Air Defense: Game Of Drones

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October 21, 2017: For most of 2017 American troops, especially special operations forces, got some very practical, and fortunately not too lethal lessons about what it’s like to fight an enemy equipped with a lot of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, or “drones”). The first thing American troops learned was that these small commercial UAVs and medium sized Iranian UAVs are difficult to deal with. The smaller ones, similar to the two kg (five pound) U.S. Raven, are difficult to hit with gunfire or MANPADS (shoulder fired missiles). Another downside of using missiles or machine-guns to take down UAVs is that those bullets and missiles eventually return to earth and often kill or injure people (usually civilians) on the ground.

Electronic jamming, which most AUD (Anti UAV Defense) systems employ with some success can easily be defeated by sending UAVs off on a pre-programmed mission. Nearly all UAVs have this capability. Used in this fashion a UAV cannot be jammed and can take pictures and return (very common) or deliver a small explosive (rare). ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) was apparently the first to least successfully use armed micro-UAVs and for several years North Korea has been using small recon UAVs flying under automatic control into and out of South Korea. Criminal gangs have used small UAVs to smuggle drugs across tight borders or even into prisons.

Islamic terrorists and drug gangs can afford to buy lots of the smaller commercial UAVs but so far these users have been found vulnerable to decapitation (capturing or killing the leaders or UAV experts). This turned out to be particularly true for Islamic terrorists in Syria and Iraq. By either taking GPS data off a downed one or using intelligence techniques (electronic and photo surveillance, interrogation of prisoners and tips from informants) you can find the few locations where Islamic terrorists maintained maintenance and training bases for their UAVs. Smart bombs or even a ground raid put enough of these out of action during the first half of 2017 and that greatly reduced the incidence of enemy UAV use.

Some nations, like South Korea and Israel have been dealing with this problem longer than the United States and have developed special weapons and tactics that involved more effective use of ground fire but have also relied on more sensor systems, especially new radars that can detect the smallest UAVs moving at any speed and altitude.

Since 2014 a growing number of AUDs have been designed and gone into testing and development. In 2016 and 2017 many were sent to Iraq and Syria for use against the growing number of commercial UAVs ISIL was employing for surveillance or combat (when rigged to drop small explosive devices that have caused several dozen casualties).

One of the first AUDs, developed by a British firm (Blighter), was delivered to U.S. troops in combat zones for use and, in effect, to see if it works as well in combat as it did during extensive testing (against 60 different UAVs during 1,500 test sorties). The Blighter AUDs can be placed on roof tops or any other high terrain or carried in a vehicles (truck or hummer). It can detect UAVs 10 kilometers away and identify and disable UAVs in less than 15 seconds. This is done by either jamming or taking over the control signal (and landing the UAV). Separately an Israeli firm has sold 21 AUDs to the U.S. military for use in the Middle East. None of these AUDs were a complete solution and they were expensive ($743,000 each) mainly because they were light enough for ground troops carry in a backpack. But these systems were found not effective for widespread use. The problem was that the Islamic terrorists had access to effective online advice from fans who had UAV experience (usually from living in the West) and often helped developed effective methods for counteracting AUDs.

The number of new anti-UAV weapons showing up indicates that the countries with larger defense budgets see a need for this sort of thing and are willing to pay for a solution. These more sophisticated AUDs are safer (for nearby civilians) to use because they rely on lasers or electronic signals to destroy or disable UAVs. For example the CLWS (Compact Laser Weapon System) is a laser weapon light enough to mount on helicopters or hummers and can destroy small UAVs up to 2,000 meters away while it can disable or destroy the sensors (vidcams) on a UAV up to 7,000 meters away. The CLWS fire control system will automatically track and keep the laser firing on a selected target. It can take up to 15 seconds of laser fire to bring down a UAV or destroy its camera. Another example is an even more portable system that can be carried and operated by one person; DroneDefender. This system is a 6.8 kg (15 pound) electronic rifle that can disrupt control signals for a small UAV. Range is only a few hundred meters so DroneDefender would be most useful to police.

There is also a high-end system similar to DroneDefender that can use data from multiple sensors (visual, heat, radar) to detect the small UAVs and then use a focused radio signal jammer to cut the UAV off from its controller and prevent (in most cases) the UAV from completing its mission. The detection range of this AUDS is usually 10 kilometers or more and jamming range varies from a few kilometers to about eight.

The problem is the enemy can use their UAVs at any time just about anywhere and no one has come up with an AUD cheap enough and portable enough deal this. Decapitation is one technique that works but only after the enemy UAVs have become a serious problem. As always, simple, safe and affordable solutions are always in short supply.

 

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