What solutions to deal with the threat of light drones and vagrant ammunition?

At the start of the Russian offensive against Ukraine, the balance of power, particularly in terms of available firepower, was so much in favor of the Russian forces that it seemed very difficult, if not impossible, for the Ukrainian forces could withstand more than a few weeks in the face of the onslaught of fire and steel that was to come. However, the Ukrainian command managed to use its available means to the best of its ability to exploit the opponent's weaknesses, such as the need to stay on paved paths and roads, to harass with mobile and determined infantry units, the Russian logistics lines , while blocking mechanized offensives relying on urban centers. In all these engagements, the Ukrainian armies made extensive use of light drones to locate and track Russian units, as well as to direct devastating artillery strikes with high precision.

The growing role of drones in recent military engagements

These light drones played an important role in the elimination of the Russian strike forces, and in the 600 tanks and some 800 armored vehicles lost since the start of the engagement. Above all, they were at the heart of the Ukrainian effort which made it possible to destroy nearly 1.000 trucks forming the Russian logistics train, this having played a decisive role in the failure of the offensive against Kyiv and the north of the country. To achieve this, the Ukrainian General Staff relied on private know-how, made up of small dedicated units, implementing commercial drones modified to meet military expectations, in particular by equipping them with efficient electro-optical systems. day or night, so as to conduct hit-and-fade ambushes in the best possible conditions. Even today, as the nature of the conflict has evolved towards a more conventional approach, these light drones continue to pose a constant threat to Russian forces, in particular by directing very effective Ukrainian artillery strikes, while the Switchblade 300 and 600 stray ammunition begins to arrive at the front.

Ukrainian drones played a key role in harassing the logistics lines of the Russian force sent against Kyiv

Ukraine is not the first theater in which light commercial drones have played a decisive role. As early as 2015 in Syria, fighters from the Islamic State as well as the Free Syrian Forces used these light drones for precision strikes, including against the very strategic and very protected Russian air base of Khmeimim, damaging several combat aircraft per this maneuver. In Yemen, Houthi fighters have also made a specialty of this type of conversion, going so far as to design long-range vagrant ammunition to strike Saudi bases. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war in 2020, the Azeri forces, taking advantage of the military and technological support of Turkey and especially the Israelis, also used many drones, both to direct their artillery strikes and in the form of ammunition wanderers. Each time, the targeted forces found themselves powerless to fight against these light drones, too small and too slow to be targeted by conventional anti-aircraft systems, and too mobile to be shot down by light weapons.

Western armies have been aware for several years of the threat posed by these light drones and their offensive version, vagrant ammunition sometimes incorrectly referred to as the suicide drone, and 4 technological approaches are being considered to deal with it, each with their own advantages but also specific constraints: jamming of electromagnetic communications, directed energy weapons of the laser type, directed energy weapons of the microwave type, and anti-aircraft artillery systems.

Communications jamming and anti-drone guns

If the public image of military drones gives way to fantasies of artificial intelligence and killer drones acting by themselves, the reality is much less spectacular, the vast majority of light and medium drones being piloted directly by an operator at the through a UHF or VHF connection. If the drone finds itself deprived of this connection, it is unable to carry out its mission, and then seeks to land or return to its point of origin, if it has a GPS signal to navigate. In fact, it quickly became apparent that electromagnetic jamming could constitute an appropriate response to counter the threat posed by these drones, in the military as well as in the civilian sphere, and this is why most large stadiums are now equipped with jammers to prevent light drones to disrupt sports competitions. The military, on the other hand, have equipped themselves with anti-drone rifles, directional jammers intended to deprive the targeted drone of its communication and geolocation capabilities.

anti-drone rifles have a very limited range and increasingly questionable effectiveness against light military-grade drones

Unfortunately, these systems have their limitations. On the one hand, anti-drone rifles have a range reduced to a few hundred meters, the electromagnetic waves having the unfortunate tendency to disperse in the atmosphere and lose their power to the square of the distance separating the transmitter and target. In addition, drones may have been designed to switch frequencies in the event of jamming, and thus complicate the task of jammers. For certain stray munitions, provided the target has been identified and confirmed by the operator before jamming and at a safe distance, it is possible to continue the attack autonomously. Finally, these anti-drone weapons most often do not offer any advanced detection system for drones, which most often relies on the sight of the operators, or on secondary detection systems to direct the fire. In other words, jamming can only constitute an auxiliary system to counter light drones, but in no case a global and lasting solution.

Laser directed energy weapons

To fight against light and medium drones, several armed forces, including those of the United States, have decided to rely on directed energy weapons, and in particular on high-energy lasers. Therefore the US Army developed the DE-SHORAD Guardian, a Stryker armored vehicle mounted with a 50 Kw laser and a multi-spectral electro-optical detection system to engage and destroy drones and stray munitions, and protect units deployed in combat. With such power, destroying a category 1 drone (up to 20 pounds) or 2 (up to 55 pounds) takes only a few seconds, and these weapons are capable of dealing with a large number of targets. in a short time, and thus respond to attacks aimed at saturating the opponent's defenses. Similar approaches are developed in most of the world's major armies, in France by the CILAS company which joined the SAFRAN and MBDA groups a few months ago.

The US Army's DE-SHORAD Guardian will enter service this year, and is called upon to play a central role in the fight against drones in the combat zone

However, these weapons are not devoid of constraints, first of which the need to have a large source of electrical energy to operate. However, who says electricity production says significant heat release, and fuel needs. Thus, the DE-SHORAD Guardian is characterized by large heat exhausters covering almost the entire vehicle, which are not very discreet for those who have thermal cameras. In addition, lasers also see their performance decrease when weather conditions deteriorate, the dust and water molecules present in the air weakening the power of the beam, which must then aim longer at a target to obtain the desired thermal effect. to ensure its destruction. Finally, and this is far from negligible, these technologies have so far never been used in real combat, and it is not known to what extent these lasers will be able to withstand the constraints of an operational engagement over time. intensive.

