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NATO needs options to deal with deadly drones. Here are two.

May 16

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The modern battlefield is as dynamic as it is deadly. Small, unmanned aerial systems are taking out larger weapons for pennies on the dollar, forcing NATO nations to adapt and deal with attack vehicles that are often the same kind of devices one can buy at a store, just with some extra kit.

“It’s a component of a larger group of capabilities that will make a difference on the battlefield,” Gordon ‘Skip’ Davis said. “We’ve seen that in spades in Ukraine specifically, but also in the Red Sea with the exploitation by the Houthis, or even in the fighting in Israel.”

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Davis, a retired Army general and former NATO staffer, is now a non-resident senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA). He recently took part in a virtual press conference held by CEPA focusing on the many lessons learned concerning drone warfare in Ukraine. One of the first and most immediate takeaways: A cost-effective means of defense is going to be paramount for any NATO ally that finds itself in a drawn-out conflict.

“We just cannot continue to shoot things down with expensive defensive systems that are so much more expensive than the small drones,” said Lance Landrum, another non-resident senior fellow with CEPA and retired Air Force officer. “And so we have to figure out a way to flip that cost curve.”

In the Red Sea right now, the most commonly used missile to counter the drone and cruise missile threats is the Navy’s Standard Missile 2, or SM-2. The missiles cost about $2 million each, and spoiler: a Navy destroyer doesn’t have an endless supply of SM-2s.

“A destroyer only holds 96 missiles in its vertical launch system,” said Tate Westbrook, a former captain of a destroyer and commodore of a fleet of destroyers before retiring from the Navy. “So, if you got into a heavy engagement with either multiple air threats, multiple missiles, or as we’ve seen lately in the Red Sea multiple drones, I was always worried: was my ship, or my squadron of ships, were they going to run out of missiles too soon in the fight? [Would they] have to leave station and reload?”

After retiring from the Navy, Westbrook went to work for BAE Systems where he is now the director of business development for naval guns and missile launchers. His job is to help make some new weapons that the U.S. military wants yesterday.

One of these new weapons is the Hypervelocity Projectile (HVP), a new round of ammunition that can be fired from any Mk 45 deck gun in the Navy’s fleet. As the name suggests, the HVP travels extremely fast, but it has a few more tricks hidden up its sabot-sleeves.

“What Hypervelocity Projectile brings, besides slightly increased range, is a significant improvement in lethality,” Westbrook said during an interview with him and one of his colleagues, David Smialek, BAE’s director of business development for precision guidance and sensing solutions.

“[The HVP] round itself will maneuver to target as the ship is transmitting the target information to the round,” Westbrook said. “The small computer inside the round itself is commanding the round to the optimal intercept. Our objective is essentially one shot, one kill with an exact or very close intercept, because of the maneuver of the round. We’re significantly increasing how many targets [combat commanders] can engage over time with just one or two rounds compared to conventional munitions that may take multiple rounds to score an effective kill against a maneuvering air target.”

The Navy isn’t the only U.S. service branch BAE Systems is working with to develop HVPs. In fact, the HVP can even be fired out of a Paladin mobile howitzer, which uses the NATO standard 155 mm artillery round. That’s great news for the U.S. Army, since it was relying on the Air Force for most of its air defense capability. That’s a prospect which is quickly being abandoned now that drones are so ubiquitous on the battlefield.

Davis said that BAE doesn’t have the HVP in full production just yet and he couldn’t give an exact price per round. However, he and Smialek both said the final cost will be a fraction of what an SM-2 costs.

When it comes to air defense as a whole, however, there is no single solution. A layered approach is always better. As the top provider of the Navy’s layered air defense systems, BAE obviously agrees. To that end, the company developed another option to counter unmanned aerial systems. The new solution combines two already proven weapons into a very lethal, very accurate defender.

Component one is the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System, or APKWS. It’s a laser-guided rocket that’s been in production for over a decade now. It has a reported range between one and four miles. It’s small enough to be loaded by hand, versatile enough to fit on a variety of vehicles, and at around $20,000 a rocket, it has proved to be a relatively inexpensive but effective way to deal with smaller classes of drones.

Smialek summed it up nicely when he said, “So, for an interceptor, you know, it makes a lot of sense, right? I mean, you can’t dispute what it can do.”

Smialek also said the APKWS is widely available and already in use in the DOD’s current inventory. BAE also has the infrastructure to make about 25,000 a year right now.

