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Militaries Everywhere Are Worried About Small Drones

July 27, 2021
Loitering munitions displayed at an arms show. Via Wikimedia Commons.

New research from a leading security company and a US-based think tank found useful insights on how the threat posed by small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) are evolving. In Counter-Drone Discoveries: Survey and Market Report 2021 the proliferation of intrusive lightweight drones pose a significant threat to militaries and law enforcement organizations everywhere. This is according to a rigorous study conducted by the Institute for Defense & Government Advancement (IDGA) and its partner, D-Fend Solutions.

The full Counter-Drone Discoveries report is available for download here.

There are no shortage of hostile drone activities executed on a large-scale these past five years that were directed at critical infrastructure and military targets. The most audacious happened in 2019 when coordinated drone and missile attacks crippled Saudi Arabia’s oil production as two processing centers–Abqaiq and Khurais–were struck by cruise missiles and loitering munitions. The resulting damage triggered an international outcry and showed how inadequate current “air defense” equipment is against small yet destructive threat vectors. The attacks orchestrated on Abqaiq and Khurais also defied common assumptions about sUAS incidents–that the drone operators are nearby or within detection range. In fact, to this day, it’s assumed Iran was behind the attacks but it has never been ascertained who piloted the drones and from where.

Via IDGA/D-Fend Solutions.

But sUAS incidents already proved their destructive impact long before Abqaiq and Khurais. In March 2017 a small rotorcraft carrying thermite grenades is believed to have sabotaged an ammunition depot in eastern Ukraine. The result was catastrophic as 70,000 metric tons of artillery ammunition detonated. Months after the Balaklia incident another suspected drone op on a Ukrainian depot caused a firestorm that swept away 32,000 tons of ammunition. These were by far the largest destructive events caused by the lethal application of dual use drone technology.

That same year the Iraqi security forces were in for a rude awakening as they struggled to retake Mosul from ISIS. Unknown to them, the terrorist group had amassed a huge collection of hobbyist quadcopters repurposed for carrying bomblets, and these were flown against the Iraqis. While casualties were minimal the disruption hampered the Iraqi police and military as they had no countermeasures at hand. In January 2019 it was the Russian garrison in Syria who were at the receiving end of a drone swarm loaded with air-dropable explosives. The remarkable part was the attack was conducted by a terrorist group from a hundred kilometers away. Although Russia’s defense ministry claimed anti-aircraft weapons disabled the swarms headed for Khmeimim airbase and the Tartus naval base, the fact these came so close undetected proves how persistent hostile sUAS usage shred common assumptions about air defense.

The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh was very illustrative of operational drone warfare. For the duration of the conflict, which dragged from late September to November 2020, both the Armenians and Azeris employed various unmanned systems to either blunt or degrade their adversaries. As the reader is no doubt aware the physical destruction left a grim toll. The US military is learning this the hard way even without the loss of human life. As part of Operation Inherent Resolve some 2,500 US troops are stationed in Iraqi bases and facilities. A succession of sUAS incidents were directed at OIR personnel throughout this summer including what appears to be a fixed wing loitering munition that crashed in Erbil’s international airport. While the US military confirmed the events and reported no harm on its personnel resulted the risk of similar disruptions is ever present.

Via IDGA/D-Fend Solutions.

The whitepaper from IDGA and D-Fend Solutions reflected the outcomes in real world sUAS incidents going back a handful of years. By using a basic question and answer survey format shared with its respondents it was ascertained which sUAS threats were top of mind. The data was then tabulated to measure the degree of risk posed by sUAS on a targeted site’s operations. Not surprisingly operational disruption followed by the risk of injury or death and property damage were the leading concerns among those surveyed. In the report, these hypothetical incident outcomes ranked the highest. With thes egrim scenarios in mind, suppliers of counter-UAS and detection and surveillance tools have a growing market that will see robust expansion throughout the 2020s.

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