USS Kearsarge Transits The Suez Canal With Anti-Drone Buggies Keeping Watch On Deck

The USMC is putting its new drone defense capabilities to work in creative ways, like protecting a multi-billion dollar capital ship. 

USS Kearsarge transits Suez Canal
Cpl. Aaron Henson—22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit

The threat of small commercially available drones looms large over the U.S. military. After years of dragging its feet, the Battle of Mosul finally awoke the Pentagon as to just how complex and vexing the threat from these systems is. Now, ever more elaborate anti-drone defense concepts are hitting the field under rushed procurement concepts. One of those is the Light Marine Air Defense Integrated System (LMADIS), a highly mobile anti-drone solution that rides on a pair of Polaris MRZR buggies, and now the Corps is getting creative about how they put this capability to use. 

A great example of this is the amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge's recent transit through the Suez Canal, in which LMADIS sat strapped to its deck, providing a much-needed albeit asymmetric defense for the multi-billion dollar technology packed warship.

Yes, it's somewhat bewildering to think that a vessel like Kearsarge, which has four layers of air defense all by itself, ranging out hundreds of miles with its AIM-120 equipped AV-8B+ Harriers, to dozens of miles with its Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, to up-close in personal with its Rolling Airframe Missiles and Phalanx close-in weapons system needs a little buggy chained to its deck to detect, classify, and fend-off weaponized drones that can be bought at retail electronics shops. But this is the nature and pace of the threat and there are few places where a large capital ship is as vulnerable to attack than in the tight confines of the Suez Canal, which sits alongside a known hotbed for militants activities. 

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With this in mind, putting the LMADIS to use during such a transit makes great sense and it's likely an indication of what's to come in the future as similar systems become integrated directly on U.S. Navy ships or are deployed in a modular concept better adapted for the maritime mission.

LMADIS consists of the RADA RPS-42 hemispheric air surveillance AESA radar system mounted atop a MRZR buggy. The short-range S-band radar is highly sensitive and can spot multiple types of targets, including traditional helicopters and aircraft, as well as ones with small radar signatures like ultralight aircraft and small drones. 

Sitting atop the radar system is gyro-stabilized CM202 multi-sensor optical ball. This is used to positively identify aerial targets day or night so that a far better-informed decision can be made as to whether or not a suspicious target is indeed a threat. An up-front control tablet is installed in front of the passenger seat of the MRZR. This provides sensor data and control of the system, including the CM202. 

Another MRZR is used as a command and control vehicle and it may or may not feature the same sensor systems, although the addition of a second RPS-42 set seems standard. This allows one unit to keep a big-picture view while the other uses the optical system to ID targets. Both are equipped with a small generator for stationary operations and the communications systems needed to support the system.

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If the target is deemed unfriendly, a Modi jammer can be turned on to target and break the data-link between the drone and its controller on the ground. There is nothing that limits the LMADIS to 'soft kills' using electronic warfare alone. The sensor data could be used to cue kinetic weaponry and especially lasers in the future. 

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It's not exactly clear how much information LMADIS can share with the ship's own air defense system and vice versa. If the data can be more seamlessly integrated, the ship's Phalanx and Rolling Airframe Missiles could leverage the tracking information from LMADIS, or in the future, a similar set of sensors placed around the ship, to kinetically engage hostile drone targets. 

But for now, the Modi jammer and upgraded FIM-92 Stinger shoulder-fired missiles are what the Marines are working with for small drone defenses during these types of operations. As the threat continues to evolve and becomes far more complex and voluminous, this will all change. 

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Beyond adding solid-state laser capability, which is already being pursued on multiple fronts, LMADIS is set to become a piece in a larger counter-UAS and low-flying air defense capability in the form of the Marine Corps' Ground-Based Air Defense (GBAD) program. This will integrate LMADIS systems onto the Oshkosh MATV Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) as well as Coyote anti-drone drones, and a M230LF 30mm cannon, into one package. This concept takes LMADIS to the next level, giving it multiple hard-kill options and a platform that is more adaptable to different situations and combat environments. Considering that LMADIS is envisioned to be used with highly mobile Marines operating on land, adding an armored and more capable variation of the concept will be a welcome addition.

These systems are just part of an expanded ecosystem of weapons that aim to revitalize the U.S. military's waning short-range air defense (SHORAD) capability that has languished for decades. You can read all about this reality in this past feature of ours.  

Strapping down vehicles to a ship's deck in order to provide point air defense capabilities isn't exactly new even in this day and age of highly integrated weapon systems. Recently, Egypt took a relatively novel albeit austere approach to arming their French-built Mistral-class amphibious assault ships against low-flying airborne threats. They tied down U.S.-built Avenger air defense systems to their decks. 

The USMC has also used their machine gun toting 'Growler' MV-22 Osprey-transportable buggies for force protection on older amphibious vessels during transits in tight waterways. 

The Corps is also working with the concept of strapping LAV-25s, which pack the M242 Bushmaster 25 mm chain gun, and standalone BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missile systems, to the decks of amphibious assault ships to provide enhanced defenses against swarms of small boats. Self-contained weapon systems like this are easy to repurpose and are traditionally less expensive than ones that need deep integration into a ship and its combat system. For now, these types of modular capabilities have mainly focused on countering lower-end threats, but this approach could become more attractive for countering more advanced threats and adding unique capabilities to ships and sea bases in the future. 

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In the meantime, the USMC's new anti-drone MRZR buggies are being put to good and creative use where they are really needed most and are acting as a stepping stone of sorts to more advanced anti-drone capabilities and other modular weapons capabilities that can be inserted onto U.S. Navy vessels in the years to come. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com