The US military’s National Training Centre said “drones will be as important in the first battle of the next war as artillery is today”, describing the exercise in which the US army’s 11th armoured cavalry division mounted an attack on the 1st infantry division, backed by swarms of the quadcopters that were capable of using “lethal munitions.”
The NTC said the opposing forces were staging the mock battle on “the world’s most realistic simulated battlefield”.
Quadcopter drones rigged with bombs were first used at scale by ISIS terrorists during the battle of Mosul in 2016, dropping small grenades on to Iraqi army tanks and High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (Humvees).
For the most part, the improvised flying weapons caused a nuisance, proving extremely difficult to shoot down — although in one filmed instance one of the drones disabled a multimillion dollar US M1A1 Abrams tank in Iraqi service.
That attack was terrifyingly accurate. Though the bomb was small, it landed next to the tank’s commander, reportedly killing him.
The military exercise on Sunday was similar to a larger multinational training effort in Ohio in August, involving US, British, Canadian and Latvian troops, which also involved “drones dropping simulation grenades”.
In Ukraine, the weapons have been used to devastating effect even before the Russian invasion in February, with Russian forces using quadcopters to identify a Ukrainian position in 2018, killing and injuring 100 soldiers with a follow on artillery barrage.
Ukrainians have since harnessed local civilian production of quadcopters, using them to drop RKG-3 anti-tank grenades on Russian armour and infantry. In an echo of ISIS’s use of the weapons, some attack videos show grenades dropped from the drones landing inside tank commander hatches, setting off ammunition inside the tank in a huge fireball.
The US has long been concerned about swarms of cheap, commercially available drones overwhelming their positions with small bomblets, or directing lethal artillery fire from afar.
Hard to detect
The quadcopters are quiet and fly low, making it hard for conventional radar systems to detect them.
Recent counter drone innovations have included laser and high powered microwave beams, as well as powerful radars designed to detect small objects in a 360° radius. These systems can be deployed on existing armoured vehicles, such as the Stryker armoured personnel carrier.
That weapon — a 50 kilowatt laser that can burn the electronics of small drones — is believed by some analysts to have already been used against drones in Iraq, launched by Iran-backed militias. For comparison, in 2018 the US successfully tested a 10 kilowatt laser against quadcopter drones.
At the same time, the US has also been interested in turning the tables on the users of drones. In April, the head of the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the US military’s famed research arm, said it could be possible to launch swarms of 1,000 drones, navigating autonomously using terrain features and overwhelming enemy defences.