How U.S. Army’s Billion-Dollar Gamble On Drone Defense Could Go Wrong

How U.S. Army’s Billion-Dollar Gamble On Drone Defense Could Go Wrong

The U.S. Army has just put more than a billion dollars into a new air defense system called IM-SHORAD to protect soldiers from drone attacks. It is a vital mission – but the last time the Army tried to develop something like this the project failed horribly. And even if the new system works as intended, serious questions remain.

The U.S. has enjoyed air superiority, if not air supremacy, in every conflict for decades. American planes have swept the enemy aircraft from the sky or destroyed them on the ground. The last time an American soldier was killed by enemy air attack was during the Korean War. As a result, while the Russians and others have continued to develop generations of armored vehicles carrying surface-to-air missiles or cannon, U.S. tactical air defense has been steadily wound down. By 2005 the U.S. Army had only a handful of Avengers, essentially Hummers mounting four or eight light Stinger missiles.

In 2015 the Army identified a critical gap in its short-range air-defense (SHORAD) capability as the threat of drones emerged:

“Since 2005…The use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs – drones) has increased exponentially, and UASs have been used successfully by both sides in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict,” noted the Congressional Research Service.

The threat was underlined in 2018 when Iraqi forces supported by the U.S. trying to re-take Mosul came under sustained attack by waves of small, grenade-dropping drones. USAF jets ruled the skies above, but were of no use against quadcopters flying at a few hundred feet.

In response to an urgent needs request, the Army fast-tracked a selection process for a new Initial Maneuver, Short-Range Air Defense (IM-SHORAD) vehicle. The $1.2 billion contract was awarded this month to General Dynamics Land Systems (GDLS), in partnership with Leonardo DRS and Raytheon.

The Army requirement is a Stryker vehicle outfitted to sense and destroy aerial threats, specifically drones but also helicopters, aircraft and cruise missiles. The Stryker chassis has far better protection and cross-country mobility than the legacy Avengers, and the IM-SHORAD ‘s turret mounts a whole arsenal: a quad-pack of Stinger missiles, an XM914 30mm automatic cannon and M240 machine gun, and a pair of Hellfire missiles. The vehicle has four MHR radars that offer 360-degree coverage and can spot targets on the move, as well visible-light and infra-red sensors.

The IM-SHORAD can tackle larger drones at long range – the Stinger can hit low-altitude targets at 3,800 meters – and engage smaller drones at shorter rangers with its cannon and machine-gun, directed by the sensor suite. The laser-guided Hellfire missile, normally used against ground targets, is an unusual choice; it may be intended for electric drones too cool to be picked up by the heat-seeking Stingers. There are longer-term plans for laser armament.

Combining an existing vehicle, existing weapons and existing sensors should be a quick and easy way of building a new air-defense vehicle. However the 1980s M247 Sergeant York fiasco showed this process can be anything but simple.

Sergeant York, otherwise known as DIVAD (Division Air Defense), was a self-propelled anti-aircraft system combining the chassis of an M48 tank with a pair of 40mm Bofors guns and the radar from an F-16 fighter. According to the planners, reusing existing elements rather than starting from scratch should have shaved five years from the development time.

However, Sergeant York experienced severe problems in development. The radar, designed for air-to-air combat, had difficulty with clutter at ground level and mistook trees waving in the wind as targets. During one test it locked onto a latrine fan; in another trial the fire-control computer aimed the guns at a stand full of watching VIPs, resulting in minor injuries as they scrambled for cover. In one test a target drone had to fly over 18 times before Sergeant York could bring it down.

Sergeant York was canceled in 1985 after eight years of development costing $1.8 billion.

“A lesson learned here is the assumption that the application of sub-systems which have been proven in other mission areas will therefore work in another mission area by putting them together in a new system,” Assistant Secretary for Defense James Wade told a press conference in 1984. “We’ve got to be careful about that approach.”

In May, Janes reported that efforts to integrate IM-SHORAD’s system were causing ‘unique challenges.’

“Even though each component is mature by itself, they have to be integrated to work as a system,” Army product manager Lieutenant Colonel Beau Barker told Janes. He noted that the accelerated program was throwing up problems at a higher rate than usual, and the engineering and test teams were working to resolve them.

Hopefully, the lessons of Sergeant York have been learned and the problems overcome.

“The program is going well with prototype testing almost complete which set the conditions for the Army’s recent decision to go forward with production,” a spokesman for Leonardo DRS told Forbes.com. ”This system will significantly improve the ground-to-air lethality for warfighters.”

Even if SHORAD-IM is successful though, it will not be equipping units until 2023. And the world has moved on considerably since the program was conceived 2015, especially in terms of the threat it will face.

Drone use has now become widespread, as we have seen in the current Syrian, Libyan, and Armenian-Azerbaijan conflicts. In an increasing number of cases, armed drones have destroyed the mobile air defense systems that are supposed to stop them. The Russian-made Pantsir-– like SHORAD-IM, a combined gun-and-missile vehicle with its own radar – has suffered badly, with at least 23 reportedly destroyed by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S drones. Small loitering munitions, effectively kamikaze drones which can be used in large numbers like the Israeli Harops deployed by Azeri forces may overwhelm defenses. Azerbaijan has at least four mobile Harop launchers, each able to put up nine of the killer drones, so a wave might consist of 36 Harops attacking from all directions simultaneously.

Meanwhile, several countries including China, Israel, and Turkey – all big drone exporters – are working on fielding swarms of dozens, hundreds or even thousands of drones which can co-ordinate their attacks without direct human control. Each SHORAD-IM costs about $8m, with plans to procure 144 of them —  hardly enough to protect every armored unit, base, and convoy.  We are already seeing a situation where minor states and insurgents are lavishly equipped with drones.  SHORAD-IM should be highly effective against small numbers of drones, but it may be facing more targets than it can handle almost as soon as it is deployed.

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