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Inside 'Black Dart,' the US Military's War On Drones

The military's annual and, until this year, very secret Exercise Black Dart is about finding ways to kill enemy drones — which means it's also about the future of air power.

by Ryan Faith
Oct 28 2014, 8:20pm

Photo by Richard Watt

Exercise Black Dart is the US military's largest live-fly, live-fire counter unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) exercise. This year's annual exercise was the 10th, and the first time any press were allowed access. The fact that Black Dart has been a relatively secret deal up to now makes a certain amount of sense. There's already a fair amount of hush-hush on drones in general, and Black Dart is about drones and cutting-edge military technology.

VICE News got access to the exercises this year to film an episode of our show War Games, and it gave us the opportunity to dig in to the US military's counter drone efforts and what they mean. Most of our time at Black Dart was on the flight line, observing the launch and recovery of the different drone species buzzing off the California coast, doing their cute little drone things.

Black Dart is fundamentally bizarre. Not because the US military wants to figure out how to counter drones — that's perfectly reasonable. Current and potential opponents have or are acquiring UAVs of various sorts, so getting a leg up is an obvious thing to do.

Watch VICE News coverage of Black Dart here.

That said, the US military has been blowing drones out of the sky since the Second World War. Why? Because it's good practice; it's drones that air defense units shoot at when they want to get up to speed on knocking down enemy aircraft, and US pilots go after drones in their live-fire training exercises. When a contractor or government lab has a missile or some other anti-aircraft thingy that needs testing, they look for drones to blow up.

Then 10 years ago, using drones for target practice became a big secret thing. It's kind of like the military sending soldiers to a firing range as part of a top-secret exercise on how to defeat paper targets. Which suggests there's something pretty interesting going on at Black Dart.

There's nothing fundamentally strange about drones themselves. Armed drone balloons predate powered flight by decades; drone aircraft are basically as old as powered flight itself. Cruise missiles are just drones that compensate up for their lack of landing gear with suicidal tendencies.

When people speak of "drones" — as opposed to cruise missiles or targets — those drones aren't being used in any roles that are inherently different from those assigned to piloted aircraft. Drones are just an old technology that's been both sexed up and vilified over the past 20 years. If someone is protesting because a drone strike blew something up, it's fair to guess that the concern is actually over what got blown up and how, not whether the onboard guidance and flight system for that aircraft included an onboard pilot. 

Eliminating the need to physically co-locate the pilot and the onboard controls doesn't mean that the airplane ceases to be an airplane.

But if modern drones are just another type of plane, and militaries around the world have been using them for decades, then making a big production of shooting them down makes even less sense.

Which is why the Pentagon's secrecy is really all about smartphones.

* * *

Okay, it's not 100 percent about smartphones, but smartphones are the latest and greatest embodiment of many of the technologies that have turned the world of UAVs into what it is today.

Smartphones now contain tiny and inexpensive accelerometers, magnetometers, GPS receivers, digital cameras, and other bits of micro-engineering that, when used on UAVs, provide a powerful capabilities boost. So what gets drone people all excited turns out to be fairly mundane things that work together to make drones smaller, lighter, more capable — and much, much cheaper.

It all starts with the small part. Stealth aircraft aren't truly "invisible" to radar — they just have the radar cross section of something much, much smaller, like a marble. Trying to find something the size of a marble dozens of miles away that's moving faster than sound is nearly impossible and therefore the planes are kind of "invisible," but nevertheless government wonk sticklers often use the the terms "low observable" or "reduced radar cross-section" to refer to stealth.

The term "reduced radar cross section" is interesting if you think about it. It's basically an instruction to engineers: "reduce the radar cross section." The way that's been done in recent decades is through the application of advanced coating materials to very carefully shaped aircraft. This is difficult and requires a lot of expensive technology investments.

The US Navy may battle deadly naval mines with quadcopter drones. Read more here.

A less difficult and less expensive way to reduce a radar cross-section is to reduce the cross-section. Small is something that drones can now do better than ever, and small means stealthy. So there are now a whole lot of folks who, for the first time ever, can do low-rent airborne stealth.

This could turn into a bit of a problem for the US. Historically, the US has relied on jets and surface-to-air missiles to shoot down enemy planes in flight, along with a strict regimen of airstrikes to violently disassemble any hostile aircraft on the ground.

Drones present two challenges to this way of doing business. First, while there are new radars and other various ways to minimize some of the effectiveness of high-tech stealth, small is small is small — it's just flat out harder to find and track, no matter how you tweak your radar. Second, drones don't require big, complex airfields to operate, so there's not necessarily an airbase to blow up when a war starts.

In other words, the traditional US approach to air dominance may have to be revisited. If the US finds it can no longer guarantee that a "Top Gun" approach will absolutely own the sky — for the first time in many, many decades — then that increases the odds there are going to be some big surprises down the road. And don't think this is just a US thing; drones could be a factor in just about any David and Goliath conflict you're likely to see for the next long while.

In this way, Black Dart isn't really about drones so much as it's about getting dead serious about air defense in ways the US has never thought of before. Existing powers may not be able to count on their old tools and doctrine for dealing with advanced air threats anymore. It may be that everybody has to go back to square one and re-evaluate everything they thought they knew about what to do about other people's planes.

* * *

There's another important consequence of size: cost. Cost estimators start with the weight or wing area of an aircraft when trying to figure out what the newest jet will cost. Experience has shown that aircraft cost tracks pretty closely with size. Granted, there a number of exceptions and caveats. But most of the time, a bigger plane is going to cost more than a small one.

In the case of modern drones, all the technologies that have gone into making the drones smaller, more reliable, and more capable were usually cheap themselves, meaning that it doesn't always have to cost a fortune to make a cheaper drone.

Don't ask who's being killed by drones in Afghanistan. Read more here.

Smaller and smaller military units will have their own airpower capability — defense manufacturers are now marketing squad-level loitering munitions at trade shows. Calling for airstrikes may soon have less to do with radios and more to do with pulling some gear out of your backpack. It's not hard to foresee a future in which each and every soldier carries his or her own air reconnaissance capability just like carrying a gun.

Drones may be doing for airpower what the AK-47 did for firearms.

Which makes the old model of doing business — air-to-air combat between multimillion dollar bleeding-edge fighters — doubly difficult. How long can one side afford to keep using missiles that cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars apiece to shoot down drones that cost hundreds, or at the most, thousands of dollars?

* * *

Size and cost explain a lot about why Black Dart is important, and why the US military is thinking hard about countering UAVs, and this is all pretty fascinating and exciting stuff if you're in the business of firing weapons into the air.

But the most significant results of Black Dart may, in a way, be unintended. Trial and error testing for shooting down drones can reveal a lot about what makes very small aircraft harder or easier to find and kill. What's a screw-up for a test intercept might teach a valuable trick for evading an enemy interceptor. Or let's say you learn how to find and intercept a very small drone — maybe you then have a leg up on finding other things that are hard to spot on radar, like stealthy aircraft. All of these second-order effects will teach the US military a lot about how to make their own aircraft and air defense systems more effective against other threats while providing some important insights about how they can make their own drones more survivable.

Watch VICE News coverage of Black Dart here.

These are the reasons why Black Dart has been kept relatively quiet. Beneath the surface at Black Dart, there's a huge sea of intellectual ferment and froth. The exercise is like a giant laboratory for scientists, engineers, and tacticians to figure out the future of air power and air combat.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via UK Ministry of Defense

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