US Marines fighting in the Middle East are using a variety of methods to counter the growing threat of cheap, commercial-off-the-shelf drones

Picture credit Daily Telegraph

Picture credit Daily Telegraph

Islamic State fighters in Iraq are expanding the reach and sophistication of their drone fleet. Among other things, they have used quadcopters to drop grenade-sized bombs on Iraqi security forces. And drones are now so inexpensive and accessible that they can be bought at toy stores or online. According to Lieutenant Colonel Dave Sousa of the US Marine Corps Combat Development Command, the military is wasting no time looking for ways to jam and destroy enemy drones. “This is not just the Marine Corps,” Sousa told Marine Corps Times, “this is all services: Army, Navy Air Force and Coast Guard … everybody is looking at this”.

The goal is to find ways to disrupt the link between the operator and drone, rendering it useless, or to blast drones out of the sky. “We’re looking at everything from shotguns to water cannons to other kinetic means,” Sousa said. “We’re looking at lasers. We are looking at anything and everything that can help counter these threats.”

The Marine Corps is working with the Office of Naval Research to develop the Ground-Based Air Defense Directed Energy On-the-Move system, which would use a laser to target enemy drones. However, lasers might not be the right weapon in densely populated urban environments, where the Marines expect to fight future wars. Lasers are direct-fire weapons, and if Marines are fighting amid a cluster of buildings several stories high, lasers may not be able to hit drones that suddenly pop-up above rooftops. Furthermore, drones are hard to detect because their radar signature is minuscule compared to manned aircraft, and it is difficult to discriminate between drones and birds.

Using “unspecified technical capabilities”, US troops have helped Iraqi security forces down nearly a dozen IS drones over Mosul. It is known that the Marines have conducted operational assessments of the Battelle DroneDefender, which uses electromagnetic waves to jam drones within a range of 400 meters.

The drone threat extends far beyond terrorist groups. In January last year, an Iranian drone flew over  the carrier Harrier S. Truman while the ship was in international waters. The requirement to find a counter is “urgent”. As one Marine specialist stated: “If I could something out there today that detects, identifies, tracks, and defeats [drones] … then I’d get it today”.

Jeff Schogol is a senior reporter with the Marine Corps Times