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AFNORTH, partners demonstrate enhanced counter UAS capability

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. --

Air Forces Northern, headquartered at Tyndall Air Force Base Fla., partnered with agencies from across the United States to conduct the first large-scale demonstration of a second generation counter Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) capability recently. The event took place at nearby Eglin Air Force base, Fla.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense sponsored the technology demonstration, known as the Joint Negation of Asymmetric Threats or “JNAT” which was conducted during the broader counter UAS experiment organized by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) called “Apollyon.”  Apollyon brought in a myriad of emerging sensors and effectors from both government and industry.

“As our competitors continue to militarize drone technology into weapons platforms, the DoD continues to look for innovative ways to counter this threat and enhance protection of military bases, posts and ports,” said Lt. Gen. Kirk Pierce, commander, Continental U.S. North American Aerospace Defense Command Region – 1st Air Force (Air Forces Northern).

Working through bands of high winds and tumultuous rain at times, AFNORTH’s Strategic Programs and Requirements Directorate (A8) completed the first look at a government-owned, non-proprietary architecture designed to integrate a variety of sensors to better detect and track very low and slow UAS threats while reducing false positives.

Apollyon was originally planned to run from mid to late August but was curtailed six days early due to a storms systems entering the Gulf of Mexico almost simultaneously. Tropical Storm Marco made landfall near the mouth of the Mississippi River, Aug. 24. Hurricane Laura, initially projected to make landfall near Tyndall, bore an ominous reminder to the devastation that Hurricane Michael brought to the region only 22 months earlier. Laura made landfall at Cameron, La., Aug. 27. Six months of COVID restrictions also factored into the demonstration’s timing.

Teamed with the Army’s Aviation and Missile Center, Redstone Arsenal, Ala., and the Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Beach, Fla., and other industry partners, the JNAT architecture was successfully employed integrating a variety of typically “stand-alone” sensors with various sensor modalities, said Lt. Col. John Middlemore, AFNORTH A8 deputy director. “The goal was to make better use of ‘off-the-shelf’ sensor technology while promoting a common set of standards which industry can build towards.”

Additionally, AFNORTH made steps toward drone employment safety, by working with the U.S. Air Force Safety Center from Kirtland AFB, N.M., as the Operations Manager for the JNAT Joint Concept Technology Demonstration. 

Several new JNAT applications are being developed to “sense and warn” air traffic controllers of possible drone activity within close proximity to airfields. The Safety Center had identified the need to improve air surveillance as a means to avoid accidental collision between drones and aircraft operating in the vicinity of airfields. A follow-on demonstration is planned for the spring of 2021 at Randolph AFB, Texas, said Middlemore.

In addition to the Apollyon counter UAS event, the JNAT team also participated in a live surface-to-air missile test while deployed to the Eglin AFB test range.  Technicians from the JNAT team helped implement an advanced electronic identification capability, known as Joint Multi-platform Advanced Combat ID (JMAC), into NORAD’s Deployable - Integrated Air Defense System (D-IADS). 

“The goal was to maintain commonality between the deployable system and the air defense system defending the nation’s Capital,” said Middlemore. “The event was executed flawlessly as large scale drone operators flew the BQM-167 cruise missile surrogate from Tyndall Air Force Base through Gulf Range airspaces, only to be shot down by Army air defenders.”

The defenders were from the 263rd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, Anderson, S.C., utilizing an Air Force ground-launched advance medium-range air-to-air missile.

Despite manpower shortages and disrupted integration efforts due to COVID, as well as weather challenges that led to a one week disruption, the OSD JNAT team successfully completed the planned principal objectives for the counter UAS and counter Cruise Missile events.

Participating agencies assisting AFNORTH and the JNAT team included: 263rd AAMDC, Anderson, SC; Air Force Research Lab, Kirtland AFB; USAF AMRAAM Program Office and 82nd Aerial Target Squadron, Tyndall AFB; 53rd Weapons Evaluations Group, Tyndall AFB; 780th Test Squadron, Eglin AFB; 283rd Combat Communications Squadron, Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Ga.; and the Air Force Lifecycle Management Counter UAS Program Office from Hanscom AFB, Mass.

“Fortunately for the JNAT team’s demonstration, Hurricane Laura never made landfall in the Eglin area after having strengthened to a category 4 hurricane,” said Pierce.  “Still, some of our other AFNORTH members were tasked to provide critical Defense Support to Civil Authorities, as first responders piled into New Orleans to mitigate damage caused by Hurricane Laura. So between staying sharp to defend the homeland and helping our communities during times of great need, we’re fully engaged.”