Those who comment on the current wars in Ukraine and Israel/Gaza/Iran have been quick to join the prevailing orthodoxy that the proliferation of drones on the battlefield has changed conflict forever. 

Many have gone even further than this and have claimed that the advent of the drone has rendered conventional military forces obsolete, as there is nowhere to hide from the new all-seeing eye in the sky. The age of the completely transparent battlefield is upon us they say.

There’s little argument that drones, or uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) or whatever you want to call them, have had a major impact on the way conventional war is conducted. We got an early taster for it in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020, when we saw tanks and other armoured vehicles seemingly picked off at will by the new weaponry.


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However it has been more recently in Ukraine and the Middle East that these new wunderwaffen have very much stepped into the limelight.

Much of their prominence and impact comes from the fact that they have developed and expanded into what was, and to a certain extent still is, what we might call a “threat vacuum”. They have encountered few natural predators and have been, for a time anyway, at the top of the food chain. But the see-saw nature of technological advances in warfare has seen that vacuum fast filling up with countermeasures.

So, how do we defeat the drones? Let’s take a quick hop, skip, and jump through the possible defences against drone attack, current and in the future.

The first defence is not to let them get launched in the first place, and to prevent them getting to the theatre of operations at all by interdicting both their manufacture and supply routes. 

The most recent example of this was when the USA slapped new sanctions on some of those associated with Iran’s drone programme in the aftermath of their attack on Israel. The sanctions target executives of manufacturers of Iran’s Shahad-131 drones, which were used in the onslaught, plus the companies that service the engines and those providing the drones to Iranian proxy forces throughout the Middle East.

Then there are the physical measures that can be taken to stop the drones if they make it as far as the battlefield. Generally speaking this would involve targeting their launchers and operators by kinetic attack like artillery or rocket strike. Failing that they can be shot down in flight or rendered ineffective by jamming the communication links that are used to guide them.

When I attended last year’s biennial Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition in London there were, perhaps unsurprisingly, many counter-drone equipments on display. One of the more interesting examples was global technology company MARSS’ counter-drone platform.

At the heart of its solutions is an “Internet of Things” platform, which fuses together AI and state of the art sensors to grant situational awareness across land, air, surface and sub-surface domains.

It was first developed to provide security for superyachts (the company has its headquarters in Monaco), but before long it was identified as a powerful solution to problems its customers were facing on land as well.  Long before hostile drones became prominent across Europe, MARSS found its clients in the Middle East were being overwhelmed by daily drone incursions and wanted something done about it.

MARSS’ platform is optimised to detect and identify drones, including the full range from micro to large tactical drones, up to 25km away.  It is capable of identifying hundreds of these objects simultaneously. Critically, it is also capable of autonomously differentiating between drones and non-threats (ie birds), only alerting the operators when a threat is identified and ignoring the false positives.

In doing so it is able to significantly increase the speed and accuracy of military and security operators responding to hostile threats, and
is also capable of integrating with soft-kill countermeasures, such as RF and GPS jamming, to kinetic effectors for complete protection.

MARSS continues to innovate with novel technologies, including its product X-Scout, an unmanned sensor drop-off unit, deliverable by a pick-up truck, whichextends the range of C2 detection and threat denial to the furthest edges of operation.

Beyond this there is avoiding being acquired and hit through the age-old skills of camouflage, spoofs, and decoys. And, if the vehicle(s) do get targeted despite the best efforts of man and beast, there is now a bourgeoning capability in active protection systems (APS) and less sophisticated countermeasures such as the “cope cages” we see increasingly on the top of vehicles.

So all is not lost when it comes to effective defence measures against drones and UAVs (and the same principles apply in regard to seaborne and ground manoeuvring attack equivalents). The world was somewhat taken by surprise when they were deployed at first but the pendulum is now swinging back in favour of defensive measures.

