What are Portable Anti-Drone Systems and How Do They Work?

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The NATO-Russia proxy conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated the significance of drones in modern warfare, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used by both sides for reconnaissance, targeting and kamikaze attacks. What are the four main kinds of anti-drone defenses? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Sputnik explores.

“The wars of the future will not be fought on a battlefield or at sea. They will be fought in space, or possibly on top of a very tall mountain. In either case, most of the actual fighting will be done by small robots and as you go forth today remember always – your duty is clear: to build and maintain those robots.”

That was the humorous but eerie prediction by the military school commandant in the 1997 The Simpsons episode ‘The Secret War of Lisa Simpson.’ A quarter of a century later, the idea of using drones in warfare has become ubiquitous, and The Simpsons’ comedic flourish has been forever tainted by real-life conflict.

Although small, propeller and rocket-propelled reconnaissance drones fitted with film cameras have been around since the Cold War, modern drone warfare, including camera-mounted, remote-operated GPS-equipped spy and strike drones are a product of the early 21st century, with the United States kicking off the world’s first campaign of targeted killings using UAVs in 2002.
As small, inexpensive, off-the-shelf drones began entering the commercial market in the 2010s, they started to be used by non-state actors to attack armies and governments – with US-backed terrorists using them in the Syrian dirty war against Syrian and Russian forces, and Yemen’s Houthi militants deploying them against the Saudi-led coalition.
Large, military-grade drones were used to effect in the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenian volunteers in Nagorno-Karabakh, and, starting in 2022, have been deployed extensively by NATO-backed Ukrainian forces in the Donbass and throughout Ukraine against Russian forces. Russia has countered them using a series of domestically-developed drone defense systems. But more on that below.

Drone Defenses: What Types Are There?

In the second half of the 20th century, the USSR and the USA focused their air and missile defense research on targeting big, expensive manned fighters, bombers, transport planes and ballistic and cruise missiles. Although this included research into fantastical concepts including the use of powerful lasers in space under Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense program, its main focus remained missiles – rocket-powered projectiles designed to intercept and destroy enemy aircraft and missiles.

Can Missiles Be Used to Down Drones?

For drones that are large enough – including unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) like the Bayraktar TB2, the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper or the Northrop Grumman RQ-4A Global Hawk, which have wingspans of 12, 20 or even 40 meters, respectively, the most effective defenses are still good old-fashioned missiles designed to target jet aircraft.

Last month, Russian Air Defense Force Commander Andrei Demin reported that over 100 Bayraktar drones had been destroyed in fighting in Ukraine.

“There are practically no fundamental distinctions between fighting against strategic drones like the US Global Hawk (RQ-4) or Reaper (MQ-9) or Turkiye’s operational-tactical Bayraktar-TB and counteraction to crewed aircraft. The elimination of more than 100 Bayraktars, delivered to Ukraine throughout the period of the special military operation, is clear evidence of this,” Demin said, speaking with Russia’s official army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda.

For the battle against large drones, including their detection and destruction, the same monitoring and strike systems as those used against traditional aircraft can be used. This has been demonstrated not only in Ukraine, but with the June 2019 shootdown over Iranian airspace in the Strait of Hormuz of a $220 million Global Hawk operated by the US Navy by an Iranian road-mobile air defense system known as the 3rd Khordad.

How Can Electronic Countermeasures Be Used to Destroy Drones?

Smaller drones, including so-called mini and micro UAVs, are more difficult to detect, Demin admitted, pointing to these weapons’ “small effective reflective surface” for radar detection, and saying that tracking such systems and revealing their trajectory using standard radar equipment is “rather problematic.”

For this purpose, the Russian military has developed an air defense system of a different sort – the RLK-MTs Valdai, a special-purpose radar designed specifically to detect, suppress and neutralize small drones with extremely low radar cross sections.

Developed by Almaz-Antey, manufacturer of the Buk and S-300/S-400/S-500 series of air and missile defense systems, the RLK-MTs is a vehicle-mounted radar complex designed to detect enemy drones at distances up to 15 km, and to take them down using electronic countermeasures (using a control and navigation signal suppression module) at close-in ranges of 2 km or less. The complex’s detection systems include an X-band radar module, thermal imagers and cameras, a radio signal source-finder module. The vehicles can be operated remotely.

