Meeting the Challenges of Unmanned Aerial System Threat Proliferation

by Brian Murphy / October 17, 2022

While ubiquitous and advancing forms of high-speed connectivity devices have affected almost all aspects of everyday lives, highly advanced and highly available Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are becoming just as universal across the frontlines of security and defense. In addition to their use by well-known conventional actors in combat operations, non-state actors have also embraced UAS as a low-cost, high-impact tool. In fact, the FAA has recorded approximately 10,000 drone-related incidents in the past five years alone. Clearly, there is a growing need for a wide-reaching improvement to defend against UAS threats in the civilian space as well as on the battlefield.

The potential answer to these rogue drone threats can range from simple identification and awareness to the execution of complex counter-attacks with lasers, radio waves, small drones, and missiles. The wide range of protective requirements is driving demand for advanced sensors and systems that enables a robust and comprehensive counter-UAS deterrent. Time is of the essence as the trend toward more capable, cheaper, and wider-reaching UAS threats will continue and likely accelerate.

Threat Proliferation Challenges

Armed forces must be prepared to encounter UAS use by armed forces and non-state actors alike. Even the most basic commercial drones can be weaponized to bear devices capable of causing devastating harm. As their use proliferates the battlespace, finding ways to combat them is a high priority. To successfully counter this growing threat, we must anticipate where the technology and tactics are headed and continuously stay ahead of potential adversaries’ capabilities.

A real-time example of this is the Russia-Ukraine conflict, where both sides have employed UAS. Ukraine has extensively used hobbyist drones to support civil resistance efforts and has also deployed drones provided as part of the U.S. military aid package (i.e., AeroVironment Switchblades). Russia did not appear prepared to counter these UAS strikes, making their use highly effective for Ukrainian forces. Although early in the conflict, evidence of Russian drone use was limited, they appear to have since increased use in various roles, from carrying out strikes to guiding artillery and recording video for tactical intelligence operations. We are also now seeing Russian deployments of Iranian-built combat drones in more significant numbers with devastating results across Ukraine. These examples are all likely to be replicated in future conflicts.

Autonomous and remotely-operated UAS are heavily reliant on electronic communications and control systems. As UAS expand into new applications, the need for advanced counter-UAS and electronic warfare (EW) solutions to combat them increases. UAS attacks can be fast and relatively covert due to the small size of many UAS systems. As such, autonomous threat identification and autonomous or semi-autonomous threat deterrence will be essential. Microelectronics will be critical to upgrade counter-UAS and EW capabilities for the upcoming age of semi-autonomous conflicts by enabling a wide variety of defense products, from precision-guided munitions and hypersonic weapons to satellite systems.

Microelectronics support reduced size and weight, as well as lower-latency computing necessary for autonomous or semi-autonomous counters to AUS threats. Defense, computing, and critical infrastructure sectors increasingly depend on a diverse supply of microelectronics. For these reasons, ensuring secure access to microelectronics technologies is becoming an ever more critical national security imperative. The U.S. Department of Defense is investing in partnerships with private industry to develop domestic U.S.-based microelectronics capabilities. These partnerships focus on capabilities that address the precision requirements of millimeter wave RF and photonics applications found in computing solutions for autonomous and semi-autonomous technology.

Advancing Protective Solutions

Current military UAS deterrent solutions primarily entail passive air-defense measures augmented with limited active defense and direct-fire employment. These systems target UAS identified by frontline soldiers at the edge of the battlespace. Proactive detection systems, data visualization, and common operational picture must all be improved to deter UAS threats. Accurate and timely data is needed to enable battlefield decision-making, especially visual depiction of signals intelligence (SIGINT).

While the deployment of commercial mmWave 5G is progressing more slowly than initially envisioned, enhancing battlefield mmWave communication technology is a crucial building block for those next-gen applications. Collecting and employing battlefield data requires reliably transferring large amounts of data at high speeds with high mobility and low latency.

The development of mmWave (24-100 GHz) technologies and applications provides faster detection and sensing solutions required for augmented counter-UAS deterrence and allows for system footprint miniaturization for reduced size, weight, power, and cost (SWaP-C). Smaller sensor packages and low-latency data collection are critical enablers for integrating UAS detection and deterrence into an overall connected battlespace C5ISR platform.

Policies & Initiatives Support

Current U.S. Government policies and programs are being rolled out to increase momentum for securing the appropriate UAS deterrent solutions in the near- and long- terms. To assess defense supply chains, the DoD has prioritized four focus areas of particular importance to national security: counter-UAS systems, 5G networks, hypersonics, and microelectronics. This initiative recognizes that the speed of doing business in the standard defense procurement process may not be sufficient to address the growing threat of UAS, looking instead for new ways to deploy the technology quickly.

The Pentagon also recently stood up a counter-UAS office, recognizing that small UAS are becoming a weapon of choice for various potential adversaries. In addition, there is a renewed momentum on expanding the Buy American initiatives and other domestic preference laws for electronics.

Benchmark Readiness    

The proliferation of small satellites, complex adversarial UAS threats, and the application of mmWave communication technology are all driving innovation in microelectronics assembly and higher frequency system design. Paired with the momentum afoot for expanded domestic manufacturing and supply chain requirements, Benchmark is poised to support your growing electronics solutions needs with the largest percentage of capacity in the U.S. of any electronics contract manufacturer. Benchmark develops and builds high-frequency, high-speed electronics for the most hostile operating environments imaginable—on land, sea, air, and space. Our design engineers help you leverage the most advanced manufacturing techniques available to exceed your most challenging size, weight, and power goals for analog through 110 GHz systems. With precision microelectronic assembly, optical technologies, SMT assembly, and mmWave design & test capabilities at the ready, Benchmark is the partner of choice for rapid development, launch, and production of cutting-edge counter-UAS solutions technologies.

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about the author

Brian Murphy

Brian Murphy is a Business Development Executive in the Aerospace & Defense sector at Benchmark. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served as a Mission Systems and Space Programs Acquisitions Officer. Brian has held numerous leadership positions running technology product launches and new venture start-up campaigns in the telecommunications, industrial infrastructure, and defense industries. Brian hails from Indiana and is an avid Air Force football fan, a once-upon-a-time marathon runner, and a very high handicap golfer. He holds a BS in Management from the U.S. Air Force Academy and an MBA from Xavier University.

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