggregated fashion and, therefore, be unable to rely upon combat protections from nearby larger ships.

Accordingly, equipping the ship with improved defenses would better enable the platform to defend itself while operating more independently. This brings the added advantage of reducing the risk for other surface combatants, in part because the LCS is designed for high-risk countermine missions in littoral areas, allowing larger ships can remain at safer distances without being exposed to mines.

The previously published Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations Concept builds upon the Navy’s much-discussed “distributed lethality” strategy. This strategic approach, in development for several years now, emphasizes the need to more fully arm the fleet with offensive and defensive weapons and disperse forces as needed to respond to fast-emerging near-peer threats.

Part of the rationale is to move back toward open or “blue water” combat capability against near-peer competitors emphasized during the Cold War. While the strategic and tactical capability never disappeared, it was emphasized less during the last 10-plus years of ground wars wherein the Navy focused on counter-terrorism, counter-piracy and things like Visit Board Search and Seizure. These missions are, of course, still important, however, the Navy seeks to substantially increase its offensive “lethality” in order to deter or be effective against emerging high-tech adversaries.

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US Air Force: We’re in ‘danger’ of falling behind China and Russia by 2025

The U.S. Air Force will fall behind Russia and China by 2025 unless the service quickly embarks upon a sizeable expansion of its fighting technologies, weapons arsenal and major attack platforms – to include new bombers, fighters, drones, rescue helicopters and more, senior service leaders suggest.

Following a detailed analysis, which likely included a close examination of threats, mission requirements and dangerous emerging technologies, the service has laid out a detailed request to grow the service from 312 operational squadrons up to 386. The largest needed increases, according to the Air Force plan, include 22 new ISR Command and Control squadrons, 7 more fighter squadrons and 5 more bomber squadrons.

“The National Defense strategy tells us tells us we need to be able to defend the homeland, provide nuclear deterrence and win wars against major powers while countering rogue nations,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said recently at an Air Force Association convention. “We need to create dilemmas for our adversary."

By stating that the Air Force “needs” 386 squadrons to meet the expected threat by 2025 to 2030, Wilson did appear to be indicating, if in an indirect way, that the U.S. Air Force is in serious danger of falling behind Russia and China – should the service not expand.

An Air Force report cites Wilson explaining it this way – the analysis supporting the 386 squadrons needed to support the National Defense Strategy is based on estimates of the expected threat by 2025 to 2030. At the end of the Cold War, the Air Force had 401 operational squadrons. By any cursory estimation, it does not take much to notice an uptick in mission demands for the Air Force, coming on the heels of more than 15-years of counterinsurgency air support missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Pentagon has sent F-35-armed Theater Security Packages to the Pacific and moved F-22s closer to the Russian border. Meanwhile, the F-35 has launched its first attacks in history and there is an incessant, ubiquitous refrain that there is consistently just not enough ISR to meet current mission demands.

“The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of us,” Wilson said.

Other details of the Air Force requested expansion plan include:

— 5 More Bomber squadrons

— 9 More Combat Search and Rescue squadrons—

22 More Command and Control – ISR squadrons

— 14 More Tanker squadrons

7 More Fighter Squadrons

— 7 More Space Squadrons

Interestingly, the Air Force request, according to Wilson, does not ask specifically for a numerical increase in cyber squadrons, although Wilson did say much more would be asked of the current cyber force. The Air Force is also not requesting an increase in ICBMs, in part because the service is already well underway with a program to build 400 new Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence ground-launched nuclear missiles.

Meanwhile, statements from former senior Air Force leaders, Congressional analysts, observers and critics may go even further when it comes to voicing serious concerns about the service’s ability to meet anticipated threats — calling the current situation “dangerous.” “The USAF is a geriatric force—it has bombers, tankers, and trainer aircraft over 50 years old; helicopters over 40; and fighters over 30—it has a 2000+ pilot shortage,” Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Warrior in an interview.

To underscore his point, Deptula cited a recent independent bipartisan Commission on the National Defense Strategy as stating: “America’s military superiority—the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security—has eroded to a dangerous degree.”

Going back as far as the Gulf War, Kosovo and of course Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S. Air Force had few challenges when it comes to achieving and maintaining “air supremacy.” This kind of supremacy, however, is no longer assured, a scenario which continues to inspire the Air Force to prepare for a major, “high-end” fight involving air-to-air combat and attacks against modern air defenses.

F-15, B-2 and Reaper Upgrades

In response to this self-identified massive force deficiency, the Air Force is trying to move quickly to upgrade its current fleet to keep pace with emerging threats. The F-15, Reaper drone and B-2 upgrades are all visible examples of how the service is attempting to modernize decades-old weapons systems. These initiatives, which upon examination do appear both substantial and impactful, may nonetheless have limitations and ultimately fall short of addressing all the expected challenges posed by technologically sophisticated enemies.

The Air Force, for instance, is immersed in an aggressive program to upgrade its F-15 such that it can fly into the 2040s. This includes new weapons integration, exponential jumps forward in computer processing speed and new Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar.

While these changes will massively increase the 1980s aircraft’s detection range, attack envelope and sensor processing, a Congressional Commission (U.S.-China Economic & Security Review) from several years ago found that the much more recently built Chinese J-10 has closed the gap with the F-15 and appears to present a substantial, if not equivalent threat. This, Air Force and Boeing weapons developers say, is an unambiguous driver of current F-15 modernization. Just how much it can sustain a superiority gap, it seems apparent, is an open question.

Alongside aggressive modernization, the Air Force is concurrently pursuing “Full Scale Fatigue Tests” to see how much longer F-15 airframes, avionics and weapons systems can extend service life, former Air Force spokeswoman Emily Grabowski told Warrior Maven last year. As for new F-15 weapons integration, Air Force weapons engineers are planning to add the AIM-9X air-to-air missile and emerging Small Diameter Bomb II, she added.

The SDB II, now nearing operational readiness, is a new air-dropped weapon able to destroy moving targets in all kinds of weather conditions at ranges greater than 40-miles, Air Force and Raytheon officials said. While the Air Force currently uses a laser-guided bomb called the GBU-54 able to destroy moving targets, the new SDB II will be able to do this at longer ranges and in a wider range of combat conditions. The Air Force currently operates roughly 400 F-15C, D and E variants – and plans to keep the aircraft flying into the 2040s. (For Full Warrior F-15 modernization story –CLICK HERE)

The Chinese 5th-generation J-20 and J-31 aircraft are, by many estimations, a serious threat to the F-35. Of course, while some exact details of the Chinese aircraft are not available in open-source research, it is widely known that the design is an unmistakable F-35 “rip off.”

In fact, a Congressional U.S.-China review as far back as 2014 made specific reference to a U.S. Defense Science Board report citing Chinese cyber-espionage as being responsible for stealing a number of U.S. weapons specs – to include the F-35.

All of this being known, many experts and U.S. military weapons developers, are not hesitant to say they are confident that the F-35 is the most superior 5th-gen fighter in the world, alongside the F-22. Also, many experts, observers and weapons developers are clear that China’s attempts to replicate, match or steal U.S. 5th Gen technical sophistication, may not be at all successful. The current and future threat posed by Chinese aircraft, however, is said to be extremely serious by any estimation.

