By Dawn Zoldi (Colonel, USAF Ret.)
Over a year since Russia invaded Ukraine, one thing is clear: commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drones have changed the face of warfare. Throughout that conflict, the world has witnessed small, cheap drones deliver destruction and death in an unprecedented manner. This makes another thing clear: military leaders need to radically rethink their force protection requirements.
The Protection Challenge
Drones have democratized combat power. For just a few dollars, anyone can purchase a COTS drone and harness the type of airpower previously reserved to nation states. Equipped with sensors ranging from a basic camera to thermal imagers, drones can expertly perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, providing key insights into enemy positions. With precision, they can drop a wide range of payloads to inflict damage on military forces and capabilities. Drones themselves can be used as airborne improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
All of these creative uses of COTS drones had been previously employed by terrorists and insurgents, but the Russia-Ukraine war, dubbed The Washington Post as “the first full-scale drone war,” has taken COTS drone use to a whole new level. Drones continue to be successfully employed against tanks, civilian infrastructure and military troops.
This proliferation of COTS drones on the battlefield has complicated commanders’ duty to protect their forces. Today, more than ever, military leaders require the best possible means to identify and defeat drones.
Duty to Defend
Force Protection represents the programs, processes and procedures designed to protect military members, civilian employees, family members, facilities and equipment. While all military members are essentially responsible for force protection, the primary duty to recognize threats to any mission falls on the shoulders of the military commander.
Across the range of missions, the law of armed conflict (LOAC), a specialized subset of international humanitarian law, governs combatants’ behavior. The rules of engagement (ROE) directives issued by competent military authority provide the legal parameters for the use of force and implement the LOAC. For the U.S. military, both the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) Instruction 3121.01B, Standing Rules of Engagement for U.S. Forces (SROE) and national policy codify this concept of “force protection” as an inherent obligation of commanders to not only protect their forces but also to employ all necessary means available to defend them.
This creates a heavy burden for military leaders, especially with regard to versatile, fast and often unidentifiable drone threats, requiring a layered defensive posture. While no one-size-fits-all solution exists, radars play a key role in identifying inbound threat vectors.
Enter MatrixSpace, a U.S. radar and AI sensing company. MatrixSpace Radar™ is the first-of-its kind small size, weight, power and cost radar that integrates best-of-class sensing technologies, AI edge processing and radio-frequency (RF) communications. This compact radar unit provides combat forces with the quality of real-time situational awareness required to rapidly and accurately identify potential threats, timely respond and ultimately, save critical assets and lives.
Until now, no radar was as versatile and low cost as the COTS drone themselves.
Traditional phased-array radars are big, heavy, expensive and limited in range. Common radars used by military forces measure at least 100 feet across, weigh approximately 66 pounds and only track objects across the three dimensions of height, width and depth. Contrast this with the MatrixSpace cell phone-sized and backpack-portable radar, which weighs about two and a half pounds and provides 4D spatial awareness through the additional dimension of time. This enables users to know where an object is heading and how fast it’s moving.
Perhaps more important, the small SWaP unit contains supercomputing power at the edge. MatrixSpace Radar’s autonomous onboard computing, artificial intelligence, data fusion and analysis capabilities enable fast and actionable intelligence for the end-user. This enables real-time decision-making. On the battlefield, this real-time complete spatial awareness – digitizing the battlespace – matters. It can be the difference between life and death.
As they say in the U.S. Air Force, “Flexibility is the key to airpower.” MatrixSpace Radar offers this in terms of configurations. Options include permanent mounts of a single radar on a vehicle (including drone, drone dog or ship) or static object (think: gate guard shack), creating a large array of units for expansive coverage (just three radars provide 360 degree coverage), being hand-carried by individual troops – or all of the above. Add to this the fact that average field setup is only 15 to 30 minutes.
The system’s flexibility extends to its ability to be customized, ruggedized and integrated with a user’s existing sensors, cloud or systems, consistent with a modular open systems architecture (MOSA) requirement. It also boasts software-defined intelligence, remote system update pushes, and agnostic sensor integrations.
It’s a big step forward in allowing military commanders to fulfill their obligation to protect the people and places under their charge.
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, United States Air Force Retired) is a licensed attorney, U.S. Air Force veteran and the founder and Chief Executive Officer of P3 Tech Consulting.
She is an internationally recognized expert on uncrewed aircraft systems and advanced air mobility law and policy. Her recognition includes: MOVE America (Mobility) – The Disruptors (2022), Airwards People’s Choice – Industry Impactor (2022), eVTOL Insights Powerbook (2022), Top 100 Women in Aerospace and Aviation to Follow on LinkedIn (2022, 2021) and the Woman to Watch in UAS – Leadership Award (2019).