Last week, a Russian Su-27 fighter intercepted an unarmed U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane while flying in international airspace over the increasingly contested Baltic Sea. The intercept, like many before it, was characterized as “unprofessional” by American Defense Officials, but received little fanfare in the American media. Why? Well, in short, it’s because these sorts of intercepts, and even more aggressive and “unsafe” ones, have become commonplace. American and allied surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft flying near or over tense regions of the world frequently interact with foreign aircraft, and Russian pilots have never been shy about demonstrating their displeasure by using aggressive maneuvers that toe the water in regards to aggressive posturing and blatant acts of war.

If a conflict were to break out between the United States and it allies and a technologically capable opponent like Russia or China, these intercepts would quickly transition from “unprofessional” to active combat operations, which would mean these aircraft, armed with no offensive or defensive weapons systems of their own, would be left defenseless until allied fighters arrived.

U.S. Air Force photo of a Russian Su-27 closing to within feet of an unarmed RC-135U last year. (YouTube)

With American forces increasingly reliant on the intelligence and communication networking provided by unarmed military aircraft, these flying targets present a valuable opportunity for opposing forces, providing a chance to throw a wrench in the American military gears with a single ground-to-air or air-to-air missile — but the Navy is now working on a plan to help prevent that.

The Navy recently released a Request for Information to the defense industry with its sights set on a concept they call the “Hard Kill Self-Protection Countermeasure System,” or HKSPCS. This system, according to the Navy’s request, could involve drone wing men, mounted pods, or even internally launched countermeasures that would provide unarmed aircraft, including troop transports, a mean of defense if they came under enemy fire without any accompanying air support.

A Russian Su-27 crosses the nose of a U.S. Navy EP-3 Orion surveillance aircraft earlier this year. The Orion was forced to divert to avoid a collision. (DoD)

Often, when flying near operationally contested airspace, these types of aircraft would travel under escort, but in a future global conflict, it would be difficult to assign fighters to accompany these sorts of aircraft in all places at once. Instead, HKSPCS defenses could intercept inbound missiles as the unarmed aircraft attempts to flee the encounter and nearby fighters are scrambled to assist. The Navy’s unarmed aircraft would still need to rely on armed support from other aircraft, but on board or nearby drone based defenses could buy it the time it needed for support to arrive.

There are few details pertaining to exactly what the system would entail, but that’s likely because the Navy wants to see what commercial enterprises can come up with on their own, but it is expected that such a system would rely on high-velocity missile interceptors not unlike seen on ground based ballistic missile defense systems. Drone wing men could move to engage inbound missiles, or the interceptors could be fired from platforms installed on the aircraft themselves. The only requirements the Navy has set forth thus far include that the total system needs to weigh in at around 2,000 pounds or under and needs to be capable of intercepting between four and ten inbound missiles (factoring the probability of intercept, so lower success rates would require higher numbers of interceptors).

The Navy expects all responses to be in by next March.

Image courtesy of the Department of Defense