Military & Aerospace

Countering Attack Drones 
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 08 Dec , 2020

Military Technology Adoption Lifecycle

In the military arms race there is a constant effort to develop a counter to any new weapon being introduced in the services. That is the reason for the highest levels of secrecy in the development testing phase of new weapon technologies and also, subsequently, in the development of a counter to that new technology. It holds good for developing a counter to the counter too.

The same analogy applies to the recent spectacular success of Attack Drones employed in the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict. Is there a viable counter to attack drones? The answer is Yes and No. It is Yes, when nations earnestly endeavour to remain in Innovator or at least Early Adopters zone of Military Technology Adoption Lifecycle. It is No, when vested self interests of a powerful minority keep their nation deliberately in Laggards zone by deceptive manipulation.

Moore’s Law states that the processing power of electronic devices doubles every 18 months. Therefore by 2023, Attack Drones would have evolved to be much more miniaturised, have brilliant Artificial Intelligence fused with Machine Learning Technologies on board. These would fly autonomously at much higher altitudes, have more endurance and capable of complex formation manoeuvres. They may also be armed with lethal precision munitions which could be made smaller and lighter and enable carriage of a larger number of these.. Military leaders, in order to pursue offensive defence, have to stay ahead of emerging Attack Drone technologies and stay in front of adaptive enemies pursuing fast-expanding avenues of attacks.

Development of Counter Attack Drone Technology (CADT) is a mirroring of the long-standing aircraft/anti-aircraft development cycle. Not long ago the world saw a flurry of activity in developing lethal Attack Drones. Today, just as much, if not more effort, is going into developing CADT. Compounding the effectiveness issue is the fact that drone technology itself is not standing still.

The market for CADT is growing exponentially for civilian, corporate and military use. Ubiquitous catch-all phrase Drone is omnipresent be it in use of attempted assassinations (Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro); event disruptions (soccer match between Serbia and Albania in 2015); airport shutdowns ( a 30 hour shutdown of Gatwick Airport in 2018 which left 140,000 passengers stranded); arms or contraband smuggling into prisons (thousands of dollars worth of contraband was smuggled inside a prison in Mansfield, Ohio) or across borders (routinely attempted by Pakistan trained and sponsored terrorists); airspace incursions (In 2015 a drone was sighted flying within the White House airspace); destruction of adversaries armament/tanks/personnel/fortification (Azerbaijan-Armenia 44 day war); real time video surveillance of area of interest among others. Such potent criminal, espionage, destructive and disruptive usage has fuelled growing market for CADT worldwide.

Available civilian counter drone technology is limited to guarding an area of about 1-2.5 kilometres as was recently employed by DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation) for VVIP protection. It primarily uses spotting techniques like Radio Frequency (RF) detection, Electro-Optical and Infrared sensors. After identification, intruding drone is neutralised with techniques like RF Jamming, Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Jamming, Spoofing (sending false signals to the GPS receiver), Laser, nets, projectile or Combined Interdiction Elements. DroneCatcher, DroneGun, SkyWall, SkyDroner, SkyFence etc falls in this category of technology. However for military CADT, it is altogether a different level, scale and technology platform.

This new topic of CADT is divided into two primary areas: detection and tracking systems; and interdiction. The former includes radar, radio frequency (RF), electro-optical (EO), infrared (IR), acoustic and combined sensors. Interdiction includes jamming RF and GNSS, which includes GPS and GLONASS), spoofing, lasers, physical nets to entangle the target, projectiles, electromagnetic pulse (EMP), water projectors, “suicide” drones and combinations of those. Seeking to maintain a time and technology advantage over threat users, researchers and innovators essentially have stopped making public statements about CADT.

All the possible scenarios and available field experience/trials/tests dictate merging, analysis and organization of threat-specific sensor data – precisely presenting the kinds of predicaments Artificial Intelligence applications could perform for humans — at lightning speed. Ideally, Machine Learning technologies could receive and integrate previously unseen threat specifics of great relevance, merging them with existing data, performing near real-time analytics and rendering organized options for human commanders. Precision renderings thus generated could quickly be fortified by Electro-Optical/Infrared sensors, laser Interrupt Service Routine (ISR), acoustic applications or radio (RF) signals. Furthermore, attributes of one sensor can compensate for limitations of another, creating what Military Commanders describe as a “common operating” picture. Since AMD (Air and Missile Defence) systems find difficult to detect, identify, and defeat Attack Drones, therefore “common operating” picture using a combined arms approach integrating extensive range of platforms in terms of size, velocity, range, altitude, flexibility and capability make though a very challenging mission but can be put in place with effective coordination.

