Hardening Unmanned Aerial Systems Against High-Power Microwave Threats in Support of Forward Operations

Counter-UAS (C-UAS) weapons utilizing pulsed high-power microwave (HPM) energy pose a significant problem for UAS in offensive and defensive combat roles by causing electromagnetic interference (EMI) that can produce effects ranging from upset to system damage.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) continue to play an increasing role across the spectrum of military operations. Advances in human-machine teaming, additive manufacturing, power cell density, and autonomy will position these systems to become an integral part of missions that fall inside an adversary's operational reach in the near future.

The global power projection capability of the United States, largely unchallenged since the end of the Cold War, is increasingly in question. State adversaries are rapidly developing and extending the range of anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities, while seeking inexpensive counters to exquisite US systems. Consequently, the US will likely be forced to operate within the reach of its enemies in the very near future. In this context, the execution and defense of rapid-deployable, distributed forward operations will be essential. The Airpower Vistas Research Task Force (AVRTF) 2017, comprised of students from the Air War College and Air Command and Staff College, was tasked by the Chief of Staff of the Air Force with detailing the scope of these anticipated threats in 2025 to forward operations and operating locations across the Combatant Commands. While unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will play an increasing and integral role in these operations, their vulnerability to counter-UAS weapons utilizing high power microwaves (HPM) must be explored and mitigated.

Defining this unique problem set requires looking two steps ahead in the development and implementation of UAS and C-UAS technology. The capability of UAS to fill greater combat roles within an adversary's operational reach is being recognized and developed at several Department of Defense institutions, including the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Sandia National Laboratory (SNL). Advancements in automation, power cell capacity, additive manufacturing, and swarming algorithms position UAS as a formidable and highly flexible part of operations ranging from ISR to attacking air, ground, and maritime targets. Counter-UAS (C-UAS) technology is also in rapid development and includes weapons that disrupt the electromagnetic spectrum.

High power microwave weapons use intentional electromagnetic interference (EMI) to disrupt, damage, or destroy electronic systems. Unlike other directed energy (DE) weapons, HPM are not attenuated greatly by atmospheric obstacles such as clouds, rain and fog. While currently expensive to develop, the cost-per-shot of these systems is relatively low. Unlike lasers, they typically have a wide aperture and are of particular use as area weapons against electronics.

These characteristics make HPM systems ideal for use against UAS being utilized either individually or in swarms. C-UAS systems that use HPM have been just out of reach for decades, as the massive power requirements for such weapons have been impractical. Recent advances in this field, however, have produced capable systems that, if used in an offensive posture, can pose a threat to defensive UAS constructs. Therefore, the US cannot continue to increase the role of UAS without likewise considering their vulnerabilities to HPM weapons.

This work was done by Major Coningsby J. Burdon for the Air University.For more information, download the Technical Support Package (free white paper) below. AFIT-0006

This Brief includes a Technical Support Package (TSP).
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Hardening Unmanned Aerial Systems Against High-Power Microwave Threats in Support of Forward Operations

(reference AFIT-0006) is currently available for download from the TSP library.

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