Signals-intelligence collection and drones are coming together in new packages for forward-deployed troops.
In the 1984 film “Runaway,” an archvillain (played by Gene Simmons) uses bullets that bob and weave around obstacles to kill specific people. The U.S. Marines are looking for something similar: a cross between a drone and a missile that can pick up a specific radio frequency and then strike its source from above.
“We can bring those type of unmanned systems to where our reconnaissance units are forward, and they can launch their own capabilities, LOCUST-type capabilities” — the Office of Naval Research’s cannon-launched swarmbot program — “or lethal munitions," said Lt. Gen. Robert S. Walsh, who commands Commanding General, Marine Corps Combat Development Command is the deputy commandant for ,Combat Development and Integration said at the Unmanned Systems Defense conference on Tuesday. “They can sense, locate different signals and then attack those capabilities in advance of our soldiers, keeping them out of harm’s way.”
Such munitions might be fired from the kind of unmanned underwater vehicles that Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, Navy oceanographer, has observed in testing off Hawaii. Gallaudet described an experiment in which a robot submarine surfaced and passed targeting information to a Puma UAV, allowing an over-the-horizon kill. “That was really fun to do," he said.
The Marines have already begun deploying drones with signals intelligence and electronic surveillance payloads, sending them out with Marine expeditionary units as detailed in the Marine 2016 Aviation Plan.
“Right now, we have the capabilities to be able to [do direction finding] on different radio frequencies, being able to find that and then target that that via other means,” Walsh said.
The Marines have been testing a signals-intelligence payload called Spectral Bat on the RQ-21 Blackjack drone.
“The next shift is to go from detecting to engagement,” he said.
That means munitions that can home in on a signal. It’s a capability that the Marines have today, just not in the size Walsh wants.
“Now I would argue that the HARM I carry on my F-18 can do that,” he said, referring to the venerable air-to-ground missile that homes in anti-aircraft radar. “Why do I have to have these expensive HARM missiles that do that when we can have much smaller?”
Walsh said that the Marines could “certainly” obtain such weapons, generically called lethal aerial munitions systems, or LRAMs, within five years. Asked whether such loitering munitions might be ready in time to fight ISIS, he said it was just a matter of affixing lethal payloads to existing drones.
“We aren’t that far away. We certainly have the sensing capability. We have the attack capability. Now it’s a matter of marrying” the two, he said.
Caroline Houck contributed to this post.