Updated 6:02 PM EDT, Wed, Apr 01, 2020

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DARPA Close to Perfecting Mini-Missiles that can Destroy Drone Swarms


(Photo : U.S. Navy) Phalanx CIWS aboard a U.S. Navy warship fires on a target.

The U.S. Navy is pushing ahead with a program whose aim is to defeat swarm attacks by aerial drones and naval drones by using special "smart mini-missiles" that can destroy these drones en masse.

Swarm attacks by the Russian and Chinese military are inevitable, the Navy believes, and a defense against them must be present aboard warships in harm's way.

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The Navy's "Multi Azimuth Defense Fast Intercept Round Engagement System" (MAD-FIRES) program aims to develop a medium-caliber guided projectile that can be fired from the 20 mm autocannon in a U.S. Navy warship's Phalanx Close-in Weapon System (CIWS), or from any other 20 mm to 40 mm caliber autocannon on a warship.

CIWS is the last line of defense of Navy warships against high-speed threats such as cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles. The Ohalanx 20 mm autocannon unleashes 4,500 rounds per minute from its six barrels. The rounds are tracked by radar, allowing the gun to accurately track and destroy a target.

The MAD-FIRES program is being run by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

DARPA said MAD-FIRES aims to advance the state-of-the-art in defensive gun systems by creating a new, low-cost technological foundation for guided, gun-launched projectiles. Specifically, MAD-FIRES aims to incorporate enhanced ammunition rounds able to alter their flight path in real time to stay on target, and a capacity to continuously target, track and engage multiple fast-approaching targets simultaneously and re-engage any targets that survive initial engagement.

DARPA says MAD-FIRES will combine the guidance, precision, and accuracy of missiles with the speed, rapid-fire capability, and large ammunition capacity of medium-caliber bullets like 20 mm to 40 mm ammunition designed to destroy lightly armored vehicles, aircraft and personnel.

It noted attacks by unmanned vehicles, missiles, small planes, fast in-shore attack craft and other platforms "pose a perennial, evolving and potentially lethal threat to ships and other maritime vessels.

"The escalating risks posed by these ever-morphing threats demand that vessels have access to defensive capabilities at the leading edge of air and surface combat technologies.

"In particular, current close-range gun systems would greatly benefit from an ability to engage multiple and diverse targets coming from a range of directions and do so rapidly and with high precision."

Prototype MAD-FIRES smart bullets are currently being developed and tested by Raytheon, which received an extra $8 million for this purpose. Raytheon has so far received $27 million to develop MAD-FIRES.

Another major defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, is also expected to receive funding to work on MAD-FIRES. 

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