Navy Looking For Counter-Drone Systems That Can Be Rapidly Added To Its Ships

The Navy is interested in quickly enhancing its ships’ ability to down drones, reflecting concerns over what’s happening in the Red Sea.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Coyote Drone intercepting another drone
Raytheon via YouTube


If your company has a system in production that can counter aerial drones and could start integrating it onto a warship within 12 months of getting a contract, the U.S. Navy is interested. The urgency here comes as American Arleigh Burke class destroyers have been shooting down dozens of drones launched by Houthi militants at ships in and around the Red Sea. The War Zone just did a deep dive into the ever-growing challenges these threats pose to Navy ships and their current arsenals in the context of the service's future Constellation class frigates.

Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) first put out the contracting notice seeking information about potential add-on shipboard counter-drone capabilities on behalf of the Program Executive Office Integrated WarfarerlSystems (PEO IWS) back on January 18. A slightly updated version was posted online last week.

Launchers for RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM) like the one seen here aboard the Whidbey Island class dock landing ship USS Ashland are among the existing air and missile defenses found on many Navy warships. The service is now looking at acquiring add-on counter-drone capabilities for various vessels. USN

The Navy is specifically interested in systems that have a demonstrated ability to counter drones in what the U.S. military defines as Groups 3, 4, and 5. Under the Department of Defense's categorization system, Group 3 drones are ones with maximum weights of no more than 1,320 pounds, that can reach altitudes up to 18,000 feet, and have top speeds of up to 250 knots. Group 4 has the same altitude stipulation, but covers drones with maximum weights greater than 1,320 pounds and that can fly at any speed. Group 5, the largest drone category in the U.S. military's system, is for any uncrewed aircraft with a maximum weight greater than 1,320 pounds and that can fly above 18,000 feet.

As a more specific example, Iran's now-infamous Shahed 136 kamikaze drone, variants and derivatives of which are now in service in Russia and with several Iranian-backed proxies, falls in the Group 3 category. The Group 4 category includes things like Iran's Mohajer 6 (also now in use in Russia, among other countries) and the U.S. Army's MQ-1C Gray Eagle. The MQ-9 Reaper is typically used as an example of a Group 5 type, but this very open-ended category encompasses all kinds of larger drones. All of these are, of course, just a small sample of the kinds of drones that fall into these three categories.

A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency graphic comparing the features of Iranian Shahed 136 kamikaze drones and examples observed in Russian service, known locally in that country as the Geran-2. DIA

The NAVSEA contracting notice says that "demonstrated capability against other classes of UAS" is also "of interest."

The Navy is also expressly interested in systems to counter drones in Group 3-5 that are "mature" and "in production," and "can be deployed in 1-6 months (preferred), or 6-12 months at the latest." Another key requirement is "minimal integration requirements with Naval combat systems; with independent, self-contained capability [being] highly desirable."

Otherwise the contracting notice doesn't put any limits on what kinds of counter-drone systems the Navy might be willing to consider. This leaves the door open for systems that use a physical effector of some kind, such as a missile, drone, or gun. That Navy could consider options that use some other kind of method, like a directed energy weapon like a laser or high-power microwave, or an electronic warfare jammer.

There are to many potential options to list them all, but some do immediately come to mind in this context. The U.S. Army's Fixed Site Low, Slow, Unmanned Aircraft Integrated Defeat System (FS-LIDS), which is produced by Raytheon and uses the Coyote Block 2 drone as its effector, is palletized and self-contained. FS-LIDS, as well as its M-ATV mine-resistant vehicle-based Mobile LIDS (M-LIDS) companion, are understood to now be a combat-proven capability that the Army is already set to significantly expand its use of in the coming years.

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There is also Anduril Roadrunner-M, which was publicly unveiled last year and has been under development for U.S. special operations forces. This is another self-contained system. It's centered on a low-cost jet-powered interceptor that is designed to be readily reused if it doesn't engage a target during a sortie It can loiter for extended periods of time, creating a anti-air screen against certain threats.. The overall system is intended to be used in a distributed manner, including at austere and remote sites, and The War Zone has previously noted how it could also be ideal for shipboard use. This system is not in production just yet, but Anduril designed it around a rapid production concept.

