Air Mobility Command wants on-board counter drone defenses

By Vanessa Montalbano / June 21, 2024 at 3:51 PM

The Air Force is asking industry about various potential solutions to integrate counter-small unmanned aircraft system capabilities onto its mobility fleet as the threat posed by inexpensive drone swarms is making the larger, slower platforms increasingly more vulnerable, according to a request for information the service posted today.

“The purpose is to enhance aircrew situational awareness of sUAS operating in proximity to the aircraft and improve aircraft safety of flight in response to sUAS threats or hazards,” the Air Force writes in the filing. “The scope of this request includes the functional ability to detect, track, and identify sUAS (passive and/or active detection methods); and/or defeat sUAS threats or hazards (kinetic and/or non-kinetic means).”

Specifically, the service is targeting defenses against drones which fit into the Defense Department’s Group 1 and 2 categories, with Group 5 drones being the largest among its counterparts. The Air Force wants the capability to eventually include means to defeat Group 3 drones, but that is not the immediate objective.

The RFI also states officials are primarily interested in “providing on-aircraft C-sUAS capability during critical phases of fixed-wing flight operations below 16,000 feet, with an objective capability for aircraft ground operations,” including when the aircraft is taxiing or parked. Of particular concern is moments when maneuverability of the aircraft is limited, such as during takeoff and landing.

According to a concept of operations document accompanying the RFI listing, the mobility fleet typically relies “on the security provided by the local airfield, which may be civilian-controlled or completely uncontrolled,” to provide safety when conducting missions including transporting cargo and personnel, air refueling, aeromedical evacuation, humanitarian relief and executive travel.

But that ground-based scheme to protect the area and defend against occasional threats “does not account for many of the common [Air Mobility Command] operating locations (domestic and international airfields, of certain types of austere temporary locations),” the document states.

As a result, the service said in the posting it wants to attach “an aircraft-centric defense capability to protect aircraft when operating outside the airbase defense concept . . . intended to defend individual aircraft when operating at locations not having established airbase defense systems.” The request comes as the Air Force is working to close logistics gaps vulnerable to enemy attack in a potential fight with a near peer adversary.

Because some mobility aircraft, like presidential airlift and tankers, do not have ramps, the C-sUAS kits would need to be designed to be able to be hand carried and easily set up by crew members, the notice indicated. Additionally, the service is concerned about friendly or commercial drones that may be operating nearby during peacetime or in humanitarian operations.

“It would be counter-productive to defeat these drones, so systems deploying some type of friendly-drone detection with discernment not to attack blue drones would be beneficial,” while simultaneously being capable of jamming, spoofing and in some cases kinetically attacking identified threats, the service wrote in the CONOPS.

AMC indicated in the RFI that it is interested in solutions which have already been demonstrated on other platforms or able to integrate with other industry-generated components and can operate under harsh environmental conditions that may impair the system.

Businesses are asked to respond by August 28.