12 November 2018

SOF attacked by commercially available (civil) drones while conducting missions at theatres of operations. How do they prepare to counter them?

Daniel Ilie

Image source: Mediafax


ROU SOF modernization process includes the revision and adjustment of the equipping strategy to make sure they can deal with the new types of threats, risks, and vulnerabilities. Only a thorough analysis of the mission needs and alternatives against the associated risks and costs will answer the question: is counter hostile unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) worth (necessary, opportune, and affordable) buying and equipping the force. And that is the opportunity cost of the specific choice.

We have lately witnessed, or have received news that the employment of drones in asymmetric conflicts, by either non-state or state actors, intensified. 

What are and how are drones labeled?

As of European Aviation Safety Agency’s website (EASA), drones are “unmanned aircrafts”, a term which refers to large and very large size aircrafts, similar, in size and complexity, to manned aircrafts, but also to very small consumer electronic aircrafts.

According to the NATO UAS Tactical Pocket Guide[i], unmanned aerial systems (UAS) provide the military structures with numerous intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and tactical air support technological capabilities granting near real time reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition (RSTA), and fires. Other key capabilities include route, area, and zone reconnaissance, battle damage assessment (BDA), and communication relay.

Figuratively speaking, such drones provide, in the air space, the “eyes” (IMINT - Imagery Intelligence), “ears” (SIGINT - Signals intelligence), and, possibly, depending on the type of the system, even the ”striking tool” needed by SOF operators in the battle space. 

These can be grouped based on the system’s tactical and technical specifications, but most of these classifications are based on their weight, operating altitude, or speed.

Hence, NATO groups this equipment in three classes: class I (weight < 150 kg) - for the employment at a unit/subunit tactical level, class II (weight between 150 - 600 kg) - for the employment at a tactical formation level, and class III (weight > 600 kg) - for the employment at operational and strategic levels.

Class I drones are also divided in 3 subclasses: small (weight > 15 kg), mini (weight < 15 kg) and micro (with an energetic aggregate that can provide only an energy < 66 Joules and not likely to cause significant damage to life or property, and not capable of carrying hazardous payloads).

Some of national and European regulations

In the European Union, where small size drones are more and more used, the regulation framework of their operation is a fragmented one, specific for national safety norms appliance. These differ across the Union, and a number of key safeguards are not addressed in a coherent and unitary way.

As a result, EASA submitted a proposal, which is expected to be approved by the European Commission by the end of 2018, for a new regulation on the use / operation of "open" and "specific" category drones, for the third category "certified" with the express obligations to certify systems and to ensure a licensed remote pilot, as well as an operator approved by the competent authority, to ensure an adequate level of safety.

Taking into account the risks involved, the "open" category includes those drones whose use does not require prior authorization from the competent authority and no statement by the UAS operator before the operation. The second category, “specific”, includes those drones whose utilization requires authorization by the competent authority prior to the operation, taking into account the mitigation measures identified in an operational risk assessment, except for certain standard scenarios where the operator statement is sufficient, or when the operator holds a light UAS operator certificate with the appropriate privileges.

At the national level, it is still expected the law approval of the Romanian Air Code that envisages the implementation of the Single European Sky project and the Flexible use of airspace concept, involving civil-military cooperation in the area of ​​national airspace management, as well as the harmonization and integration of the aviation legislative framework that would regulate both civilian and military aeronautical domains by a single air code.

The Ministry of Transport has put forward some time ago this draft law which contains, among others, clear provisions on the applicability of all provisions of the Air Code on UAS, provides for restrictions on their operation over the installations and infrastructure of the national defense and security forces, and, very importantly, provisions on the right of competent authorities to capture/ disable an UAS that has made a flight in breach of the provisions of the Air Code. The draft law also ensures the application in Romania of future European regulations regarding UAS.


It should be noted, however, that some military operations may require some derogations from the rules and regulations in force at peacetime. Illegal or hostile use of drones implies, moreover, ignoring any rules of airspace use/ control, complicating even more the equation of the battle space.

