Controlling the Forward Aerial High Ground

Northrop-Grumman’s M-ACE
Northrop-Grumman’s M-ACE capitalizes on the enhanced lethality offered in its Programable Air Burst Munitions to provide existing frontline weapons the capability to counter Unmanned Aerial Systems (drones). It integrates electro-optic, radar, and command and control to effectively detect, track, and engage not only drones but other targets. Credit: NGC

‘Seize and control the high ground’ is an established axiom in combat. The current introduction and projected proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) challenges the ability of armies to effectively gain this advantage.

The employment of unmanned drones in combat action in Ukraine by both sides suggests that ground forces, in particular, are seeing their freedom of movement and action seriously curtailed.

Just how valuable the UAS can be in improving the battlefield effectiveness of just artillery was recently documented by a UK-based Royal United Services (RUSI) study by military analysts Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds. Their findings determined through in-person interviews was the observation by Ukrainian artillery crews, that “Russian artillery is generally able to bring accurate artillery fire down on targets within three to five minutes after UAV reconnaissance has identified them” (this contrasted to 30 minutes response without a UAS spotter). Such rapid and accurate fires are difficult to counter through repositioning – “shoot-and-scoot” tactics. “As a result, Ukrainian force has been forced to maintain organic MANPADS teams, preferably visually directed Starstreak and Martlet, with their artillery units to destroy Russian spotting UAS. UAS directed Russian artillery has also proved capable of accurately engaging moving targets suggesting even mobile combat units are vulnerable

These observations further illustrate how the UAS has the proven ability for dominating the forward battlespace high ground almost at will with any challenge being currently relatively limited. That Ukrainian UASs continue to successfully operate even facing Russian well-established and sophisticated traditional air defence systems raises questions regarding its effectiveness of against this threat particularly on the front lines. Although dedicated air defence may be able to deter unmanned drones against fixed, critical sites their numbers are limited. Further, as the low cost of unmanned systems encourages broad drone employment it unlikely that these air defence systems can be available to cover every tactical unit. The result can find forward tactical units in future conflicts subject to the same risks and punishment evidenced in the battles in Ukraine. Ground combat units are increasingly clearly vulnerable where the UAS are able to discretely monitor and report, precisely direct artillery, or to attack themselves.

Current Direction – Tactical CUAS

Recognition of the rise of the unmanned aerial vehicle has driven moves to explore, develop and introduce counter systems. Accelerated efforts have seen the development and introduction of SAAB’s MSHORAD, the Marine Corps MADIS Mk1 and Mk 2, the US Army FS-LIDS (Expeditionary-Low Slow Small Unmanned Aircraft Integrated Defeat System), Manoeuvre SHORAD, and other systems. These are specifically designed for counter-air including advanced active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, electro-optic sights, RF countermeasures, and gun and/or guided missile effectors. They are necessarily sophisticated systems providing dedicated solutions intended to be employed within a traditional air defence structure. However, given this and their high price, these systems are likely to be fielded in limited numbers and, therefore, committed to protecting priority sites and activities.

M-SHORAD systems
Dedicated air defense systems like the Maneuver SHORAD possess the capability to address the range of aerial threats from UAS to cruise missiles and attack aircraft. They are limited in numbers and may not be available to protect forward units, especially considering the wide scale presence of small drones as evident in Ukraine.

These systems can be effective against fixed-wing and helicopters, as well as the larger UAS Group 4 and 5, as well as high-end Group 3. However, their abilities and even suitability against Group 1, 2, and much of 3 is open to question. First, commitment of these air defence systems even those directed against the UAS are unlikely to be readily available to cover to forward combat, artillery and support forces. This will be especially so with these units operating on the disbursed future battlefield. Second, one might question the efficiency of utilising a multi-thousand priced system or effector against a threat valued at several hundred. These points have, in fact, been recognised for some time. A “White Paper” from Leonardo DRS, a major industry air defence system integrator, states “Deploying dedicated counter small UAS systems is not the answer long term…The Army cannot afford the people or equipment…Instead, the military needs a non-dedicated capability”. It is noteworthy that this assessment was published well before the Russian-Ukraine conflict and its combat experiences were represented.

Tactical Active Air Defence

Given the high possibility that dedicated air defence systems will be unavailable for protecting forward manoeuvre, artillery, and their supporting units from locally encountered smaller UASs these units must have their own “organic protection” capabilities. Yet, this should not detract from their primary roles and tactical capabilities. Ideally, it should enhance them. This is hardly unprecedented. Although with the relatively recent luxury of air superiority the need for countering opposing air had been widely neglected by tactical ground forces in most Western militaries this was not always so. Being prepared to respond to a potential air attack was a standard drill for ground units throughout the 1930s, 40s and into the 1950s. The M2 HB .50 caliber machine gun mounted on tanks, combat vehicles and tactical truck’s primary purpose then was to provide active protection against such attack. The US Army Air Defence Artillery School even in its 2006 curriculum included a subcourse (IS4401) covering “Small Arms Defence Against Air Attack”, although it emphasised this should be “self-defence…and not to engage aircraft not attacking”. Self-defence was, however, never denied.

