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CENTCOM eyeing artificial intelligence to counter Iran’s drones, says Kurilla

The top commander of US forces in the Middle East expressed concerns over China's inroads the region and told Al-Monitor he wants to turn up the heat at the next Red Sands exercise in Saudi Arabia to simulate more complex drone attacks.
 The US Central Command Commander General Michael Kurilla speaks at the 18th IISS Manama Dialogue in Bahrain's capital on November 19, 2022. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – Last month, at the Al-Khurais electronic warfare range in Saudi Arabia, US and Royal Saudi air defense units teamed up for live-fire drills to shoot down a series of training drones mimicking the speed and altitude of a variety of Iranian attack UAVs.

In an exclusive interview with Al-Monitor, Army Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the top commander of US forces in the Middle East, described the first Red Sands counter-drone experimentation exercise as “very successful.”

Not every new weapon system worked for every scenario – but that was the point. Several US and Saudi-owned weapons hit the targets successfully, including LIDS (Low, Slow, Unmanned Aircraft Integrated Defeat System), Coyote and other new counter-drone systems brought in by the US Army.

“Everything that we're trying to do is to enhance the capabilities we have,” Kurilla explained. “It’s helping make our partners better as well.”

Kurilla, who took the helm at Central Command (CENTCOM) last year at the onset of a two-decade low in the US military’s footprint in the Middle East, said he wants to raise the stakes during the next Red Sands event in September.

“Maybe we’ll invite one or two other countries” after the next exercise, Kurilla suggested. “We want to make sure we get it right on the first two iterations."

The goal is to build US and Saudi air defenders’ capabilities by further layering experimental systems and running multiple-drone scenarios from several angles to simulate complex attacks — such as the one that Iran launched against Saudi Aramco facilities in 2019 — before bringing in additional new systems like directed energy weapons.

Ultimately, CENTCOM officials intend to link their FAAD-C2 command-and-control nodes with artificial intelligence to help commanders prioritize targets, Kurilla said. 

But first the military needs to understand which of the dozens of counter-drone weapons on the market work best in certain scenarios. More than three years after the Pentagon set up a dedicated office to explore counter-drone technology, the Army is still weighing which platforms to adopt to fight off threats like Iran's one-way Shahed-136 series.

In November, the Biden administration approved the first sale ever of US-made counter-drone systems to the Middle East, consisting of Raytheon Coyotes and FS-LIDS systems to Qatar, in the first sign of a glacial shift in US arms sales to the region. The United Arab Emirates formally requested to buy the LIDS system nearly two years ago, Breaking Defense reported in February.

Red Sands is just one of several initiatives drawn up by new leadership at CENTCOM through which US and Middle Eastern troops have been field-testing emerging tech to contribute to the Pentagon's effort to modernize amid strategic competition with China and Russia. 

Kurilla's strategy, which he dubs "people, partners and innovation," also aims to compensate for the reduction of American military assets in the region while assuaging a perceived crisis of faith in Gulf capitals over Washington’s commitment to their security against Iran.

The Islamic Republic had already assembled the Middle East’s largest drone and missile arsenal by the time the Trump administration abandoned diplomatic restraints on Tehran’s nuclear program in 2018. Many of the IRGC’s projectiles are adept at outwitting the US-made air defense systems that dot the Arabian peninsula.

For that reason, Kurilla sees the region as the ideal theater for honing new tools in the arms race spurred by unmanned weapons – especially now that the threat of Iran's drones has spread to Europe and may soon be enhanced by Russian technology.

But a bevy of obstacles to US sales of counter-drone systems to the Middle East – coupled with recent years' withdrawals of US air defense systems – have only encouraged Gulf states’ intent to diversify their foreign arms purchases and to deepen ties with China, analysts and former officials say.

The CENTCOM chief and his staff are pressing ahead with their strategy amid skepticism in the Pentagon that last month’s Beijing-brokered agreement between Tehran and Riyadh to restore diplomatic ties will reduce the threat.

Kurilla acknowledges the geopolitical headwinds are significant. But the veteran special ops commander insists it is not too late to shore up America's already "strong" military ties in the region.

“I'm worried that we have to integrate the region before China can penetrate the region,” the four-star general told Al-Monitor, echoing comments he made last month before Congress.

Getting creative

The difficulty with the IRGC’s projectiles isn’t just in shooting them down – it’s also spotting them on the horizon and warning local militaries in time.

Pentagon officials say notable progress has been made, yet some Gulf Cooperation Council members remain unconvinced of the value of sharing their air defense radar data with their neighbors amid lingering distrust.

To that end, members of CENTCOM’s new tech crash teams think they’ve identified at least a partial workaround in the unlikely form of a smartphone app.

The Army’s Task Force 39 and and Air Force’s Task Force 99 are putting the finishing touches on the release version of a program that enables smartphone users to track airborne drones by pointing their cameras at the sky, Kurilla told Al-Monitor.

The app — whimsically dubbed “Carpe Dronum” by original designers at MITRE Corp. — relays captured imagery, location data and basic trigonometry to a central military server, where AI run the information against a data library to help identify the drone and predict its trajectory.

“All of that feeds into the Base Defense Operations Center, which then helps you operationalize that to be able to then engage,” Kurilla explained, adding that the app can also track reconnaissance drones. 

American troops have already begun testing Carpe Dronum on their bases and included it in last month’s Red Sands exercise, he said. The CENTCOM chief hopes to be able to share it with US-aligned militaries and eventually release it to the general public in Middle Eastern countries.

Inspired by the early-warning apps already in use in Ukraine and Israel, the aim — in Kurilla's words — is to “operationalize the population” in collective defense against drone attacks by Iran and its proxies.

Whether Arab militaries will buy in, and just how the app may be used by governments with checkered histories of surveilling their citizens, remain open questions. 

The military is currently exploring the idea's feasibility, legally and otherwise, CENTCOM spokesperson Col. Joe Buccino told Al-Monitor.

Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication to clarify that the live fire portion of the March 2023 Red Sands exercise was held at one location.

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