Yet another pressing dilemma often recognized by threat assessment analysts and senior Air Force developers is, simply put, that emerging high-tech air defenses will challenge the ability for stealth platforms to operate over enemy territory. This reality, scholars and service experts say, forms the principal basis for both the need for a new B-21 stealth bomber (which reportedly contains undisclosed, massive leaps forward in stealth technologies) and the current massive overhaul of the B-2. (For Warrior's full report on the B-21 and future stealth CLICK HERE)

A quick look at B-2 modernization includes the integration of a new sensor called the Defensive Management System, which can reportedly help the decades-old bomber identify the locations of enemy air defenses. Other B-2 adjustments, believed to enable the B-2 to function very successfully for decades to come, include a new, 1,000-times faster computer processor and new weapons such as much more capable B-61 mod 12 nuclear bomb and Long Range Standoff weapon nuclear-armed cruise missile. At the same time, despite these advances, there is a clear consensus that the service needs a larger number of new B-21 bombers. (For Full Warrior B-2 B-61 mod 12 earth-penetrating nuclear weapon CLICK HERE)

Future drones will both incorporate stealth technologies, longer-range miniaturized sensors and higher levels of autonomy – given that current platforms like the Reaper will expectedly have trouble operating above advanced air defenses, Deptula and others have said. Nonetheless, the Air Force does anticipate the Reaper to be of critical mission value well into future decades, particularly in light of the Predator retirement. The Reaper is currently getting a universal weapons interface to expand its weapons envelope as well as new fuel tanks to lengthen mission time.

Deployment length is also a major factor when it comes to maxing out the Air Force’s current ability to meet global demands from Combatant Commanders, according to a RAND study, called “Is the U.S. Flying Force Large Enough.” The study, as reported on by Warrior Maven writer Dave Majumdar, examines four potential scenarios; two Cold War scenarios with Russia or China, a peace enforcement scenario and a counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency type scenario. “In each of the four possible futures examined, the 2017 USAF force was unable to meet the demands for all types of aircraft,” the study summary states.

“No class of aircraft performed well in all four of the examined futures. Fighter aircraft came closest, and C3ISR/BM (command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance/battle management) platforms had the biggest shortfalls, reflecting their small fleets and high demand…..” The RAND STUDY

Based on this assessment, it appears no accident that the largest needed increase in the air fleet size, according to the Air Force numbers, is for ISR technology. The RAND report’s findings also include a wide area of conclusions, percentages and analytical results. One of great significance, it seems clear, is that deployments beyond one-year appear to massively over-extend the Air Force.

“When contingencies were not capped, there were only 14 cases in which the FY17 force met 80 percent or more of demands and only one case in which 100 percent of demands were met. The other 18 cases had significant, and at times extreme, deficiencies,” the findings state.

The extent to which the Air Force requests will be met remains uncertain, especially given that both the Army and the Navy also say they are dangerously under-resourced. At the same time, there is no shortage of very serious concern among Pentagon war planners that the U.S. may increasingly be insufficiently prepared in the event of future great power war.

“Unfortunately, the Air Force has been consistently under-resourced for over 20 years. As a result, the U.S. Air Force is the oldest, smallest, and least ready in the entire history of its existence,” Deptula said. “We are no longer facing near-peers, but peers given the advancements in the Chinese and Russian military.”

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F-35 ‘tech refresh’ enables new attack technology, AI

The Pentagon and Lockheed are pursuing a "Tech Refresh" effort with the F-35 intended to improve the stealth fighter's targeting attack technology, weapons delivery and on-board computing — all as part of an effort to try to keep the F-35's combat effectiveness ahead of great power rival nations.

The refresh, intended to be built into new planes and retrofitted onto older ones, improves memory, storage, processing speed, display video and aircraft parametric data, Vice Adm. Mat Winter, Program Executive Officer for the F-35 program, told reporters earlier this year.

"These are hardware and software modifications to bring an integrated core processor, memory system and display screen," Winter said.

As part of this ongoing effort, Lockheed Martin has been working with Harris Corporation to provide the computing infrastructure for new panoramic cockpit displays, advanced memory systems and navigation technology.

The new hardware and software, to be operational on the F-35 by 2021, includes seven racks per aircraft consisting of 1,500 module components, including new antennas and weapons release systems. Other components include an Advanced Memory System (AMS) engineered to improve data storage and generate higher resolution imagery to help pilots with navigational and targeting information.

Faster processors will improve F-35 delivery of weapons enabled by the latest 3F software drop, such as the AIM-9X air-to-air missile. Improved radar warning receiver technology will more quickly identify enemy aircraft and integrate with the aircraft’s mission data files, or threat library.

The data processing increase is exponential, developers explain, as it enables measurements to take place in terabytes instead of megabits or megabytes. The upgrades include a portable memory device which can quickly be transferred from a ground station to the F-35 cockpit.

As the most recently implemented software upgrade, Block 3f increases the weapons delivery capacity of the JSF, giving it the ability to drop a Small Diameter Bomb, 500-pound JDAM and AIM 9X short-range air-to-air missile, service officials explained.

The Air Force is already working on a 4th drop to be ready by 2020 or 2021. Following this initial drop, the aircraft will incorporate new software drops as quickly as possible. Block IV will include some new partner weapons including British weapons, Turkish weapons and some of the other European country weapons that they want to get on their own plane, service officials explained.

Block IV will also increase the weapons envelope for the U.S. variant of the fighter jet. A big part of the developmental calculus for Block 4 is to work on the kinds of enemy air defense systems and weaponry the aircraft may face from the 2020’s through the 2040’s and beyond.

In terms of weapons, Block IV will eventually enable the F-35 to fire cutting edge weapons systems such as the Small Diameter Bomb II and GBU-54 – both air dropped bombs able to destroy targets on the move.

The Small Diameter Bomb II uses a technology called a “tri-mode” seeker, drawing from infrared, millimeter wave and laser-guidance. The combination of these sensors allows the weapon to track and eliminate moving targets in all kinds of weather conditions.

The emerging 4th software drop will build upon prior iterations of the software for the aircraft.

Block 2B builds upon the enhanced simulated weapons, data link capabilities and early fused sensor integration of the earlier Block 2A software drop. Block 2B will enable the JSF to provide basic close air support and fire an AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile), JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) or GBU-12 (laser-guided aerial bomb) JSF program officials said.

Following Block 2B, Block 3i increases the combat capability even further and the now operational 3F brings a vastly increased ability to suppress enemy air defenses.

Mission Data Files

The F-35 is now conducting attacks, surveillance operations and combat missions with an updated on-board “threat library” of Mission Data Files engineered to identify enemy threats in key regions around the globe.

“The AORs (Areas of Responsibility) for current operations where our forces are — currently have adequate Mission Data Files,” Winter said.

Described as the brains of the airplane, the "mission data files" are extensive on-board data systems compiling information on geography, air space and potential threats– such as enemy fighter jets — in areas where the F-35 might be expected to perform combat operations, Air Force officials explained.

Despite some delays with development, involving software engineering and technical development at Eglin AFB, Fla., the process is now fully on track to finish by 2019, Winter said.

Naturally, Air Force senior weapons developers do not comment on specific threats in specific areas around the globe, developers do acknowledge the threat library will include all known and future threat aircraft — which of course includes advanced Chinese and Russian 5th-generation fighters. For security reasons, Air Force officials do not wish to confirm this or specify any kind of time frame for their inclusion.

Overall, there are 12 geographical regions being identified to comprise the library, service developers say.

