Air Defense: Defeating Death from Above


November 2, 2023: Over 70 years ago SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) began to appear. Efforts to develop SAMs and air-to-air missiles before World War 2 started and development efforts accelerated once the war got going. After World War 2 work continued but at a slower pace. Developing new SAMs was expensive and, when the new design was completed and in production, you had the problem of dealing with older missiles. In some cases, the older missiles could be upgraded but then you run into another problem, there is little use for these missiles in peacetime and it’s expensive to build and maintain stockpiles. This depends on the size of a nation’s defense budget and how much of it is allocated to stockpiling munitions for a future war.

In the West, and Russia after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, building large missile stockpiles was not popular because it only resulted in more warehouses or ammunition bunkers filled with expensive munitions that might never be used and over time became less reliable or unfit for use. That’s because explosives and solid-fuel propellants (rocket motors) contain material that degrades over time. Disposing of elderly and unreliable munitions is also expensive. Western nations pay to have these older munitions properly disposed of. In the Soviet Union the attitude was to avoid the Western practices, mainly because they could not afford that approach. As a result, post-1991 Russia found itself with large quantities of these elderly munitions. The potential problems were usually ignored until some of these older munitions spontaneously exploded. There was another problem with aging munitions. Throughout the 1990s there were a growing number of cases where the storage sites unexpectedly blew. Many munitions that did not explode were thrown outside the storage site. If these munitions were stored near a residential area, civilians could be injured or killed. The munitions had to be carefully collected and moved to a safer location. Russia tried moving these stockpiles to safer locations. This caused more problems because soldiers, many of them new conscripts, were used for this work and were slow and prone to mishandling the munitions.

These older missiles were less often used, even when they worked, (at least against aircraft). More frequently the aerial threat was from short range ballistic missiles or slower cruise missiles. These missiles still had to be intercepted and SAM missiles were used. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, a lot of missiles were used to attack military and economic targets. Other missiles were used to intercept these attacks. A growing number of aerial threats come in the form of inexpensive UAVS (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), that often come in low and slow to avoid detection by the air defense radars.

This led to the development of specialized weapons for defeating the growing UAV threat. UAVs are cheap and the attacker can afford to lose a lot of them so that a few will get through to an important target. The current Ukraine War demonstrated how useful various types of UAVs are a lot more useful as weapons and for battlefield surveillance than anyone expected. This was unexpected and spurred the development and production of new AUD (Anti UAV Defense) systems. The latest one is Terrahawk Paladin. This is an eight-ton system that is carried to where it is needed and then unloaded from the heavy truck that moves it and uses its radar, fire control system and several air defense weapons. The most obvious one is a 30mm autocannon. This has a range of nearly two kilometers and is augmented by 70mm APKWS guided rockets that have half that range but have a guidance system that can use precision laser guidance. Point the laser at the target and APKWS heads for the object the laser light is hitting. This is often more effective than a 30mm autocannon.

Terrahawk Paladin carries its own power supply and uses both autocannon and rockets with a very effective fire control system and an all-weather radar operated by a crew of two men. The Ukrainians found Terrahawk Paladina very effective against Russian UAV attacks, which are far more common than attacks by armed helicopters or the rare appearance of an expensive jet fighter-bomber. Terrahawk Paladina is also expensive and not many have been supplied by NATO countries. Actually, there are not that many Terrahawk Paladina available and those sent to Ukraine are expected to show just how effective this system is.

There are other, cheaper AUD systems. One is a lightweight device called EnforceAir. This was developed in Israel for protecting airports and other potential targets from UAV intrusions or attacks. What makes EnforceAir work is software and the ability to detect a UAV up to 4,500 meters away, analyze the UAVs control signals and then disable them by taking control of the UAV and landing it. Each EnforceAir unit weighs 11.5 kg (25.4 pounds) for the tripod mounted version and 19.5 kg for the backpack version. Unlike most other AUDs, EnforceAir does not depend on missiles or gunfire to deal with UAVs. Its electronic approach does not depend on dealing with UAVs from one manufacturer. Israel does not allow Israeli military equipment to be sold or sent to Ukraine. This is because Israel depends on Russian cooperation to prevent Iranian attacks on Israel from Syria.

NATO military assistance to Ukraine recently included a second mobile AUD system. This one is the Norwegian Cortex Typhon that is mounted in a German Dingo armored truck and has a UAV detection system combining a RWS (Remote Weapons System) armed with a 12.7mm machine-gun to destroy hostile UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles). The system can be used in fully automatic mode, to fire on any UAV within range, or with the operators having the option to decide which target is hostile or friendly and not fire on friendlies. The 12.7mm machine-gun has an effective range of two kilometers, which is about half the range of the 70mm guided rocket used in an earlier AUD system. The machine-gun bullet is much faster than the guided rocket.

