Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have come a long way since they were first deployed. Originally developed during the First World War, and encompassing small radio-controlled aircraft, modern UAVs have developed into a remarkably sophisticated option for modern warfare. Their importance is clear from the Russia-Ukraine conflict – as an indicator of just how many drones are used, and how important they are to Ukraine’s defence, the Zelensky government is losing an estimated 10,000 machines a month.

The growing reliance and fast development of drones, however, has highlighted the limitations of counterdrone systems – limitations that can be exploited in combat. Offering real-time information, reconnaissance, speed and flexibility, all while reducing the risk to boots on the ground, drones can be cheaply made and easily replaced, especially compared with traditional air defences. Russia, for example, has made extensive use of ‘kamikaze’ drones since 2022. With a 2.5m wingspan and costing just $20,000 each, the Shahed-136 drone is hard to detect by radar – and is vastly cheaper than the average Tomahawk missile.

With the rapid development of UAS, then, how can militaries and governments react? “At the moment, C-UAS is a different system from normal air defence systems,” says Ricardo Faria, project officer of the JRC Drone Project, C-UAS at the European Commission. While there are efforts to merge these systems, Faria says, most countries are operating with two different systems: one for real aircraft and another for drones. This is fundamentally due to the specific nature of UAS. Whereas existing air defences target larger objects like aircraft and missiles, drones are much smaller. Yet, as Samuel Bendett says, this is changing. “There are systems that are designed to both counter UAS systems and identify targets in a reconnaissance fashion,” says Bendett, an expert at the Center for Naval Analyses. “[And] electronic warfare has become absolutely pivotal to any type of counter-UAS initiative.”

Droning on

The onset of the Russia-Ukraine conflict highlighted the importance of C-UAS to air defence across the globe. “I don’t think anybody was prepared for what we are seeing or observing right now,” suggests Pawel Stezycki, director at the Lukasiewicz Research Network – Institute of Aviation, a European research network dedicated to aviation, space and unmanned technology. “Before the Russian aggression on Ukraine,” Stezycki continues, “I don’t think anybody but the US and Israel recognised how soon this problem will appear – and the Ukrainian conflict proved that it’s a more urgent need than we considered.”

A Ukrainian serviceman holds an anti-drone rifle purchased with funds raised in a charity concert in Toronto, Canada. Image Credit: Drop of Light/ www.Shutterstock.com

Currently, not many countries can boast an allencompassing C-UAS system – with the combatants in Eastern Europe instead obliged to play catch up. As Bendett puts it: “There’s a lot of development taking place right now, both coming from the military, industrial sectors of both countries, Russia and Ukraine, as well as the commercial sector.” But targeting and neutralising drones is easier said than done. The most common types of C-UAS detect UAVs via radio frequency (RF) – before using those same frequencies to jam or otherwise take over a drone. But if a UAV is flying autonomously, it may not be sending or receiving RF transmissions for scanners to pick up.

C-UASs therefore require a more modern approach, with newer systems incorporating electro-optical and infrared sensors, both important tools for detecting visual and heat signatures. Unlike traditional radar detection, designed for large aircraft, modern radar uses a variety of technologies to track enemy drones in 3D. One practical example here is Israel, which has proved itself as a notable player in the C-UAS sector. Rafael Advanced Defense Systems and Elbit Systems are only two players among many, both employing nonkinetic technology like signal detection and cameras to detect drones – before emitting a jamming signal or laser to disrupt their operation.

The estimated number of drones that Ukraine loses each month.

Militaries around the world are also developing kinetic C-UAS, using lasers or microwaves to neutralise enemy drones, often in flexible handheld packages. Under a £4.6m contract between the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Viking Arms, for instance, the SMASH Smart Weapon Sight Fire Control System will soon be delivered to British soldiers, offering cuttingedge sights that attach to SA80 A3 rifles. Providing a tactical advantage for countering the growing threat of UAVs through image processing, this system identifies, tracks and locks onto a target in the shooter’s sight. The Pentagon, for its part, has highlighted the growing need for kinetic as well as non-kinetic UAS solutions, with one US general calling UASs a “real and growing threat” in a recent official assessment. That’s echoed by tactics to mitigate the impact of a successful C-UAS strike, with nets and other countermeasures being explored to catch falling enemy drones.

The Oerlikon Revolver Gun Mk3 anti-drone weapon, designed by German defence manufacturer Rheinmetall. Image Credit: Michael Derrer Fuchs/ www.Shutterstock.com

The amount spent in the contract between UK MoD and Viking Arms to deliver C-UAS for SA80 A3 rifles.

A major challenge here is cost. With new UAS increasingly being made from cheap materials, operators have little incentive to play it safe – and every reason to aggressively launch them at the enemy. As Stezycki explains, this can also make incoming drones harder to catch. “It’s very difficult,” he says, “to detect if they are printed with plastic or carton, you just cannot use [a] simple radar system to detect them. So very advanced electronic systems need to be used – or laser-based systems need to be developed – to detect them.” Across the globe, both militaries and private companies are therefore rushing to develop more sophisticated kinetic-based systems, with a greater focus on cheap laser-based C-UAS to detect and eliminate drones.

The average cost of a Shahed-136 drone

The development of these kinetic weapons has the potential to revolutionise C-UAS – reducing the risk of collateral damage associated with traditional air defence, and cutting the need to invest in expensive ammunition. One laser-based system, by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) on behalf of the MoD, lately achieved the UK’s first high-power firing of a laser weapon against an aerial target. Though classified, the line-of-sight ‘DragonFire’ weapon dovetails accuracy and low cost, with a single shot apparently costing less than £10.

Less than £10
The reported cost-per-shot of the DragonFire LDEW.

Fly in the ointment?

Not that the path to comprehensive C-UAS is necessarily straightforward. For one thing, C-UAS faces political challenges. A centralised communication system is crucial for detecting sensors and graphical user interfaces – all vital for liaising across borders. At the moment, though, there is a lack of standardisation across C-UAS, which can lead to confusion when talking with allies. Any improvement, warns Faria, requires regulation. As he says: “My expectation is that the European Commission will provide a regulation on that and will help the member states to standardise the country systems and on each country.” For their part, some capitals have already taken steps to help standardise and unify operability. Last November, Nato ran a ten-day exercise on C-UAS interoperability, ensuring high-tech systems could connect and operate together seamlessly. Involving telecom operators, Faria suggests, is another obvious step. “The drones in the future will only use 4G and 5G,” he says, “and this is a problem. We cannot interfere in the communication at the moment.”

To be fair, telecom operators should eventually be able to offer information about devices – but until GDPR is tweaked, and new regulations are passed, this is impossible. Bendett, though, highlights other issues. “We have to separate using those systems in a military capacity, which is one set of problems,” he says. “Then obviously try to design and field those systems in a civilian capacity.” From a military perspective, there is a certain amount of freedom, though civilian operators are unsurprisingly more constrained. From interference with hospital systems to restrictions on jamming, air defence outside of war is a huge challenge. As Faria says: “Civilian-purpose [C-UAS] are not ready because we have a lot of regulations that need to change, and this takes up a lot of time.” But with drone tech developing rapidly, C-UAS risks being obsolete as soon as it enters the field.

Stezycki and Bendett make similar points, stressing that the constant development of C-UAS is vital for militaries everywhere. “I’m afraid,” says Stezycki, “that AI will also be applied to drones, so it’s going to be a next level of competition and war.” With Ukraine and Russia at the forefront of this evolution – and the US, Israel and South Korea close behind – there is a big push for tactical C-UAS to catch up. “How that technological race shapes out,” summarises Bendett, “may determine the extent of these technologies.”