“We have not fully verified all Mission Data Files for all of the regions where we will operate, but we are slated to be ready by 2019,” Winter said.

The mission data files are designed to work with the aircraft's Radar Warning Receiver engineered to find and identify approaching enemy threats and incoming hostile fire. The concept is to use the F-35s long range sensors to detect threats – and then compare the information against the existing library of enemy threats in real time while in flight. If this can happen at a favorable standoff range for the F-35, it will be able to identify and destroy enemy air-to-air targets before being vulnerable itself to enemy fire. For example, the mission data system may be able to quickly identify a Russian MiG-29 if it were detected by the F-35’s sensors.

“There is continued collaboration between intelligence and acquisition teams,” Winter said.

The Mission Data Files are intended to support the F-35’s sensor fusion so that information from disparate sensor systems can be combined on a single screen for pilots to lower the cognitive burden and quicken the decision-making process. New modules for mission systems will integrate into the F-35s Distributed Aperture System sensors and Electro-optical Targeting System.

The Pentagon is improving Mission Data File technology, in part, through computer algorithms increasingly supported by AI, Winter said.

“Our fusion engine gets advanced sensors technology to rapidly identify and track targets without the pilot having to do all the work. This fusion is enabled by Mission Data Files,” Winter explained.

This concept regarding integrated threat warnings and the Missile Data Files is further reinforced in a Lockheed Martin engineering paper from early this year called “F-35 Mission Systems Design, Development and Verification.”

The paper provides technical detail on a number of F-35 technologies, including analysis of a system called AN/ASQ-242 Communications, Navigation and Identification system, or CNI. CNI provides beyond-visual-range target identification, anti-jam technology, radio navigation and, of great significance to Mission Data Files — “warning messaging” and “pilot audio alerts.” Part of its function includes “connectivity with off-board sources of information,” a function which bears great relevance to identifying specific enemy aircraft at great distances.

While many developers cite significant challenges when it comes to software development and integration for the F-35, the fighter is regarded by developers as a “flying computer.” The “fusion” or technical integration on board the aircraft is engineered to access and leverage a wide range of data points and condense them for the pilot. In essence, surveillance, computer processing and targeting data are fused, as opposed to being stovepiped or separate sources. As a result, the technology also incorporates Identification Friend Foe (IFF) surveillance systems designed to quickly distinguish friendly from enemy aircraft.

Mission Data Files technology is now supporting the latest F-35 software configuration – called 3f.

"Mission data has been fielded in support of version 2B, 3i, and 3f," Air Force spokeswoman Emily Grabowski told Warrior earlier this year.

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Air Force sets sights on high-tech laser weapons

The Air Force will one day fire high-tech laser weapons from drones and fighter jets to destroy high-value targets, conduct precision strikes and incinerate enemy locations from the sky.

The first airborne tests are expected to take place by 2021, Air Force officials have said. The developmental efforts are focused on increasing the power, precision and guidance of existing laser weapon applications with the hope of moving from 10-kilowatts up to 100 kilowatts. Air Force weapons developers are also working on the guidance mechanisms to enable laser weapons to stay on-track on a particular target.

Air Force leaders have said that the service plans to begin firing laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17s and C-130s until technological miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from fighter jets such as an F-15, F-16 or F-35. Given the state of current technology, cargo planes are better equipped in the short term to transport the requisite amount of mobile on-board power needed for airborne lasers.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is already working on a program to develop laser weapons for drones and manned aircraft to arm air platforms by the mid-2020s. When it comes to drone-fired lasers, there does not yet appear to be a timetable for when they would be operational weapons – however weapons technology of this kind is moving quickly.

Future laser weapons could substantially complement existing ordnance or drone-fired weapons such as a Hellfire missile. Laser weapons allow for an alternative method of destroying targets, rapid succession of fire, reduced expenditure of dollars and, quite possibly, increased precision, service officials have explained. For instance, a key advantage of using laser weapons would include an ability to melt or incinerate an incoming missile or enemy target without necessarily causing an explosion.

A 2016 Air Force Research Laboratory report, called "Speed of Light to the Fight by 2020," details how laser weapons can be used to deliver "scalable" effects. These include ways a 30kW laser can create "denial, degradation, disruption and destruction from UAS (drones) to small boats at a range of several kilometers," the report states.

"More powerful lasers have counter-air, counter-ground, and counter-sea applications against a host of hardened military equipment and vehicles at significant range," the AFRL report writes.

A Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year on Directed Energy Programs, also details some of the key advantages and limitations of fast-evolving laser weapons.

“DE (directed energy) could be used as both a sensor and a weapon, thereby shortening the sensor-to-shooter timeline to seconds. This means that U.S. weapon systems could conduct multiple engagements against a target before an adversary could respond,” the Congressional report states.

Lasers also bring the substantial advantage of staying ahead of the “cost curve,” making them easier to use repeatedly. In many instances, low-cost lasers could destroy targets instead of expensive interceptor missiles. Furthermore, mobile-power technology, targeting algorithms, beam control and thermal management technologies are all progressing quickly, a scenario which increases prospects for successful laser applications.

At the same time, the Congressional report also points out some basic constraints or challenges associated with laser weapons. Laser weapons can suffer from “beam attenuation, limited range and an ability to be employed against non-line-of-sight targets,” the report says.

The AFRL report reinforces this, explaining that laser weapons need to enable precise timing, tracking and pointing amidst the aero-mechanical jitter induced by vibrations during flight.

The essay also mentions the importance of engineering light-weight exportable electrical power sufficient to support a fighter-jet mounted weapon. Temperature, the report says, is also of great significance.

"System temperature much be controlled via the dissipation of waste heat and high-speed aerodynamic flow must be mitigated to avoid aero-optical disturbances," the AFRL document writes.

Ground testing of a laser weapon called the High Energy Laser, or HEL, has been underway at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., service officials said. The High Energy Laser tests are being conducted by the Air Force Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

The service is now pursuing two concurrent laser-weapons programs; the Self-Protect High Energy Laser Demonstrator (SHiELD) is designed to prepare airborne lasers and the Demonstrator Laser Weapon System (DLWS) is geared toward ground-fired weapons.

Given the complexity of laser weapons integration, the AFRL report details a three-pronged approach to development; the phased approach begins with subsystems engineering, then moves toward low-power laser testing and them conduct extensive air and ground tests.

Another advantage of lasers is an ability to use a much more extended magazine for weapons. Instead of flying with six or seven missiles on or in an aircraft, a directed energy weapons system could fire thousands of shots using a single gallon of jet fuel, Air Force experts explained.

"The total number of shots they can fire is limited only by the fuel available to drive the electrical power source," the AFRL report says.

-More Weapons and Technology –WARRIOR MAVEN (CLICK HERE)

Air Force seeks hypersonic attack drones and stealthy deep strike drones for 2030

Hypersonic attack drones traveling at five times the speed of sound, new stealthy drones engineered for strike missions deep into heavily defended enemy territory and drones operated from the cockpit of 5th-generation fighters – are all part of a fast-emerging Air Force vision for the drones of the future, spanning all the way into the 2040s and beyond.

The fundamental strategy is to widen the weapons envelope, expand sensor range and apertures, increase firing distances and – perhaps of greatest importance – conduct effective war operations against advanced enemy fighter jets, missiles and air defenses. It almost goes without saying that much of this strategic thinking, as is quite often discussed, involves a massive Pentagon pivot toward “great-power” warfare preparation.

