It’s not just about shooting down drones. During this year’s cadet summer training, the Army Cyber Institute at West Point has assisted West Point’s Department of Military Instruction by introducing an “enemy” drone during Urban Operations training. This addition has enabled cadets to integrate common warrior tasks and battle drills to that of modern warfare by requiring them to defeat a remotely piloted aerial vehicle during their mission.
“It’s to help Soldiers and all branches think about cyber and how it’s going to affect the modern battlefield,” said Capt. Matthew Hutchison, a research scientist assigned to ACI.
Another ACI research scientist, Lt. Col. Daniel Huynh, agrees.
“We think it’s important to help show cadets what the future may look like. It’s more the idea of being able to look further down the road,” he said.
In this particular scenario, an infantry platoon of cadets is enabled with a cyber operator and bolstered with the capabilities of a cyber rifle, a device specifically created by ACI to disable drones.
“The cyber rifle started out as an idea of what cyber would look like at the tactical level,” Hutchison said.
After creating a prototype using everyday household items, Hutchison and his cohorts created the first-generation cyber rifle with an airsoft rifle. The device accesses commercially available, micro drones through basic Wi-Fi.
The ACI researchers recognized that the device needed to be ruggedized, so with the help of West Point’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science they were able to make the rifle more user friendly. The end state was that with minimal training and proper aim, a cadet could disarm a drone and cause it to drop.
“It happens to be an M-4 form factor so everybody can put their hands on it and squeeze a trigger and it feels ‘Army-ish,’ instead of just some sort of goofy antenna and laptop,” said Hutchison. “The cadets like it… to hold something in your hand and have an effect on a computer system.”
Capt. Frederick Waage, the ACI research scientist who operated the rifle during the exercise, is looking toward the future as well.
“The Army Cyber Institute isn’t necessarily focused on providing a technical solution to troops on ground,” Waage clarified. “We’re trying to create a vision and inspire that creative vision in cadets for what the future of warfare might be like, particularly when you look at disruptive tech, such as micro-drones.”
Waage hopes that modern Soldiers will share that vision with him, even if ACI’s cyber rifle is only for demonstrations.
“When we look to the future, there’s not going to be a silver bullet piece of technology that’s going to solve our problems, it’s the people themselves and their ability to be flexible and adaptable with technology,” Waage continued. “Knowing when to pull away from technology and knowing when to work to develop smarter technology so we’re creating adaptable, flexible minds. That’s really what our objective is for the Army Cyber Institute.”
But why not use a kinetic rifle to shoot down a drone?
“Drones are actually really hard to see just because they’re small and they’re so maneuverable so they provide really small target service,” Hutchinson explained. “Also, in an urban area like this, you may not want to engage it with kinetic fire depending on who’s in the area.
“Whereas our Wi-Fi answer, essentially an electronic attack on this drone, is pretty innocuous to the surrounding population, it’s pretty quiet and slick and you can have the element of surprise in your assault,” Hutchison continued. “This is a capability that we’re hoping will exist in the future, it’s just kind of trying to open the cadets’ eyes to the fact that cyber is an enabler that’s going to help in the battlefield from here on out and how disruptive technologies are kind of changing our operating environment.”
Huynh noted that these exercises have been piquing cadets’ interests.
“It’s exciting! The cadets are really receptive to it and we’re seeing them come up to our officers asking, ‘Hey what is that?’ or they’re asking these good questions, ‘How do I become a cyber officer?’ or ‘How do I become an EW (Electronic Warfare) officer?’ which is cool. It’s exciting to see everything work out,” he added.
Cadet Austin Neal, the cadet in charge of the UO lane, says that although he doesn’t plan on branching cyber, he expects to be working alongside cyber platoons once he commissions.
“Being out here and watching them integrate and seeing the direction that the cyber branch can take with the infantry or with the other branches is really interesting,” Neal said. “Hopefully the big Army can see how we’re doing it here and maybe we can integrate cyber assets into more real-life scenarios in the future.”