US Army experiments with long-endurance drones, balloons in Philippines

US Army experiments with long-endurance drones, balloons in Philippines

BASCO, Philippines — A barely detectable speck appears near a beaming, late afternoon sun and then dodges behind a cloud. Soon that small speck, as it makes its slow descent, takes the form of a sleek, small unmanned aircraft.

The aircraft makes a quiet, delicate landing along the runway of a remote island airfield in the Philippines in the temporarily breezeless, scorching heat. The platform — a Kraus Hamdani Aerospace K1000 — had spent the majority of the day flying above the South China Sea and collecting data for the Extended Range Sensing and Effects Company, which is part of the U.S. Army’s 1st Multi-Domain Task Force.

Here in the Philippines, the 1st MDTF is using the Balikatan military exercise to experiment with its structure and identify the assets that will best serve joint and coalition forces in situations where adversaries can deny regional access. The bilateral drill between the American and Philippine armed forces took place April 11-May 9.

The ERSE Company set up camp in Basco, a volcanic island in the Batanes island chain north of the Philippines’ largest island of Luzon. On a clear day from certain high points on the island, one can see Taiwan.

The company operated out of a small, air-conditioned tent directly next to the tiny commercial airport that hosts a few flights a day.

The company’s position was as far north as the annual exercise ever took place; only one unit is stationed farther north where it is constructing a warehouse on the island of Itbayat.

Maj. Seth Holt, who commands the ERSE Company, told Defense News, inside his small operations center on Basco, that he was focused on learning how his team can contribute to a flexible and easily tailorable multidomain task force.

His company is designed to provide sensing capability from the ground level within the electromagnetic spectrum up to roughly 100,000 feet, Holt said. The spectrum is a critical resource in modern conflicts, as those in control of it can manipulate communications, weapons guidance and more.

The company is made up of three platoons: one focused on electronic warfare, another on unmanned aircraft, and another on high-altitude capabilities such as balloons.

How did troops use the drones?

Inside the small operations center, soldiers assigned to the company watched monitors displaying signals of interest gathered by electronic surveillance.

With another monitor, soldiers controlled the K1000 and its payload, zooming in on areas of interest and flagging things to watch.

Holt said the company, during the exercise, has been able to pass data from the drone’s sensors and cameras to Philippine troops, a major step in advancing interoperability between the two nations.

While the K1000 is not a program of record, the Army has been using it in a variety of experiments, including the Edge exercise and Project Convergence.

The lightweight K1000, which features solar panels on its wings, previously broke the endurance record for class 2 unmanned aerial systems by flying for 76 hours. That category currently applies to drones that weigh between 21 and 55 lbs.

After a roughly 8-hour mission tackling the winds at sea, the aircraft returned with 80% of its battery life, operators told Defense News at the Basco site.

The aircraft does not have landing gear and relies on 3D-printed skids that can be swapped out after they wear down.

The K1000 is also difficult to detect, with most sensors and radars mistaking it for a bird, according to Kraus engineers on site.

The aircraft fits inside a standard case, and it takes users roughly 10 minutes to unload, assemble and launch. The drone takes off from a moving vehicle as it catches the wind and becomes airborne. In Basco, it took off from the roof of a black SUV.

Despite its design, nature and physics still get in the way. Defense News observed the team decide against launching the aircraft early one morning because the winds were too strong.

Kraus has developed a vertical-takeoff-and-landing version of the fixed-wing aircraft to better tolerate windy weather and is providing some units to the U.S. Navy for evaluation. But according to Holt, endurance is sacrificed in that configuration because of the energy drained from the electric motor.

On of the ERSE Company’s platoons also tested a 3D-printed small, fixed-wing UAS that was built in five days and designed by a soldier at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state — the headquarters of 1st MDTF. That drone flew along the north shore of Luzon.

The ERSE company also experimented with high-altitude balloons at another location in the Philippines. One system, also not a program of record, is Urban Sky’s Stratospheric Microballoon, which the firm says produces zero emissions.

High-altitude balloons, which can hold sensors for surveillance, detection and targeting, help the ERSE Company provide networking capabilities and could eventually carry payloads, Holt said. Such platforms are gaining traction because they are easy to deploy with small units operating in austere locations, Holt noted, and the balloons themselves can prove difficult to detect.

The ERSE Company also sent soldiers familiar with operating high-altitude balloons to another site to help the Philippine military launch weather balloons, Holt added.

The officer also said what his Pacific-based unit needs most in a UAS capability is something with a great deal of range and endurance as well as a one that soldiers can deploy in large numbers to overwhelm an enemy. Additionally, Holt said, he wants versatility, where payloads can be swapped or configured differently for various missions such as surveillance or network extension.

Why did the Army create these teams?

The U.S. Army established the 1st MDTF in 2018 as an experimental unit meant to inform the service’s Multi-Domain Operations doctrine, which the force ultimately published in 2022. The Army determined the unit’s value to the force went beyond just experiments and decided to create five more multidomain task forces dedicated to specific theaters.

The service has officially created three MDTFs in various stages of construction. The first has focused on the Indo-Pacific theater since its creation. The second is based in Europe, and the third is in Hawaii. A fourth will also be dedicated to the Pacific. A fifth, which will be based at Fort Liberty, South Carolina, does not yet have a dedicated theater.

The task forces consist of multidomain cells made up off any combination of kinetic and non-kinetic capabilities to include long-range fires battalions, multidomain effects battalions, Indirect Fire Protection Capability battalions and task force support battalions.

At the heart of these task forces is the multidomain effects battalions, formerly known as the Intelligence, Information, Cyber, Electronic Warfare and Space unit.

The multidomain effects battalions consists of six companies, of which the ERSE Company is one. The other five companies focus on information dominance, space, military intelligence, signals intelligence, and Army headquarters affairs. The companies are designed to work together and complement each other’s capabilities for sensing and delivering effects on targets.

Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.

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