So, if the APKWS is the first part of the solution, what’s the second? The Mk 38 stabilized gun. Now, like the APKWS, the Mk 38 has been around for a while. What’s new is the gun’s ability to now fire the APKWS as well.

Davis and Smialek said BAE installed and tested the new variant Mk 38 on a U.S. naval vessel, but can’t release any images of it right now for fear of identifying the ship. Obviously a legitimate security concern. However, they did say there are nearly 500 Mk 38s installed on U.S. naval vessels, and with minimal modifications, those guns can be ready to fire the APKWS as well.

And there is another major benefit of both HVP and deck-mounted APKWS launchers. Unlike the larger, more exquisite weapons like the SM-2, which can’t be reloaded at sea, both the HVP and APKWS can be replenished while a vessel is underway. This ability gives every captain more options in a conflict, and more ‘stowed kills’ with every mission.

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THE MODERN BATTLEFIELD IS AS DYNAMIC AS IT IS DEADLY. SMALL, UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS ARE TAKING OUT LARGER WEAPONS FOR PENNIES ON THE DOLLAR. OFTEN TIMES, THE ATTACK VEHICLES ARE THE SAME SORT OF DEVICES YOU CAN BUY AT A STORE, BUT WITH SOME EXTRA KIT.

Gordon ‘Skip’ Davis: It’s a component of a larger group of capabilities that will make a difference on the battlefield. And we’ve seen that in spades in Ukraine specifically, but also, you know, what we’ve seen in the Red Sea, exploitation by Houthis, or even, you know, in the fighting in Israel.

THAT WAS GORDON ‘SKIP’ DAVIS, A RETIRED ARMY GENERAL AND FORMER NATO STAFFER. DURING A VIRTUAL PRESS CONFERENCE HELD BY THE CENTER FOR EUROPEAN POLICY ANALYSIS, DAVIS AND OTHER CEPA FELLOWS EXPLAINED OF THE MANY LESSONS LEARNED CONCERNING DRONE WARFARE IN UKRAINE, FINDING A COST-EFFECTIVE MEANS OF DEFENSE IS GOING TO BE PARAMOUNT FOR ANY NATO ALLY THAT FINDS THEMSELVES IN A DRAWN-OUT CONFLICT.

Lance Landrum: We just cannot continue to shoot things down with expensive defensive systems that are so much more expensive than the small drones. And so we have to figure out a way to flip that cost curve.

IN THE RED SEA RIGHT NOW, THE MOST COMMONLY USED MISSILE TO COUNTER THE DRONE AND CRUISE MISSILE THREATS ARE THE NAVY’S STANDARD MISSILE 2, OR SM-2s. THEY COST ABOUT $2 MILLION A POP, AND SPOILER: A NAVY DESTROYER DOESN’T HAVE AN ENDLESS SUPPLY OF SM-2s.

Tate Westbrook: A destroyer only holds 96 missiles in its vertical launch system. And so if you got into a heavy engagement with either multiple air threats, multiple missiles, or as we’ve seen lately in the Red Sea multiple drones–I was always worried was my ship, or my squadron of ships, were they going to run out of missiles too soon in the fight? And have to leave station and reload?

TATE WESTBROOK USED TO CAPTAIN A US NAVY DESTROYER, AND WAS ALSO THE COMMODORE OF A FLEET OF DESTROYERS. NOW, HE WORKS FOR BAE SYSTEMS HELPING TO DESIGN SOME NEW WEAPONS THAT THE U.S. MILITARY WANTS YESTERDAY.

ONE OF THESE NEW WEAPONS IS THE HYPERVELOCITY PROJECTILE, A NEW ROUND OF AMMUNITION THAT CAN BE FIRED FROM ANY MARK 45 DECK GUN IN THE NAVY’S FLEET. AS THE NAME SUGGESTS, THE HVP TRAVELS EXTREMELY FAST, BUT IT HAS A FEW MORE TRICKS HIDDEN UP IS SABOT-SLEEVES.

Westbrook: What Hypervelocity Projectile brings, besides slightly increased range, is a significant improvement in lethality because the round itself will maneuver to target as the ship is transmitting the target information to the round. The small computer inside the round itself is commanding the round to the optimal intercept. So, our objective is essentially one shot, one kill with an exact or very close intercept. Because of the maneuver of the round, [we’re] significantly increasing how many targets that they can engage over time with just one or or say two rounds compared to conventional munitions that may take multiple rounds to score an effective kill against a maneuvering air target.