In war it has been ever thus.  The blossoming of drones is not unlike that of the development of aircraft in the First World War. First they were used for reconnaissance, then for bombing, and then fighter aircraft appeared to counter both. Across all domains it’s a constant technological battle where the advantage swings back and forth.

The pendulum is now swinging away from drones as countermeasures catch up, but it’s not over yet. Weapons continually evolve, but the drones are here to stay and armies around the world will have to get used to them, just as they did in the past with the tank, the machine gun, submarines, and aircraft.

Lt Col Stuart Crawford is a defence analyst and former army officer. Sign up for his podcasts and newsletters at www.DefenceReview.uk.

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George has a degree in Cyber Security from Glasgow Caledonian University and has a keen interest in naval and cyber security matters and has appeared on national radio and television to discuss current events. George is on Twitter at @geoallison
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Andy reeves
Andy reeves (@guest_815059)
2 months ago

will the ships gun not shoot them down as well?

Expat
Expat (@guest_815179)
2 months ago
Reply to  Andy reeves

Problem is as these increase in numbers it becomes costly, for best kill you’re going to want to use a proximty round, not sure of the cost of those but say 100+ quid a go probably going to fire a salvoe per drone. Gets expensive, Direct energy is cheaper. But tbh is going to be a combinations of both.

Frank62
Frank62 (@guest_815229)
2 months ago
Reply to  Expat

It’s not “expensive” if the target & tactical value is so much more than the drone or shells expended, before even considering the death or injury of personnel. Proximity ammo came in in WW2 & is use all over the world. Only HMG were ever stupid enough to cut them from our warships main guns.

Expat
Expat (@guest_815284)
2 months ago
Reply to  Frank62

I thought that the fact you have to take them down us a given hence, I’m not going to argue that point. But in a war, attrition is your enemy, and that includes how much money you have. If your enemy can force you to expend more cost ( expense) than them, they are the way to winning the war of attrition.

Andy reeves
Andy reeves (@guest_815234)
2 months ago
Reply to  Expat

We’re repeatedly told how good our technology is but if a ships gun can’t shoot down these things we should replace the gun with a dragon fire

Expat
Expat (@guest_815069)
2 months ago

Drones will become autonomous, this has already started to happen in Ukraine on both sides so jaming comms is going to be outdated quite quickly. Launch sites are really only relavant for larger drones. Most multi rotors are fairly small and easy to conceal even larger ones can easily be moves around on pick up trucks (yes another use for the Toyota Hi Lux). But even fixed wing drones can be quickly assembled and launched by hand. Supply chains are various and many component are dual use, I was building self flying drones over 10 years ago using Nintendo Wii… Read more »

Steve
Steve (@guest_815144)
2 months ago
Reply to  Expat

Also jamming comms clearly doesn’t work. Lots of systems on both side have been deployed but none has been overly effective. I suspect the challenge is the raw amount of constant power you would need to keep a jammer running for long periods of time, there just isn’t endless portable power supplies. Plus it would also take out your own comms so double edged sword.

Last edited 2 months ago by Steve
Expat
Expat (@guest_815180)
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve

Comms will be come a thing of the past, these things are getting more autonomous, even commercial drones can follow a given target subject without user input. GPS spoofing or jamming could be useful but I can see a point where an enemy just tells the drone the enemy is north and the drones internal compass flys north until it spots what it considers an enemy target then attacks. The drone software could easily determine a rudementary value of the target for it to prioritise if there’s more than one.

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_815346)
2 months ago
Reply to  Expat

I can see the next stage is where drones are used together in a swarm to deny an area, the simile would be an aerial minefield. Where they fly circuits over a given area, then return to a pad for a recharge, then off on the circuit again once recharged. Anything that meets their targeting parameters that a sensor detects, is then attacked. Something like this could be used both offensively and defensively.

