US Air Force's Angry Kitten turns Reaper drone into fierce feline of electronic warfare
Hardware from a decade ago? More like grumpy old mog
The US Air Force is turning to an unlikely place to beef up its electronic warfare countermeasures: a decade-old aircraft-mounted pod known as the "Angry Kitten."
While not a new device for the USAF, the latest tests involved the first flight of the Angry Kitten Electronic Warfare Pod on an unmanned craft, in this case a General Atomics MQ-9A Reaper drone.
Angry Kitten, developed at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), is more aptly described as a full-fledged cat at this point, with work on the pod going way back to 2013. As originally developed, the Angry Kitten is designed to be "fully adaptive and autonomous [with] capabilities that aren't currently available in [radar] jammers," GTRI research engineer Stan Sutphin mentioned a decade ago.
That said, GTRI describes the original Angry Kitten as a radio frequency jammer built with a mix of commercial electronics, custom hardware and novel machine learning software that allows it to adapt to advanced electronic warfare. By being trained on a variety of different radio electronic attack and electronic protection methods, Angry Kitten can "independently assess and respond to novel opposing technology," the institute said.
Since its original development, the Angry Kitten has been a successful device for the USAF and has demonstrated an ability to be rapidly reprogrammed and adapt to previously unseen electronic warfare measures overnight, the Air Force said after testing last year.
Pressure from senior USAF staff has even led to it being adapted into an offensive weapon. "Over the past four years, it has been well documented in the strategic guidance that we have to do this," said Keith Kirk, experiment project manager for the USAF's App-Enabled Rapidly Reprogrammable Electronic warfare/electromagnetic Systems campaign.
"This is the first operational assessment of a potentially deployable and combat-ready electronic warfare system for fighter aircraft moving in that direction," Kirk said after testing in 2022.
Now that tech can be mounted on a Reaper drone.
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How many Angry Kittens does it take to get ahead of China?
Electronic warfare is constantly evolving, but if you ask Republican Nebraska Representative Don Bacon it may be too little too late.
Speaking at an electronic warfare meeting hosted by think tank the Hudson Institute earlier this week, Bacon said the US's electronic warfare capabilities are lagging behind the rest of the world.
"By the time I was a colonel, a brigadier general, it was clear we let things atrophy to a large degree and Russia and China in many areas had surpassed us, because they were focused on it," Bacon said. The retired USAF Brigadier General previously served as director of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance strategy for the US Air Force before leaving service in 2014.
"We're just too slow. It shouldn't take us five years, six years to turn the ship around," Bacon opined.
But it's not that the US hasn't been working on electronic warfare with adaptive capabilities like those found in Angry Kitten. DARPA has two archived projects listed on its website, the Behavioral Learning for Adaptive Electronic Warfare (BLADE) program and the Adaptive Radar Countermeasures (ARC) program.
The outcome of either project is unclear, though aerospace firm BAE Systems did get $13.3 million to develop airborne electronic warfare systems under ARC in 2016. Nothing about BAE's participation in the program is mentioned past that point. DARPA didn't respond to our questions about ARC and BLADE.
While it seems Angry Kitten has fared well in testing, whether it's the kick-start American electronic warfare superiority needs is unclear. We contacted the Air Force to learn how the pod has evolved over the past decade of testing, but were told the branch couldn't provide any details due to operational security concerns. ®