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Evolving CUAS strategies for defence vehicles:
layers, mobility and COTS

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In the evolving Defence landscape, drone threats are challenging existing doctrine, prompting rapid reviews of existing doctrine with an emphasis on the elusive high ground/low airspace that has no single owner. In this era of technological advancements, concepts like layers, mobility and the strategic incorporation of Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS) technologies are stepping forward to find, track and defeat drone threats.

One of the fundamental shifts in contemporary Defence thinking is the move toward a layered and adaptable fixed/on-the-move (OTM) strategy. This approach recognizes that relying on a single line of defence is insufficient in the face of multifaceted threats. Instead, multiple layers of security measures are strategically deployed to create a formidable and resilient defence posture. Each layer contributes to the overall posture, and the failure of one does not necessarily lead to a complete compromise of the system.

The challenge from enemy drones in the battlespace is broad, substantial and evolving. Detecting and tracking drones at sufficient range to direct mitigation requires radar. Only radar provides the range required to properly protect troops and assets and the accuracy to target the intruder. The challenge is that an active emitter, like radar, becomes a target beacon for the same intruding drones.

Portability and mobility in defence become key attributes for a robust, layered defence strategy. Highly mobile sensor vehicles with OTM radar provide roving 20 km zones of highly accurate data of ground and airspace activity that is immediately available to Command. Coordinated across upgraded Remote Weapons Stations (RWS) now equipped with low SWaP targeting radar that steers the turret, locks optical systems to solution fire control, and provides range for smart munitions that cost low thousands of dollars, mitigation achieves capital symmetry with both state and non-state forces.

Left to traditional Defence procurement, such systems of systems would be unlikely to be realized, however necessary the national imperative, without concerted action. Whether by luck or coincidence, the decline in traditional Defence procurement led to a revolution in software and systems development that now stands to provide a significant boost to Defence capabilities. Substantial capital has been deployed in pursuit of industrial and systems ambitions that have notable dual use potential. How to properly harness that capital in pursuit of common national security objectives remains a shared objective.

The integration of commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology into defence systems represents a shift in how military organizations approach technology acquisition and fielded operation. COTS refers to readily available, commercially developed hardware and software components that are widely used across various industries, either at the component, product, or systems level. Leveraging COTS technology in defence has proven to offer several compelling advantages:

  • Cost Savings. COTS products are mass-produced for a broad market, resulting in lower procurement costs. This allows defence organizations to acquire technology at a fraction of the cost of developing custom, proprietary solutions.
  • Attritable. COTS solutions are readily available, reducing development time, accelerating procurement schedules. Transparency to commercial product delivery schedules improves logistics resilience and maintains deployed force capabilities.
  • Technological Innovation. COTS products benefit from ongoing advancements in technology driven by commercial markets. By integrating COTS solutions, defence systems can stay at the forefront of technological innovation without the need for extensive public dollars where private capital can be harnessed.
  • Interoperability. COTS products are designed to work with standard interfaces and protocols, promoting interoperability. This makes it easier to integrate different components and systems within the defence infrastructure, fostering a more cohesive and flexible architecture.
  • Support and Maintenance. COTS products are designed for consumers. While the battlespace will test every component to the zeroth degree, commercial and individual consumers can stress hardware unlike any machine could contemplate. This is most evident with GM's focus on Defence and bringing commercial platforms to Defence applications that resemble build and deploy simplicity when incorporating parts widely available.
  • Reducing Development Risks. Custom solutions carry inherent risks and uncertainties. COTS products have a proven track record, reducing the risk associated with untested or unproven technologies and accelerating the development process.
  • Scalability. COTS components are often designed to be scalable to meet different performance requirements. This scalability allows defence systems to be easily adapted and upgraded as operational needs evolve.

Programs such as SHORAD and MADIS represent a constrained supply chain reliant on yesterday's development to pay tomorrow's bills. Rapid adaptation to threat, open acknowledgement of delivered capabilities shortcomings, more and more often upgrade windows and similar private industry development attributes should be applied to public programs.

COTS technology serves as a force multiplier, enhancing the capabilities of defence systems across multiple domains. By adopting commercially available hardware and software components, defence organizations can redirect resources toward mission-critical tasks rather than investing heavily in technology development.

Interoperability, a key advantage of COTS, allows for the integration of diverse systems and components. This interoperability is especially crucial in the mobile context, where a seamless flow of information between devices and networks is essential. The scalability of COTS components enables defence systems to evolve alongside technological advancements, ensuring a sustained competitive edge. Incorporating COTS suppliers into the Defence ecosystem requires robust security that must be responsive to industry.

While the integration of layered defence, mobility and COTS technology offers substantial benefits, it is not without challenges. Proper integration into systems of systems remains an elusive goal, further challenged by necessary information exchange with partner forces. Software-defined systems follow improvement paths that challenge the orthodoxy of Large Program release cycles. Striking the right balance between security and usability in mobile environments is an ongoing challenge, as is ensuring that COTS components meet the stringent requirements of defence applications.

Additionally, the reliance on COTS technology raises questions about supply chain security. As defence systems incorporate off-the-shelf components, there is an inherent dependence on a diverse supply chain. The Covid pandemic demonstrated the weaknesses of supply chains upon which COTS suppliers rely. Industry responded with enhanced capabilities that further demonstrated the value of distributed development.

Given the national security imperative, private capital deployed in hardware and software development can and should augment and accelerate necessary large programs that only national Defence end users will operate. Dual use potential is and should remain a key tenant of strategic agility. New programs like U.S. Replicator demonstrate that public support for enabling technologies and supply chains is a national good that should inform policy and influence procurement in all Western nations.

A successful defence strategy is one that anticipates and adapts to emerging threats, leverages the strengths of diverse layers of expertise and command, embraces an agility imperative that pushes larger systems towards mobile acquisition of actionable data and harnesses the power of COTS as the multiplier it is. The future of defence combines the strengths of private and public capital, creating a future-ready force that is robust and adaptable.

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