On the night of 5 January and into the early hours of the next day, in an unusual attack, more than a dozen armed drones descended on to Russia’s Khmeimim air base in northwestern Latakia province, the headquarters of Russia’s military operations in Syria. The drone swarm also attacked the nearby Russian naval base at Tartus. The attack by a “massive application of unmanned aerial vehicles”, as the Russian Ministry of Defence called it in its press release, is the first announced use of a swarm of drones in a military action, but it is unlikely to be the last.
The details made available suggest that while the Khmeimim Airbase was attacked by 10 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), three more attempted a strike against the maritime logistics base located in Tartus. Russian Defence Ministry claims that its Air Defence Forces detected the drone swarm “at a considerable distance from the Russian military objects,” and seven of the thirteen drones were then successfully shot down using the Pantsir-S air-defense system.
Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) is a combined short to medium range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery weapon system, a further development of 2K22 Tunguska. It is designed to provide point air defence against aircraft, helicopters, precision munitions, cruise missiles and UAVs. The system carries twelve 57E6 or 57E6-E missiles with a maximum range of 20 kilometers and two dual 2A38M 30 mm autocannons which can fire 2,500 rounds per minute per gun, destroying targets up to a range of 4 kilometers.
To counter the remaining drones, Russian radio electronic warfare specialists managed to override their operating systems and eventually gained control over the UCAVs. Three of them were destroyed when they hit the ground, while another three were landed intact outside the base controlled by Russian forces.
That the drone swarm could attack the Khmeimim base, the heart of Russia’s military operations in Syria, deep inside Syrian-government-held territory and until now considered immune to attack, was because the drones ‘of an aircraft type that were launched from a distance of more than 50 kilometers, and operated using GPS satellite navigation coordinates’.
Though the UCAV were rather crude homemade drones carrying small warheads, the coordinated attack by the swarm over long ranges exposed the vulnerability of military and civilian bases to such attacks launched well outside the safe perimeters.
This was not the only incident of interest in recent times. Russian media reported two smaller drone attacks against military outposts in the provinces of Homs and Latakia during the last two weeks of 2017.
The incidents reveals that the drone threat, considered low till now, may well be a clear and present danger with the ability with low technology regimes and non-state actors to launch such attacks.