Experts to US Army: Beware Swarming Drones

It doesn't help that many of the weapons the Army could use to shoot down small drones—guns, missiles and lasers—cost far more than a quadcopter does

Mar 7 2018, 2:00pm

Image:  U.S. Marine Corps

US Army soldiers are vulnerable to swarms of tiny drones packing explosives or other weapons. And the problem is bound to get worse as the Army struggles to develop defenses against robotic swarms faster than America's enemies field better drones.

That's the alarming conclusion of a new study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. "The Army timeframes are significantly out of sync with the rapidly advancing performance capabilities of individual sUASs and teams of sUASs," the experts wrote, using the military's acronym for "small unmanned aerial systems."

The National Academies began its study in 2016, at a time when Islamic State was waging an intensive aerial campaign against US and allied forces using off-the-shelf quadcopter-style drones armed with small bombs or rigged to explode in close proximity to people on the ground.

On October 2, 2016, a booby-trapped drone exploded near Mosul, Iraq, killing two US-backed Kurdish soldiers and wounding two French troops. On January 5, 2018, Syrian rebels launched two swarms with a combined 13 bomb-carrying small drones in a coordinated assault on Russian bases in Syria. The Kremlin claimed its defenses destroyed or disabled all the attacking 'bots.

The study's authors warned that small drones could carry chemical weapons or electronic jammers capable of interfering with US forces' communications. Army infantry units are ill-equipped to stop all kinds of drone attacks, the experts explained. "Shooting down a single, highly-dynamic, fast-moving, low-flying hobby aircraft with small arms (rifles, shotguns and light machine guns) are [sic] extremely difficult due to the agility and small size of sUASs."

The problem gets worse with a swarm of many small drones. "Swarming sUASs can be employed to overwhelm most existing kinetic countermeasures."

It doesn't help that many of the weapons the Army could use to shoot down small drones—guns, missiles and lasers—cost far more than a quadcopter does, the experts noted. Small drones can be purchased online for a few hundred dollars apiece, whereas just one of the Army's Stinger surface-to-air missiles costs no less than $38,000.

Moreover, commercial drones get better by the month. The Army, by contrast, can take years or decades to develop a new weapon, the study pointed out.

The Army could quickly improve its drone-defenses by modifying existing weapons such as grenade launchers so that they can better engage flying targets. The ground combat branch can also camouflage and spread out its troops and train them to scan the horizon more often. One idea the experts proposed is to add "the equivalent of skeet training" to basic training for all soldiers.

Notable, the experts wrote that, in the course of their study, they met with the Pentagon's Joint Improvised Threat Defeat Organization. That organization specializes in designing electronic jammers that can block the signals between a remote weapon and its operator. Not coincidentally, the Russian army has begun establishing dedicated counterdrone units equipped with jammers, and reportedly used the same jammers to disable some of the drones during the January attack in Syria.

The US military already possesses similar jammers, including powerful models installed on four-engine EC-130 electronic-warfare planes. In October 2016, the Air Force claimed it brought down an ISIS drone over Iraq, apparently using an EC-130 or similar aircraft.

But equipping small groups of soldiers with similar jammers could prove difficult, the experts admitted. Infantry must carry all their own weapons and other gear and "are already overburdened with equipment."