Demin confirmed that the RLK-MTs is “already performing combat missions to cover critical military and state facilities, including those in the special military operation zone,” and said he expects production of the systems to ramp up dramatically in the coming years.

Large, vehicle-based systems stuffed with detection systems and powerful electronic countermeasures are arguably the most capable defenses against small drones, but certainly aren’t the only ones. Smaller systems, ranging from commercial and industrial anti-drone monitoring and suppression hardware, to military-grade man-portable anti-drone rifles have been created by several Russian manufacturers. These weapons include the PARS-S Stepashka – a 9.6 kg anti-drone gun with the capability to hijack enemy drones and force them to land or return to their launch sites. The system is effective at ranges between 500 meters and 1.5 km.

Other, similar portable anti-drone systems have been spotted in footage from the battlefield, including the Stupor electromagnetic rifle – which uses electromagnetic pulses to suppress drones’ control channels and force them down.

How Can Lasers Fight Drones?

Advances in laser pulse weaponry have enhanced prospects for their use in modern warfare. Last year, Yuri Borisov – the former Russian deputy prime minister responsible for defense and the space industry since appointed boss of Roscosmos, revealed that the Russian military has tested a mystery combat laser system known as the Zadira that’s capable of incinerating drones in seconds at distances up to 5 km in Ukraine. Its development began in 2016 under the auspises of the Russian Federal Nuclear Center, a subsidiary of Rosatom.

The Zadira is not to be confused with the Peresvet – a strategic laser weapon designed to target enemy up to 1,500 km in orbit over the plant. That system entered combat duty on a test basis in December 2018, but has not been used in Ukraine.

Russia is not the only country tinkering with the use of laser weapons for anti-drone warfare, with the United States and Israel also working on such weapons.

Lasers have several clear advantages over conventional air defense missiles – including their low cost (Israeli officials have boasted, for example, that the new Iron Beam laser-based air defense system uses just $2-worth of electricity – 10,000-50,000 times less than conventional Iron Dome missiles). But lasers also have a number of drawbacks, including the need to secure large amounts of electricity (limiting their mobility), plus problems operating in certain weather conditions, including fog and cloud cover).

Israel's Laser Beam Air Defense System. - Sputnik International, 1920, 05.12.2022

US, Israeli Defense Firms Pen Deal to Develop American Version of ‘Iron Beam’ Laser Defense System

Can Drones Be Used to Counter Other Drones?

Last but not least in the list of portable anti-drone defenses are other UAVs. Systems like the ZALA Lancet multipurpose loitering munition/kamikaze drone are capable of targeting enemy UAVs, with its developers creating a concept which they’ve dubbed “air mining” involving the deployment of large numbers of Lancets in an area of the front to protect against incursions by heavy attack drones. As an enemy drones approach, the Lancet locks on to the enemy target and dives onto it at high speeds to force it from the skies.

How Successful Has Russia’s Anti-Drone War Been?

Since Russia entered the Ukrainian crisis, it has made many of the difficult but necessary changes to supply the Army with the equipment it needs for effective drone warfare.
Last week, an unclassified intelligence assessment by Britain’s Ministry of Defense concluded that that Russia’s military had successfully integrated drone reconnaissance into operations involving long-range missile strikes in the Ukrainian hinterland. Also last week, a separate report by Britain’s Royal United Services Institute calculated that Russia has been using electronic warfare capabilities to destroy upwards of 10,000 Ukrainian drones per month. According to the assessment, Russia maintains “a major electronic warfare system roughly every 6 miles (9.6 km)” along the entire 1,200 km front line.
These assessments echo complaints by an insider at Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, who told one Western outlet in March that Russian forces had obtained “black magic” capabilities against Ukraine’s vast arsenal of NATO-supplied drones, including the ability to “jam frequencies, spoof GPS, [and] send a drone to the wrong altitude so that it simply drops out of the sky.”





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