On the second floor of the Walter E. Washington convention center in the District of Columbia sits a robot tanklet, designed to hunt drones. The uncrewed vehicle is the TRX SHORAD, and it is part of the display from defense giant General Dynamics Land Systems, assembled alongside the wares of over 650 other exhibitors for the annual Association of the United States Army meeting and exhibition. The TRX SHORAD suggests a future of robot-assisted combat, where attacks by drones are met with the automated speed and power of a companion robot built to destroy quadcopters.
TRX SHORAD is a composite name. TRX is the category name for General Dynamics 10-ton tracked robots, a platform that can accommodate a range of payloads including cargo and weapons. SHORAD is a military acronym for “Short Range Air Defense,” a category that is somewhat vague but broadly includes finding and destroying threats such as drones, helicopters, low-flying planes, and more.
“The TRX SHORAD is designed to bring a new dimension of combat power in SHORAD battalions and provides autonomy within a tiered, layered air defense,” reads the description from a General Dynamics video of the vehicle.
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In the video, a blurred-out quadcopter with the rough contours of a DJI Phantom is spotted moving over a field. The TRX SHORAD tracks the drone across the sky, then pivots its turret, aiming what appears to be rockets and a large caliber gun at the drone. With a powerful “ka-thunk,” the robot’s turret fires on the quadcopter, and the still-blurred drone falls after a cloud of smoke. In a second demonstration, a similarly blurred-out quadcopter erupts into a smoke cloud and plummets. Unblurred, in the background of the video, is a drone that appears to be patterned like a DJI Inspire, which was likely used to capture much of the mid-air footage.
This is a kind of aerial warfare, but it takes place in the low sky, the space immediately above the heads of soldiers and vehicles. It’s a space previously occupied largely by projectiles, rockets and mortars and missiles. Drones, which offer greater scouting possibilities while also carrying weapons and facilitating attacks, change the fundamental dynamic of aerial threats to armies.
What is most crucial about the range of threats these weapons are designed to stop is that they exist at a cost, operational profile, and likely even altitude that is hard for the jet fighters of the Air Force to intercept and destroy in a timely way. In other words, a quadcopter can launch, scout, and return before a jet can be launched to respond. The Army used to maintain dedicated units called Air Defense Artillery to protect against aerial threats, but, as a report from the Congressional Research Service notes, “in the early 2000s, these ADA units were divested from the Army to meet force demands deemed more critical at that time. Decisionmakers accepted the increased risk that threat aircraft might pose to ground forces and other critical assets because they believed the U.S. Air Force could maintain air superiority.”
What has changed since the early 2000s is the preponderance of drones used by militaries. “Since 2005, potential threats from air and missile platforms that could threaten U.S. ground forces have significantly increased. The use of unmanned aerial systems (UASs) has increased, and UASs have been used successfully by both sides in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict,” the CRS report notes.
These drones come in a range of sizes and variable threats. Small, hobbyist or commercial drones, like the DJI Phantom models used for anti-drone target practice, can carry cameras and be flown by anyone in minutes. In the summer of 2022, Russian infantry reported that moving in battle without quadcopters was like “fighting as ‘blind kittens.’” These drones can also be adapted to carry small bombs, the size of grenades or so. With a first-person view, or cameras allowing remote pilots to steer the drone as though they are on board, cheap drone bombers have been used to devastating effect in battle.
While commercial drones are commonly used in battle, drone scouts the size of small planes can fulfill a role once taken on by human-piloted aircraft, carrying weapons and intelligence missions at a greater distance than the short-range drones flown by infantry squads. Self-detonating drones, used as cheaper alternatives to cruise missiles, are abundant and deadly enough to constitute yet another new threat on the battlefield.
All of these threats pose a risk that is hard for an air force to directly address. This is the layer of layered defense that vehicles like the TRX SHORAD, or other SHORAD vehicles, are designed to fill. With bullets for small drones, larger projectiles for bigger and faster threats, and sensors to detect and track the movements of aircraft, TRX SHORAD could accompany soldiers, trucks, and tanks on maneuver, offering another line of defense against the crowded low skies of modern warfare.
Watch a video of TRX SHORAD below: