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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The New War In The Air Littorals: Implications For Future Integrated Air And Missile Defenses

TB2 drone similar to the one fighting in Ukraine.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has caused many defense experts and military leaders to posit the existence of a new “mini-domain:” the air littorals. This is the region from the ground to approximately 1,000 ft. 

As the current conflict demonstrates, this new zone is becoming increasingly central to how the war on the ground is evolving. The air littoral region has seen the proliferation of many new capabilities, most notably in the form of low-flying drones, but also including cruise and anti-tank guided missiles, and even ground-hugging manned platforms. 

Air Littoral Requires New Radar Technologies

This zone of extreme lethality calls for new integrated defense capabilities to address both airborne threats – particularly drones – and ground-fired weapons. To be effective against mass deployments of drones and missile strikes, defenses will need new multi-mission radars that can track thousands of airborne and ground targets simultaneously. Fortunately, such a capability now exists and can be rapidly deployed.

Drones are Flying Lower Than Ever

While drones have had a significant presence in conflicts across the globe for nearly two decades, the Russia-Ukraine war marks a fundamentally new stage in the employment of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in combat. Unable to employ traditional air assets to achieve air superiority, both sides have had to look elsewhere for a domain and set of technologies that could deliver the decisive advantage once provided by classic airpower. This has led them to focus on the air littorals and flood this domain with UASs of all sizes and capabilities. 

Ukraine has successfully operated a dizzying array of drones, from the medium-size Turkish Bayraktar, which can carry munitions and do intelligence collection, to smaller U.S. Puma, Phoenix Shadow, and Switchblade loitering munitions, along with purchases from hobby shops and third parties, most notably China. So-called Kamikaze drones have destroyed hundreds of tanks and armored vehicles and performed well against air defense systems. Among the defense items Ukraine has requested from the U.S. are 1,000 additional drones.

While many Ukrainian and Russian drones have been reportedly shot down or disabled, they have still managed to exert considerable influence on the battlefield. This is why Russia, which has boasted of its development of sophisticated UASs, is now jerry-rigging commercial platforms for weapons delivery and has reportedly contracted with Iran to provide a large number of drones.

Drones are the ‘IT’ Munition of Conflict

Virtually every nation observing the current conflict has drawn the same lesson: UASs will play an increased role in future combat, particularly high-end conflicts, and the air littorals will be a major zone in which future wars will be fought. The U.S. is developing a new generation of rotary wing platforms as part of the Future Vertical Lift program that is intended to exploit air littorals to conduct deep operations. These and other aerial platforms will be equipped with Air Launched Effects, essentially miniature drones that will carry sensors, EW packages, or lethal warheads. Other nations will certainly attempt to follow suit leading to the further proliferation of platforms and engagements in this near-Earth zone. As one European observer commented: “Everybody now wants drones, special drones, unjammable and whatsoever. Everybody will have millions of drones that can’t be defeated.” 

In addition to drones, air littorals are also the zone of operations of a wide range of cruise and anti-tank guided missiles, rocket propelled grenades, artillery shells, and mortar rounds. Similarly, defenses such as short-range, anti-aircraft missiles, active protection systems to defeat anti-tank missiles, and even drones designed to defeat other drones, such as the U.S. Coyote system, will be traversing this domain. 

The U.S. Works to Advance its Drones

The Department of Defense (DOD) recognizes the need to defeat threats in air littorals, particularly when posed by small and medium-sized drones. It created the Joint Counter Small UAS Office which has deployed a set of early countermeasures. The Army also has invested in the Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system (M-SHORAD). A laser-equipped version of M-SHORAD, which will be particularly effective against smaller, low-flying Class 1, 2, and 3 drones, is about to be deployed.

An effective defense against the mass of manned platforms, drones, weapons, and munitions that will flood the air littorals in any high-end conflict will require more and better sensors than those currently fielded. Existing radars are challenged by environmental clutter, the small size of many of these objects, and their ability to change speed and direction. The demands of surveilling the future low-altitude battlefield and effectively tracking the myriad of objects traversing this space exceed the capabilities of existing sensor systems.

TB2 Drone

TB2 Drone. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Fortunately, there is a solution. The Israeli company Elbit has developed a high-resolution, multimission, active electronically scanned array (AESA) tactical radar that can detect and track thousands of small air, surface, and ground targets: the Multimission AESA Tactical Radar-X Band or MATR-X. This new system has significantly longer range than existing tactical radars and can track thousands of targets at once. Equally important, it can search for airborne and ground-operating targets at the same time, allowing it to support both air defenses and active protection systems. In some instances, it has been able to detect the launch of anti-tank guided missiles while they are still in their launch tube. MATR-X can also discriminate between drones and birds in flight and track human beings on the ground.

A radar with capabilities such as those available with the MATR-X will be absolutely vital in allowing future low-altitude integrated air and missile defenses to address the proliferation of threats in the air littorals. This is even more the case since the Army has adopted a layered defense approach, which requires understanding and managing the way the threat presents itself to defense. The greater the detection range for inbound UASs, the better.

Even with directed energy weapons, tactical defenses will be challenged to engage and defeat the sheer number as well as the variety of threats in this domain. In particular, current defenses will have to deal with autonomous drones and fire-and-forget missiles that cannot be jammed. Defenses will need enormous amounts of data in order to prioritize targets and move between air defense and active protection. MATR-X could make the difference between victory and defeat in the battle for superiority in the air littorals.

