Holes in military counter-UAS defence strategies need to be urgently filled

By Philip Butterworth-Hayes

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MOD) last week announced a new strategy backed by at least GBP4.5 billion of investment over the next decade to accelerate access to uncrewed systems for the UK Armed Forces, rapidly equipping them with innovative technology across air, sea, and land.

This follows the announcement of the US Replicator programme in August 2023 which will see, as a first iteration, “the fielding of thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains within the next 18 to 24 months, as part of the Pentagon’s strategy to counter China’s rapid armed forces buildup,” according to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.

Both strategies are, say their proponents, a direct result of defence departments in Europe and the USA learning the lessons of Ukraine, which has seen a massive proliferation of cheap commercial drones in the battlefield.

But what are the lessons of Ukraine? Since the Russian invasion, the drone/counter drone war has undergone four generations of evolution – the initial Bayraktar TB2 stage, the Shahed 136 response, the mass proliferation of DJI products and most recently the age of the Lancet and the FPV drone, where drones and loitering munitions have become fused. Now, a fifth generation is about to emerge –the Izdeliye 55, an autonomous drone which (according to Russian reports which may or may not be entirely accurate) cannot be detected by radio frequency (RF) analyser systems.

The appearance on the battlefield of truly autonomous systems is not so much a new generation of drone warfare as an entirely new type of threat.

No longer will small, mobile, affordable RF detectors be able to provide small infantry units with an early warning of nearby hostile drones. This will require a new type of technical response: large numbers of passive radars integrated with new, more capable kinetic C-UAS systems. These will have to be affordable, available at scale and with the software capable of rapid upgrades to cater for the inevitable evolution of the threat.

So how far will Replicator and the UK’s new uncrewed defence strategy be able to meet this threat? Developing a drone warfare strategy which focuses just on the offensive element without considering defensive requirements runs the risk of sending troops into battle with the enemy having control of the skies.

There is no doubt that defence planners in North America and Europe are keenly aware of the risks. The US Department of Defense’s Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, or JCO, has been moving beyond researching C-UAS to acquiring systems for some months. At the end of last year NATO was reported to be about to adopt the UK SAPIENT protocol which allows for plug-and-play sensors and autonomous decision-making systems to be quickly adopted, which would mean new C-UAS software capabilities would be able to be deployed at scale quickly and seamlessly. Unmanned Airspace has asked NATO whether the protocol has now been adopted but has not received a response.

According to a UK MOD spokesman: “We have a number of highly effective systems, that are able to meet the threat posed by a variety of drone systems. These include systems such as the High Velocity Missile System and the SMASH Smart Weapon Sight, which can track and lock on to drone targets. We recognise the importance of the growing threat of FPV drones, and we are continually researching and developing new systems to counter the threats of the future.”

The potential of passive radars to provide a technical solution to detecting autonomous drones has been explored in the NATO study Drone Detectability Feasibility Study using Passive Radars Operating in WIFI and DVB-T Band, with positive conclusions. And European forces are now starting to deploy C-UAS systems at scale among small infantry units. Urgent operational requests for portable air defence systems are also being published in increasing numbers.

But what is lacking in all these elements – at least in the public domain – is a clear understanding of how new C-UAS technologies able to meet developing threats will make their way onto the battlefield on a similar scale and methodology as the offensive drone systems now being planned in Europe and North America.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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