Thursday, October 12, 2017

COBRA Description

We just recently saw that the Navy declared initial operating capability for the LCS' Coastal Battlefield Reconnaissance and Analysis (DVS-1 COBRA) system.  We expressed severe doubt about that and wondered about the rationale behind the plan to order 30 of the systems despite only having 8 LCS MCM platforms (see, “COBRA Declared Operational”).  That aside, COBRA is a rarely discussed system and there is not a lot of information about it that is generally available so let’s take a brief look at what we do know.

COBRA is intended to detect and localize mines in the surf and beach zones as well as provide visual reconnaissance of the zones.  The system is carried on an unmanned MQ-8 Fire Scout UAV deployed from an LCS and consists of the sensor package and data collection station on the UAV plus a mission control and planning package on the host LCS (3).

The current Block 1 version can detect surface laid mines and obstacles in the beach zone and has a more limited capability to do the same in the surf zone.  It is limited to daytime use only due to the need for illumination for the imager, much as a regular camera needs a light source.  Data is collected and analyzed post-mission after recovery. 

A developmental Block 2 version is intended to enhance the surf zone capability and add a nighttime illuminator.  The developmental Block 2 illuminator is a new technology effort.  It is, essentially, a flashlight that is required to provide illumination for the COBRA camera.  The problem is that current electro-optical illuminators cover only a single wavelength band and cannot support the 6-band COBRA multi-spectral sensor (2).

COBRA uses a passive, multi-spectral sensor which covers 6 wavelength bands from near UV to near infrared. The sensor is capable of providing 4 frames per second (4 Hz) for the 6 bands with a 16M camera (4896x3264) yielding a Ground Sample Distance (GSD) of 2.4" which translates into 6.1 Gigabits per second (Gbps) of data (1).

Military and Aerospace website states that the COBRA payload includes stabilized step stare digital gimbal and high-resolution multispectral imaging digital camera with a spinning six-color filter wheel, a processing unit, and a solid-state data storage unit which collects six different color-band images across a large area using a step-stare pattern (4).

The system appears to be effective mainly in the beach zone with little water depth penetration in the surf zone – not surprising given that it is, essentially, just a camera with a wavelength expanded beyond just the visual.

COBRA Surf and Beach Zone Reconnaissance

One of the weaknesses of the system is that the data is not available in real time and requires post-mission analysis which means the UAV must survive in order for the data to be available.  Thus, a UAV could complete an entire reconnaissance mission only to be shot down at the end and all the data would be lost.

Another weakness is the operational concept.  A good sized, low, slow flying, non-stealthy, non-maneuvering (has to remain reasonably steady during its recon run) helo passing back and forth across the shore line just can't have much of a life expectancy.  This is the classic definition of a target drone!  In combat, we're going to go through these like candy!  As with so many of today's operational concepts, the success of the system depends on the enemy cooperating by not shooting down this sitting duck of a target and allowing us to recon the beach unimpeded.  Does that seem like a reasonable assumption to base a combat operational concept on?  Seriously, who comes up with these things?

The coverage area of the system depends on the sensor being raised above the beach/surf.  This is the same as a regular camera being able to “see” more of an image the further back it is held from the scene.  Thus, COBRA is not applicable to, for example, an unmanned surface vessel.  It could, presumably, be deployed from any aircraft large enough to carry the system.

COBRA is intended to complement the AES-1 Airborne Laser Mine Detection System (ALMDS) which is operated from the MH-60 helo and provides laser detection of surface and near-surface mines past the surf zone.

As stated, I have severe doubts that the system is operational, reliable, and effective.  I’ll wait to see a DOT&E assessment before accepting the system as combat effective.



  1. Just daytime on the beach?
    Forget a peer enemy, some ISIS troops with RPG’s or 14.5 mm can take one out.
    And for a beach engineers could simply launch mine clearing line charges and clear a lane then safe the rest of the beach later.
    This might be useful if North Korea smuggled mines onto Myrtle Beach, otherwise its utility seems limited enough to only need a couple dozen at max.
    And if it is only daylight over an uncontested beachfront there is no reason to use a drone any helo will do. Maybe the Navy plans on giving it to the Coast Guard to ensure Hilton Head remains mine-free.

    1. The Myrtle Beach Defense System? I like it!

    2. Their unit patch would be a toothless shark wearing Bermuda shorts, sandals, and granny eyeglasses with broken metal detector. ;)

  2. Some additional thoughts/information on COBRA...

    * There was an industry day held for the COBRA Block II efforts...some information was posted on FedBizOpps ( One of the interesting items is that the Block II does not presuppose the use of a passive camera like the Block I system. An active system (such as a LIDAR) could be the solution if it meets the requirements. It also calls out the MQ-8C as the SWaP constraint. The SBIR announcements that you linked to are actually technology development / risk reduction efforts for the program of record to find technical solutions to meeting the requirement.

    * There actually is a real time processor as part of the payload, but there is currently no way of getting that data off the aircraft and back to the platform. When the system returns to the platform, the recorded mission data is offloaded and then run through a post mission analysis system, and that data is then passed to the mine clearance systems.

    * COBRA is truly expeditionary. Its tied to the LCS Mine Countermeasure (MCM) mission package in all the publications, but any platform that can accommodate the MQ-8B can deploy with COBRA. The PMA system is standalone, so it can truly be rolled onto any platform, much easier than some of the other systems that are considered expeditionary.

    * The rationale for declaring IOC for COBRA is similar to the rationale for declaring IOC for ALMDS and AMNS...while the systems are tied to the LCS MCM MP, their development and individual test programs have been complete and it doesn't make sense to hold the systems in perpetual development awaiting the LCS MCM MP. This puts the systems in Fleet operator hands and exercises the supply system support and fleet support infrastructure. There remains integration testing on the LCS, but with the availability of the LCS being an issue, the Navy decided to push ahead to get some value from the systems that have completed development.

    * I have to think that survivability would be an issue, especially with the current Block I flying relatively low and slow along the beach, and a potential Block II that would literally be a strobe light for beach and surfzone illumination.

    1. source for some of the discussion of ALMDS/AMNS IOC, and the expeditionary concepts...

  3. Why waste money on buying a system that for all intense purposes is not ready for deployment. In theory drones are great in uncontested environments. However there is clear evidence that our adversaries are testing various methods to negate our advantages with signal jamming. Cheaper than launching an antisatellite weapon and far more flexible.


Comments will be moderated for posts older than 30 days in order to reduce spam.