The Defense Department office assessing systems to defeat drones and also develop the related training and doctrine for the use of these capabilities wants to take advantage of artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to make it easier for the users of these systems to combat the evolving threat from unmanned aircraft systems to U.S. forces.

“We understand that the growing threat’s going to require us to look at ways to get after this threat, while reducing load on the operator,” Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, director of the Joint Counter-Unmanned Aircraft System (C-UAS) Office (JCO), said during a recent virtual panel presentation hosted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. “So, we’re looking closely at how can we integrate artificial intelligence into our systems, and some of the machine learning aspects into this.”

Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) will “allow us to effectively manage some of the advanced threats as we move forward,” said Gainey, who is also the director of Fires in the Army G3/5/7 Directorate. This is an area where industry can help, he said.

To help in its technology assessments and offer industry a chance to show its “latest and greatest” capabilities, the JCO last year began hosting semi-annual C-UAS demonstrations at Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona. That demonstration focused on countering small UAS with low collateral effects interceptors, including handheld dismount systems.

A second demonstration is planned for this April with a focus on high-powered microwave and directed energy technology, and C-UAS as a service, Gainey said.

One of the challenges to U.S. forces, whether at a forward base or a long-standing operating base in an allied country is not knowing what a UAS launched by an adversary or another entity is carrying.

“What’s hanging underneath that quadcopter?” Jon “Ty” Thomas, a retired Air Force Lt. Gen. whose service included assignments as deputy commander, Pacific Air Forces, and deputy theater air component commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said during the panel discussion. “Is it a camera or is it a grenade, like we saw up in Northern Iraq several times?

The JCO is focused on threats arising from Group 1 through 3 UAS, which include unmanned aircraft weighing up to 20-pounds, between 21 and 55-pounds, and less than 1,320 pounds.

Another challenge faced by commanders in the field is how to cost-effectively counter a threat drone.

Thomas said that commanders will use what they have available at the time, but added that they need options. For example, a fighter plane equipped with a short-range air-to-air missile could engage a Group 2 UAS, but “What we hopefully do is give him a lot of other options, that he won’t have to expend that round off of that air-to-air fighter that could probably use it for a different purpose on another day.”

The U.S. Air Force in some instances has used their fighters to combat UAS threats, Gainey said.

Gainey said that commanders do have access to some low-cost mitigation and defeat systems for use against small drones such as electronic warfare and directed energy systems, and relatively low cost, lower collateral damage kinetic interceptors like the Raytheon Technologies [RTX] Coyote system that “have been very successful out there.”

The goal is to have a layered, system of systems approach to handle a range of threats, Gainey said, adding that given the large numbers of small UAS that are expected to be brought to bear by adversaries, there won’t be “enough larger interceptors to outshoot them.”

Layered defenses are tied into a command and control (C2) system called Forward Area Air Defense C2 supplied by Northrop Grumman [NOC] that helps manage the airspace in an area. Gainey called it a “beautiful thing” when a soldier or artillery man is in front of a FAAD C2 box and is managing engagements with inputs from different sensor types and then directing counter measures such as electronic warfare, directed energy, or the Coyote system.

Thomas said that there are more options available to commanders now than five or six years ago, but highlighted that given the number of bases and depots that require protection means there are a lot of places that need these defensive capabilities.

“Obviously in crisis and conflict, it’s going to get even more intense, but I want to make sure that we’re understanding this is daily competition as well, a threat that’s out there,” he said.

Thomas also noted that having the authorities to use C-UAS systems in foreign countries in benign environments is important as well. He mentioned a “significant airlift movement” through Europe two years ago that was canceled because a UAS was present over or near an airfield.

“One, we didn’t know what it was doing,” he said. “Second, we didn’t have all the authorities in place to be able to put an effect against that, should we have chosen to do so.”

With proper authorities, the once the field commander recognizes and identifies a threat, “there’s not question in their mind what they can or can’t do,” Thomas added.

The JCO is also responsible for training and doctrine related to C-UAS. Gainey said the Army Fires Center of Excellence will be standing up a Joint C-UAS Academy at Fort Sill, Okla., in the fiscal year 2024 timeframe.