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Corriere Della Sera/Esercito Italiano

Countering Drones: How European Land Forces Are Organising Their Anti-UAV Capabilities For Homeland Security

16 February 2021

The diffusion of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones have registered an exponential increase in recent years. Beyond military UAVs, it is cheap and easy to buy small commercial drones that are easily controlled with a smartphone or remote control. One consequence stemming from this comes in the form of the challenge they pose to security, and the measures which must now be taken to protect sensitive locations and events.

On 15th of September 2013, a small commercial drone equipped with cameras and a tablet, crashed on a stage in Dresden, where German Chancellor Angela Merkel was addressing a political rally. An investigation carried out by the security services concluded that there was no violent intent behind the flyover, and it was merely an attempt to disrupt the Chancellor’s speech. On 19th of December 2018, air traffic at London-Gatwick had to be halted for 33 hours, due to multiple drones in the proximity of the airport. Even though this incident did not cause any casualties its impact was significant: 140 thousand passengers were rerouted to other airports with an economic loss of more than 50 million euros for the airport and a great deal of negative publicity for both local authorities, and security forces.

Since then, several minor incidents have been reported in the proximity of airports, and other sensitive locations such as town squares in European capitals. Because commercial drones can be easily modified for various purposes and equipped with cameras and other features, they can also carry small loads; they pose a real threat to security. Commercial drones have been combined with explosives to make flying improvised explosive devices (IEDs), which can be easily targeted through their cameras, thus maximising their potential destructive power. Due to their small sizes and velocities, and their near silence, they are difficult to detect.

Drones are widely available on the commercial market. The increase in the knowledge of how to arm and equip drones with explosives at a relatively low cost has drawn the attention of terrorist groups such as the Taliban, Hamas, and Hezbollah. All of them have started to use drones with more frequency. 

To face these security challenges in both the civilian environment, and on military operations, the armed forces of European countries are developing strategies, teams, and units; as well as adopting new equipment to counter these threats.

The most commonly utilised counter-drone systems are designed to disturb and interfere with their communication systems: to either reroute or neutralise them. With the proliferation of commercial drones, the counter-drone market has also grown, especially for equipment that allows for interception, detection and disabling of drones. Despite significant development in this technology, one weakness remains in the limited range of many detection systems. Many small commercial drones can fly without the need for GPS, making them less vulnerable to jamming. Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) are a valid option for countering drones, new missile systems are constantly under development, and older systems have been adapted to the characteristics of UAVs. Despite their potential effectiveness, SAM systems pose their dangers in urban environments. They are also difficult to deploy quickly, and not always available.

The Italian Army has already deployed anti-drone teams at major public events to be ready for any potential drone threat. For instance, they have provided security during national holidays, visits of foreign heads of state, and other high-risk events. These teams are equipped with detecting capabilities, and with neutralising systems, especially jammers. In counter-drone operations, timing is fundamental, due to the short notice that the detection systems can provide and the relatively high speed of commercial drones. 

On the international and European stage, and within the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), Italy has been called to lead a project for a shared and common Counter Unmanned Aerial System (C-UAS). Analogously, the US Army will be the US armed forces’ lead in countering threats brought by drones. The US Defence Department announced last January that the Army will be in charge of developing solutions to ensure the safety of missions and events and enhance innovation and collaboration with partner nations, and with US law enforcement, to improve the anti-drone capabilities within the country. 

France, Germany, and the UK, together with other European countries, are increasing the purchase of anti-drone jammers from various manufacturers. Whilst many European countries are developing their quick response teams, capabilities, and systems. European land forces are also testing new portable detection systems and other means to reduce the reaction time to ensure the effectiveness of intervention in countering small drones.

At present, it seems that there is not a prevalent anti-drone weapon system on the market. For example, France and the US are relying on DroneShield an Australian & US defence company, for both optronics, detection, and jammer guns such as the DroneGun MKIII and the DroneGun Tactical. Italy is testing and has already acquired systems provided by the CPM Elettronica, such as the Watson, Wilson, DJI 120 4B jammer guns, and other detection systems. Leonardo Defence recently delivered its counter-unmanned aerial system Orcus to Britain’s Royal Air Force and the Italian Army.

Considering the potential extent of the threat, it is desirable to have a common European approach. Small drones represent a security issue in domestic security and operations abroad; the high number of systems that the market is offering leads European land forces to diversify equipment and approaches. If this continues, the threat coming from small drones will be more relevant and persistent. Joint planning and a shared approach to countering drones will increase interoperability between allies, especially in overseas missions. It is possible to achieve increased reaction times and coordination through training. Besides, as the small drone threat is relatively new, a programme of sharing best practices among the European armed forces is desirable. Moreover, the training to face similar threats inside national borders and urban areas can also provide experience and expertise that can be precious in missions overseas and vice-versa.

Written by Simone RINALDI, Researcher at Finabel – European Army Interoperability Centre


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