“Moving forward, we need more capable drones that can function in high-threat scenarios and operate with increased survivability. Stealth needs to be a part of this," Ret. Lt. Gen. David Deptula, Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, told Warrior Maven.

Industry, DARPA and the US military services are already making progress building stealthy drones, vastly expanded ISR technology, drone “swarms” and even early iterations of hypersonic attack drones.

“A priority for DARPA's unmanned systems research is to advance future swarming capabilities, allowing warfighters to outmaneuver adversaries in complex urban environments. Swarms of autonomous air and ground robots could provide dismounted troops with distributed perception,” Jared Adams, DARPA spokesman, told Warrior in a written statement.

Naturally, the effort also involves greatly leveraging modernization opportunities with existing unmanned systems, to include the Air Force Reaper, Global Hawk, fast-progressing developmental programs such as DARPA’s air-recoverable Gremlins and the Pentagon’s fighter-jet launched Perdix drones.

Reaper Future

The Air Force is adding new weapons to the Reaper, in part by leveraging an emerging “universal weapons interface.” This would allow the Reaper to more quickly integrate new weapons technology as it emerges and efficiently swap or replace bombs on the drone without much difficulty, senior Air Force weapons developers have told Warrior in previous interviews.

“The MQ-9 Reapers will serve us well for a long time into the future in the kinds of permissive threat environments that allow them to operate in an unconstrained fashion,” Deptula said.

This is something brought to fruition by common standards and IP protocol engineered with adjustable software and hardware configurations, enabling faster integration of new weapons on the Reaper platform.

The Reaper currently fires the AGM-114 Hellfire missile, a 500-pound laser-guided weapon called the GBU-12 Paveway II, and Joint Direct Attack Munitions or JDAMs which are free-fall bombs engineered with a GPS and Inertial Navigation Systems guidance kit.

One possibility for the Reaper drone, currently being explored, could be the addition of the GBU-39B or Small Diameter Bomb, senior Air Force weapons developers told Warrior in a prior interview.

There are many potential advantages to adding to the arsenal of weapons able to fire from the Reaper. These include an ability to strike smaller targets, mobile targets or terrorists and groups of enemy fighters on-the-move in pick-up trucks as well as enemies at further ranges. This kind of mission scope for the Reaper, Air Force developers say, is expected to vastly increase as the service retires is Predator drone.

The Air Force currently operates more than 100 Reaper drones and has, in recent years, begun configuring the platform with additional fuel tanks to increase range. The Reaper Extended Range, or ER as it’s called, is intended to substantially increase and build upon the current 4,000-pound fuel capacity of the drone with a range of 1,150 miles.

The upgrades to Reaper are designed to add two 1,350-pound fuel tanks engineered to increase the drone’s endurance from 16 hours to more than 22 hours, service officials said.

This trajectory for the Reaper is evolving alongside a separate effort to harness increasingly smaller, lighter-weight sensors, transmitters and receivers. As technology continues to progress toward the miniaturization of sensors, receivers, transmitters and lighter materials are engineered, smaller drones are increasingly expected to perform missions currently reserved to large drone platforms. This includes drone swarms designed to blanket areas with ISR, overwhelm or jam enemy defenses and even operate as expendable attack explosives. By having built-in redundancy through a high volume of small nodes, drone swarms can, according to DARPA’s Adams, bring more “robust and resilient communications.”

Also, at some point in the future, it may not be beyond the realm of possibility to arm the Reaper for air-to-air engagements as well, service developers have indicated. The service has already flown unmanned fighter jets and, without question, possesses the technology to engage in air combat with unmanned systems. As would be the case in other instances, current plans call for humans to remain in a role of command and control.

Fighter Jets Control Drones

In a previous interview with Warrior several years ago, former Air Force Chief Scientist Dr. Greg Zacharias cited service efforts to engineer F-22s or F-35s, to control drones from the cockpit, directing strike and reconnaissance missions. Not only would this quicken the kill chain but naturally expand ranges for ISR missions, keeping manned aircraft at safer distances. Unmanned aircraft, operated by fighter jets and manned platforms, could carry weapons, fuel, ammunition or other vital systems necessary to air attack. This would of course also lighten the load on fighters, greatly increasing maneuverability and dogfighting abilities.

Air recoverable drones, slated to become operational over just the next few years, will bring a new phase of mission options enabling longer ranges, improved sensor payloads, advanced weapons and active command and control from the air. This possibility is closer to reality due to DARPA’s Gremlins program which plans to break new ground by launching – and recovering – four drones from an in-flight C-130 next year.

“We are in production of UAVs, planning a first flight in mid-2019, with recovery demonstrations by the end of 2019,” Scott Wierzbanowski, Gremlins Program Manager, told Warrior Maven in a written statement.

Gremlins, which hinges upon higher levels of autonomous navigation, brings a wide swath of improved mission possibilities. These include much longer attack and mission reach because drones can begin missions while in the air much closer to an objective, without having to travel long distances from a ground location or forward operating base. Perhaps of even greater significance, air-launched returnable drones can be equipped with more advanced sensor payloads able to conduct ISR or attack missions. Ultimately, DARPA plans to launch and recover Gremlins drones from 5th gen fighters such as the F-35 and F-22, agency statements said.

Drones & Lasers

Air Force drones will one-day fire high-tech laser weapons from drones and fighter jets to destroy high-value targets, conduct precision strikes and incinerate enemy locations from the sky.

The first airborne tests are expected to take place by 2021, Air Force officials have said. The developmental efforts are focused on increasing the power, precision and guidance of existing laser weapon applications with the hope of moving from 10-kilowatts up to 100 kilowatts. Air Force weapons developers are also working on the guidance mechanisms to enable laser weapons to stay on-track on a particular target.

Air Force leaders have said that the service plans to begin firing laser weapons from larger platforms such as C-17s and C-130s until technological miniaturization efforts can configure the weapon to fire from fighter jets such as an F-15, F-16 or F-35. Given the state of current technology, cargo planes are better equipped in the short term to transport the requisite amount of mobile on-board power needed for airborne lasers.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is already working on a program to develop laser weapons for drones and manned aircraft to arm air platforms by the mid-2020s. When it comes to drone-fired lasers, there does not yet appear to be a timetable for when they would be operational weapons – however weapons technology of this kind is moving quickly.

Future laser weapons could substantially complement existing ordnance or drone-fired weapons such as a Hellfire missile. Laser weapons allow for an alternative method of destroying targets, rapid succession of fire, reduced expenditure of dollars and, quite possibly, increased precision, service officials have explained. For instance, a key advantage of using laser weapons would include an ability to melt or incinerate an incoming missile or enemy target without necessarily causing an explosion.

Ground testing of a laser weapon called the High Energy Laser, or HEL, has been underway at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., service officials said. The High Energy Laser tests are being conducted by the Air Force Directed Energy Directorate, Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

Another advantage of lasers is an ability to use a much more extended magazine for weapons. Instead of flying with six or seven missiles on or in an aircraft, a directed energy weapons system could fire thousands of shots using a single gallon of jet fuel, Air Force experts explained.