Threat considerations

Generally, from a military point of view, drones that equip troops (note that very few have countermeasures for threats from the ground or from the air) are operated in such a way as to avoid areas of intense hostility and in which there are air-defense systems, artillery, or missiles. Although it is often difficult to destroy a flying drone, data on flight path, altitude and insertion / extraction points should be considered in the mission planning process. The larger the size of the drones, the planners must also consider potential threats from enemy air and air attack capabilities.


Easy and inexpensive access to small and medium-sized civil engineering drones (they can also be built at home, by hand-assembling different components, by staff with some technical skills, who can benefit from know-how, technical documentation and open source software to improve system control in terms of flight parameters, image quality / video, or mapping, even downloaded from the Internet) as well as the rapid technological development of this area seem to find the authorities unprepared in the effort to regulate the legal use of such equipment.


Examples of recent use of drones against troops

The drones used by some non-state actors in hot conflict zones, against defense, public order, and security forces, were generally relatively small in size, relatively cheap, and can be used with high efficiency for illegal purposes, or in asymmetric actions in the case of conflicts like those we have been witnessing globally, lately. Some state actors did not stand aside and, taking advantage of their presence (more or less officially admitted) in conflict zones (eg Syria, or eastern Ukraine), tested the vigilance of states like Israel trying to execute attacks with drones on high value targets on their territory, as well.


There are well known cases where multiple types of unmanned aerial platforms were used in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas area against the Ukrainian SOF during the conflict with pro-Russian separatist troops for the purpose of collecting IMINT, or SIGINT needed in the planning of separatists’ military actions.

There have also been broadcasted cases in which insurgent elements from the theaters of operations (TO) Iraq or Syria used civilian drones for commercial use, purchased from the free market at a price of some hundred euros, to which they attached launching devices for grenades, various small caliber artillery rounds, or even improvised explosive devices to carry out attacks on coalition forces, or civilians.

Earlier this year, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that 13 unidentified drones, remote controlled by the Syrian rebels from a distance of more than 50 km, with modern global positioning systems (GPS), attempted to conduct an air strike (in the form of drone swarms) on the Russian Air Base in Khmeimim (to the south of the Latakia Syrian city and whose security appears to be assured also by Spetsnaz troops), as well as on a Russian naval facility at the Syrian seaport of the Mediterranean Sea, Tartus.

Not least, there have been reports that the Islamic State jihadist group had attacked with drones US SOF operating near the Syrian city of Raqqa.

In TO Afghanistan, civilian commercial drones, to which cameras have been attached, have begun to be used by insurgents to identify and transmit in real-time the space positioning of coalition forces (including SOF) for the execution of precision artillery fire with mortar rounds directed against the military forward operating bases (FOBs).

American ships sailing in the Persian Gulf are regularly overflown, sometimes risky  and unprofessional, by Iranian unmanned aircrafts (some operate without navigation lights and can cause collisions with aircrafts that can take off or land on / from aircraft carriers).

How can drones be countered?

The likelihood of occurrences of the above-mentioned actions has led to the need to imagine and develop capabilities to counter them designed to provide own force protection and protect the critical infrastructure against enemy surveillance, electronic warfare, and conventional attacks. And it's not just about neutralizing the drones, but about a more comprehensive approach to detecting, tracking, ensuring flight safety, and mitigating collateral effects (when, for instance, such actions take place in urban areas) in the event of its destruction.

The Russian military claims that its forces destroyed 7 out of 13 attack drones operated by Syrian rebels in attacks against the Russian air base and Russian naval facilities on the Mediterranean Sea Syrian littoral using the Pantsir-S air-defense system and that they deactivated the other 6 with the help of cyber weapons.

Raytheon, which already provides to several FOBs from TO Afganisatn, or Iraq C-RAM systems (Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar) to defend them against artillery rounds launched by insurgents on military infrastructure and personnel, tests the installation on these systems of some sensors and weapons specially designed to counter drone attack threats.

The Israeli military has identified and knocked down an Iranian drone, which apparently carried an explosive charge to execute an attack on the territory of Israel, using attack helicopters, the target being found, fixed, and finished under specific procedures normally used to engage aerial targets.

