It is now conventional wisdom that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) – drones - have so impacted the war in Ukraine that they have changed the face of warfare forever. Many commentators go as far as to say UAV will make conventional, armored military forces obsolete.

That is not the opinion of the French Army’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Pierre Schill. Speaking during the Eurosatory defense exhibition on June 19, he said that the advantage currently enjoyed by small aerial drones on Ukraine’s battlefields are but “a moment in history.” He said that while anti-drone systems are currently trailing it won’t be long before science and tactics erode and eventually wipe out the advantage drones currently enjoy.

Writing in the UK Defence Journal, Stuart Crawford, a former British army officer now a defense analyst, shares Schill’s view. He argues that the success of drones in the Russo-Ukrainian War is because they fill what he calls “a threat vacuum.” UAV capitalized on and solved technical and tactical weaknesses no one had previously anticipated. Now that everyone knows, he feels it is only a matter of time before technology comes up with countermeasures that will overcome the threat.

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The advantage currently enjoyed by small aerial drones on Ukraine’s battlefields are but “a moment in history.”

Several military journalists back the views of Schill and Craword by pointing to the experience of the much-hyped Turkish built Bayraktar TB2. The UAV burst onto the scene in the first days and weeks of the war in Ukraine as both a surveillance and attack platform, for which Russian forces apparently had no answer. Bayraktar was hailed as an affordable substitute to long range missiles and artillery that was impervious to most air defense weapons – until Moscow’s surface-to-air missiles began to take them out. Soon the Bayraktar, the Orion – Russia’s analogue to it – and other medium-altitude long-endurance drones virtually disappeared from the battlefield.

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Drones have, until now, transformed the battlefield in Ukraine. They provide a cheap and readily available capability that helps equalize the imbalance in artillery numbers from which Russian forces benefit. They can quickly spot concentrations of forces and, used in conjunction with artillery fire units, can bring down and adjust strikes to give artillery precision it previously lacked.

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First-person-view kamikaze drones can accurately hit mobile targets, individually or in swarms, that make the frontline lethal to tanks and armored vehicles that were previously invulnerable to all but the best anti-tank weapons. Large numbers of small drones cannot match the potency of high volumes of artillery fire; they support artillery but cannot totally replace howitzers or multi-barreled rocket launchers such as the GRAD, HIMARS or ATACMS missiles.

“New weapons have made the risk of war a suicidal hazard… Modern war visits destruction on the victor and the vanquished alike.” – Gen. Omar Bradley

Just about every defense manufacturer is currently working on improvements to both drone and counter-drone technology. AI is held up as the panacea that will make drones autonomous and impervious to electronic warfare – and that is probably true in the short run. However, like every weapon and tactic in history something will come along to turn the tide and it is likely to be the same for drones.

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Ways to defend against drones

Let’s look at some of the ways we can defend ourselves from UAV attacks, now and in the future.

Stop them coming

The first line of defense is to prevent them appearing on the battlefield in the first place by attacking their manufacturing and supply routes, storage and launch sites. Ukraine has taken this on board. In April Kyiv launched a long-range attack on the Shahed kamikaze drone assembly facility in Yelabuga, Tatarstan, more than 1,200 kilometers (745 miles) from Ukraine and on June 21 hit the training ground and warehouse storing Shahed drones in Yeisk, in the Krasnodar region.

Another possibility if the drones make it as far as the battlefield is to identify and attack the launch sites with artillery or missile strikes, or to intercept and shoot them down in flight or use electronic countermeasures to disrupt their communication and guidance links.

Some techniques are summarized below.

Electronic countermeasures

Drone Monitoring Equipment (DME) can be passive – looking or listening – or active, sending out a signal to the drone and then analyzing what comes back. These measures detect the presence of a drone, classify it by function or even the model and digital fingerprint of the individual drone, locate and possibly track it in real time. The aim being to deploy countermeasures or at least be able to avoid the drone.

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Drone Countermeasure Equipment (DCE) can be considered in three categories: physical destruction, neutralization or taking control. Physical destruction normally involves the firing of some sort of projectile at the drone although some militaries are working on the use of high energy beams such as high power electro-magnetic (HPEM) or lasers to bring it down. The German company Diehl Defense already offers an HPEM system that will induce an electro-magnetic pulse in the drone sufficient to disrupt or destroy its circuitry. Raytheon has produced a high-energy laser that can destroy the structure and/or the electronics of the drone.

Radio frequency jammers that can be either static, mobile, or handheld are already being widely used by both Ukraine and Russia on the battlefield. These transmit large amounts of RF energy at the drone to disrupt or mask the control signal causing the drone to land or fall in its current position, return to a pre-programmed location or fly off in an uncontrolled direction.

GPS spoofer replaces the communication signal the drone uses to navigate fooling it into thinking it’s somewhere else. Done in real time it is possible to gain control of the drone and direct it to a “safe zone.” There are suggestions that Ukraine is already fielding this technology.

Cyber Takeover Systems (CTS) is a technology in its infancy, can passively detect radio frequency transmissions emitted by a drone, identify the drone’s serial number and, using AI send a signal to hack the drone, assume control, and direct it to a safe location.

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Countermeasure Integration Needless to say the US military, through the Army’s Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office, or the JCO, is leading the effort to counter the use of drones both now and in the future. The 2023 budget request in this area was $668 million for counter-drone research and development and $78 million for procurement and there are further indications that the Ukraine battlefield may be a “test bed” for fielding the technologies that arise from this.

Protecting armored vehicles – current

A February report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) that estimated that Russia had lost almost 9,000 armored vehicles during the first two years of the war.

The need for countermeasures was obvious, which led to the led to the appearance of so-called “cope cages” on the tanks, including the T90s, Abrams, Challengers as well as armored personal carriers of both sides aimed at limiting the impact of the weapons. Initially an assortment of crude grills, frames and screens fitted in the field were used, often referred to as BBQ grills – with mixed results:

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It has been reported that Russia has even taken to fitting purpose built anti-drone grills and cages on tank and armored personnel carrier (APC) new builds.

Protecting armored vehicles – future

The comments of Gen. Schill that the supremacy of drones will end someday soon may be right, but it is unlikely that they will disappear completely, and their successors will likely be more sophisticated and effective than those used today.

For instance, German defense contractor Rheinmetall has developed a containerized launcher concept that contains 126 of the Israeli “Hero” FPV loitering munitions that hold 4.5-kilogram (10 pound) shaped charge warheads that can be fired singly, or in salvoes up to 60 kilometers ( 37 miles) to saturate a significantly large area with kamikaze drones.

In preparation for that day those working on the next generation of armored vehicles are already addressing the threat and studying the impact of drones on the Ukrainian battlefield. Tanks and armored vehicles over the next 20 years or so will include improved top, rear and side protection, hard-kill and soft-kill active protection system (APS) against drones and missiles, EW jammers, laser dazzlers, all configured in such a way that they can be modified and upgraded as the threat morphs with technology.

Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, the head of planning for the US Next-Generation Combat Vehicle and his team said: “We are keeping a close watch on what’s happening in Ukraine to make sure that we have those requirements right.”

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