Defeating the drones: How armies are scrambling to counter new battlefield threats

Lasers, GPS jammers and drones that hunt down drones are among low-cost solutions being developed

The USS Portland fires a laser weapon system in the Gulf of Aden. Lasers have been developed to counter attack bomb-laden drone boats. AP
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The Middle East is no stranger to innovations in warfare, from the first widespread use of portable air defences and portable anti-tank weapons in the 1973 Arab-Israeli war to the 1991 Gulf War in Kuwait, when the US first integrated satellite data and missile navigation.

Today, we've seen the first use of civilian-designed drones in a combat role in Iraq and Syria.

It’s also the region where counter drone technology has been significantly improved, following the Iran and Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia and UAE, as well as the targeting of US bases in Iraq.

“The Middle East has been a wake-up call for the US military in that they had done surprisingly little development on their short-range air defences,” said Jeremy Binnie, a missile specialist at Janes, the defence intelligence company.

Analysts call this the Shorad gap, or short-range air defence gap, but the US has been working hard to overcome the problem of over-reliance on systems designed to intercept large, high-flying jets and missiles, like the Patriot.

By contrast, swarms of drones have been described on radar as appearing like flocks of migratory birds – if they're spotted at all.

“Even though drones are slow they fly low, below radar so you don't get too much warning, so you need to track and engage them,” said Mr Binnie. “Sometimes an incredibly sophisticated missile is your only option. But when a missile that costs millions of dollars is used to shoot down something that only cost a few thousand dollars, that is a bad equation.”

In 2017, an extreme example of this occurred when the US said an unnamed ally had used a Patriot system to shoot down a quadcopter drone with a $4 million Pac 3 interceptor.

The Israeli Iron Dome defence was another prime example of the cost ratio, with expensive interceptors taking down cheap rockets or drones.

In Ukraine, Norway and the US have sent the Nasams system to protect Kyiv, which fires missiles normally used in air-to-air combat. The interceptors it fires range in cost, from nearly half a million to a million dollars, but this price is seen as justifiable, because the system can engage fixed-wing jets, as well as drones.

Some argue there may be no choice but to accept the eye-watering cost equation: if an Iron Dome interceptor costs $100,000 to shoot down a $20,000 Iran-made Shahed drone, but it saves a $1 billion power station, it might be justifiable.

Nonetheless, there is a race to reduce cost. One solution the US and Israel have been working on is lasers.

The idea here is that with enough battery power on a system, the cost per laser beam drops rapidly, to as little as several dollars per shot.

That is still a problematic area, argues military analyst Sam Cranny-Evans. “Potentially lasers will be more effective than missiles but then you will need a power unit that's the right size, and it needs to be big to deal with swarms as you need to recharge the laser and go again with multiple power cycles very quickly.”

Israel has already tested its Iron Beam laser system on large target drones.

Counter systems are being employed by Russia mainly using electronic warfare jammers to freeze the drones’ GPS navigation. But this also means they have to turn GPS back on when their air force wants to attack with precision weapons, giving the Ukrainians forewarning.

Also, drones are now being developed with terrain mapping, doing away with the need for satellite navigation.

The US has developed the Lids system (Low, Slow, Small UAV Integrated Defeat System) with radar, electronic warfare, direction-finding and camera systems to detect, track and identify drones, but only up to groups of three. It currently protects Centcom bases in the Gulf region.

New innovations are also being combat tested. Attacks on US bases in Iraq have led to rapid countermeasures development.

The US has already deployed 50-kilowatt lasers mounted on Stryker armoured vehicles in Iraq but has been quiet on whether they have intercepted drones. One Washington-based defence analyst told The National off the record that lasers had already been used on small drones in Iraq.

In tests, the weapon has even succeeded in destroying mortar rounds, targets that are barely visible to the naked eye.

Another lorry-mounted system, Coyote, is essentially a drone designed to hunt enemy drones, and has scored a successful “kill” in Iraq, confirmed by Centcom in January.

While these systems remain in development, Ukraine has had significant success with an older German system, the Gepard, which has been updated with sophisticated radar and can fill the sky with flak from exploding ammunition.

Future wars

These encounters are tiny compared to the massed use of drones in Ukraine, the largest state-on-state war since Iran and Iraq fought an existential struggle in the 1980s.

But despite the ingenuity and advances Kyiv and Moscow are racing to develop, this may not be “the hour of the drone”, the experts said.

There were lessons to be taken from Ukraine, argued Dr Ulrike Franke, technology lead at the European Council on Foreign Relations, but similarly it was wise not to “overestimate them because quite honestly, in Ukraine, it isn't the hour of the drone”.

It was a war in which small drones flew for short periods, unlike huge US MQ-9 Reaper that can fly for 27 hours carrying a 1,700kg payload of bombs or the high-performance drones that can be launched off aircraft carriers.

These drones can still be vulnerable to high-altitude missile defence – as happened when Iran shot down a US RQ-4 in 2019, and enemy fighter jets, as occurred when a US F-15 shot down an Iranian Mohajer drone in Syria.

But the vulnerability of larger drones could soon change as systems like the Loyal Wingman are deployed, stealthy drones that operate in tandem with fighter jets, which could prove deadly to enemy air defences and enemy aircraft.

Mr Binnie argued that it was the Middle East where most pioneering has happened. “Ukraine is perhaps attracting more attention but it’s essentially a scaled-up version of what we've already seen in the past in the Middle East.”

When it comes to fielding or defeating drones “Ukraine is, as well as being a horrible war of attrition … also a proving ground for this new technology,” says Sophy Antrobus, a research fellow at the Freeman Air and Space Institute.

Those who quickly adapt will gain the most, she says.

“It's about how fast people are willing to try something new, try something different … I think what we're seeing with the Ukrainians is that even when you're very much the smaller of the two, you're so much disadvantaged in capability terms, you become more innovative and willing to quickly try new approaches.”

Read more on The National's series Drones and the future of war

Updated: October 06, 2023, 10:11 AM