Tim Mahon is Publishing Director, Counter-UAS for Unmanned Publications Ltd.
There is an age-old military adage that tomorrow’s war will be fought at the junction of four maps and will start at 3am on a public holiday in the middle of a snowstorm. The challenge facing counter-UAS planners, procurers and practitioners in 2024 is somewhat different. The lessons from Ukraine suggest that there are now four fundamental requirements to the way battlefield counter-UAS systems now need to be procured and deployed: at unusual speed, at massive scale, at affordable costs and in ways which make them easy or intuitive to use.
The speed issue is twofold. The glaring issue is the slow pace of the administrative processes that govern how new technology is developed, evaluated, tested, certified, integrated and fielded. New solutions are often obsolete by the time they reach the front line; in Ukraine currently new generations of battlefield drone threats emerge every six months. Unconfirmed reports from Ukraine in the last few days suggest Russia has started using drones equipped with machine vision and automatic target acquisition as part of a strategy of deploying new autonomous capabilities.
So injecting a greater sense of urgency among the political decision-makers whose budgetary authority is required to underpin any substantive progress is needed. There is evidence that some nations are at last starting to grapple with this problem but on the current trajectory many soldiers in Europe and the USA are on track to receive C-UAS systems which can detect and defeat commonly-available commercial drones at scale – but the threat they will be facing will be from non-commercial drones with a completely different set of capabilities.
The other speed issue is operational. One of the limiting factors in effective counter-UAS is assuring capability at the point of need. Given the comparatively low scale of issue of current ground-based systems and their limited mobility, this is becoming a persistent issue. Airborne counter-drone capabilities are still in their infancy, but solutions such as the Anduril Roadrunner offer the operator a much higher ‘dash speed’ to reach the target area, thus extending the tactical reach of the response. Fraught with technical challenges, we nonetheless expect to see a focus on the further development of air-to-air counter-UAS solutions during the year.
The scale issue – the ability to deploy and use adequate numbers of counter-UAS systems to cope with and counter the volume of drones being used in any given theatre – presents one of the biggest challenges to an effective strategy. In the USA the issue of being able to manufacture and deploy at scale is perhaps the overriding consideration in the minds of senior procurement personnel. US Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Dr William LaPlante, recently stated that “the production for counter-UAS [has] to go through the roof […] It’s like where we were about a year ago, when we said 155 [artillery ammunition] is going to have to go to 100,000 a month”. The reality, given what we are currently seeing in Ukraine, is that counter-UAS solutions need to be available to the lowest level of command – certainly company level and preferably platoon or squad level – to address the ubiquity of the threat on the battlefield.
The problem with doing that is that the manufacturing facilities to support a sudden and rapid increase in output do not currently exist. Ukraine has faced gigantic challenges marshalling national domestic resources to build what it believes will be a million drones a year – the majority of which will be first-person view (FPV) devices. Russia has, in the early days of January, stated it will be ramping up production facilities to 32,000 drones a year by 2030, though production rates for the Geran-2 Shahed-136 variant this year are unlikely to exceed 200 per month. Who will pay for the creation of that capacity? Unprecedented requirements demand unprecedented action and we expect to see a great deal of debate and effort devoted to resolving the industrial capacity issue during the year.
Affordability and related scalability are thorny issues and – somewhat like beauty – lie in the eye of the beholder. Given that one of the solutions to the scale issue will undoubtedly be to deploy small-arms-like solutions (such as those from DroneShield and Smartshooter, among others) to ever lower levels of command, their intuitive operating nature will be of great assistance in promoting their utility and early introduction to effective service. This also presents a challenge in the civil environment. As Samantha Vinograd, Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention at the US Department of Homeland Security, highlighted in a recent broadcast interview, DHS cannot be everywhere. Effective counter-UAS at the community level will have to be provided, to a large degree, by the communities themselves. Which will bring with it the requirement of training, integration and public education.
Industry’s ability to develop new responses to emerging drone threats is rarely in doubt – the challenge of 2024 is to move these technical capabilities from industry and defence department research labs on to the battlefield in new affordable and scalable ways.