Expanded, Integrated Surveillance

Would emerging drone surveillance technology, historically thought of as providing a "soda-straw" view of areas below, be able to survey wide-swaths of dispersed terrain across a combat area of operations? Perhaps some stealthy drone platforms, increasingly equipped with advanced sensor technology, could perform some of the wide-area command and control missions currently taken up by the JSTARS – Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System

With this kind of synergy in mind, the Air Force is launching a next-generation airborne surveillance and command and control technology intended to successfully synchronize air, ground, drone and satellite assets onto a single seamless network, service officials said.

The emerging system, planned to reach full maturity in the 2040s, is called Advanced Battle Management and Surveillance (ABMS). It was introduced in the recently released Air Force 2019 budget.

It may be that a new JSTARS platform could operate in tandem with other systems, networks and aerial platforms able to assist the mission in higher-risk environments. In fact, this kind of cross-domain connectivity seems to be at the heart of what ABMS seeks to accomplish.

This initiative, carving out a new innovation-based short and long-term plan, articulates a much-deliberated Air Force path forward regarding the future of its platform. The emerging plan represents the manifestation of lengthy Air Force considerations about whether the large and “not-so-stealthy” manned JSTARS platform would remain functionally useful in a high-threat, high-tech modern threat environment.

ABMS seeks to harvest the latest ISR-oriented technologies from current and emerging systems as a way to take a very large step forward – and connect satellites, drones, ground sensors and manned surveillance aircraft seamlessly in real time across a fast-changing, dispersed combat area of operations. ABMS is described by Air Force officials as more of a “system” than platform-specific application. This technical approach is of great significance amid anticipated future threat scenarios wherein electronic attacks, cyber intrusions and GPS "jamming" weapons are both emerging and proliferating.

Over the longer term, the advanced ABMS suite of sensors and ISR technologies could integrate on a number of current and future air platforms – especially drones – Air Force officials told Warrior Maven.

Hypersonic Attack Drones

Recent thinking from senior Air Force weapons developers had held that US hypersonic weapons might first be deployable by the early 2020s. Hypersonic drones for attack or ISR missions, by extension, were thought to be on track to emerge in the 2030s and 2040s, senior service officials have told Warrior Maven. More recently, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and service Acquisition Executive Dr. William Roper have been pursuing a massive acceleration of hypersonic weapons and drones which is already moving this timetable forward substantially.

A weapon traveling at hypersonic speeds, naturally, would better enable offensive missile strikes to destroy targets such as enemy ships, buildings, air defenses and even drones and fixed-wing or rotary aircraft depending upon the guidance technology available. A drone or unmanned ISR platform traveling at hypersonic speeds would better enable air vehicles to rapidly enter and exit enemy territory and send back relevant imagery without being detected by enemy radar. (Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies report on Hypersonic Weapons)

Although potential defensive uses for hypersonic weapons, interceptors or vehicles are by no means beyond the realm of consideration, the principal effort at the moment is to engineer offensive weapons able to quickly destroy enemy targets at great distances.

Scientists explain that speed of sound can vary, depending upon the altitude; at the ground level it is roughly 1,100 feet per second. Accordingly, if a weapon is engineered with 2,000 seconds worth of fuel – it can travel up to 2,000 miles to a target, a former senior Air Force scientist (Zacharias) told Warrior in a previous interview.

The service recently awarded several developmental deals to Lockheed to expedite prototyping of hypersonic weapons, one of which is called the “Air Launched Rapid Response Weapon,” Air Force news reported.

The effort involves two separate trajectories, including the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon and a Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon. The Air Force has now awarded developmental deals for both systems to Lockheed.

A "boost-glide" hypersonic weapon is one that flies on an upward trajectory up into the earth's atmosphere before using the speed of its descent to hit and destroy targets, senior officials said.

The Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon effort involves using technologies which have not yet been integrated for air-launched delivery, an Air Force spokeswoman told Warrior Maven earlier this year.

These kinds of propulsion and weapons technologies are currently informing the exploration of hypersonic drone platforms able to surveil, strike and defend.

Lockheed’s Skunk Works division is currently working with the Pentagon on the SR-72 hypersonic drone, designed to travel at Mach 6. Visions for this platform, according to reports from Popular Mechanics and Aviation Week, incorporate engineering the drone for strike missions as well. Current plans call for a “Flight Research Vehicle” to be constructed in the early 2020s, with a full-scale version to be in service sometime in the 2030s, the Av week report states.

-More Weapons and Technology -WARRIOR MAVEN (CLICK HERE)–

Bee-sized bots set to dominate future battles for cities

In future battles, new American warriors may be the size of a baseball, the size of a bumble bee – even the size of a grain of sand.

Micro-bots and milli-bots may be small in size, but they are giant in terms of impact. This next generation of drones will also be smarter, faster and deployable in powerful swarms. The futuristic intelligence on these machines is mind-boggling and will make current “autonomy” look positively prehistoric. 

Swarms will be able to work intuitively and collaboratively in teams, with or without humans, to carry out complex missions.

Human ground warriors could have a machine-based teammate – one that is a swarm, including more than 250 small flying, climbing and “walking” machines.

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Collectively, the swarm can autonomously take on tasks that are dangerous for their human teammates. From conducting reconnaissance in advance of missions through to searching for survivors in collapsed, unstable buildings in humanitarian operations, the potential to reduce risk and save human lives is enormous.

DARPA is eyeing sophisticated micro-bots to help U.S. forces. (DARPA)

Hundreds, (and eventually thousands) of tiny drones will be able to deploy together. This will involve thinking for themselves, communicating with each other, adapting to each other’s movements, reacting to changing circumstances and improvising to achieve objectives by drawing upon a deep tactics library to execute an assigned mission.

Not only will they be able to integrate into human teams, but drone swarms will also be able to conduct their own missions independently.

DARPA has a number of programs that are radically changing the way drones will be used going forward – and these programs continue to make giant strides at a remarkable pace.

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FLA (Fast Lightweight Autonomy), OFFSET (Offensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics) and SHRIMP (Short-Range Independent Microrobotic Platforms), are three such promising initiatives already delivering remarkable results.

DARPA has selected a number of top teams from around the country to contribute their smarts to creating this new generation.

These little fellas will be absolutely game-changing when the military is required to deploy in urban terrains. They represent a series of remarkable advances and breakthroughs with wide-ranging implications for other technology in the military space and also in the civilian space.

Size, scale, smarts and how they are sent on missions are just four of the big ways that will change. Here’s a look at the sort of missions swarms can take on and how they will interact with human warriors.

Sending on missions

The goal is for the drones to be autonomous on an unprecedented level. This will also be evident in how they interact with humans. Directing them will go beyond the tablet. The drones will be smart enough to respond to cues much like a human teammate would.

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As things advance, the human warriors will be able to communicate with the drones using verbal cues and gestures. There may use a specific “language” of verbal and physical signals, but nonetheless human and bot interaction will radically leap ahead.  It will greatly improve the ease and speed with which operators can deploy them to execute tasks.

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Smarts

DARPA is also taking drones from zero to hero in terms of intellect.

Ultimately, there is no human warrior with a joystick, an X-box-like controller or a tablet giving detailed directions. The new generation of drones will be truly autonomous – not just able to fly from A to B complying with instructions and coordinates or mindlessly following humans like robot ‘dogs’ carrying heavy loads.

These drones will be able to think for themselves, adapt to the environment and each other, problem solve and work collaboratively to accomplish missions – all without a human giving detailed instructions to each one or piloting them remotely.

Recon

Urban and subterranean environments can present a lot of potentially dangerous unknowns. So stealthy, smart and small combat units will have the powerful advantage of unprecedented data in advance thanks to these little drones.

