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Nato fears £850 drones could take out some of its most powerful weapons

CONSTANTA, ROMANIA – Low-cost and accessible drones pose “one of the most important threats” to Nato defences, the alliance’s chief scientists have warned, as it races to adapt to this new form of warfare.

Senior Nato officials said that drones available to the general public costing as little as £850 could be used to thwart even the alliance’s most powerful weaponry.

The unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are already playing a “massive” role on the battlefield in Ukraine, with both sides using them to shoot down jets and launch attacks.

i was granted access to a key Nato base on the banks of the Black Sea in Romania to witness some of the alliance’s defence systems in operation and meet troops readying for any potential war.

Mario Behn, principle scientist of the Nato Communication Information Agency (NCIA), warned that ordinary drones could be “weaponised” by Russia or less sophisticated armed groups against advanced air defence systems.

“One way, for example, is for espionage or for finding targets and then sending ammunition towards the target location, such as we see every day in Ukraine,” he told i at Capu Midia firing range.

“Another purpose could be to put ammunition on the drones and fly the drones with ammunition into a target”, such as the advanced Patriot or Hawk missile systems.

While drones have been involved in warfare for decades, Mr Behn said the threat escalated about seven years ago, when civilian companies developed very advanced and reliable drones that were so accessible “everyone could use them”.

Without counter drone measures, there is “absolutely” a risk that small, cheap drones could thwart some of the world’s most advanced missiles.

“That risk is definitely there and we have seen it being applied in Ukraine,” he said.

To combat this, Nato is using items such as “jammers”, which disrupt drone communications to prevent them from talking to their operators.

A Ukrainian serviceman of the Sky Hunters unit of the 65-th brigade operates a drone on the front line in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Friday, June 14, 2024. (AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko)
A Ukrainian serviceman of the Sky Hunters unit of the 65th brigade operates a drone on the front line in Zaporizhzhia region of Ukraine, 14 June 2024. (Photo: Andriy Andriyenko/AP)

Dr Cristian Coman, chief scientist at the joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance division of the NCIA, said that drone attacks were often unsophisticated but relatively difficult to catch.

“Those attacks can be planned by very simple means, like dropping a grenade on top of a radar, and then without the radar, the entire missile system cannot be used anymore,” Dr Coman said.

“Those small drones, very cheap drones, can cause a lot of damage now. The current technology that we have at the moment is advanced technology, but at the same time, it’s quite expensive technology, because it was designed to defend ourselves against enemy aircraft and big flying objects. These small drones… cost probably €1,000 (£850). You would not be [comfortable] spending the €100,000 missile in shooting down such a small drone.”

When did drones become part of warfare?

Radio-controlled drones, or drone equivalents, were trialled as far back as World War I and throughout the 1930s and 1940s, according to Matthew Savill, director of military sciences at RUSI.

“However, I think it is generally accepted that drones were first used in large numbers during Vietnam for reconnaissance, as well as becoming more popular in wider use as either decoys or targets,” Mr Savill said.

The British Army has had reconnaissance drones for more than 60 years, but has begun using drones for attacks more recently.

“The expansion into ‘remote-controlled strikes’ has garnered lots of headlines, and particularly after the MQ-1 Reaper, which was originally developed as a surveillance aircraft, was fitted with missiles and bombs. It’s worth noting that although it debuted as close air support in Afghanistan, the first counter-terrorism strike outside Afghanistan that we know of was actually a CIA operation,” Mr Savill said.

RUSI researcher Sam Cranny Evans said that the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war “crystallised the role of the small to medium-sized UAV”, saying they were “omnipresent and often appeared impossible for the Armenian forces to defend against.”

“UAVs were of course used extensively in Syria, including in the infamous 2018 swarm attacks against the Russian Khmeimim airbase, and in a 2021 attack against a US base in the same country,” he added.

“UAVs of various sizes have been used extensively in Libya; many of the Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia have employed UAVs; and Islamic State is understood to have used them extensively to coordinate combined arms operations in Iraq and to conduct reconnaissance.”

Dr Coman said that first-person view drones, in which the user of the drone can see as if they were a pilot flying it, were becoming increasingly common.

“This first-person view drones have been developing during the past five years in the racing competitions. There was this idea that this could be another sport domain, and then suddenly the technology has been used to conduct very precise attacks on critical infrastructure,” he said.

In Ukraine, drones have been used to attack military production sites deep inside Russia and shoot down Russian jets.

“The war in Ukraine is changing every week,” said Dr Coman. “Every month there are some new techniques, new ideas, which are being used in that context. At the moment, the first-person view drone seems to be the topic of the day in that conflict.

Drones on display at Capu Midia firing range, a Nato base in Romania. (Photo: Molly Blackall/i)

“In the current conflicts, this is probably one of the most important threats, because of the number of incidents that we see around and the effect that it has on the troops. You could think that maybe this doesn’t have a huge capacity – a grenade is not like a big missile – but still can create this psychological effect on the people that can cause panic and disrupt the operations.”

Nato has put significant resource into combatting drone attacks, working on understanding, detecting and thwarting the devices.

“The first step is to understand the threat and what the capability of the drone is,” said Mr Behn. “The second step is to be able to identify the threat early enough so you can do something about it. [The] Third thing is to develop countermeasures to know how to interrupt the operation of the drone.”

Professor Justin Bronk and Dr Jack Watling of defence think-tank RUSI warned that militaries “cannot afford to be unprepared” on the issue of drones.

“A force that is not aware of, or equipped to, counter UAVs risks ceding the enemy an insurmountable advantage in situational awareness, and suffering from a scale of precision effects that will prove crippling,” they said.

RUSI research analyst Sam Cranny-Evans said that drones are highly effective in part because “the observed are unlikely to know that they are being watched”.

“Even a mid-sized UAV such as the Orlan-10 is hard to see at an altitude of a few kilometres, and its small engine provides only a faint indication that it is there,” Mr Cranny-Evans said.

From there, the drones can launch a bombardment of rockets carrying cluster munitions as well as conventional artillery rounds, or carry out a targeted missile attack on a specific object.

In Ukraine, the “omnipresence” of drones has enabled Russia to locate a target, transmit its coordinates and attack it in as little as three or four minutes, Mr Cranny-Evans said.

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