AlbertStarburst
AlbertStarburst (@guest_815089)
2 months ago

Not paying the drone operators an economically sustainable, professional level of £fees is one way of getting rid of drone companies in the UK 🙁

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_815112)
2 months ago

Two U.S. military officials confirmed the move to the Associated Press, stating that Russian drone operations, in particular, mean that the Abrams cannot operate effectively without detection or coming under attack.The proliferation of drones on the battlefield means “there isn’t open ground that you can just drive across without fear of detection,” a senior defense official told reporters yesterday. About M1 being retired from frontline in Ukraine. I suspect there are other reasons, but gung ho armored operations unless with a giant overmatch risk being bogged due to the operational kill damage via drones and long range artillery, and long range… Read more »

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_815113)
2 months ago
Reply to  AlexS

Also to see the intensity we are talking about

 It further notes that each day, the Ukrainians use between 500 and 700 FPV drones and “are capable of using several drones at once, which indicates that they are controlled at different frequencies.”

AlexS
AlexS (@guest_815114)
2 months ago
Reply to  AlexS

In the future we will see several times that numbers.

Peter S
Peter S (@guest_815125)
2 months ago

Drones can be detected and destroyed. The problem is that effective defensive systems
cost so much more than the drone itself that massed attacks will rapidly exhaust defensive munitions. Is the solution an anti drone drone?

Jon
Jon (@guest_815142)
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

It’s a solution. There will be many.

Directed energy weapons is another obvious counter, either laser to penetrate if they are slow, or microwave to fry the electronics if they are not hardened. If you can force them to speed up and harden the electronics, and by jamming the comms force them to be fully autonomous, and by having drone-killers force them to be able to evade, etc etc, you keep pushing the attacking drone’s price point up until it’s no longer able to be made cheaply in a shed anymore.

Expat
Expat (@guest_815181)
2 months ago
Reply to  Jon

You right on the cost alalogy, forcing the electronics to be hardened will remove a lot of the lower end drones and make them more expensive. I think the autonomus software once it proliferates will not push up drone costs. Attack drones will need to be resusable they will inevitably be more expensive than the dumber strikes drones they are targeting.

Jon
Jon (@guest_815531)
2 months ago
Reply to  Expat

You may be right about autonomy software especially in certain battlespaces, but I don’t think universally. The days of taking a DJI drone and strapping a bomb under it will soon become almost irrelevant for peer/state enemies, if they haven’t already gone. But just as non-state actors lag behind in most tech, I think they’ll be using cheap and cheerful FPV quadcopters for many years to come. Autonomy might well proliferate as a cheap commodity item for them, even if not for state militaries where I think there will always be a cutting edge, cat and mouse war, and where… Read more »

Spyinthesky
Spyinthesky (@guest_816408)
2 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

That’s why I like the MARSS system or at least the quick response fast drone part of it, that at least in theory can by shear kinetic force take out a number of drones and return to launch site. Really a matter of how resistant it is to damage itself during this process, though it can be expendable where required.

DaveyB.
DaveyB. (@guest_815358)
2 months ago

At least the MoD are taking this threat seriously, though I’m sure its from direct lessons learned from the Ukrainians. The MOD are running a number of programs. One of the first ones to see fruition is the purchase of the Sharpshooter SMASH sighting system for personal weapons. Which allows the shooter to track a target better, but also use a firing computer to show the shooter the lead point of where to aim to hit the drone. This sight fits on to the L85, but also the L129 (Sharpshooter rifle) and the L7 GPMG. Which means at a squad… Read more »

DJ
DJ (@guest_816723)
2 months ago
Reply to  DaveyB.

Or go for something like EOS Slinger RWS, with radar, EO & IR & a 30mm gun with proximity fused ammo. Can operate off a Toyota HI Lux (although I would go with something with a armoured cab (or even an Abrams)). Shown ability to take out a quad copter drone at 800m with one shot. Already in Ukraine, so we will soon know it reality matches the hype.

johnboy
johnboy (@guest_816739)
2 months ago

Maybe modern flak plenty of plus proximity fuse.