Dr. Daniel Goure, a 1945 Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.

Written By

Dr. Goure is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program.



  1. xheavy

    September 19, 2022 at 4:40 pm

    We do not possess the airdefense worth a damn to go with the Military on land. Our Homeland is naked for the most part. Sure we bought a few iron domes, put up a couple of Ground AIM120 launchers and THAAD, Patriots and so on and a few Crams and so on.

    Too little too late. Never enough of anything.

    The US NAVY was out to sea with the Aegis Warships the day of 9-11 attacks. By the end of that week we had 6 to 9 battle groups covering both of our coasts with a air defense configuration.

    Years ago, a Russian Submarine Surfaced off the US Midatlantic beaches close to DC and made itself known. Within the hour the USA had orbiting numbers of Sub Hunting Aircraft off our entire Coast through the next day. They did not find that sub which managed to get back to port about 60 days later.

    Yes the USA did a little bit of battlefield Airdefense in a variety of systems but compared to the Russian Stuff then in existance simply inadquate, crappy and too expensive in testing and not formally introduced into service. We simply dont act like we believe in it.

    At some point we will pay for this in blood both our Cities and Military.

    At one time we had airdefense when I was a baby back in the 60’s in the form of NIKE Missile Batteries. For what they were, it was defensive. If we ever used them in war to erase the approaching bombers the fall out from those NIKES in many cases will irradiate the cities they are trying to defend and kill those populations anyway. Some still exist as museums now.

    Israel is the model of airdefense in real time during their Peace and War as well as Terrorist attacks. There was a incident when actual rifle bullets sprayed towards a Iron Dome Missile Site which detected them, categorized the incoming and fired its missiles to defend Israel. The missiles knocked the bullets aside and rammed into the buildings downtown at Gaza. Its not that big.

    So they had to retune it so that the Terrorists do not just spray the things to make them empty prior to a actual missile attack. That would have been embarrassing.

    Washington DC is the one exception in terms of Airdefense. Even prior to 9-11 we had to be careful on where we took a small plane in that airspace region on flights. Camp David is prohibited airspace to infinity (Space above) as was Richie, Raven and a number of installations around the area in addition to certain no nos downtown.

    After 9-11 we have no desire to do any further flying because its just not worth it. Theres no fun in it anymore. Make a tiny mistake and get intercepted. I dont have a problem with it. Plenty of sky out here west and south to fly in if the medical stuff at my point in life is cleared enough to get back into it. Even then the airspace where I live now is dominated by the Airforce in Training near their base. So thats no fun either. Throw in the constant Medflights and so on at low altitudes and its more of a headache than its worth.

    Drones? Meh. Whatever. Its a brave new world. I dabbled into seeing about this drone business once but found that I would have to register with the FAA and my airspace is not the place to be flying one anyway. So there is no point for what I consider to be toys and passing fancies.

    Fast foward to the Current War in Ukraine among other things. The Drones have proven themselves in actual battle. I followed the movements of Forte11 which is a drone writ large for weeks among others. It is good to have Drones because they can go into places where a human would be such a tragic loss of life and a waste. If the drone happened to get caught and then destroyed? Oh well. Send another. And another.

    The key moment for me is the Sinking of the USS Moskva. Using a few drones to bait the warship and his crew (RU Ships are HE) and distract them so bad. I dont know why they dithered so long. They should have summarily shot down the objects… bbBRRRRT BRRRRRT BRRRRT and thats that on sight. But evidently the Moskva got lazy. And eventually sunk. Oh well. Meh. Next.

    I saw another drone video two weeks later of a most modern newest RU Navy Frigate burning and exploding in the Sea of Azov after being attacked. So much for that one too. So the drones are useful.

    Which circles back to a need for airdefense locally. A whole mess of it. A enemy or unknown drone shows up? The sun should be darkened by a resolute air defense action to delete that offending insect. Then EW followed up the trail back to where or whom controlled the damn thing.

    It would be years. Until then the Drones will have their day in the sun or under the Stars rather. Ukraine is actually playing games with their Drones. Put a bunch of bombs on them. Fly over a Russian HQ inside a trench bunker system on some hill. Spot a sleeping bored gaurd at the entrance. Drop a bomb into the lap. Watch soldier jump up and run/limp/hobble away. Some do not move dead right there. So annoying.

    I think its human not to keep the eyes on the sky wherever you are. Look up. Dropping grenades from drones into open tank hatches sitting in large groups is embarrasing and less of a credit to the RU Military. Suppose someone did that to a bunch of our stuff? Pooof no more Army Bang Bang. All burned up Sir. Due to no local airdefense.

    Serves us right.

  2. Jacksonian Libertarian

    September 19, 2022 at 9:22 pm

    The “mature precision strike regime” is here to stay, adapt or die.

  3. 403Forbidden

    September 20, 2022 at 1:33 am

    Thissa so-called integrated air & missile defense is a favorite topic in US military circles where it is known by many euphemisms.

    It is not defense at all but actually attack or strike near a rival’s border or near his coast.

    This integrated defense is sometimes lesser known as joint strategy or multi-domain strategy or also distributed strategy or strike-and-wear-down strategy or simply attrition defense.

    Such strategy or defense or offense will become reality when US military acquires hypersonic fires and deploys them at faraway forward bases as part of US ‘defense.’

    So, then, with such strategy in place, it’s going to be game over for those who dare challenge Washington’s order.

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