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Navy to use surface drones to jam incoming missiles

The navy is making plans to load electronic jamming equipment into remote control drones that could be used to protect Canadian frigates from anti-ship missiles.
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The Canadian navy plans to install electronic jamming technology on its Humpback drones, which resemble small motorboats. (QINETIQ TARGET SYSTEMS)

The navy is making plans to load electronic jamming equipment into remote control drones that could be used to protect Canadian frigates from anti-ship missiles.

The feds have issued a request for proposals seeking an electronic warfare payload for its Humpback unmanned surface vehicles.

The gear would “provide jamming capability against anti-ship missile threats,” say tendering documents, which also note the equipment could be used for radar testing and training.

The drones, once loaded with the new defensive kit, “will be launched, recovered and remotely controlled” from a warship, according to the documents.

The electronic warfare payload must include “real-time, trainable and stabilized video surveillance capability,” and be able to identify designated threats, say the documents.

The drones would operate within line of sight of a warship and be used for self-protection or to defend a larger convoy, according to navy public affairs.

“There’s a lot of experimentation going on at the defence research facility here in Halifax — has been for years — with unmanned vehicles, and it sounds like they’re really branching out,” said Ken Hansen, a retired naval commander who now works as a military analyst.

“This is new. The idea of having decoys is not new. But they were different types and they were mostly radar decoys that you fired off (a warship). You would launch a little rocket and they would explode and release a bunch of chaff. Or they would release infrared flares. This is quite different from that. But it’s a logical progression in the use of unmanned vehicles.”

The equipment could emit radio signals to try to either jam or overload an incoming missile’s capacity to home in on a warship, Hansen said.

They could also be used as decoys and “drag them away to a false target,” he said.

“Usually, the false target was a smaller ship pretending to be a bigger ship. Now, in this case, you could emit signals from these drones or decoys that would, conceivably, take the missile completely away from the formation of ships. It’s a very interesting (concept). It’s used in air warfare currently, where they use jammers and decoys and they hang them on bottoms of aircraft. And they pretend to be something they’re not.”

The drones would be controlled by radio signals from a warship, said Hansen, who lives in Dartmouth.

“They can’t work beyond the horizon,” he said.

“So that means from a ship, with an antenna in the air, you can probably run these things out 10, 12, maybe even 15 miles, and control them from where you are. And that’s enough distance, you know, horizontal separation, between you, being a target, and it being a decoy, that whatever weapon system goes after it, instead of you, that’s a miss for you. You’re laughing; this is good.”

The Humpback drones, which look like small motorboats, are expendable, Hansen said.

“But also their survivability will probably be really good,” he said.

“Let’s assume for a minute there’s a missile coming in. You get it to lock on to the decoy, and the missile veers off and goes after it. Chances are it’s not going to hit it because missile systems look for what’s called the centre of the mass. They’ll have a targeting system that will be scanning for a target and it will look and look and look and look. But it will have a threshold. It will have a certain mass that it needs to see if it’s a radar-homing (weapon) and it won’t see it. It will just fly right by the decoy.”

If the missile is homing in on an electronic signal that the Humpback is putting out, it would also likely miss the unmanned surface vehicle, Hansen said. “There’s no guarantee that it’s going to hit a small decoy. It will just hit the water and bounce off. You might very well save your decoy in the process.”

Hansen doesn’t know of any navy in the world currently using this type of defensive weapon in an operational setting.

“It’s all experimental stuff,” he said.

“The Americans, of course, are the leaders in this. But this is the big, big field in the realm of defence, armaments, weaponry and operating. So what everybody is afraid of is a swarming attack. You get a pile of attackers coming in on you and you want to be able to deal with them remote from you. You don’t want the swarm getting to (the Canadian warship). So you’re peeling them away in onesies and twosies, trying to get the threat down to a manageable level just in case some of them get through to you. That’s the big, big advantage of decoys.”

Small boats attacking Canadian warships could be armed with anti-tank missiles or other short-range, optically guided weapons designed to take down an aircraft, he said.

“Then there’s stuff that you put on what are called fast-attack craft. They can be straight flying dumb rockets with warheads on the front of them, or they can be smart weapons that you can program in different flight paths and what they call flight profiles. You can make them go up and down to defeat fire-control systems. There’s just a host of weapons systems that go all the way up to really big things like Harpoon (anti-ship missiles).”

The Humpbacks, built by a company now known as QinetiQ Target Systems, are based on Hammerhead drones, many of which were manufactured in Nova Scotia by A.F. Theriault & Son Ltd. shipyard of Meteghan River. The Hammerheads were originally designed to simulate fast attacks on warships.

A QinetiQ spokesman declined comment for this story, but the company’s website says the small craft have been “modified for specific payload and special uses.”

The electronic warfare equipment for the Humpbacks that Canada intends to buy is meant purely for defensive applications, Hansen said.

“Although it wouldn’t take much to put a warhead on an unmanned vehicle. We really have that stuff already in cruise missiles.”

The drones could also be armed with .50-calibre machine-guns that can be controlled remotely, he said.

“It’s not a stretch to put on a straight flying line-of-sight rocket — something like an anti-tank rocket,” Hansen said.

“You’d be able to see the crosshairs in your remote control. It would be just like playing a video game on a computer screen. You’d use the little joystick and on your screen you’re seeing the images from the drone. And then when you get the crosshairs where you want it, you push the button and, whoosh, away it goes.”



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Chris Lambie

About the Author: Chris Lambie

Chris Lambie is a journalist based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has worked at newspapers from Newfoundland to the Northwest Territories.
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