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Tiny bots can crawl under cracks below doors, fly through partially opened windows, discreetly perch on a combatant’s shoe, even infiltrating a heavily fortified bomb making lab. The bots can act as teeny tiny spies collecting crucial visual, audio and other data with their advanced sensors.

In advance of human raids into areas where little is known, such as the interior of a city building or an underground WMD base, for example, micro-bots and milli-bots can be deployed by units to rapidly explore unknown areas. They can build maps and feedback other vital data.

Another example would be hostage rescues where the bots could surreptitiously deploy into the enemy held area, map it out, identify the exact number of combatants, how they are armed, the locations of all combatants and the hostages, the medical condition of the hostages and more.

The bots don’t have to be piloted by a warrior with a tablet to do this – they are autonomous. They are given a mission and do what it takes to achieve their objectives and return to their human teammates.

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Swarm raids

First-generation primitive swarms may only be able to locate an assigned area, identify points of entry and map the layouts for human assaulters. Some may be able to independently secure perimeters for their human teammates.

However, based on the current trajectory of amazing advances, U.S. drone swarms comprised of a mix of bots could eventually be capable of conducting their own urban raids. This isn’t a swarm raiding a dollhouse, this is a swarm capable of six-hour missions in areas covering eight city blocks.

Swarms will also be able to deploy alongside human teams and take on tasks such as suppressing enemy fire, maintaining flank security or even isolating and clearing a building.

Stealthy mode and saving downed pilots behind enemy lines

Since this new generation will be far more autonomous, they won’t need communications links to a human “pilot.” This will reduce radio transmissions between the bots and the human team.

Reduced radio transmissions makes it harder for enemy forces to detect bot swarms that have covertly infiltrated to monitor them. And very importantly, it reduces the chances of enemy forces detecting the presence of American warfighters in the area, which helps keep them safe.

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The advanced autonomy also means that if there is a downed pilot behind enemy lines, then the drone swarms can sweep areas searching in radio silence. This can help reduce the risk of the enemy forces identifying the location of the pilot and the presence of U.S. forces on a rescue mission.

Natural disaster swarm rescue missions

Micro-bots and milli-bots can also provide huge humanitarian impact as well in terms of saving lives and helping keep rescuers safe. Tiny bots, for example, can navigate through rubble to help quickly locate survivors trapped in the aftermath of an earthquake

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.

Army sets sights on new sniper camouflage

More than 3,000 US military snipers will soon become even more deadly to the enemy thanks to new camouflage.

This month, the Army is starting work on creating a new camouflage for snipers.

Worn over the uniform, the ghillie suit is a fundamental camouflage tool that helps the sniper blend into the terrain. Even the design of the suit itself helps to prevent the sniper’s body shape from being detected.

Since snipers are often dispatched in pairs, or alone, isolated from the force, these brave marksmen rely on this ghillie camouflage to stay safe.

Whether in overwatch or reconnaissance observing and reporting, snipers do not have the advantages of safety in numbers or weapons and artillery support that a larger force would have. They also lack the protection provided by, say a forward operating base.

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Often behind enemy lines, the snipers must rely on their stealthy skills and the art of concealment to avoid detection.

File photo of a heavily camouflaged sniper (U.S. Army)

The ghillie camouflage suit is a vital tool to help keep them safe while they do their job. By staying concealed, snipers are able to play an incredibly important role protecting the ground forces in a wide range of ways.

Ghillie invisibility

Snipers do master shooting, target detection, range estimation and use stalking-type skills. But mastering the art of camouflage and concealment is also crucial.

The current version of the ghillie suit Soldiers use is called the FRGS (Flame Resistant Ghillie System). The FRGS made its debut back in 2012, making appearances at Army Sniper School at Fort Benning, the U.S. Marine Corps Scout Sniper School and the Special Operations Target Interdiction Course.

The new version has been dubbed “Improved Ghillie System”, or “IGS.” IGS will replace the FRGS. Soldiers will wear the IGS over their field uniform. It will include sleeves, cape, veil, leggings and more.

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The IGS modular approach gives soldiers flexibility and lets them easily adapt the suit to their needs. It is important for snipers to tailor their ghillies to match the local environment. They even harvest their location to attach leaves and other items to help blend in.

File photo of two snipers (U.S. Army)

The ghillie suit will usually not cover the face, neck and hands. Snipers use camouflage makeup to conceal these exposed areas.

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How will it be enhanced?

Snipers will find the new ghillie is lighter weight and hopefully more comfortable and less cumbersome. Right now, ghillies are heavy and hot. When you combine that with the regions troops deploy in – such as jungle and desert – it can get extremely toasty inside the ghillie for the sniper.

As a result, the new IGS fabric will be more breathable.

IGS will still incorporate some flame-resistance. The Combat Uniform underneath the ghillie delivers the primary protection from fire.

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Overall, it is expected that soldiers will find the IGS more effective.

The FRGS accessory kit is getting the heave-ho. In practice, Soldiers were not utilizing many of them.

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Advances benefit snipers and all ground troops

Ensuring military snipers have access to the best tools for concealment is important for their safety – and for the protection of the wider force. Here are just four examples of how snipers protect U.S. forces.

In addition to the expert marksmanship that stops threats to soldiers from thousands of feet away, snipers also perform other key missions like reconnaissance.

Snipers often infiltrate enemy territory and gather crucial data on enemy location, force size, the weapons they are carrying and more. This sort of data can be vital to protect the force and end up saving lives.

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In an urban terrain, a sniper may set up on a roof. In a mountainous region, they may perch high up on the edge of a cliff. These are overwatch positions that give the snipers a view of the battlespace.  Snipers regularly save the lives of U.S. ground forces by spotting a threat and stopping it before their teammates on the ground are hurt by the enemy combatant.

For example, one horrible method of attack in Afghanistan and Iraq has been someone approaching an access point to a base pleading for water or medical assistance. Exploiting the kindness of the soldiers, they get close and then detonate a hidden bomb. Snipers in overwatch can spot the bomb, warn the ground force and if the attacker refuses to stop and charge the gate, then the snipers can save those on the ground by stopping the bomber before detonation.

U.S. military snipers are so good that they can remain concealed and in some scenarios suddenly stop an enemy strike team’s ability to function with some well-placed shots.

By targeting their water supply containers and eliminating hydration in the hot desert, for example, they can force them to retreat. By shooting their spare fuel tanks, they can render an enemy unable to move anywhere except slowly on foot. Shooting their radios can stop the enemy force from communicating and disable a coordinated attack on U.S. forces.

The potential for expert U.S. military marksmanship to terrify enemy forces should never be underestimated. The sniper can seem invisible and adversaries can’t fight a threat they cannot see. By delivering deadly pinpointed shots at any moment, the impact on an enemy's morale and commitment to attacking U.S. forces is significant.

What’s next?

This month, lab and field testing begins. IGS will be tested in labs, but also in field environments.

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Sniper-qualified soldiers at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida will help test how effective the ghillie is at providing visual camouflage during daytime conditions.

Army Research Laboratory will put the new ghillie up against intensive nighttime testing with night vision goggles. This will help evaluate how the camouflage keeps soldiers concealed in the dark.

ARL will put the new ghillie fabric through its paces against fire to assess protection. The robustness of the fabric will be tested to see how much more protection it can offer against tears.

