US Army scrambles to catch up to rising drone threat

by Braxton Taylor

LONDON—Dangling from the ceiling and laid flat on display stands, sleek drones of every shape and size were ubiquitous at last month’s sprawling DSEI arms show. Far less common were weapons to stop them. 

The same is true on the battlefields of Ukraine—and in the arsenals and training grounds of the U.S. Army.

Army officials say NATO’s largest land force is making progress when it comes to defending troops from drones. But service leaders have yet to make definitive plans for their future counter-drone force, even as they field far fewer defenses than analysts suggest will be needed. 

Drones are ubiquitous on Ukrainian battlefields, where they have been used for everything from artillery coordination to strikes on civilian infrastructure. Russian loitering munition drones, for example, are the leading cause of destruction of Ukraine’s Polish-supplied artillery, Polish Land Forces’ Lt. Gen. Wieslaw Kukuła told Defense One

Consequently, Ukraine and Russia both field a wide array of drone-killing tech, from hand-held jammers to vehicle-mounted autocannons. Ukrainians say Russian electronic warfare is particularly potent against their drones. 

But both sides’ drones regularly slip through air defenses, mounting strikes on Moscow and on Ukrainian power stations. The latter concerns Ukrainian Air Force Command, said spokesman Yuriy Ihnat, who added that Ukraine lacks sufficient short-range air defenses to fend off this winter’s expected attacks by Russia on electrical plants. 

Ukraine isn’t alone. If anything, the U.S. Army may be even more behind when it comes to drone-killing solutions. 

About two decades ago, the Army radically cut spending on short-range anti-air systems, under the belief that the Air Force could control the sky. In 2005, the Army reduced its short-range air defense, SHORAD, units to two active duty battalions and seven National Guard battalions, both operating the 1980s-era Avenger. 

“Army SHORAD by 2014 was, for all intents and purposes, extinct,” wrote Army Capt. Peter Mitchell in an essay for West Point’s Modern War Institute. 

The Army has since made moves to address the drone threat. The Army leads the Pentagon office tasked with combating small drones, and will launch a counter-drone training academy at Fort Sill in 2024. It’s testing various types of defenses, including microwave weapons from Epirus. 

In 2021, the first Army unit took delivery of the M-SHORAD, a Stryker-mounted short range air defense system that sports four Stinger missiles and an autocannon. The Army plans to field 144 M-SHORADS, enough for four battalions. 

The Army has also approved the purchase of three types of hand-held drone-jamming systems. It’s unclear how many are fielded. The maker of one approved system, the DroneBuster, reports having sold 2,000 to “military and law enforcement customers around the globe.” 

The Army also has the Mobile-Low, Slow, Small Unmanned Aircraft System Integrated Defeat System (M-LIDS), which is currently deployed to the Middle East. In April, Aaron Hankins of Leonardo DRS Land Systems said that the Army wanted to equip nine divisions with five sets of MLIDS each, and would start fielding systems next year.

Spurred in part by reports from the Ukraine war, Army leaders say that they are working on a new counter-drone strategy. “We’re going to need to probably have organic air defense with our maneuver units so that they can protect against drones,” said Army Secretary Christine Wormuth at think tank CSIS. 

“The Army is very much watching the kinds of drone/counter-drone war in Ukraine and doing the best we can to incorporate those lessons into our future plans,” said Doug Bush, assistant Army secretary for acquisition at a September press briefing in the Pentagon. 

Some in the Army want to add anti-drone strategies at every level of command. The drone threat is “going to be so prevalent,” said Lt. Col. Richard Brennan, who participated in an Army-led counter-drone tabletop training event in September. “It has to be something you’re accounting for at the lowest level.”

But despite active debate, the Army has yet to figure out just who needs counter-drone systems and how many to buy. 

The problem of how many counter-drone systems the U.S. need is a “key question” for the Army, said Chris Pernin, a senior physical scientist at the RAND Corporation who also participated in the September counter-drone training event. 

Meanwhile, the number of weapons fielded are likely far under what’s required. Past air defense plans gave each Army division its own dedicated short-range air defense battalions. With plans to field just four M-SHORAD battalions, that means that 15 Army divisions will have to do without. 

The problem, in fact, may be even worse. Nick Reynolds, a research fellow for land warfare at RUSI who has written extensively on the Russo-Ukrainian war, believes that Western armies should have “some sort of counter-drone capability at every echelon from company-level and above.” 

The Army fields a collective 19 active duty and National Guard divisions, with a minimum of 950 companies. With the Army planning just 144 M-SHORAD systems and 45 M-LIDS sets, most of those companies will therefore go without a dedicated anti-drone system. 

Nor, even, is it obvious which anti-drone system the U.S. will use. The U.S. has tested microwave weapons, lasers, auto-cannons, and jammers against drones, but has not chosen one single system to invest in. 

“The Army is going to have to face reality,” on counter-drone policy, said Peter Wilson, a senior defense policy analyst at RAND Corporation.“How do you protect your mechanized armored forces? How do you maneuver under the threat of surveillance?” 

Other nations, meanwhile, are plowing ahead with anti-drone acquisition, representatives of two companies that produce anti-drone weapons told Defense One at DSEI. 

Multiple countries have purchased MSI Defense Systems’s jammer- and- gun combination, and the weapon is currently in serial production in several variants, said product manager Robert Gordon. APS is even refining its jammers based on data collected from sending them to Ukraine’s frontline around Bakhmut, said Maciej Klemm, CEO of APS. 

Still, despite a rise in demand related to Ukraine, industrial manufacturers see every country as being one step behind. “Yes, there is a lot of investment; yes, there are a lot of requests for information; but it’s an education process so far,” said Silje Jahr, head of sales at anti-drone company MARSS. 

MSI’s Gordon agreed: “The drone threat has moved so much quicker than both industry and the military’s ability to find solutions. Everyone is behind the curve.”



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