Home' Defence Technology Review : DTR DEC JAN 2015 Contents 37
DEFENCE TECHNOLOGY REVIEW | ISSUE 05 | DEC/JAN 2015
The IEDs of the
next war: small drones
THEY ARE CHEAP, readily constructed from items lying around
the garage and gardening shed, come in every imaginable shape
and size and can be triggered in a myriad of ways. I am referring
to improvised explosive devices or IEDs.
This was the one tactical threat the US military didn’t plan
for when it went into Iraq and Afghanistan and it nearly lost us
the war. It cost the military and local civilians dearly in terms of
lives lost and individuals injured, often horribly. Responding to
the IED threat also cost this country tens of billions of dollars to
design and acquire fleets of specially-armoured and protected
vehicles, electronic jamming systems, advanced sensors and
robots. The Pentagon stood up an entirely new command, the
Joint IED Defeat Organization, just to combat this threat.
In the next insurgency, US and coalition forces could find
themselves facing a new equally dangerous and disruptive threat:
unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), often called drones.
I am not referring to the large, high-flying, long-range and
highly sophisticated unpiloted aerial vehicles such as the Reaper,
Global Hawk, Heron or ScanEagle. Rather, I am speaking of
relatively small and very simple drones that would fly low, have
limited range and carry a payload measured in kilograms.
In its recent conflicts, the US military deployed several highly
effective small UAVs that were built out of plastic parts, employed
commercially available sensor systems and avionics and whose
launch and recovery systems were constructed from parts
available at any Home Depot store.
To date, there have been relatively few cases of other countries
and, more important, non-state actors, employing weaponised
drones. But they are coming.
More than one expert is predicting
the coming threat from small, armed
tactical UAVs. And lots of them.
TO DATE, THERE HAVE BEEN RELATIVELY FEW CASES OF
OTHER COUNTRIES AND, MORE IMPORTANT, NON-STATE
ACTORS, EMPLOYING WEAPONISED DRONES.
BUT THEY ARE COMING
Illustration: Antony Neeson
All the relevant technologies are readily available everywhere,
in any country, any city:
• The airframe can be made from cheap materials;
• They can be powered by battery-driven electric motors found in
• They need no better guidance system than the GPS that can be
found in the average mobile phone;
• But if command guidance is required simply acquire a small
video camera from almost anywhere and route the feed
through that same mobile phone connected to the local
• They can be built in a garage and launched from the driveway.
The proliferation of drones could radically alter the tactical
battlespace. For the first time, non-state adversaries would have
an air force. Obviously, if they were equipped with cameras,
drones could provide terrorists and insurgents with critical
intelligence and targeting information. Loaded with even a few
kilograms of explosives, drones are rendered precision-guided
weapons able to be used against fixed and even mobile targets,
something the West’s adversaries lack in their current inventories
of rockets and missiles.
Deployed on boats and ships, drones would provide our
adversaries with a low-cost offensive aviation capability at sea
with an ability, albeit limited, to strike targets on land.
Small drones pose three distinct challenges to advanced
militaries in a way which is different than either manned aircraft
or missiles. The first is the engagement envelope. Because these
drones are small, fly low and are very quiet, they would be
difficult to detect and engage with existing air defence systems.
There might be no warning of an attack. Missile defence systems
would be equally ineffective.
The second challenge drones pose is to the size of the defences’
magazines. Simply put, the defenders are more likely to run out
of interceptors before the insurgents run out of drones. If drones
were employed in swarming attacks, defensive weapon systems
might not be able to shoot them down fast enough, even if it has
the right number of interceptors, to stop the attack.
The third challenge, possibly the most difficult, is the cost-
exchange ratio between cheap drones and relatively expensive
defensive weapons. We have known for a long time that it was
prohibitively expensive to buy enough conventional
interceptor missiles to shoot down all incoming rockets and
The key to the very successful Israeli Iron Dome defence
system is that it only engages those weapons that are heading for
populated areas or infrastructure targets. An attack by drones
employing advanced guidance systems would require the defence
to intercept all the inbound UAVs. Consequently, the cost-
exchange ratio would be prohibitively expensive.
The US military, in general, but the Army, in particular, needs
to accept the reality that this threat is coming, and get in front of
it. This means dealing with all three of the challenges posed by
small, low flying drones. First, new sensors, probably airborne or
on aerostats, are needed in order to allow existing systems such as
close-range weapon systems to be effective.
Second, new weapons are needed in order to increase
ammunition stocks and reverse the cost exchange ratio. This
means tactical lasers or microwave weapons. The US Army has
a tactical laser development program that has demonstrated real
effectiveness against drones during live firing tests.
Finally, a combination of electronic warfare and passive
defences will be required to defeat the drone sensors and guidance
Make no mistake, this threat is coming. The recent conflict
in Gaza taught the world’s terrorists and insurgents about the
limited utility of even massive arsenals of unguided rockets and
missiles. They will be looking for an alternative weapon, and all
the components needed to build large stocks of small, precision-
guided, weaponised suicide drones are available in all corners of
the globe. – Dr Daniel Goure
This article was originally published on 10 October 2014 in the blog Early
Warning and is reproduced with permission from the Lexington Institute.
Visit the Lexington Institute at www.lexingtoninstitute.org
KAMIKAZE ON THE CHEAP
For it to be a threat, the small tactical armed drone doesn’t have to be very
much. Bestow it with the ability to fly a meagre 200-1,000m, install an
inexpensive nose-mounted camera to provide vision for navigation to the
target, add a generic 2-4kg blast/fragmentation warhead and you’re done.
If launched from behind cover, obstacles or terrain features UAVs could
be called onto a target by spotters, further negating the need for complex
and high cost targeting and sensor payloads.
Assuming the intended target remained under observation during
the terminal phase of the flight, command detonated air burst would be
The armed drone need only hit the intended target a few times to
bring about the desired effect of a costly and distracting response by the
targeted force that is out of all proportion to the tactical threat. Actual
battlefield damage or casualties need only be few or sporadic.
With rules of engagement only relevant for one side, indiscriminate
targeting and collateral damage is of little concern. No need for precision
Build from scratch or modify a commercial-off-the-shelf UAV or radio-
controlled model aircraft. Cheaply, easily, quickly.
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