Information Warfare: Small, Discreet And Versatile


June 4, 2018: It was recently revealed that the U.S. Air Force had a UAV program called Silver Fang that ran from 2013 through 2017. There was never much publicity for Silver Fang, but that was the case with many projects created because of the JIEDDO (Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization) effort that began in 2006 and has, since then spent over $26 billion on numerous efforts to deal with improvised and usually hidden bombs still used widely by Islamic terrorists. To create Silver Fang the air force apparently took the Silver Fox UAV, already used by U.S. Navy ground forces (NECC) as well as marines, and added sensors for detecting wireless signals. This version was called Silver Fang and it apparently had some success because it showed up all over the Middle East as well as Afghanistan.

There were many similar JIEDDO projects that involved UAVs or manned aircraft collecting lots of electronic data to detect IED use or simply the activities of groups that planted them. According to some of those involved with Silver Fang, the project was a success, but details were classified, as is often the case with EW (Electronic Warfare) efforts. What caused Silver Fang to disappear was a combination of competition and the relatively small size of the effort. When cuts were made in defense spending it was common for effective projects like Silver Fang to lose their budget and fade away.

One of the reasons Silver Fang was so useful was its use of a small, quiet UAV called Silver Fox. This was one of the more popular mini-UAVs, especially with the U.S. Navy. Silver Fox UAVs weigh 11.4 kg (25 pounds with a 2.2 kg/five pound payload) and can fly as 3,650 meters (12,000 feet). Its 2.4 meter (eight foot) wingspan has wings that are easily removed from the fuselage and the UAV can then be carried around in a 1.52 meterx35cmx40cm (60"x14"x15") container. If the wind is strong enough, the Silver Fox can be launched by hand, but normally it is propelled into flight via compressed air from a portable launcher. The UAV lands by just stopping the engine when it's low to the ground. The UAV is light enough to just bounce when it hits the ground.

A very quiet model aircraft engine keeps it in the air for up to eight hours per sortie. The aircraft is maneuvered via radio commands via a laptop computer. It can either be controlled by the operator or simply instructed to go from one waypoint to another (using an onboard GPS and flight control software.) It can fly at speeds of up to a hundred kilometers an hour (about 27 meters a second) and be manually operated up to 37 kilometers from the controller. It's small enough to provide a very difficult to hit a target for enemy troops trying to knock it down. In any event, its engine is hard to hear when the UAV is higher than 161 meters (500 feet). At night, it's pretty much impossible to detect from the ground.

Each Silver Fox costs about $10,000. When converted to Silver Fang, with sensors that detect wireless signals the price goes up but the basics remain the same. Even with night vision, it is difficult to catch Islamic terrorists at work. Most IEDs are planted at night often in remote areas and Silver Fang UAVs can be used in autonomous mode to patrol long stretches of road and monitor wireless activity. Islamic terrorists in an area tend to use the same equipment for communication. Larger manned EW aircraft come over regularly to note that type of comms are being used (cell phones, walkie-talkies and so on). Silver Fang could easily have a modular payload where EW gear could easily be switched to deal with the frequency of the day (or night). In addition, one operator can control up to ten Silver Fox/Fang UAVs in automatic mode, with the sensor data automatically sent back and analyzed by software designed to detect patterns (from video and wireless signals) indicating IED or other hostile activity.

The navy used Silver Fox in Iraq to support its Riverine units. But most of the Riverine missions involved some truck convoy action, and that's where the Silver Fox is used to provide extra eyes for the sailors in the trucks. Other users like the long duration of sorties, giving the UAV the ability to stake out an area all night, using its night vision camera. Silver Fox is also popular with scientists, as its payload is large enough to allow a wide variety of sensors to be carried, and it’s a lot cheaper than buying or renting manned aircraft. In any event, the useful qualities of Silver Fox were known in the research community and that led to its use by the air force as Silver Fang.

Money was usually not a problem because JIEDDO, formed when the Department of Defense realized that IEDs were a major factor in many American combat casualties, was meant to deal with that. For years after September 11, 2001 two-thirds of the Americans killed in combat were the victims of IEDs in the form of roadside bombs and (much less often) mines. This was a big shift from the American experience in Vietnam, where 14 percent of American deaths were from bombs and mines. What that meant was twice as many Americans were killed by bombs and mines during Vietnam (55,000 dead) compared to Iraq and Afghanistan (6,700 dead). In Iraq and Afghanistan IEDs became the most successful weapon the enemy had against American troops. In response, the U.S. lavishly funded JIEDDO, at least until most American troops were out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Because of the fear that IEDs will continue to be a major threat (because all the other battlefield dangers have been made so much less dangerous) the U.S. kept JIEDDO going after cutting staff and funding by about two-thirds. With that budget cut, JIEDDO was also renamed JIDO (Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization). JIDO has been doing some work on spotting and defeating bomb equipped commercial UAVs and wants more money to get results faster. So far Islamic terror groups have not cooperated but there has been electronic chatter among Islamic terrorists about the possibility of armed commercial UAVs. The counter-IED effort has a priority and that no doubt led to successful, but small, projects like Silver Fang to get cut. It has happened often in the past.

It was in Iraq that the U.S. first mobilized JIEDDO to deal with IEDs, and even before JIEDDO showed up in 2006 other new ideas had paid off. New technology (MRAPS, jammers, robots), tactics (predictive analysis and such), equipment (better armor for vehicles and troops) and a lot of determination did the job. Gradually, IEDs became less dangerous. In 2006, it took about five IEDs to cause one coalition casualty (11 percent of them fatal) in Iraq. By 2008 it took nine IEDs per casualty (12 percent of them fatal). The MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle was a major factor as these armored trucks were designed to neutralize the effects of an explosion and they were very effective at that.

Counter-IED work continues if only to aid our allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. But with reduced budgets and new threats priorities have to be adjusted.


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