Late in 2019, American military equipment detected an incoming enemy drone over an Iraqi base hosting US forces. The troops were jumpy; their base was vulnerable and exposed.
The detection system gave a grainy picture but indicated the object was getting closer, according to people familiar with events. US forces launched an expensive counter drone missile, which circled the target, missing twice, before being detonated mid-air to avoid a ground explosion. On closer inspection, defence officials later determined the incoming threat was not, after all, a lethally armed drone designed to kill US troops. It was a balloon.
The US has been the pioneer in the use of large killer drones for its global war on terror. Today, much of the conversation about warfare is dominated by extremely sophisticated weapons such as hypersonic, lasers or missile defences that push at the boundaries of the possible.
But the balloon episode illustrated the inadequacy of US capabilities to defend against, or even identify, smaller weaponised drones. It is these cheap, small, low-tech enemy drones that are fast becoming one of the most significant threats facing America’s military.
Frank McKenzie, the four-star Marine Corps general who commands US troops in the Middle East, says that despite a big push the US still remains under equipped for the drone threat, which first emerged as a serious concern in 2016.
“Right now, generally, the advantage lies with the attackers,” McKenzie told the Financial Times in an interview in December, saying cheap, small drones were easy to modify into lethal weapons and hard to distinguish from other airborne objects.
McKenzie says incidents such as the errant missile attack on the balloon are rare but that “they do happen”, adding that US forces sometimes err on the side of caution. “We would like to find a cheaper way to solve that problem than by having to fire a missile at it,” he adds.
Like other senior US defence officials, McKenzie sees drone warfare as America’s new “IED moment”. Homemade roadside bombs known as improvised explosive devices have killed more than 2,000 US personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq, accounting for 45 per cent of all US deaths in warzones since 2006.
So serious is the impact of weapons that can cost as little as $1,000 and which McKenzie dubs “Costco drones” after the discount store, that he argues that the US has lost the “complete” upper hand in the skies for the first time since the Korean war in the 1950s.
In October, lethal drones attacked al-Tanf base in Syria where about 200 US personnel are stationed in an offensive McKenzie says was carried out by entities associated with Iran and “was a deliberate attempt to kill Americans”. The US received advance warning and moved the troops. In November, drones dropped explosives on the home of Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, wounding his bodyguards. On Tuesday, US military officials said that in recent days two attacks by armed drones on bases in Iraq hosting US troops had been foiled.
“Air superiority is something that we no longer have all the time in the theatre [military area of operations],” he says. “If you have a drone overfly your base and you’re not able to bring it down, you don’t have air superiority. That doesn’t happen often. But it does happen more than I would like it to happen, and it’s very worrying.”
Flying under the radar
US military commanders first woke up to the threat cheap drones represent to their troops in late 2016. In an incident that later became known as “the day of the drones”, Isis flew more than 70 small, $1,000 drones — each affixed with explosives — in an attack on Iraqi troops.
“They released them almost like a game, except that [it] was a 40mm grenade that was coming down on top of you,” says Tony Thomas, the four-star retired army general who was at the time commander of America’s special operations forces.
On another occasion, he says members of a US Ranger mortar platoon in Syria were wounded in a drone-launched grenade attack. US officials discovered some drones had been booby-trapped, so that if someone attempted to remove the SIM card it would explode. “It’s not like it’s sci-fi, it’s actual,” says Thomas.
“We flooded the zone. We started bringing in all sorts of technical responses to the challenge — mostly electronic and cyber-related efforts to knock down or disrupt these quadcopters,” he adds. “There was a big flurry to try and get something in the field that was better than what we had.”
There are several parts to the drone problem. While America’s well-established integrated air missile defences can, if necessary, tackle the largest drones, the US has struggled to stop smaller categories. These smaller, “group one” drones weigh under 20 pounds and often fly too low and slow for traditional detection and response methods.
Although radar picks up most objects, sophisticated filters are needed to positively identify and distinguish an enemy drone.
Stopping attack drones once correctly identified is also hard. Countermeasures developed to tackle smaller drones over the past five years range from jamming or taking over signals, targeting drones with directed energy such as microwaves and lasers, shooting them down with rifle bullets or missile fire, colliding into them with kamikaze drone attacks, and even netting them or otherwise physically interfering with their propellers. But more than two years on from the mistaken missile attack on the balloon, the drone threat is only growing.
By 2026 the global commercial drone market is expected to reach $41bn — up 57 per cent from today — and surpass 1.4m sales a year, according to an annual report from Research and Markets, a source of industry data. Shenzhen-based drone maker DJI — which makes a range of small quadcopters — has three-quarters of the world market, according to Skylogic Research. Before Christmas, US president Joe Biden added DJI to an investment blacklist over its alleged involvement in the surveillance of China’s Uyghur ethnic minority.
Russia, Iran, Israel and Turkey are also mass producing cheap drones, including for sale abroad. Non-state actors including Isis jihadis in Iraq and Syria have also turned to arming commercial drones as weapons of choice.
Armed drones helped Azerbaijan emerge victorious in its conflict with Armenia in 2020; Ukraine and Russia have used them in their dispute over Donbas; and they have become a mainstay of attacks in the Middle East, including a September 2019 drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities that wiped out more than half its supplies — equivalent to 5 per cent of global supply — which some US officials blamed at the time on Iran.