In 2022 the American Vampire AUD system was sent to Ukraine. Vampire is palletized. That means all components are secured on a shipping pallet that can be mounted in a pickup truck or military vehicle like the hummer. Vampire consists of a telescoping mast mounting an electro-optical/infrared modular sensor ball and laser designator, a generator for power and Fletcher launcher that carries four APKWS 70mm laser-guided rockets. These weigh only 15 kg (32 pounds) each and have a range of about a thousand meters when fired from the ground. Vampire can be used to detect and fire APKWS laser guided rockets at air and even ground targets. Any UAV, cruise missile or helicopter within range is vulnerable. Vampire is designed to be reconfigured, which is the kind of system Ukrainians prefer. The Fletcher launcher is designed to use the new, longer range APKWS rockets that gain additional range by having a larger rocket motor which makes the APKWS longer. Ukrainians are expected to modify Vampire to better suit their needs or simply to obtain longer range while carrying more rockets ready to fire. Vampire was effective in Ukraine and now Cortex Typhon will seek to do as well or better.

Until the Ukraine War created an enormous demand for AUDs, Israel was the leader in combat proven AUD systems. One example is Skylock, which proved itself against Iranian UAVs used during the early 2021 Hamas/Israel ten-day war. This brief conflict provided ample opportunities to test new Israeli AUD systems. Israel is a leader in the development of AUDs, mainly because it faces attacks from the widest variety of UAV types, and the most attacks using UAVs. EnforceAir is a later development that only uses electronic means to defeat threats.

In preparation for a large-scale use of different type UAVs against Israel from Iran-backed Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah (Lebanon) and Iran (Syria), Israel had developed numerous ways to detect and destroy or disable hostile UAVs. During the ten-day war Israel detected and defeated six Hamas UAV attacks. There may have been other Hamas UAVs launched that never got near the border because of UAV malfunctions or operator error. The six UAVs that were a threat were all detected and taken down via missiles, usually from Iron Dome but one was by an air-to-air missile, and at least one UAV was disabled using a technology that Israel would not discuss. This was probably one of the electronic AUD systems, which Israeli tech companies have developed over the last few years.

A new (to large-scale combat) system Israel would discuss was one that received data from all sensors (radars or electronic detection systems) and, in real time, created a single database/map display of all enemy systems detected. One feature of this new system’s software was an accurate estimate of where UAVs were launched from. This provides an opportunity to attack the UAV operator or launch site. This system was already causing more losses to Hamas rocket launching teams, who thought the Israelis were just getting lucky. Now Hamas knows that luck had nothing to do with it. During the massive ground attack Hamas launched in 2023, they ignored aerial threats by taking hostages for use as human shields.

Israel has often sought to come up with defenses against new enemy weapons or tactics with a multi-system solution. Nowhere has this been more evident than when it comes to the growing threat from armed UAVs. For over a decade, many if not most new AUD systems have come from Israel. Many specialize in the use of multiple sensors and systems to detect and disable UAVs. The best and most recent example of this is Skylock, an AUD system using multiple sensors and EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment, plus a short-range laser, to detect, identify and jam or take over unidentified UAVs trying to enter military bases, airports, or industrial facilities. Skylock uses a combination of radar, electro-optical (visual) and electronic signal monitoring sensors capable of detecting the smallest UAVs, especially quad-copters, approaching a restricted area. Another Israeli approach is to use an interceptor UAV that can drop a net on a UAV, but the preferred method is to jam the UAV control signals or, if possible, seize control and land it.

A growing number of AUDs are built to deal with any small UAV. One of the more effective, and expensive of these AUDs is the Israeli Drone Dome system. These cost $3.4 million each and consist of a 360-degree radar system, an electro-optical day/night surveillance unit and a wideband (most frequencies drones use) detector. With all this Drone Dome can reliably detect any small quadcopter or fixed-wing UAV within 3,500 meters. Most quadcopters and UAVs encountered are larger and can be detected out to ten kilometers. Once spotted, Drone Dome can use a focused jamming signal that will disrupt any radio control signals and force the drone to crash or operate erratically. Drone Dome has an optional laser gun that can be aimed by Drone Dome to destroy the drone at ranges up to 2,000 meters. In a combat zone, you can also employ machine-guns to bring down the drone. Many buyers do not purchase the laser option and depend on Drone Dome being able to reliably detect all manner of small quadcopters from several manufacturers.

What makes Skylock and Drone Dome different is their heavy use of electronic sensors to detect and jam the control signals used by UAVs, leaving the laser as a last resort. Several such AUD systems are already in service and effective because they are good at detecting UAVs electronically, and either jamming those control signals or taking over the control signals and capturing (by making it land) the UAV. American troops in Iraq and Syria were asking for AUD systems that use lasers, plus better UAV detection systems as well those with jammers to disable UAVs. There is also a need for AUDs that can detect and destroy UAVs that do not use control signals and basically go on pre-programmed missions. This can be to take photos or deliver a small explosive. Usually, it is to take photos and return. Drone Dome is one of several AUD systems equipped to detect and locate UAVs operating in pre-programmed mode and destroy or disable them quietly with a vehicle-mounted laser.

AUDs like Drone Dome also use one or more radar systems and one or more sensor systems for detecting UAV control signals or visual images that pattern recognition software can quickly identify. While commercial UAVs are more common, the basic design principles have not changed. AUDs are constantly evolving to better detect and disable or destroy unwanted UAVs. The best ones are recent models that tend to be very expensive and used only for extreme situations, like UAV defense in combat zones. Airports, especially the large ones, are going to have to join the military in buying the latest AUDs, which at least lowers the AUD price and inspires even faster innovation and development. Terrahawk Paladin was the result of all that experience acquired by earlier AUDs for its use in Ukraine.




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