Microwave directed energy weapons

If the jamming aims to deprive the drone of its communication systems, and the lasers to destroy the structural integrity of the drone by the thermal effect released, the microwave weapons, they aim to destroy the electronic systems embedded in the drone. Like an Electro-magnetic pulse weapon, these systems project powerful directional microwave radiation that can destroy all the electronic components present in the targeted area, like a microwave oven will destroy your mobile phone if you come up with the idea of ​​putting the second in the first. In this field again, the US armies are on the initiative, with the THOR system (Tactical High Power Operational Responder) of the US Air Force, and the IFPC-HPM system for Indirect Fire Protection Capability- High Power Microwave, of the 'US Army, from which it is derived.

Microwave weapons, like the US Air Force's THOR, can only be used to protect critical areas from the threat posed by swarming drones

If these systems are designed to clear a part of the sky from the drone threat, and in particular from drones evolving in swarms, they both suffer from a very significant space constraint. indeed, both the THOR and the IFPC-HPM take place in a 20-foot container, which contains both the electrical production system, the control system and the microwave gun itself. In addition, even as imposing, this system only has a range limited to a few kilometers, limiting its use to the protection of key bases against massive drone strikes, which makes it a very specialized weapon and difficult to transpose, d much as microwaves do not differentiate between allied and adversary electronic systems.

Anti-aircraft artillery and micro-missiles

The latest response to the threats posed by light drones relies on traditional anti-aircraft artillery systems. This is in particular the track chosen by Russia after its setbacks in Syria, by modifying its anti-aircraft systems Pantsir S1/2 and TOR M2 to be able to detect and engage small drones moving at low speed. Indeed, traditionally, anti-aircraft systems of this type eliminate targets of this type from the control screens, so as not to saturate the screens with each flight of starlings, and the Russians urgently eliminated these filters to be able to counter FSL drones, with some success it seems. However, these capabilities did not provide effective protection of Russian convoys in northern Ukraine, probably because only part of the systems had been modified to respond to this threat, there were not enough of them to protect all the convoys, and that they saw their capacities reduced when they tried to provide a mobile and not a static escort like in Syria.

The Skyranger 30 turret is an effective but limited response to the threat posed by light drones

Still, anti-aircraft artillery represents an interesting response against part of the threat posed by category 1 and 2 light drones. Thus, the German Rheinmetall has developed the Skyranger 30 system armed with a 30 mm cannon precisely to engage drones and airborne threats within a 3 km radius, backed up by short-range surface-to-air missiles for threats out to 7 km. In France, it is the RapidFire from Thales and Nexter, which will notably equip the ocean patrol boats and tankers of the French Navy, which will deal with this type of threat, while a land version would also be envisaged to equip the French armies with enhanced SHORAD and anti-drone capability. On the other hand, these systems suffer from a major weakness, a range that is too limited to engage category 2 drones moving beyond the 3 or 4 km of protection they provide, and whose infrared signature is too weak at this distance to be engaged by light anti-aircraft missiles or infrared-guided MANPADS.

To complete these deficiencies, several countries have undertaken the development of anti-aircraft missiles of reduced size intended to fight against light drones beyond the perimeter covered by anti-aircraft guns. The objective is to provide an economically sustainable response to shoot down drones which, at best, only cost a few tens of thousands of dollars, where the smallest surface-to-air missile of the Manpad type exceeds $80.000 per unit. However, by reducing the size of the missiles, we reduce the range and the precision of the guidance system. In fact, to date, it is not known whether this approach, taken in particular by Russia, is indeed a viable and effective solution, or whether it is a technological dead end.

Conclusion

As we can see, there is no ultimate solution capable of dealing in its entirety with the threat posed by light and medium drones, and their vagrant ammunition-type derivatives. While jamming systems represented a first short-term response, it is likely that their military effectiveness will tend to decrease as drones evolve to increase their capabilities in this area. Anti-aircraft artillery is always an effective and relatively simple solution to implement as long as the detection and sighting systems are adapted to this type of target, but can only cover part of the threat in a perimeter. limit. Microwave weapons, on the other hand, are extremely specialized, and can only provide a specific solution to a precise need, even if in this field, they are without equal.

the ability to evolve drones in swarms is still experimental, but will constitute in the near future a decisive component of the offensive capabilities of large modern armies

Weapons based on high-energy lasers seem, on the other hand, to provide the best answers in this field, even if they are not free of constraints either, and if we still do not know that it will be the combat resistance. However, many armies, beyond the American forces which are developing no less than 4 high-energy laser programs simultaneously, have decided to embark on this path, both to protect their land forces and their naval units. In addition, even the meteorological constraints mentioned above can be reduced when the laser respects certain frequencies, so that they can effectively provide effective protection even when the weather conditions are unfavorable, especially since bad conditions also handicap heavily the implementation of light drones.

The fact remains that, today, the vast majority of programs of this type are still experimental, even if the US Army's Guardian is due to enter service this year in limited numbers, while the threat posed by drones and vagrant ammunition is beautiful well presented, and growing rapidly. In this field, as in that of light drones and wandering ammunition, the European armies in general, and the French in particular, are once again lagging behind, while they are congratulating themselves on receiving armored vehicles which will be equipped with IED jammers in the coming years. It is probably essential, in order to make up for the delay and try to regain the technological ascendancy in certain key areas, that the decision-making and financing cycles within the armies be reviewed in depth, even if it means offending certain sensitivities, failing which, more opportunistic countries such as Israel, South Korea or China will seize ever-increasing market shares in the years to come.

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