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Dealing with Drones

Modern armed conflicts show undeniable importance of unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefield. However, do we know how to fight them?

At the end of 2022, there was an incident that shocked the South Korean army command: five unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) entered South Korean airspace. The local warning system quickly detected the objects, anti-aircraft defense fired warning shots, and fighter jets and helicopters were immediately picked up to shoot down the foreign platforms. However, the results of these actions were quite insignificant. The drones kept moving freely in the South Korean skies for several hours – one of them even reached the outskirts of Seoul before returning to the north. The situation shocked the South Koreans. The army command had to explain to the public why they were unable to shoot down the UAVs.

The incident was very troublesome and embarrassing for the Korean army, which on top of everything lost one of the aircraft sent to shoot down the foreign machines. The situation demonstrated the problems and challenges in combating foreign platforms, which can be encountered not only by South Korean forces. A further analysis showed that the main reason for the failure was that the means used to neutralize the foreign machines were inadequate: the North Korean drones were small (less than 2 meters, so practically the size of a stork), and were not even scratched by the machines sent to shoot them down, despite having fired about 100 shots at them. Although the drones themselves were not armed and were probably sent only to test Seoul's ability to defend its own skies, the whole situation painfully demonstrated to the South Koreans how important it is to properly prepare air defense in order to combat foreign UAVs. There have been many more examples of problems with countering drones, particularly on the front line of the Russian-Ukrainian war.

UAVs in Wars

In recent years, unmanned aerial vehicles have been intensively developed. Today, they are used not only in the army, but also outside it – for monitoring threats, conducting surveillance or searching for missing people. They have already proven useful for conducting reconnaissance tasks deep inside enemy territory, and as offensive weapons. The wide spectrum of tasks for which drones can be used shows that their role in future armed conflicts is likely to further increase. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct research not only on developing drones but also on the ways to counter them. It is important both for defending against enemy attack during war and for protecting critical infrastructure in times of peace, e.g. against terrorist attacks.

During the war in Nagorno-Karabakh in the fall of 2020, the Azerbaijani side used UAVs for enemy surveillance and offensive operations. Due to their extensive use of drones, the Azerbaijanis successfully destroyed the Karabakh Armenians' fighting positions. As a result, they gained the upper hand and were able to change the situation on the front in their favor, which later led to signing a truce that was satisfactory to them.

The Russian-Ukrainian war has demonstrated even greater problems with successful defense against drones. In the early stages of the fights, the Ukrainians used Bayraktar offensive drones – which had proven effective in Nagorno-Karabakh – to destroy ammunition and fuel depots, since the Russian anti-aircraft defense failed to neutralize the UAVs. Later, the situation was reversed. The Russians, using Iranian Shahed-136 drones, attacked Ukraine's civilian and critical infrastructure. They dispatched the drones in waves and in large numbers, which enabled some of the machines to break past Ukrainian air defense and to attack the designated targets. However, the Ukrainians worked out ways to counter the Shaheds, so the effectiveness of Russian attacks later decreased.

It is also worth mentioning that in December 2022, the Ukrainians undertook another type of attack with UAVs: they sent them far beyond the front line, deep into enemy groupings. Their targets were the Russian air bases in Dyagilevo and Engels, where they managed to destroy the Tu-95 and the Tu-22M3 bomber aircraft in an area protected by anti-aircraft defense.

Specific Task

The mentioned examples show that one type of weapon is not enough to combat UAVs. The means used to that end must be different in the case of large and heavy drones operating at considerable heights (such as the American Reapers), and different for fighting small, light reconnaissance machines or circling munitions that move at low altitudes and are virtually inaccessible to standard detection systems. Moreover, different methods are used for operations against individual surveillance machines and an entire drone swarm. Another problem is the capability to distinguish between safe objects (civilian drones or large birds) and those that pose a potential threat.

Therefore, it is crucial to have a comprehensive system that can identify and combat machines of different classes, and that is adapted to the nature of the defended object, civilian or military. This is pointed out by Dariusz Laskowski, PhD, from the Department of Electronics at the Military University of Technology (WAT): “Anti-drone systems must be tailored to a specific mission or task, because components of critical infrastructure or military bases need to be defended differently than elements of an army formation on the battlefield or during a stabilization mission.”