Acoustic testing will also be important. Sound is another tell that an enemy can use to locate snipers. It can expose a sniper’s movements and location. The new IGS will be tested to ensure it will be quiet and assess how much noise it will produce in various field conditions.

When will the new camouflage ghillies be available?

As soon as next spring, Sniper School instructors at Fort Benning may get their hands on them.

More than 3,000 military snipers will be receiving the new, enhanced sniper ghillies.

There are about 3,300 snipers in the Army. Once the new IGS is approved, it will be rolled out to all those snipers as well as to the Army snipers at Special Operations Command.

Allison Barrie is a defense specialist with experience in more than 70 countries who consults at the highest levels of defense and national security, a lawyer with four postgraduate degrees, and author of the definitive guide, Future Weapons: Access Granted, on sale in 30 countries.  Barrie hosts the new hit podcast “Tactical Talk”  where she gives listeners direct access to the most fascinating Special Operations warriors each week and to find out more about the FOX Firepower host and columnist you can click here or follow her on Twitter @allison_barrie and Instagram @allisonbarriehq.

Army and Air Force craft new joint combat attack plan that deploys information as a weapon

The Army and the Air Force are crafting a new combined air-ground combat attack strategy to improve warfare networks, perform long-range sensing of targets, strike enemies more effectively and strengthen defenses across multiple domains in real-time.

The Army-Air Force collaboration, called "Multi-Domain Operations," has included in-depth joint-service wargames; it is ultimately aimed at developing new doctrine, service leaders explained.

“The goal is a joint Air Force-Army document,” Gen. John M. Murray, Commanding General of Army Futures Command, told Warrior Maven.

A new Army-Air Force collaboration war strategy is, broadly speaking, discussed in terms of being a modern, or new iteration of the Cold War-era "AirLand Battle" strategy.

AirLand Battle, which envisioned air-ground warfare synergy to counter a Soviet threat on the European continent, was intended to provide air cover for advancing land attack units confronting a larger Soviet Army.

Flying in close proximity land forces, air assets were intended to attack advancing ground units, weaken supply lines or destroy troop fortifications, clearing the way for offensive operations. While these objectives are of course still important, the currently emerging Air-Land cross-domain doctrinal is based upon the reality that modern air and ground forces are more dispersed – and therefore more threatening. Ground forces are now more vulnerable to longer-range air and missile strikes, drone attacks and guided weapons able to strike from high-altitudes.

This new concept, when it comes to technical application, involves a fundamental shift toward using information itself and a principle weapon in warfare operations. The tactical use of information to organize and enable effective combat involves a range of tactics — such as using air-assets as “nodes” across a larger air-ground combat scheme, firing ground weapons to attack enemy air defenses and leveraging the altitude and range of surveillance aircraft to pinpoint targets for land-based attacks.

“Will a sensor identifying target be land-based, air, or space? The longer the range, the less likely it will be a land-based sensor,” a senior Army official told Warrior in an interview- referring to the emerging doctrinal effort.

Much of the collaborative activity, the senior official described, involves the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command and the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. As part of the joint effort to pursue these aims, the Army Fires Center of Excellence has implemented a joint fires certification element.

Of course, the Army and the Air Force already have a history of successful warfare integration, including air-ground coordination in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. US Special Forces, the Air Force Special Tactics Squadron and strategically placed Joint Tactical Air Controllers have long identified ground-target coordinates for air attacks, often using land-based laser rangefinders to “paint” targets for fighter jets.

The emerging Army-Air Force approach seeks to move well beyond these existing tactics to extend the range, power and “multi-domain” effectiveness of combat operations, to include cyber, space and electromagnetic domains. While explaining some specifics of the Air Force contribution to this initiative, retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula said establishing a dispersed, multi-domain, inter-service warfare network presents a “difficult concept for an enemy to attack.”

This concept, placing information itself as indispensable connective tissue to networked cross-domain warfare, is further developed by Deptula in a Mitchell Institute policy paper called “Evolving Technologies and Warfare in the 21st Century: Introducing the “Combat Cloud.”

The essence of the combat cloud, the paper explains, resides in the concept that each system or platform in a warfare scenario is itself a “node” across a wide-spanning combat network.

“The ‘combat cloud’ inverts the paradigm of combined arms warfare— making information the focal point, not operational domains. This concept represents an evolution where individually networked platforms—in any domain—transform into a “system of systems” enterprise,” the paper writes.

For example, many land weapons such as Guided Multiple-Launch Rocket Systems, and artillery often max out at ranges of 70-to-90 km in many cases. Land-fired High Mobility Rocket Systems (HIMARS) are reported to have a maximum range up to 300 km. However, having a 300 km range for HIMARS does not mean targets can be properly identified or targeted at that distance.

Many fighter jets, bombers, drones and surveillance planes, however, can travel as far as 500 nautical miles in some cases without needing to refuel. These ranges for air platforms, when networked or integrated with land-weapons, can exponentially increase the sphere of potential air-ground attacks and reconnaissance missions. The vision with this, Deptula explained, is to form an expanded “self-healing” warfare network.

“If an enemy takes out a few aircraft, the information is already re-routed to the rest of the elements,” Deptula said in an interview with Warrior.

Within this conceptual framework, the “combat cloud” can use dispersed, long-range air assets as “sensor nodes” operating in tandem with land weapons.

The Army’s developing Long-Range Precision Fires weapon, engineered to hit targets as far away as 500 km, is a land weapon being engineered to support this concept and expand the Army’s strike range; this appears to offer an example of how land weapons could potentially be given targets over great distances by “networked” air platforms. Along these lines, Murray referred to LRPF as a high-priority program now being accelerated.

A vastly expanded air-ground attack network, Deptula added, could very well extend to include weapons engagement authority implemented by air nodes at great distances. A more dispersed attack scheme, fortified by long-range weapons and sensors, can hold previously inaccessible targets at risk. An airborne F-35 fighter could, for instance, use its drone-like sensors to acquire a target seemingly out of reach for land-launched missiles and provide the Army weapons with target specifics. Even further, an F-35 might be engineered to cue or even launch ground weapons at a target it identifies. Deptula cited this example in terms of Air Force-Navy synergy.

“If an F-35 detects an enemy missile launch before an Aegis cruiser, the F-35 could engage and launch the interceptor missile that comes off of that Aegis cruiser,” he explained. “We can’t do this yet today, but this is where we need to be doing collective thinking about this vision as a common vision.”

— From the Mitchell Institute Policy Paper
… individual platforms are evolving from a “stove-piped,” parochial service alignment, to a loosely federated “joint and combined” construct today, and eventually into a highly integrated enterprise that collaboratively leverages the broad exchange of information. Desired effects will increasingly be attained through the interaction of multiple systems, each one sharing information and empowering one another for a common purpose.…

Given the fast-growing need for these kinds of expanded attack options, the military is working with industry on a range of technical ways to bring broader, cross-domain networks to fruition. One aerospace firm, called MAG, is working with the Air Force, Air Force Special Operations Command, the Air Force Research Lab and various Army entities to explore next-generation networking systems able to connect soldier-wearable, airborne and vehicle-based ISR systems.

“This includes leveraging commercial Very Low Earth Orbit (vLEO) satellite broadband communications pioneered by industry and the AFRL,” Chad Vuyovich, Director of MAG’s AFSOC Programs, told Warrior Maven.