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Another possibility could be the Next Generation Missile (NGM), a new small low-cost surface-to-air missile concept that BlueHalo unveiled in October 2023. This design is specifically centered on providing "increased lethality and range against Group 3 UAS [uncrewed aerial systems] and other larger air threats." NGM is intended to work with existing radars and has a modular fire control architecture to make it readily adaptable to various platforms. A promotional video, seen below, shows a U.S. Navy Arleigh Burke class destroyer firing an NGM from a small launcher positioned just behind the main superstructure.

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The Navy's warships do already have some kind of surface-to-air missile and/or close-in weapon system capability. The service is also working to add a growing array of different directed energy weapons with counter-drone capability, including laser and high-power micowave systems, to several classes of ships.

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Mounted guns found on various Navy warships can also be used in the anti-air role, but have far more limited capability in this regard and can only be used against threats in very close proximity to the ship in question.

However, dedicated anti-drone defenses could offer additive capabilities not found on any of these existing shipboard weapon systems. For instance, no traditional missile can function like Anduril's Roadrunner-M, with its baked-in ability to loiter and be reused.

Any add-on counter drone system that could be installed on ships without taking up a large amount of deck space or otherwise impacting existing armament options, such as taking up valuable cells in Vertical Launch System (VLS) arrays, would be a major boon. Having additional effectors would simply help reduce the demand to employ larger and costlier traditional interceptors on lower-end drone threats.

Systems that offer "independent, self-contained capability" would also allow for installation only when required and offer common options that could be used across multiple classes of ships. This, in turn, could help reduce logistical and sustainment requirements, and further help speed up the process of integration.

In the meantime, the service's Arleigh Burke class destroyers have been using their existing missile and other capabilities to good effect against Houthi drones, as well as the group's arsenal of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, over the past four months. At the time of writing, Burkes have shot down at least 68 drones and 19 anti-ship missile in and around the Red Sea since October 19, 2023. The USS Carney alone is responsible for at least 38 successful drone intercepts.

Still, as noted and as The War Zone has made clear just this week in the piece centered around the Constellation class, the Red Sea crisis has mainly involved lower-end threats. U.S. Navy ships could expect to see much more advanced threats heading their way and in even greater numbers in any future high-end conflict, such as one against China in the Pacific.

Even so, the Houthi's anti-ship campaign has highlighted how larger volumes of uncrewed aircraft, even cheaper ones with limited capabilities, can very quickly eat up traditional missile reserves and otherwise overwhelm traditional shipboard defenses. The use of various tiers of armed drones, by state and non-state actors, against ships and other targets, is only set to increase as time goes on.

It is important to note that the threat posed by drones of various types, even smaller, low-end ones, to Navy warships, as well as U.S. forces elsewhere on and off traditional battlefields, is not new. The War Zone has highlighted the danger that uncrewed aircraft, including readily available commercial types that can be weaponized, present in maritime and other contexts for years now. Just this past weekend, Iranian-backed militants based in Iraq killed three U.S. service members and injured dozens more in a drone attack on an outpost in neighboring Jordan.

While a smaller drone, or even a larger one, is unlikely to sink a major surface combatant, they can cause catastrophic damage to external components that are critical to the ship's mission. This, along with secondary damage that such an attack may cause, could result in a mission kill, where the ship survives but can no longer carry out its intended mission. In such a state, it could also be very vulnerable to follow on attacks, especially by more advanced anti-ship capabilities. The time it takes to repair such damage could be extensive, especially if high-tech components are damaged or destroyed, putting the ship out of action for a long period of time.

Altogether, it makes good sense that the Navy is now interested in ways to quickly integrate additional counter-drone capabilities onto its ships. Right now, NAVSEA's counter-drone contracting notice says that it is just looking into what options might be available, but, as the Houthis have been driving home in and around the Red Sea, the threat is real and growing.

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