“The essence of countering drones is to provide protection against their use or to minimize the consequences of their use. A properly organized anti-drone system will allow for both countering aerial reconnaissance and protecting military infrastructure and installations against attacks by unmanned platforms,” explains Col (Pil) Łukasz Andrzejewski-Popow, PhD, General Counsel to the Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces, adding: “Countering UAVs in combat conditions is carried out by several weapon systems including anti-aircraft weapons and specialized anti-drone systems used against drones with a takeoff weight of less than 150 kg.”

Generally speaking, systems used against drones have two modes of action: kinetic and non-kinetic. The kinetic mode is, for example, knocking the machine down (e.g. by hitting it with a missile), while the non-kinetic mode is affecting the drone with electromagnetic energy and disrupting its communication with the operator, or intercepting its signal and bringing it to the ground. Effective tools should use both of the mentioned capabilities and have a kinetic module, such as a multi-barrel machine gun, a programmable projectile with a fragmentation zone or a kamikaze drone, and a non-kinetic module, including a jammer for radio signals and an emitter of electromagnetic waves, such as an electromagnetic cannon that destroys the drone's electronics.

Golden Mean

Specialists identify three basic problems related to effective neutralization of drones. The first is the issue of systems for recognizing, tracking and classification of small aerial objects. These systems require a variety of sensors: optical, radio, radar or acoustic. The second issue is the adequacy of the means that combat UAVs, also in terms of their price/effect relation, to the particular type of drone. Generally speaking, a drone worth a few thousand zlotys should not be countered with a missile worth a few million. The third and very important issue, which conditions the proper use of anti-drone weapons, concerns the tactical-operational environment, i.e. the area in which drones are neutralized. "It’s difficult to imagine that in peacetime, in a more or less urbanized area inhabited by people, drones could be shot at with rockets or kinetic projectiles, for example from small-caliber automatic cannons, large-caliber machine guns or infantry small arms. In such a situation, the losses caused by own fire may be greater than those caused by drones,” says Prof Laskowski of WAT.

Combating UAVs is therefore not a simple matter, and the used means must be tailored to the type of target and the tactical-technical environment. This means that an automated system for recognizing, tracking, tracing and hitting aerial targets is necessary, with a component capable of accumulating knowledge (archiving events), and taking into account the use of artificial intelligence. “Such a system uses elements that detect, track and neutralize UAVs by combining the data collected from various sensors, which provide higher detection efficiency, at the same time allowing for the creation of a multi-level protection system, starting with jammers as the first line of protection, and ending with kinetic or electromagnetic guns,” specifies the lecturer from WAT.

Polish Know-How

Anti-drone systems have now been used for several years by the armies of the United States, China, Germany, France, and, more recently – due to donations of military equipment – also by Ukraine. What about the Polish army? As the Armaments Agency and the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces point out, information on capabilities possessed or planned to be acquired by the Armed Forces, related to military protection and defense, including critical infrastructure, is classified. Col Łukasz Andrzejewski-Popow of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces admits only that the Armed Forces are currently introducing into service radar systems that can detect, track and classify drones. “In addition, we are working on systems that will enable us to effectively combat drone swarms. Taking into account the dynamic development of drone technology and UAV applications, and, consequently, the growing threat connected with their use, it should be stated that developing capabilities that ensure effective and comprehensive neutralization of drones is a common direction pursued by most armies of the world. The Polish Armed Forces are no exception in this regard. The army is looking for comprehensive solutions in this area, including both kinetic and non-kinetic systems,” explains Col Andrzejewski-Popow.

The MoND’s leadership has been talking about procuring systems to enable effective combat against UAVs for almost a decade. The need to develop technology that would allow for taking over control of UAVs and destroying them was also included in the document entitled “Priority Research Directions in the Ministry of National Defense for 2017-2026,” published in 2019. The Armaments Inspectorate (now the Armaments Agency) has also taken a keen interest in the issue, and has at least once invited companies that have the technology to counter foreign drones to a technical dialogue. Anti-drone systems remain an area of interest for the MoND. Funds for the procurement of this type of technology were also provided for in the “Armed Forces Technical Modernization Plan for 2021-2035.”

