Drones on the battlefield are hardly a new concern. Depending on where you draw the line on defining just what constitutes a Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, well, the first attack is generally attributed to have occurred in 1849, though an argument could be made for much earlier episodes using incendiary balloons.
Now advances in electronics has meant that UAVs have gotten both smaller and more sophisticated. Already, many militaries have begun to employ extremely small drones for conducting reconnaissance. But they have also rapidly began to evolve to the point where these devices are extremely dangerous.
Classified as “loitering weapons”, these small drones are often directed by digital camera feeds to a target where they employ a fragmentation charge to directly attack enemy personnel and infrastructure. These types of weapons have already been used to great effect in conflicts such as the Nagorno-Karabakh War of 2020, as well as heavy usage by both sides in the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict.
The impact of the UAV means that now we are beginning to see them integrated into combat vehicle design. Additionally, the increasing sophistication of coding means that more and more, these weapons can act autonomously. Indeed, the UN reports that they believe that the first cases of humans being hunted down and killed by drones acting without human intervention has already occurred – check out my video on that if you are interested, link will be at the end.
But the explosion in cheap civilian drones, many of them literally toys that a child can fly, has meant these sorts of devices have been having a greater impact on military operations. For anti-government and rebel forces, drones are now a cheap, simple and highly effective method for attacking conventional military units.
This is something that has been very graphically demonstrated in Burma, where the anti-junta forces have been quick adopters and developers of civilian drones for usage against regime forces. And it is not just in the hands of lightly equipped irregular forces where the value of converted civilian drones is being appreciated and exploited.
In Ukraine, both the Ukrainians and the Russians are making heavy use of hobby shop drones, using them extensively for reconnaissance and highly precise targeting with improvised dropped explosives.
— Rob Lee (@RALee85) May 18, 2022
The Ukrainians have even taken to using fishing bait bombs to hold live grenades that then detonate once they hit the target.
#Ukraine: Finally a first loss of a Russian T-62M tank in the South.
How? A RGD-5 grenade in a special fish bait bomb was dropped right in a hatch from a Ukrainian drone. pic.twitter.com/4oNf4MBcRt
— 🇺🇦 Ukraine Weapons Tracker (@UAWeapons) July 6, 2022
All of this has even led one drone developer, Taiwan-based DronesVision, to develop their Revolver Drone. This carries a rotating dispenser that can hold and drop six 60mm mortar bombs.
This is amazing, a company from the Netherlands had developed a drum magazine system for dropping mortar rounds from commercial drones. The future battle field is going to be about countering drones. https://t.co/igvo9V2KfQ pic.twitter.com/WM39fyD2HV
— Def Mon (@DefMon3) May 14, 2022
Naturally, the proliferation of these comparatively cheap and simple weapons is causing a huge amount of concern amongst conventional military forces, and an array of different technologies are being trialled or employed to attempt to counter the threat represented by such weapons.
But the United States Army are certainly not messing about. In the next few weeks they intend to receive their first short-range air defence laser system. This, the Directed Energy-Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD) is a 50-kilowatt laser mounted on a Stryker chassis and is expected to be able to shoot down any UAV weighing up to 1,320lbs (c.600kgs).
The DE M-SHORAD will also be capable of defending friendly forces from artillery shells and rockets, as well as incoming mortar fire. Indeed, the weapon has demonstrated its abilities to counter incoming fire in testing, and no doubt as the first vehicles deploy with field units these capabilities will continue to be refined and expanded.
But the DE M-SHORAD will likely be an expensive and comparatively scarce item, probably akin in deployment to self-propelled anti-aircraft guns. With the threat of weaponised civilian drones being so mainstream, the US Army is looking for a much more convenient counter UAV system, one which can be deployed in much greater numbers at lower tactical levels.
So, they have recently announced the start of the Army Multipurpose High Energy Laser, or AMP-HEL, project. This will integrate a 20-kilowatt laser onto the chassis of the new GM Defense Infantry Squad Vehicles that are now coming into service with the US Army’s Infantry Brigade Combat Teams.
This will enable the AMP-HEL to shoot down drones of up to 55lbs in weight, which would include practically all civilian and military tactical reconnaissance drones, as well as loitering munitions.
And to give an indication of how serious the US Army is taking the situation they expect to have prototypes ready for testing and assessment by next year. Should the system prove successful, it should be expected that they will be deployed in some numbers.