CADT can be airborne, static or mobile ground-based or even sea-based. Combined with high-speed wireless networking, onboard data fusion, and AI, they can significantly increase the capabilities of CADT systems. Ever evolving tactics and strategies forced by Research In Perpetual Motion places great stress on CADT effectors. Swarm attacks by small drones may precede the main Attack Drones offensive, to saturate and confuse CADT systems. Availability of all time real time picture is essential for successful conduct of the campaign. Allied with this is counter-drone technologies pose potential risks to manned aircraft and to surveillance, navigation, and communications signals used by air traffic control. It also has to be ensured that countermeasures chosen do not become hindrance to ongoing or planned operations than the threat they are designed to stop.

The proliferation of CADT technology might even accelerate the development of technologies that will render CADT systems ineffective, particularly in military environments. Drones might be programmed to operate in patterns that make them difficult to detect, or rotors might be modified to dampen a drone’s engine noise so that it can evade acoustic detection. Drones might be designed in such a way as to reduce their radar signature. Counter-laser systems could protect drones from directed-energy attacks. Only imagination will limit the use of deception measures in employment of Drones. Finally, forces might seek to deploy drone swarms, which present a range of vexing technical challenges from a CADT perspective.

Another revolutionary technology is low-cost HALE (high altitude, long endurance). A HALE UAV offers wider coverage for an extended time during ISR missions, giving military commanders a greater chance of detecting and identifying hostile UAVs, sending back information in real-time to enable the employment of appropriate CADT measures. Those range from guns and rockets to non-kinetic electronic signals to jam, spoof, destroy, or take over the target UAV’s navigation and control systems. One option under investigation, for example, would cause the UAV to return to its launch point, enabling authorities to locate and take appropriate action against adversary ground-control stations and personnel. The data and information from HALE can be relayed in real time to CADT composite system. It comprises  two mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles, one carrying the DRS elevated mast-mounted surveillance and battlefield reconnaissance equipment (EO/IR sensors), the other a reconfigurable integrated-weapons platform, capable of firing a range of kinetic weapons, and a small Air Mine UAV. Can an AI infused Attack Drone fly nap-of-the-earth and escape detection or counter? Possible. Speed is the master of the game, not only is it fundamental to sensing and thwarting drone attacks, but research, development and production “speed” can bring much-needed technology to table.

AI is a really key area. China is making a strong push in AI, which is a serious concern. The U.S. is still in the lead, but China has made this a national priority, with large investments and a sharp focus. Pakistan with its deft manoeuvring will in any case get the technology served on platter from China and Turkey, may be with a pinch of salt from USA as well and currently its even actively exploring to get it from Israel. According to the Counter-Drone Systems report, 155 companies in more than 30 nations were working on more than 230 C-UAV products; all three numbers are continuously growing. Neither India nor any Indian company finds mention in this list.

A nation which is one of the largest importers of military weapon systems and hardware cannot hope to become world or even regional power. Chasm, of being kept as a laggard in the Military Technology Adoption Lifecycle for more than seven decades, by well known vested self interests, seeks to jump to being innovators before the nation reaches a point of no return of Military obsolescence. Need of the hour is to strangulate the fly by night operators of “Make It In India” and recalibrate it to genuinely “Make In India”.


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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Maj Gen Arun Chadha, SM, VSM

Army veteran was head of Signal Intelligence and is now pursuing his passion in Cinematography on YouTube. 

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4 thoughts on “Countering Attack Drones 

  1. Highly informative, well-researched articles, that shine a spot light on a critically important, multi-purpose weapon system, which has not got the attention it merits.
    Amid the din, these articles bring the right message at the right time. A road map to implement this, must become a national priority.

  2. Arun, very comprehensive yet concise presentation of both military drone employment, technologies and of CADT. Indeed a very vast range of information has been lucidly compressed in to a manageable read for lay persons like me who are not intimately involved in the specific field.

  3. General Chadha has very aptly highlighted the importance of attack drones and their counter measures against a background of MII. This field is exploding from swarm drones to heavy lifting systems and is a technology where we can close the tech cycle and be amongst the global leaders.

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