Over the last several years a novel threat has emerged that endangers America’s deployed troops, diplomats, bases and borders.
The threat is unmanned aircraft systems, commonly known as drones, that span the range of sophistication from hobby-shop toys to multi-million-dollar systems similar to Predator.
Some drones are used to attack U.S. forces. Others are used to track their movements. Still others are employed to deliver illicit drugs across the southern border.
The U.S. Department of Defense has established a joint program office to develop technology and tactics for countering unmanned air systems, but the threat is changing rapidly.
Overseas adversaries are beginning to operate drones in swarms rather than singly, and to conceal the telltale “signatures” that might aid U.S. forces in tracking them.
It is a constantly evolving challenge—one for which the military needs a comprehensive, integrated solution rather than a disconnected collection of narrow-gauge responses.
One company seems to have emerged as the leader in countering unmanned air systems: CACI.
CACI, headquartered just outside the nation’s capital, isn’t a small company.
It generates $6 billion in annual revenues and has 23,000 employees.
But it isn’t as visible as the big system integrators that dominate defense coverage, in part because so much of what it does is sensitive.
Despite the secrecy, though, I am going to try here to explain how CACI has managed to emerge as a global leader, perhaps the global leader, in defeating drones.
CACI, like several of its competitors, is a contributor to my think tank.
That has helped me to some extent in understanding how it approaches the counter-drone mission, although company executives are decidedly circumspect in discussing particulars.
But when you read the limited public coverage of the mission area, it is striking how frequently the company’s products get mentioned.
For instance, last year the Army, which leads the Pentagon’s joint office for developing solutions, identified CACI as offering best-in-class solutions for both fixed and mobile defenses.
CACI also seems to have the largest number of counter-drone systems deployed around the world—at least 700 at last count.
Over a dozen federal agencies rely on it for meeting their diverse defensive needs.
So obviously, the company is doing something right.
It’s pretty clear that CACI’s leadership in the space derives in part from its long involvement in electronic warfare and signals intelligence, areas in which it has grown continuously through a combination of organic investment and targeted acquisitions.
Beyond that, though, there seem to be a handful of guiding principles that explain how CACI has broken away from the pack to become a leader in counter-drone solutions.
Here are several of the principles I see at work—to the extent that a person without clearances can divine the sources of CACI’s success.
Know your enemy. CACI has accumulated the world’s largest library of signals used by unmanned air systems. This compendium of 400+ signals employed by operators to control drones is constantly updated as the military and intelligence communities identify new threats and the signals they utilize. Exploiting such transmissions is a key way of identifying and disabling hostile drones.
Leverage the full spectrum. CACI methods for tracking and targeting hostile drones utilize radio-frequency, electro-optical and infrared sensors, to include radar. Some drones will be more easily discerned in specific areas of the spectrum than others, so being able to leverage everything from radar to full-motion video is critical in determining the character and origin of threats.
Layer the defense. Providing 360-degree situational awareness at multiple wavelengths is just the beginning, because it isn’t enough simply to create an electronic perimeter. The defense needs depth so that drones that leak through one layer are caught by other layers. If there are two layers and each is 90% effective, then only 1% of attackers can penetrate both layers.
Automate the kill chain. There are many discrete steps in killing hostile drones, from detection to identification to tracking to targeting to assessing. It is not practical for defenders to separately perform each of these steps in the heat of battle, so CACI has developed algorithms for automating the whole process. The goal is prompt precision kill of all threats with minimal collateral damage to the activities of friendly forces.
Tailor solutions. CACI’s SkyTracker suite of counter-drone solutions offers a variety of defensive options, in recognition of the fact that one “size” won’t fit everybody’s needs. For instance, its CORIAN system is especially well-suited to protecting fixed assets such as infrastructure, whereas its Mobile Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS) can be moved continuously as tactical circumstances dictate. It’s actually a lot more complicated than that, but the bottom line is that SkyTracker has an answer for every threat.
Facilitate interoperability. SkyTracker is designed around open-architecture principles so it can be easily evolved and integrated into a variety of tactical environments. Training requirements and logistical support are relatively simple, which is critical in fielding solutions that will need to be used against diverse threats in diverse circumstances.
Shrink the footprint. One facet of interoperability is imposing as little demand as possible on the support capabilities of operators. So the CORIAN sensor is only 12 inches wide and 18 inches deep, weighs a mere 36 pounds and consumes less than 200 watts of power. It can be installed at any location in less than an hour. Reducing the footprint of its counter-drone solutions is a key feature in the latest versions of CACI technology.
This does not exhaust all the principles at work in CACI’s approach to countering unmanned aircraft systems. For instance, the mechanisms available to kill drones vary depending on their characteristics—although that gets into sensitive areas. Suffice it to say that CACI has tried to make its approach to the mission as versatile and adaptable as possible, and that has proven to be a highly successful strategy in a crowded market.