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No. 1 threat: Drone attacks prompt urgent $500 million request from Pentagon

Defense against drones can be as simple as hiding from them and as complex as zapping them from the sky with a laser.

WASHINGTON − Drone attacks have become the No. 1 threat to U.S. troops deployed abroad, prompting a $500 million urgent request to help erect defenses.

Cheap, easy to use, and hard to defend against, drones toting explosives pose risks to troops akin to the IEDs that killed and wounded thousands of U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to senior military and U.S. officials and experts. It was a one-way attack drone launched by Iranian-backed militants that killed three U.S. soldiers in January after slipping past defenses at their base in Jordan.

“This is a new weapon system,” Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chairman of Armed Services Committee, said in an interview. “It's cheap. It can be sophisticated in terms of its electronics to identify targets itself remotely and then attack. This is a new phase of warfare, and we have to get ready, and we are.”

Military officials described an intense effort to protect troops from drones with missiles, microwave radiation and lasers. The Pentagon is receiving more than $500 million through a supplemental request to Congress to address the drone threat. President Joe Biden signed it into law Wednesday as part of the $95 billion foreign aid package.

Rapid changes in technology and tactics require the Pentagon to move quickly, said Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the Brookings Institution. He favors a pool of funds to promote innovative and cheap defense that jam signals used to guide drones and killer drones to hunt down the enemy's.

"They are a big menace," O'Hanlon said.

An MQ-1B Predator remotely piloted aircraft passes over the air field during a training mission, May 13, 2013. Predators can perform the following missions and tasks: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, close air support, combat search and rescue, precision strike, buddy-lase, convoy/raid overwatch, route clearance, target development, and terminal air guidance. Its capabilities make it uniquely qualified to conduct irregular warfare operations in support of combatant commander objectives.

The drone dilemma

Not long ago, the Pentagon dominated the sky over battlefields with drones like the Predator and Reaper. Pilots operating the drones in an outpost in the Nevada desert launched Hellfire missiles on suspected militants in Afghanistan and Iraq. Troops on patrols in combat zones hurled small drones in the air to spy on movements of adversaries nearby.

Look at the war in Ukraine through the lens of Twitter, or X, and you’ll see myriad examples of drones hovering over Russian tanks and dropping high explosives into an open hatch.

Or a video feed from one-way attack drones, many supplied by the Pentagon, hurtling after an armored vehicle and detonating on impact.

The Pentagon’s days as the lone drone superpower are long over, said a senior defense official who wasn’t authorized to speak publicly. Gone, too, is stopping the proliferation of the technology that makes drones smaller, lighter, stealthier, more powerful and deadly, the official said. Commercial drones and parts for them are readily available.

More:After the deadly drone strike in Jordan, a look at the lethal military tool's proliferation

The reality plays out from the Red Sea, where Iranian-backed Houthi militants fire drones at busy shipping lanes, to Iran, which launched a wave of drones and missiles at Israel on Saturday. In both cases, virtually all of the drones were destroyed before hitting their targets. But it takes an array of defenses and considerable expense to do so.

A U.S. Patriot missile unit based in Iraq downed a ballistic missile headed toward Israel, and two squadrons of warplanes knocked down dozens of drones. A single Patriot missile interceptor costs about $4 million.

The layered defense

Defense against drones can be as simple as hiding from them and as complex and zapping them from the sky with a laser. And pretty much everything in between, said Army Maj. Gen. David Stewart, who directs the Counter-Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office.

“There is no silver bullet and even exquisite capabilities like the Patriot system may not be survivable against certain threats,” Stewart said in an interview. “You need a layered defense approach.”

For troops at a remote base, a location known to enemies with attack drones, the first layer of defense would ideally stretch miles beyond the fort’s walls. That invisible perimeter might stretch 10 miles from the gate, Stewart said, and it could involve weapons of electronic warfare that could spoof the drone into hitting a different target or cutting the link between the drone and its operator.

The layer closer in might use microwave weapons that “actually fry the innards” of the drone, rendering it harmless, Stewart said.

The Army has fielded prototype lasers to the Middle East, the commander of Central Command acknowledged in testimony on Capitol Hill. Army Gen. Erik Kurilla apparently was referring to lasers mounted on the Army's Strkyer combat vehicles. A three-soldier crew can destroy drones with a laser at short range.

U.S. Army air defenders with Alpha Battery, 5th Battalion, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, reloads ammo during a M-SHORAD live fire Feb. 9, 2023, at Grafenwoehr. 5-4 ADA Battalion, the Army's first M-SHORAD Battalion based out of Ansbach, is currently in the process of switching to the new M-SHORAD system and are certifying their gunnery skills on the new platform.

The 50 kilowatt laser has had success against a variety of drones, according to Army reports cited by the Congressional Research Service. But challenges for the laser remain defending against rockets, artillery and mortars.

The final layer requires shooting down the drone, or “steel on steel,” according to Stewart. Weapons like the Coyote, which fires a small missile at drones, or machine guns to knock them down with a hail of bullets. Enemy tactics change constantly, Stewart said, making drones harder to locate and kill.

“We're seeing a rapidly changing and evolving process there, whether it's flying faster or flying lower or using different attack patterns,” Stewart said.

The attack that killed three soldiers and wounded 35 others in January occurred when militants apparently discovered a seam in the layered defense. Militants fired the one-way attack drone, which can be programmed to hit a target and doesn’t require an operator to steer it. Defenders at the base may have mistaken it for a friendly drone, officials said, and it crashed into the soldiers’ living quarters.

In congressional testimony last month, Kurilla emphasized the threat from drones and the need for immediate solutions. The threat from swarms of drones, he said, will require an investment high-powered microwave to be able to zap them.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), chairman of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services, makes an opening statement as the committee holds a hearing on the defense authorization request for the United States Strategic Command and United States Space Command on Feb 29, 2024.

Reed, in the interview, said a recent test at the Army's Fort Sill showed microwave weapons had success downing swarms of drones.

The ultimate goal, Kurilla told lawmakers, is a weapon that shoots a burst of energy at a drone and destroys it for about $2. The reality is that, for now, an expensive missile is often the answer.

“What's worse than not having that expensive missile shoot it down," he said, "is hitting that $2 billion ship with 300 sailors on it."

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