These are just a few examples of ways to neutralize hostile drones and have been used so far successfully. However, there is the question of the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of such methods, in relation to security risks, when it comes to investing in UAS countering systems, especially of those cheap and easily accessible. And here, apparently, no universal and efficient solution has yet been found. From the available online data, it appears that the potential market for C-UAS technologies is a competitive one that already exceeds, according to estimates, the figure of 500 million Euros.

The competition includes NATO Allied Command Transformation, which, through the NATO Innovation Hub think tank organization, is currently conducting a competition titled "Protecting troops and the population against hostile drones." The contest will award the winners of the most innovative solutions to the complex problem of aircraft and land-based unmanned systems.

Generally, the technologies developed so far include detection, tracking and capture/ disable of drones and possibly their operators using: optical, acoustic, infrared and thermal sensors, radar, radio receivers, radio jammers, GPS jammers (spoofing), laser beams, high-power microwaves, electromagnetic pulse, ammunition, prey birds trained in capturing small drones, etc.

How do SOF train to counter drones?

Against new security challenges, most FOS structures adapt their special operations doctrine, techniques, tactics, procedures (TTPs), and training, develop new mission needs and operational requirements documents, test new technologies, ensure within their own budgets the necessary funds, purchase, equip and operate, train operators and use new C-UAS, and then integrates them into the control-command system (C2).

Security forces in Poland, for instance, have purchased and used non-kinetic countermeasures technologies for denying mini and micro drones in order to ensure security during NATO's summit and the Pope's visit in 2016.

During tests and exercises, such counter drone systems are tested on how infrastructure elements, especially in urban areas (airports, ports, bridges, railways, telecommunication lines, buildings, towers etc.) influence sensors and interconnectivity with the C2 system and reduce their efficiency.

It also tests the ability of systems to detect, track and differentiate between their own aircraft platforms and those of the enemy. Positive identification is based on the system's components, namely, the radar, the identification, friend or foe (IFF) sensors, the digital data links, etc.

Control procedures are exercised in accordance with the planned airspace control measures. These may include the rules of engagement, restricted operating areas, approved flight path, UAS identification manoeuvres, fire support coordination measures, minimum risk flight paths, airspace control areas, and the coordination between the different structures involved. Besides, the operator’s training methods and procedures for the prevention of fratricide are improved.

SOF rehearsal of their missions is of critical importance due to the inherent complexity and high risk associated with special operations. By repetition, the deficiencies of a plan are discovered, and its options are tested and validated, after all.

In this respect, the Danish SOF has capitalized on the opportunity offered by the multinational exercise Night Hawk 18, held in Denmark's Aalborg airbase at the end of September, to test a range of future technologies, including some of C2 and counter UAS.

According to the commander of the Danish Special Operations Command, one Special Operations Land Task Group (SOLTG), one Special Operations Maritime Task Group (SOMTG) and one Special Operations Air Task Group (SOATG) planned and conducted a combined joint exercise during which they used equipment and technologies designed to support the C2 and to counter drones, with new operating procedures being developed based on the lessons identified during the exercise. As UAS and C-UAS technologies were the focal point of the exercise, several defense industry companies specialized in these fields participated in the exhibition of military equipment and technologies organized during the event.

“The Danish regulations for flying with UAS had just been updated prior to the exercise, and the exercise was the first time that the new regulations came into use. The new regulations are more flexible and give the opportunity to train with both UAS and manned aircraft. The combination of this and the fact that we can use civil terrain during the exercise makes it possible for us to set up a realistic environment for the exercise,” said the Danish Special Operations Command commander.

ROU SOF modernization process includes the revision and adjustment of the equipping strategy to make sure they can deal with the new types of threats, risks, and vulnerabilities. Only a thorough analysis of the mission needs and alternatives against the associated risks and costs will answer the question: is C-UAS worth (necessary, opportune, and affordable) buying and equipping the force. And that is the opportunity cost of the specific choice.

In the meantime, we are looking forward to the approval of the Romanian Air Code Law, reflecting the changes that have taken place in the field of regulation since Romania's accession to the European Union.

[i] https://www.uvsr.org/Documentatie%20UVS/Reglementari%20internationale/STANAG-uri/Standarde%20pt%20analiza%20UAV/STANAG/4670/ATP-