A 61 year old mailman from Florida flew a USPS adorned gyrocopter onto the Capitol lawn yesterday. He came in low over northeast D.C. around 1:20pm and then turned by the Washington Monument and flew right up the Mall. According to NORAD, the aircraft was never detected, which is not a good thing.
The mailman's aerial protest mission ended up being relatively benign as he executed the stunt to deliver hundreds of letters to Congress protesting corruption in Washington. The man had been pretty clear about his intentions over the last couple of years and had been interviewed by the Secret Service about them twice before yesterday's incident. But the man's mission is not the only one being questioned right now. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), who watches over the nation's airspace, is also under scrutiny.
The gyrocopter flying intruder is thought to have departed from Gettysberg Regional Airport located in Pennsylvania, which is over 65 miles away from the National Mall. For such a slow flying aircraft, this would have given plenty of time for an intercept, or at least detection.
Washington DC and the region around it sits under highly monitored restricted airspace, known as the Washington DC Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). As you fly closer to the center of this zone, the restrictions become increasingly intense, with the areas over the National Mall and the National Observatory being totally restricted to civilian and commercial aircraft.
Radars of the air traffic control variety and the military variety provide constant surveillance over the entire area. This surveillance has been recently augmented by the supposedly highly capable electronically scanned array radar packing blimp, known as JLENS (Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System). JLENS is said to be able to detect everything from low-flying cruise missile to small boat swarms, and it would have had the best chance of detecting a slow flying, small gyrocopter making its way down towards the National Mall. This is not to say that other radar systems couldn't have, and even should have, picked up the Gyrocopter on its fairly long flight to its final destination.
Other tracking systems, which usually are located near key installations, include electro-optical and infrared search and track systems and other passive detection devices. All this information is fused together and used by NORAD controllers to quickly respond to intruders. They do this by using a distinct escalation ladder protocol based on the type of intruder, its distance from sensitive installations and if there are any clues known at the time as to its possible intent.
Photo above of F-16s over DC and MH-65 photo below via DoD
This escalation ladder starts at simply radioing the aircraft to try to inform its pilot that they have breached the ADIZ. If the aircraft is unresponsive, or detected already close to the ADIZ's inner core, an intercept may be ordered. F-16Cs located at Andrew's AFB are on high alert for this mission and can be airborne in less than five minutes. Generally, the F-16s are used for faster moving threats, but also provide the ability to take down slower flying threats if need be. US Coast Guard MH-65C Dolphin helicopters are based at Reagan Intentional Airport and are on alert as well to intercept slower flying threats, such as light aircraft. If the aircraft in question is unresponsive and shows hostile intent, it can be shot down by these assets or by surface-to-air missile systems located around the ADIZ.
The existence of this network of surface-to-air missile systems based around Washington DC and its vicinity remains fairly obscure to many people, even to those living in the DC area. Radar-guided, medium-range SAM capability is provided by the US-Norwegian built NASAMS system based on the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Remote sites around the outskirts of Washington, usually near high-profile installations, house these missile systems and they are tied directly into the NORAD's integrated air defense systems in the region.
In addition to the medium-range, radar-guided SAM that protect the region, the AN/TWQ-1 Avenger point air defense system, which uses FIM-92 Stinger SAMs and .50 caliber machine guns, are scattered around Washington DC itself, including units hard-mounted on top of buildings very close to the National Mall. These systems act as a last line of defense against marauding aircraft, especially low flying ones.
Photo of Avenger on building and gyrocopter on lawn via Associated Press
The reality is that using current 'kinetic' air defense systems, even if the gyropcopter was tracked on radar, engaging it would have been a messy affair. All of the ground-to-air options include firing a missile with a high-explosive fragmentation warheads at an aircraft flying low over a very heavily populated area. Or, even worse, letting out long strings of machine gun fire into an area surrounded by multi-story buildings. On the aerial side, even if there is time to intercept the aircraft in question it's clear the F-16's most surgical weapons – its 20mm cannon and the AIM-9X sidewinder – offer similar risks to bystanders. Even a Coast Guard helicopter spraying a light aircraft with 7.62mm machine gun fire can end up with rounds landing where they were not intended.
Earlier this year, along with other recent troubles, both external and internal, the Secret Service seemed to be taken off-guard by a small hobby drone that landed on the White House lawn. To many in the defense community such a threat was nothing new, yet it seemed like the Secret Service was amazingly behind the curve on figuring out a way how to deal with them.
These constant reminders, with many others dating back decades, of how small airplanes and even off-the-shelf hobby drones represent very accessible and potentially disastrous threats, are precisely why fielding close-in laser air defense systems should be a top priority in Washington DC and for VVIPs traveling abroad.
The problem is that you need to be able to detect low-flying, low-radar cross section targets in all weather conditions before you can rapidly engage them with any weapon, let alone a laser. With this problem in mind, there are a new series of modular radar systems aimed at low-end aerial threat detection. Rada Electronic Industries, which produces RPS-42 Tactical Air Surveillance, offers one such solution and there are many more in development.
These systems can be mounted on easily transportable stands, atop buildings or on vehicles, with the idea of mounting both the detection system and the engagement system (solid state laser) on one single vehicle or apparatus. Having radar cuing for a laser system also helps with positive target detection, as an infrared sensor can be quickly directed to a radar contact in question before firing. Also, such an integrated system would allow controllers to program certain areas in their surroundings where the system will track but not engage the enemy aircraft. This can be used for keeping laser energy off nearby buildings or population centers and away from nearby airport traffic.
The future will see not only small unmanned and radio controlled systems being used by good and bad guys alike in an asymmetric manner, but also they will be used on the battlefield in swarms to overwhelm the enemy. Think of this concept as flying, networked, suicidal grenades. The Navy is already test flying such a system now, called LOCUST (Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology) and its low cost and fairly low tech nature will put similar systems within reach of our potential enemies in the not so distant future.
Although taking down hobby drones and ultralight aircraft is not a glamorous mission, the threat posed by them is becoming more relevant than the hijacked airliner threat reminiscent of 9/11. The Navy has already deployed its first laser close-in weapons system and there are a series of other ground-based systems that are already capable of taking down small aircraft at relatively close ranges. Still, it is clear that the accessibility to low-end unmanned technology is rapidly outpacing the development of countermeasures designed to defeat it when that technology is used as an improvised weapon system.
What is needed is a a modular and fully integrated laser and small aircraft detection system. One that can easily accompany military convoys on the battlefield one day and sit parked on the National Mall or near Air Force One the next.
How long before such a solution becomes available? Laser development is picking up pace but a fully integrated, dependable and highly mobile system remains elusive, although the Navy's GBAD (Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move ) concept may eventually be this solution. Under the GBAD program, a 10KW laser will be tested this year, with hopes of a more applicable 30KW laser being tested in 2016. Eventually, the idea is that GBAD vehicle could rapidly detect, track and engage threats all the way up to low-flying helicopters and light aircraft.
As to whether or not such a system, if and when it finally becomes available, will be deployed as it should near high-risk sites and VVIPs, remains unclear. Sadly, it may take many more wake-up calls till the powers that be realize that lumbering hijacked airliners and fired cruise missiles are not the only major aerial threats to America's most sensitive locales and individuals anymore.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com