In April, the Air Force took its Angry Kitten out for a spin in the skies above Nevada. The feline-monikered system is a tool of electronic warfare, developed originally to simulate enemy systems in testing and training. Now, the Air Force is exploring using the system as an offensive tool, and as a weapon it can bring to future fights. This testing included putting the Angry Kitten on a Reaper drone.
Electronic warfare is an increasingly important part of how modern militaries fight. The systems generally operate on the electromagnetic spectrum outside the range of visible light, making their actions perceived primarily by their resulting negative effects on an adversary, like lost signals or incorrect sensor information. What makes Angry Kitten especially valuable as a training tool, and as a future weapon, is that it uses a software-defined radio to adjust frequencies, perceiving and then mimicking other aircraft, and overall making a fussy mess of their signals.
“Electronic Attack on the MQ-9 is a compelling capability,” said Michael Chmielewski, 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron commander, in a release. “15 hours of persistent noise integrated with a large force package will affect an adversary, require them to take some form of scalable action to honor it, and gets at the heart of strategic deterrence.”
In other words, putting the Angry Kitten on a Reaper drone means that the jamming system can be airborne for a long time, as Reapers are long-endurance drones. Any hostile air force looking to get around the jamming will need to attack the Reaper, which as an uncrewed plane is more expendable than a crewed fighter. Or, it means they will need to route around the jammed area, letting the Air Force dictate the terms of where and how a fight takes place.
Reapers were developed for and widely used during the long counter-insurgency wars waged by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars saw the drones’ long endurance, slow speed, and ability to loiter over an area as valuable assets, especially since the drones rarely had to contend with any anti-air missiles. They were operating in, to use Pentagon parlance, “uncontested” skies. As the Pentagon looks to the future, one in which it may be called upon to use existing equipment in a war against nations with fighter jets and sophisticated anti-air systems, it’d be easy to see Reapers sidelined as too slow, vulnerable, or irrelevant for the task.
Putting an Angry Kitten on a Reaper is a way to make the drone relevant again for other kinds of war.
“The goal is to expand the mission sets the MQ-9 can accomplish,” said Aaron Aguilar, 556th Test and Evaluation Squadron assistant director of operations, in the same release. “The proliferation and persistence of MQ-9s in theater allows us to fill traditional platform capability gaps that may be present. Our goal is to augment assets that already fill this role so they can focus and prioritize efforts in areas they are best suited for.”
Putting the Angry Kitten on a Reaper turns a counter-insurgency hunter-killer into a conventional-war surveillance platform and jammer. It emphasizes what the tool on hand can already do well, while giving it a different set of ways to interact with a different expected array of foes.
An earlier exercise this spring saw the Air National Guard test landing and launching a Reaper from a highway in Wyoming, expanding how and where it can operate. The ability to quickly deploy, refuel, rearm, and relaunch Reapers, from found runways as well as established bases, can expand how the drones are used.
In addition to testing the Angry Kitten with Reapers, the Air Force tested the Angry Kitten in Alaska on F-16 Fighting Falcons and A-10 Thunderbolts, both older planes originally designed for warfare against the Soviet Union in the 1980s. In the decades since, Fighting Falcons—known more colloquially as vipers—have expanded to become a widely used versatile fighter in the arsenal of the US and a range of nations. Meanwhile, the Air Force has long worked to retire the A-10s, arguing that they lack protection against modern weapons. That process began in earnest this spring, with the oldest models selected for the boneyard.
In the meantime, putting the Angry Kitten on drones and planes still in service means expanding not just what those planes can do, but potentially how effective they can be against sophisticated weapons. Targeting systems, from those used by planes to find targets to those used by missiles to track them, can be disrupted or fooled by malicious signals. An old plane may not be able to survive a hit from a modern missile, but jamming a missile so that misses its mark is better protection than any armor.