A Rich Offer

Domestic and foreign companies offer various solutions to neutralize UAVs. Original concepts for drone warfare are also developed at Polish military universities. One example is the Military University of Technology, which for at least a decade has been conducting research on effective ways to neutralize drones, including those moving in swarms. Scientists admit that the kinetic means of combat are the least effective in such a case. “Even if we hit the commander drone, the swarm management function is immediately taken over by another machine. Therefore, in our opinion, electromagnetic impact is the only one that can be effective,” says Prof Laskowski. According to the lecturer, it is more effective to use the so-called High Power Microwave (HPM) energy. Its beam can neutralize mechanisms of all hit drones, so they are not be able to continue their missions. “Any drone that enters the area where we direct the electromagnetic beam will be struck. We have already confirmed the effectiveness of this solution during field tests in Nowa Dęba and Ustka,” says Prof Laskowski. The lecturer says that the HPM beam can have a range of even 1 km. However, the wider the beam, the shorter the distance it affects. “Radiation can't be seen, can't be heard, and special equipment is needed to detect it. This is a very effective weapon, already used by such military powers as the US and China. In Poland, for the time being, we have a device at the sixth level of technological readiness, the so-called technology demonstrator,” emphasizes Prof Laskowski.

The system in question is the REKiN system, or the Striking Kinetic and Non-Kinetic Emitter. The concept of this system was developed under the leadership of Prof Laskowski and is the result of the efforts of Polish scientists and the capabilities of the Air Force Institute of Technology, Tarnów Mechanical Works and Kubara Lamina Company. REKiN is a multi-module system designed to provide comprehensive anti-drone protection by combining kinetic and non-kinetic means of fighting UAVs. How does it work? First, it deploys jammers – radio jamming systems with proven effectiveness up to 4,000 meters. The second line of defense are missiles developed by the Air Force Institute of Technology, which can hit enemy drones with shrapnel. The third line of defense is made up of a multi-barrel machine gun intended for neutralizing large drones. The final element is an electromagnetic cannon with a power of up to 10 GW.

“The weapon we designed can be compared to the power of Tolkien's Gandalf, who generates an electromagnetic field using his staff, thus creating an insurmountable barrier,” says the author of the concept. WAT scientists emphasize that the system they have developed is safe for soldiers in a combat formation. They also add that it can be used as a stationary system and serve, for example, to protect key military installations, such as Patriot batteries, or it can operate as a mobile system. In that case, one of the system's modules – an HPM station and an antenna weighing about 500 kg – can be placed on the back of an off-road vehicle. “This will enable it to move with own troops and support soldiers during patrols, for example,” says Prof Laskowski. The researchers have developed an interface to integrate REKiN with the Pilica air defense system. “We have also considered using lasers, but their effectiveness is not entirely satisfactory, since a laser can neutralize only one drone. If we wanted to affect an entire swarm, we would have to have as many laser guns as there are drones, or, optionally, the laser would have to be very fast and instantly target successive drones. We don't have such a laser, so the only safe solution seems to be electromagnetic energy,” emphasizes Prof Laskowski.

One of the pillars of REKiN is the anti-drone system developed by Tarnów Mechanical Works. “It is our answer to the threats posed by mini-, micro- and nano-class drones. The war in Ukraine has shown how great the threat posed by miniature drones really is. They can carry up to 10 kg of explosive material,” says Krzysztof Lustofin, director of the Research and Development Center of Tarnów Mechanical Works. The system was developed to protect critical infrastructure, including airports, gas ports, pipelines or military units. “First, the system’s radar detects the target, classifies it and provides coordinates to the fire control system. The optoelectronic warhead takes over tracking the drone, and the operator then decides on a convenient moment to shoot it down,” explains Lustofin. The system was tested in training area conditions in 2021 and 2022.

An analysis of the course of ongoing armed conflicts – including, above all, the Russian-Ukrainian war – clearly shows that the role played by UAVs on the battlefield cannot be marginalized. This also means that we should devote the same amount of attention to systems designed to combat drones of a potential adversary. Creating a multi-level, complete UAV countering system is the only way to protect military installations worth millions of zlotys or critical infrastructure facilities that are crucial to state security.

Robert Sendek, Magdalena Kowalska-Sendek

autor zdjęć: Fot. Armee De Terre

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