With the wide presence of the UAS this hostile intention may be significantly more difficult to ascertain. An observing drone proving the eyes for opposing artillery is an equal or greater threat as one that may be armed for direct attack. These unmanned aerial systems provide a material combat advantage that can contribute to psychological burden over time if not neutralised. These hostile targets are also much less suitably addressed by weapons like the Caliber .50 machine gun using open sights. The question is whether a local small UAS counter/self-protection capability suitable for employment by tactical combat platforms can be provided?

Tactical Unit Local CUAS

A challenge for forward tactical units in responding to the battlefield presence of the small UAS is, at least partly, having the means to effectively do so. For the most part their typical organic weapons and sensors were not intended for addressing targets like the UAS/drone. First hitting and downing these aerial platforms firing solid bullets entails firing an inordinate quantity of rounds. This would be particularly difficult with light infantry small arms but is also a concern for combat vehicles equipped with auto cannon and/or guided missiles. Then there is the challenge of detecting the drone. Group 1/2/3 UAS are typically small and quiet making them difficult to observe using the human eye and hard to acquire through optical sights intended for point-ground targets with relatively narrow fields-of-view. Still given an accurate hand-off and direction gunner’s using these sights have proved fully capable acquiring and engaging these targets.

The possibility of providing an effective Counter UAS local tactical protection capability has become feasible through the combination of recent developments. The solution(s) draw on improvements to existing technologies which can be applied to existing combat systems/weapons/vehicles. These specifically address each of the challenges of countering these frontline tactical UAS threats.


The development of programable direct-fire munitions offering precisely delivered air-burst effect are being demonstrated as highly effective against a range of suitable targets. Although considered ideal for targets in defile, troops in the open, or anti-tank teams these have also proved highly effective against Group 1, 2 and 3 UAS and in favourable circumstances loitering munitions. Programable Air-Burst Munitions (ABM) technology has been applied to calibres from 20 mm to 120mm. It has been particularly introduced to auto cannon in 30, 35, and 40mm, as well as 40mm Automatic Grenade Launchers, and tank main guns. “Live-fire demonstrations of its 30X173mm Mk310 PABM-T” explained Ryan Harris Northrop-Grumman Director of Advanced Ammunition,” have shown it can down a quad-copter drone with a single shot.” The PABM, thus, allows effective engagement of a hostile small UAS at the maximum effective range of an existing mounted weapon without depleting on-board ammunition. Depending on the armament and ammunition size these offer effective ranges of 1,500 meters or more reasonable for destroying threaten drones. The multi-target functionality of the PABM makes it the ideal choice as the immediately ready to fire “battle sight” ammunition and, thus, also well suited to downing the UAS.

Small drones Quad-Copter
Small drones like this Quad-Copter are inexpensive, simple to operate and discrete providing a “birds-eye” view of the opposing force. Experience in Ukraine has seen artillery able to effectively engage targets in minutes when supported by a drone providing targeting. These drones are being fielded by militaries across the globe, here PLA troops employ a drone.

Northrop-Grumman, capitalising partly on the PABM and its auto-cannons, has in a company-funded development designed and demonstrated the M-ACE system. The Mobile Acquisition Cueing and Effector integrates one of their 30mm Bushmaster auto-cannon (either the M230LF or XM813) with a sensor package of electro-optic/infrared, radar, and radio frequency (RF) with a command/control suite. Robert Menti, Director Armament Systems Business Development explained, “The system provides a fully networked complete kill-chain decision/engagement cycle (target identification, classification, and prioritisation) through sensor fusion and autonomous/artificial intelligence.” M-ACE is further designed to utilise any sensors while networking multiple effectors on the battlefield. It enables bringing nondedicated systems together or to integrate with agnostic gun systems to provide a multi-domain force protection system.

Programable Air Burst Munitions PABM
Programable Air Burst Munitions PABM offer the capability to practically and efficiently engage and destroy the tactical UAS, particularly the Group 1, 2 and 3. The PABM permits combat vehicles and some crew served weapons the potential to counter drones if they can be detected. The target effect of a 30mm PABM against a drone is clearly demonstrated in this live firing.

Although associated with, in this instance, counter-UAS these functions could be applied to any target scenario or sensor set. The MACE capability is suitable for mounting on various platforms for concept demonstration including light tactical trucks, ATVs/UGVs, or to be potentially integrated into other ground platforms including existing combat vehicles such as the Stryker Dragoon. The successfully MACE demonstration, although constructed around a specific weapon/platform and sensor suite, has, according to Menti, broader and more far-reaching implications. It validates the possibility for introducing a local UAS protection/defeat capability into existing combat platforms with both minimal technical risk while also enhancing other battlefield target detection and situational awareness capabilities.


