In the war on terror, precision-guided weapons capable of conducting lethal stand-off attacks have solely belonged to the United States and its allies—until now. Drones have altered this reality and, with it, the balance of power in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and others. Sadly, defensive measures currently in place to counter the drone threat are behind the power curve, and amount to little more than an ad hoc response to what has become one of the most pernicious threats on the battlefield today. Given its all-weather operability and proven effectiveness, the US and allied forces should leverage ballistic missile defense technology to counter the drone threat—but a scaled-down version is needed.
In January 2017, ISIS demonstrated the lethality of a technology it has been perfecting for over two years, dropping a bomb from a small drone that killed at least one soldier at an Iraqi military outpost. While notable, this attack was more than a one-off occurrence, and is instead part of a sustained campaign of drone use by terrorists. As Stars and Stripes has reported, drone sightings have become an almost daily occurrence for NATO forces in Afghanistan. Though the majority of these drones have been used for reconnaissance purposes, the sighting of a kamikaze drone last year in the Nagorno-Karbakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia illustrates a drone’s ability to mimic a miniature guided missile—which would provide a significant technological leap forward for terrorist organizations such as ISIS.
Thus far, the technology put forth to counter this threat has been decidedly lackluster. Trained eagles, like those used by Dutch police, are fascinating to watch in action, but are unlikely to successfully take down any threat beyond a solitary hobbyist-sized drone. The same is true for equally sensational net guns, which come with the added limitation of needing to be within a few hundred feet of a drone. Radio waves and jamming devices possess the ability to thwart drones at distances up to a quarter mile, but risk bringing down explosives-laden drones on friendly forces or civilians nearby. Laser weapons can solve these problems in perfect conditions, but face limitations in inclement weather.
What can counter the unique threat by drones while avoiding the pitfalls mentioned above? Kinetic ballistic missile defense (BMD) technology. With automated tracking of incoming threats, BMD provides all-weather operability that minimizes possibilities for human error. More importantly, BMD offers enough destructive power to disable multiple drones at once if they are operating in a swarm—a tactic that has been mastered by the US and China, and is now being pursued by ISIS. What’s more, kinetic interceptors can destroy targets without the use of explosives, which minimizes the risk of collateral damage.
The primary argument against the use of kinetic BMD comes down to costs. At roughly $1,000 a piece for hobbyist drones, cost-effective countermeasures are hard to come by. Even Lockheed Martin’s Miniature Hit-to-Kill (MHTK) interceptor—a counter rocket, artillery, and mortar (C-RAM) system small enough to fit into a pickup truck—may at first blush seem hard to justify, considering its cost of roughly $16,000 per kill. However, this figure pales in comparison to the cost of one C-17 Globemaster, the ubiquitous Air Force cargo plane valued at approximately $200M per aircraft. Should ISIS begin targeting flightlines instead of security outposts, the price tag on each MHTK missile used to protect them becomes a pittance.
Surely the MHTK is no panacea, but it represents a step in the right direction in the fight against drones. The US Navy’s MK 15 Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) is well suited for this task as well, but at 13,600 lbs, it simply lacks the mobility necessary for ground troops. By contrast, the US Army’s present systems, such as PATRIOT missile batteries, are akin to a giant swatting at flies when faced by the threat posed by drones. Yet, for methods like the US Army’s Integrated Air & Missile Defense (IAMD) System of Systems to be truly integrated, warfighters must be able to counter small weaponized drones too. Rather than delaying the deployment of miniature BMD technology, the US military should be accelerating its roll-out and encouraging the development of BMD that pushes miniaturization even further.
As a result of the threat posed by drones, the assumption of US and allied air superiority on the battlefield may no longer hold true. While any single attack may not pose an existential threat, an endless series of attacks could amount to a death-by-a-thousand-cuts strategy that parallels—or even exceeds—the devastation caused by improvised explosive devices (IEDs). However, unlike IEDs, which have been difficult to defeat entirely, the technology to effectively counter weaponized drones exists today.
BMD technology provides a proven countermeasure to weaponized drones, and it has the potential to become even more effective with a push by the Department of Defense to further explore miniaturization. This effort should begin now, before the day comes when US troops’ can no longer afford to rely on jammers and net guns to fight the war on terror—and come it will.
—Collin Meisel is a Major General John G. Rossi Military Fellow at the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and a Master of Public Policy candidate at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. As a former Technical Sergeant in the United States Air Force, Collin has led airfield security missions in more than 40 nations, securing aircraft for the Vice President of the United States of America, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and other national and military leaders.