Very small drones can also play a key role in larger lethal attacks. In late December 2019, multiple people on the K1 air base in Kirkuk in Iraq saw a small quadcopter drone going directly over the flight refuelling point on the helicopter air strip, according to two people familiar with the matter.
The base was armed with five different types of drone detect-and-defeat equipment but “not a single one of them picked it up”, says one of the people.
“They saw it, but nothing they could do; just report it,” says the second person.
A few days later, the base was attacked by more than 30 rockets, leading some military officials to conclude the initial flyover had come from a small spy drone used as surveillance for target “bracketing” — to determine how to land a rocket at the base from afar. A small drone was again spotted over the damage-hit areas, as if surveying its success.
One US contractor, a linguist, was killed in the attack, leading to a series of dramatic developments in Washington that culminated in then president Donald Trump’s decision to target and kill Iran’s top military commander, Qassem Soleimani, at the start of 2020. The incident brought Washington and Tehran the closest they have been to outright conflict in decades.
At the start of 2020, then defence secretary Mark Esper convened a meeting with senior officials to discuss an urgent solution to the drone crisis. And put Major General Sean Gainey in charge of 60 people at the top of a new department-wide effort known as the JCO to fix America’s drone defences with what the Pentagon calls “layered” defence — multiple overlapping solutions.
Over several months Gainey, a career air and missile defence officer, whittled more than 40 counter-drone systems — that were already deployed — down by three-quarters. He now intends to build the country’s first counter-drone academy in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, by 2024.
“Shooting a high-dollar-figure missile at a relatively cheap [drone] is not where we want to be on the cost curve,” he said.
The US Department of Defense has invested billions of dollars in counter-drone equipment in the years since drones emerged as a significant threat on the battlefield. Yet, fewer than 40 per cent of drones are successfully detected, according to people familiar with internal Pentagon reporting. Before Gainey’s team was established, operators and officials with first-hand knowledge of drones had become exasperated by expensive systems that did not work. Some machines simply would not turn on, they say; others failed to detect or stop a drone.
Counter-drone systems are tested at Arizona’s Yuma Proving Ground, a US military installation, before deploying them to the field, and Gainey wants counter-drone training to become part of basic training for the Army, Air Force and US Marine Corps.
The effort to ramp up the US counter-drone response has continued under the Biden administration. This year, the Department of Defense plans to spend $636m on counter-drone research and development plus $75m on procurement, up a total of $134m in 2021. But the effort is still moving too slowly for some elements of the US defence system.
Katie Olson, acting director of the Defense Digital Service (DDS), a group of engineers and scientists within the Pentagon that works on near-term technology issues, says more immediate solutions are needed than the JCO can offer, adding that it is “operating at the speed of a bureaucracy and going down this very slow path”.
“That doesn’t work because we’re getting just constantly bombarded [with new drones],” says Olson, whose team reports to the office of the secretary of defence. “We can’t afford that kind of timeline . . . We are being attacked right now; we need solutions for now.”
Olson says her team — working with the JCO — has developed sensors that can detect new drones as soon as they are launched.
Jamming the electronic signal between the drone and the controller can be too slow because it takes months and sometimes years to determine the communication signal used by new drones in order to disrupt them, and risks interrupting allied communications. Observers say that has made direct “kinetic” attacks — inflicting physical damage — on enemy drones increasingly preferable.
At a counter-drone conference held last month in Virginia, a host of companies advertised their wares. Ohio-based Fortem Technologies has developed the DroneHunter, which relies on automation to detect drones and capture them in a net jettisoned from its own drone mid-air. D-Fend Solutions, a company started by Israeli cyber experts, executes a cyber takeover of the target drone and then safely lands it. The technology, which is fielded in the Middle East, has been used at the G7 summit and to protect Pope Francis during open-air mass.
For its part, DDS has developed a way of defeating individual drones using another drone that the team likens to fighting fire with fire. Another part of the Pentagon, the Defense Innovation Unit, is working with commercial companies such as Fortem and defence tech start-up Anduril, to fix detection problems in particular.
Darpa, a US military research agency, has recently developed a more eye-catching solution: shooting pink stringy spray at drones to entangle their propellers.
“The most threatening thing that should happen is that the threat drone falls out of the sky,” says Darpa’s Gregory Avicola of his team’s invention, which he says was intended to deliver a “soft kinetic” response that avoided collateral damage.
A new class of weapon
The future may look far less “soft”, however. Military futurists worry leaps in artificial intelligence will help create drone “swarms” — not just multiple numbers of armed drones operated by a single person at any one time, but drones that work together as collaborative teams run by a computer and which make targeting decisions powered by machine learning.
Alexander Kott, chief scientist for the Army Research Laboratory, which develops new combat technologies, says drones amount to a “whole new class of weapons” which can fly in “very unusual ways that no other military munitions can fly”, such as hiding in trees or in grass close to the ground and changing speed and direction at will. He adds: “This is kind of a new military technology that, I would say, almost compares in its novelty with the appearance of the first aeroplanes or first tanks.”
For Kott, the answer to overcoming swarms of intelligent, automated, armed drones is a head-on match. “The best defence against a tank is another tank,” he says.