The US military simulated an attack by swarms of quadcopter drones during a training exercise at Fort Irwin, California.
The U.S. Army’s National Training Center said “drones will be as important in the first battle of the next war as artillery is today,” describing the exercise in which the 11th Cavalry Division US Army armor launched an attack on the 1st Infantry Division, supported by swarms of quadcopters capable of using “lethal munitions”.
The NTC said the opposing forces staged the simulated battle on “the most realistic simulated battlefield in the world.”
Bomb-equipped quadcopter drones were first used on a large scale by ISIS terrorists in the 2016 battle for Mosul, dropping small grenades at Iraqi army tanks and wheeled vehicles high-mobility multipurpose vehicles (Humvees).
For the most part, the improvised flying weapons caused a nuisance, proving extremely difficult to shoot down – although in one case filmed, one of the drones disabled a multimillion-dollar US M1A1 Abrams tank in Iraqi service.
This attack was terrifyingly precise. Although the bomb was small, it landed beside the tank commander, apparently killing him.
Sunday’s military exercise was similar to a larger multinational training effort in Ohio in August, involving US, British, Canadian and Latvian troops, which also involved “drones launching simulation grenades”.
In Ukraine, weapons were used to devastating effect even before the Russian invasion in February, with Russian forces using quadcopters to identify a Ukrainian position in 2018, killing and wounding 100 troops with an artillery barrage.
The Ukrainians have since exploited local civilian production of quadcopters, using them to drop RKG-3 anti-tank grenades on Russian armor and infantry. Echoing ISIS’s use of weapons, some attack videos show grenades dropped by the drones landing inside the tank commander’s hatches, setting off ammunition inside the tank in a huge fireball.
The United States has long been concerned about swarms of cheap, commercially available drones that overwhelm its positions with small bombs or direct deadly artillery fire from afar.
Difficult to detect
Quadcopters are quiet and fly low, making it difficult for conventional radar systems to detect them.
Recent innovations in counter drones include high-powered laser and microwave beams, as well as powerful radars designed to detect small objects within a 360° radius. These systems can be deployed on existing armored vehicles, such as the Stryker armored personnel carrier.
The weapon – a 50 kilowatt laser that can burn out the electronics of small drones – is believed by some analysts to have been used against drones in Iraq, launched by Iranian-backed militias. For comparison, in 2018 the United States successfully tested a 10 kilowatt laser against quadcopter drones.
At the same time, the United States has also been interested in turning the tide on drone users. In April, the head of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa), the famed research arm of the US military, said it might be possible to launch swarms of 1,000 drones, navigating autonomously using terrain features and crushing enemy defences.
Updated: September 12, 2022, 10:32 a.m.