Detection of the UAS, especially the small drones, remains a concern and also a major challenge. Early C-UAS solutions such as the Marine Corps Light MADIS (Marine Air Defence Integrated System) employed radar for target detection and tracking. The RADA 4D AESA RPS-42 detection radar has proved effective for UAS surveillance/detection with ranges of 25 km for medium UAS and five kilometres for a nano-UAS. They are also multi-mission and capable of addressing a range of targets. The US Army’s Stryker Manoeuvre SHORAD also employs the RADA MHR. These systems have proven effective and well suited for dedicated air defence systems, however, their cost, space claims and power requirements could make them less appropriate for broad general outfitting to ground combat vehicles.

Infra-red Search and Track using optical thermal scanning, such Rheinmetall’s Fast InfraRed Search and Track (FIRST) and HGH Infrared SPYNEL have favourable size and suitability for ground use. They also have the benefits of being totally passive detecting sensors. An advantage is that they offer continuous panoramic coverage from a single sensor that is equally capable of detecting and offering a visual image of surface and aerial alerts. Although an option of use from stationary positions their capabilities used from a vehicle on-the-move may not be sufficient at the current state of development. Advances in processing hold promise in addressing this, as well extending its capabilities as a potential 360-degree automatic threat alerting system.

Perhaps one of the more promising sensors comes from Echodyne. The company has taken a new approach to RADAR introducing Metamaterial Electronically Scanned Arrays. As Leo McCloskey, Vice President Marketing, shared “the MESA 3D radar allows exceptional performance with significantly reduced size, lower weight, requiring less power. The MESA systems are also a commercial product with the associated benefits including price.” The EchoGuard model is 425mmx460mm (17×18.4 inch) and can detect a Matrice 600 quad-copter drone at 1200m, a person as 1200m, and vehicle at 3500m. Even the hand nano-drone can be decerned at 250m. The next step up EchoShield’s performance is 4.5km for the Matrice, 8 km for the person and 14km on a vehicle. The precision is 0.5 degrees in Azimuth and Elevation with better than five meter accuracy. EchoGuard’s array weight is below 1.25kg with a power draw of less than 50Kw. Both systems are already in service and have been proven in field conditions. McCloskey indicated that Echodyne is in discussions with integrators to consider pursuing the realisation of these combat system applications. It might even be possible for MESA radar to contribute to vehicle active protection by detecting and alerting to anti-tank missile launches.

The Echodyne EchoGuard MESA 3D radar array
The Echodyne EchoGuard MESA 3D radar array being both small in size, lightweight, and requiring minimum power yet possessing excellent detection range and accuracy is ideally suited to integration with auto-cannon to counter Group 1-3 drones. Here an array is mounted with a M230 30mm Bushmaster.

Challenge and Possibilities

The evidence from Ukraine increasingly confirms that the threat of the UAS particularly when combined with artillery as the potential to stalemate the battlefield and stimy offensive action. Traditional air defences are challenged to counter UAS capabilities which can extend so broadly across the front. Forward units require the ability to directly address the inevitable presence of hostile UASs, particularly the Group 1-3 drones. Fortunately, the technologies that can offer this capability are available. The PABM has been shown to offer the lethality to engage and down these drones. These are available for many combat vehicle armament and even some ground weapons. The MESA radar offers attractive characteristics for integration and add-on to these vehicles as well. They offer the benefits of not only addressing drone detection but also expanding battlefield situational awareness. This also furthers the movement integrating different and complementary sensors, in this case radar and existing electro-optics.

Successful pursuit of this resurrection of local organic self-protection against aerial attack also, and perhaps more difficult, necessitates a recognition that air defence is an inherent capability within all combat (and even forward support) forces. The presence of the UAS and its ability to “command the high ground” has brought this lesson home.

The characteristics of the MESA favour its application both used on ground tripods for stationary surveillance or dismounted unit protection and to be added to existing combat vehicles. In the former it would provide a currently lacking drone detection capability, as well incidentally other threats, allowing pro-active counteraction by handheld anti-air missiles or other capable weapons. (It is noteworthy that Nammo has demonstrated the ability of the 40mm automatic grenade launcher to down drones using its programmable air-burst ammunition.) In addition, the MESA radar lends themselves to being added to and integrated into combat vehicles. Here they would not only provide the ability to timely detect and hand-off drone threats for engagement my on-board auto cannon using PABM but also offer a significant enhancement to situational awareness and targeting. The investment would, thereby, benefit not only in addressing the local UAS threats but also facilitate the broader range of mission capabilities and the possibilities for cross-platform exchange.

by Stephen W. Miller