THE NAVY ISN’T THE ONLY U.S. SERVICE BRANCH BAE SYSTEMS IS WORKING WITH TO DEVELOP HVPs. IN FACT, THE HVP CAN EVEN BE FIRED OUT OF A PALADIN MOBILE HOWITZER, WHICH USES THE NATO STANDARD 155mm ARTILLERY ROUND. THAT’S GREAT NEWS FOR THE U.S. ARMY, SINCE IT WAS RELYING ON THE AIR FORCE FOR MOST OF ITS AIR DEFENSE CAPABILITY. A PROSPECT WHICH IS QUICKLY BEING ABANDONED NOW THAT DRONES ARE SO UBIQUITOUS ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

BAE SYSTEMS SAYS THE HVP ISN’T IN FULL PRODUCTION JUST YET, SO THEY COULDN’T GIVE ME AN EXACT PRICE PER ROUND BUT THEY ASSURED ME THE FINAL COST WILL BE A FRACTION OF WHAT AN SM-2 COSTS.

WHEN IT COMES TO AIR DEFENSE AS A WHOLE, HOWEVER, THERE IS NO SINGLE SOLUTION AND A LAYERED APPROACH IS ALWAYS BETTER.
AS THE TOP PROVIDER OF THE U.S. NAVY’S LAYERED AIR DEFENSE SYSTEMS, BAE OBVIOUSLY AGREES. AND TO THAT END, THE COMPANY DEVELOPED ANOTHER OPTION TO COUNTER UNMANNED AERIAL SYSTEMS. THE NEW SOLUTION COMBINES TWO ALREADY PROVEN WEAPONS INTO A VERY LETHAL, VERY ACCURATE DEFENDER.

COMPONENT ONE IS THE ADVANCED PRECISION KILL WEAPON SYSTEM, OR APKWS. IT’S A LASER-GUIDED ROCKET THAT’S BEEN IN PRODUCTION FOR OVER A DECADE NOW. IT HAS A REPORTED RANGE BETWEEN 1 AND 4 MILES. IT’S SMALL ENOUGH TO BE LOADED BY HAND, VERSATILE ENOUGH TO FIT ON A VARIETY OF VEHICLES, AND AT AROUND $20 GRAND A ROCKET, IT’s PROVED A RELATIVELY INEXPENSIVE BUT EFFECTIVE WAY TO DEAL WITH THE SMALLER CLASSES OF DRONES.

Dave Smialek: So, for an interceptor, you know, it makes a lot of sense, right? I mean, you can’t dispute what it can do.

THAT’S DAVE SMIALEK, THE BUSINESS DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR AT BAE FOR PRECISION GUIDANCE AND SENSING SOLUTIONS.

HE SAYS THE APKWS IS ALSO WIDELY AVAILABLE, AND BAE HAS THE INFRASTRUCTURE TO MAKE ABOUT 25,000 A YEAR RIGHT NOW.

SO, IF THE APKWS IS THE FIRST PART OF THE SOLUTION, WHAT’S THE SECOND? THE Mk 38 STABILIZED GUN. NOW, LIKE THE APKWS, THE Mk 38 HAS BEEN AROUND FOR AWHILE. WHAT’S NEW IS THE GUN’S ABILITY TO NOW FIRE THE APKWS AS WELL.

BAE SAYS IT’S INSTALLED AND TESTED THE NEW VARIANT Mk 38 ON A U.S. SHIP, BUT CAN’T RELEASE ANY IMAGES OF IT RIGHT NOW FOR FEAR OF IDENTIFYING THE SHIP. OBVIOUS SECURITY REASONS.

BUT, BAE DID SAY THERE ARE NEARLY 500 Mk 38s INSTALLED ON U.S. NAVAL VESSELS, AND WITH MINIMAL MODIFICATIONS THOSE GUNS CAN BE READY TO FIRE THE APKWS AS WELL.

AND UNLIKE THE LARGER, MORE EXQUISITE WEAPONS LIKE THE SM-2, WHICH CAN’T BE RELOADED AT SEA, BOTH THE HVP AND APKWS CAN BE REPLENISHED WHILE A VESSEL IS UNDERWAY, GIVING EVERY CAPTAIN MORE OPTIONS AND MORE STOWED KILLS WITH EVERY MISSION.

FOR STRAIGHT ARROW NEWS, I’M RYAN ROBERTSON.