In a manner analogous to Deptula’s description of “self-healing” networks, Vuyovich said low latency, high-bandwidth vLEO technologies will similarly form “self-healing, ad hoc” networks.

“These are globally accessible and will interface with military-unique, private 4G/5G, and other standard WiFi networks. Data will be passed and processed across multiple internet protocol over radio (IPOR) data networks and global constellations,” Vuyovich said.

All of this military planning takes place within the often-discussed context of “great power competition,” “near-peer threats,” and preparations for “major power warfare.”

With this in mind, Murray cited US military concerns about advanced Russian tactics and technologies used during its attacks in Ukraine – with a specific mind to cross-domain, air-ground attacks.

“In Ukraine, we saw the pairing of drones with artillery to use drones as spotters. Their organizational structure and tactics were a wakeup call for us to start looking at that in a more serious way,” Murray said.

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Army’s future Stryker vehicles to launch attack drones and fire lasers

The U.S. Army is massively revving up the offensive attack technology on its Stryker vehicles with vehicle-launched attack drones, laser weapons, bomb-deflecting structures and a more powerful 30mm cannon, service and industry developers said.

“We have now opened up the aperture for more potential applications on the Stryker,” Col. Glen Dean, Stryker Program Manager, told reporters at the recent Association of the United States Army Annual Symposium.

Stryker maker General Dynamics Land Systems has been testing an integrated sensor-shooter drone system mounted on the vehicle itself. A small, vertical take-off surveillance drone, called the Shrike 2, launches from the turret of the vehicle to sense, find and track enemy targets. Then, using a standard video data link, it can work in tandem with an attack missile to destroy the targets it finds. The technology is intended to expedite the sensor-to-shooter loop and function as its own “hunter-killer” system.

“A missile warhead can be launched before you show up in town. It has a sensor and killer all in one platform. Let’s reach out and kill the enemy before we even show up,” Michael Peck, Enterprise Business Development, General Dynamics Land Systems, told Warrior Maven in an interview.

Peck added that the Stryker-launched drone system could make a difference in a wide range of tactical circumstances to include attacking major power mechanized formations and finding terrorist enemies blended into civilian areas.

“It will go out in an urban environment and it will sense and find your shooter or incoming RPG,” Peck added.

Dean also referenced the Army’s evolving Mobile High-Energy Laser weapons system, which has been testing on Strykers in recent years. Firing a 5kw laser, a Stryker vehicle destroyed an enemy drone target in prior testing, raising confidence that combat vehicle-fired laser weapons could become operational in coming years.

The laser weapon system uses its own Ku-band tracking radar to autonomously acquire targets in the event that other sensors on the vehicle are disabled in combat. It also has an electronic warfare jamming system intended to take out the signal of enemy drones.

Lasers can also enable silent defense and attack, something which provides a substantial tactical advantage as it can afford Stryker vehicles the opportunity to conduct combat missions without giving away their position.

A Congressional Research Service report from earlier this year, called “U.S. Army Weapons-Related Directed Energy Programs,” details some of the key advantages and limitations of fast-evolving laser weapons.

“DE (directed energy) could be used as both a sensor and a weapon, thereby shortening the sensor-to-shooter timeline to seconds. This means that U.S. weapon systems could conduct multiple engagements against a target before an adversary could respond,” the Congressional report states.

Lasers also bring the substantial advantage of staying ahead of the “cost curve,” making them easier to use repeatedly. In many instances, low-cost lasers could destroy targets instead of expensive interceptor missiles. Furthermore, mobile-power technology, targeting algorithms, beam control and thermal management technologies are all progressing quickly, a scenario which increases prospects for successful laser applications.

At the same time, the Congressional report also points out some basic constraints or challenges associated with laser weapons. Laser weapons can suffer from “beam attenuation, limited range and an ability to be employed against non-line-of-sight targets,” the report says.

Dean said the Army was “pure-fleeting” its inventory of Strykers to an A1 variant, enabling the vehicles to integrate a blast-deflecting double-V hull,450hp engine, 60,000-pound suspension and upgraded digital backbone.

“This provides a baseline for the fleet to allow us to grow for the future. We just completed an operational test. That vehicle has growth margin to include weight carrying capability and electrical power,” Dean said.

Peck said GDLS will be upgrading the existing arsenal of “flat-bottomed” Strykers to the A1 configuration at a pace of at least “one half of a brigade per year.”

“This provides a baseline for the fleet to allow us to grow for the future. We just completed an operational test. That vehicle has growth margin to include weight carrying capability and electrical power,” Dean said.

Peck said GDLS will be upgrading the existing arsenal of “flat-bottomed” Strykers to the A1 configuration at a pace of at least “one half of a brigade per year.”

The 30mm cannon can use a proximity fuse and fire high-explosive rounds, armor piercing rounds and air burst rounds. Also, while the .50-Cal is often used as a suppressive fire "area" weapon designed to restrict enemy freedom of movement and allow troops to maneuver, the 30mm gun brings a level of precision fire to the Stryker Infantry Carrier that does not currently exist.

Dismounted infantry units are often among the first-entering “tip-of-the-spear” combat forces which at times travel to areas less-reachable by heavy armored platforms such as an Abrams tank or Bradley Fighting Vehicle. Certain terrain, bridges or enemy force postures can also make it difficult for heavier armored vehicles to maneuver on the attack.

In previous interviews with Warrior, GDLS weapons developers explained that the 30mm uses a “link-less” feed system, making less prone to jamming.

The new, more-powerful Orbital ATK XM 81330mm 30mm cannon, which can be fired from within the Stryker vehicle using a Remote Weapons Station, will first deploy with the European-based 2nd Cavalry Unit.

The Army is also fast-tracking newly configured Stryker vehicles armed with drone and aircraft killing Stinger and Hellfire missiles to counter Russia in Europe and provide more support to maneuvering Brigade Combat Teams in combat.

The program, which plans to deploy its first vehicles to Europe by 2020, is part of an Army effort called short-range-air-defense – Initial Maneuver (SHORAD).

Senior leaders say the service plans to build its first Stryker SHORAD prototype by 2019 as a step toward producing 144 initial systems

"We atrophied air defense if you think about it. With more near-peer major combat operations threats on the horizon, the need for SHORAD and high-tier weapons like THAAD and PATRIOT comes back to the forefront. This is a key notion of maneuverable SHORAD – if you are going to maneuver you need an air defense capability able to stay up with a formation," the senior Army official told Warrior Maven in an interview.

As a result, ground infantry supported by armored vehicles will need mobile air defenses to address closer-in air threats. This is where the Stryker SHORAD comes in; infantry does not have the same fires or ground mobility as an armored Stryker, and handheld anti-aircraft weapons such as a hand-fired Stinger would not have the same defensive impact as a Hellfire or Stinger armed Stryker. In a large mechanized engagement, advancing infantry needs fortified armored support able to cross bridges and maneuver alongside foot soldiers.

Chinese or Russian helicopters and drones, for instance, are armed with rockets, missiles and small arms fire. A concept with SHORAD would be to engage and hit these kinds of threats prior to or alongside any enemy attack. SHORAD brings an armored, mobile air defense in real-time, in a way that most larger, less-mobile ground missiles can.

The PATRIOT missile, for instance, is better suited to hit incoming mid-range ballistic missiles and other attacking threats. While mobile, a PATRIOT might have less of an ability to support infantry by attacking fast-moving enemy helicopters and drones.

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