Mosul battle fuels anti-drone development

Islamic State drone attacks on Iraqi forces have underscored the need for electronic and other countermeasures against short-range drones rigged to drop munitions.

Drones are emerging as one of the asymmetrical threats in the battle for Mosul. A series of Islamic State drone attacks on Iraqi forces fighting to retake the northern Iraqi city have resulted in casualties and a heightened state of alert as ISIS fighters supplement deadly car-bomb attacks with harassing drone strikes using off-the-shelf quad-copters rigged to drop munitions.

Those attacks by short-range drones have prompted the U.S. military to step up development of countermeasures along with technical assessments of directed energy technologies, official said.

"We've assisted in the targeting of ISIL's drones, bringing down almost a dozen," Army Col. Brett Sylvia, a U.S. commander in Baghdad, acknowledged in a Jan. 13 briefing with reporters.

"The ISIL drones [have] been something that has evolved over time," Sylvia said, adding that they were initially used for reconnaissance, but more recently have been equipped with munitions that are being dropped on frontline Iraqi troops inside Mosul.

Without elaborating, Sylvia said U.S. forces "we're able to bring to bear some of our technical capabilities and then the Iraqis are able to couple that with much of their direct fire weapon systems" to bring down some drones launched by Islamic State fighters.

A number of anti-drone technologies have emerged over the least year using lasers or "directed energy UAS countermeasures" that rely on "radio control frequency disruption." That latter approach is being developed and promoted by Battelle, the applied science and technology laboratory, which recently demonstrated a drone jammer called "Drone Defender."

The "point-and-shoot" system has a range of about 400 meters and is designed to disable small drones flying in a 30-degree cone before they can attack civilian or military targets.

The U.S. military has been evaluating various anti-UAV measures for several years, consisting mostly of signal jamming or blocking, and the radar detection and conventional counterattack typically used against aircraft.

The Army has solicited proposals for drone countermeasures technology under a program called Counter Unmanned Aerial System. The 2014 solicitation noted that the service wants to cover the spectrum of military operations from the brigade level to the tactical edge.

Growing use of armed drones in the fight for Mosul has apparently allowed the Army to put some of the early technical proposals to the test on the battlefield with limited success.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps has reportedly conducted what are described as "operational assessments" of the Battelle's DroneDefender.

With enemy drones now threatening ground and sea forces, each of the services along with DoD research labs are looking for new approaches for countering the emerging threat. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency released a request for information last August on new ways to detect, identify, track and destroy small drones.

The solicitation seeks technical data on how to protect fixed and mobile ground as well as naval forces. Given the uptick in urban fighting in places such as Mosul, the DARPA solicitation also emphasizes the need to mitigate collateral damage.

All this, analysts note, is part of a larger "action-reaction cycle" in which jihadist looked for ways to disrupt U.S. drones and then attempt to take the offensive by deploying their own short-range drones in urban battles such as Mosul. "As the United States and other countries begin to deploy counter drone solutions to mitigate the jihadis’ offensive drone threat, it would be wise to game out creative and inexpensive ways to defeat countermeasures being deployed by the West so the jihadis’ response to those methods can be anticipated and pre-empted," Don Rassler of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, noted in a recent article.

 

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