The use of supersonic target drones came up in a recent post so I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly review what the Navy has to work with. On a related note, the annual DOT&E (Director, Operational Test and Evaluation) reports consistently fault the Navy for failing to provide representative threat surrogates so, again, let’s see what the Navy’s doing in this area.
Probably the best known supersonic target drone is the GQM-163 Coyote. Coyote can operate from sea-skimming to 60,000 ft and at speeds of Mach 2.5-4.0. The drone is around 18 ft long and a bit over a foot in diameter. The drone is launched from land bases and has a range of around 60 miles.
An Oct 2014 purchase of 7 units showed a price of $4M per. Public procurement contract announcements suggest a production rate of around 6 drones per year.
The FY 2013 DOT&E annual report discusses some limitations with the Coyote. Apparently, the drone lacks threat representative anti-ship cruise missile seekers and can only realistically simulate two threats and is only actually simulating one. From the DOT&E report,
“The Navy’s GQM-163A Coyote Validation Report of May 2006 identified two threats that the Coyote could fundamentally represent. Thus far, attention has focused mostly on a Coyote representation of one of the two threats. DOT&E recommends an engineering analysis to determine what alterations to the Coyote vehicle should be made to use it as a surrogate for the second threat discussed in the GQM-163A Coyote Validation Report.”
The report does not identify which threats the drone can simulate.
An interesting sidenote demonstrates the absolutely minimal testing that constitutes acceptance of weapon systems.
“Four targets (two primary plus two backups) would be for the Aegis Modernization IOT&E, and eight targets (four primary plus four backups) would be for the Aegis DDG Flight III IOT&E.”
The extent of weapon testing has been brought up before and some have suggested that there is far more testing than I’ve documented. This DOT&E statement provides additional evidence of the meager testing that is considered satisfactory.
Think about what that level of testing means. Given a fleet of many dozens of ships that have AAW capability, only a half dozen or less actually get to conduct a live fire exercise against a supersonic threat in any given year. That’s hardly sufficient to provide the level of training required for combat readiness.
There are other supersonic target drones. For example, the AQM-37C is a 60’s era drone that has been updated and appears to mainly be used for very high altitude and ballistic missile targeting. The drone is 14 ft long and has a max speed of Mach 4.
So, is Coyote sufficient for realistic training? No, or at least not enough. A realistic threat surrogate should emit the same signals as the threat meaning that whatever radar or other signals the threat uses should be emitted by the surrogate. The drone should also be programmed to follow the threat’s expected flight profile including terminal maneuvers. Lastly, the drone should be capable of the same on-board ECM, if any, that the threat has. Given all the supersonic threats out there, the Coyote apparently only realistically simulates one. That’s not providing the fleet with the level of realistic training that’s needed. That’s also not providing the weapon system analysts with sufficient data to determine whether the various weapon systems can handle the myriad threats in the real world. In other words, we’re testing for one threat and making the highly suspect assumption that we can handle the others despite their having significantly different speeds, flight profiles, maneuvering capabilities, seekers, signals, and ECM.
Coyote appears to be an adequate platform for further development. DOT&E actually presents some costs for modifications that would enhance the realism and usefulness of the Coyote and the costs are almost negligible on a relative basis. There is no reason for the Navy not to provide realistic threat surrogates.