In January 2018, thirteen attack drones were launched against the Russian air base at Khmeimim and a naval facility in the city of Tartus on Syria’s western coast. The Russian forces shot down seven of the drones with Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missiles and neutralised the remining six by a cyberware unit. No damage or casualties at the two military bases were reported1.
Though the drones have been widely used since the Vietnam War, the first use of armed drones was during the Iran-Iraq War when a rocket-carrying UAV capable of holding up to six RPG-7 rounds was used by Iran in combat against Iraqi ground forces. Iran also developed several indigenous unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) capable of carrying rockets or bombs or undertake “kamikaze” missions to counter the increasingly powerful U.S. naval presence in the Persian Gulf in the mid- to late 1980s though they were never used.
The first use of an armed UAV by USA was in 2001 in Kandahar and since then the armed UAVs have been central to air operations, especially in the ongoing War on Terror. A number of drones have been lost in combat – starting from the Predator shot down by an Iraqi Mig-25 on December 23, 2002 to the recent loss of a US Reaper UAV over Afghanistan. The UAVs have been shot down more commonly by aircraft and surface-to-air missiles though in an incident – first of its kind, an armed Predator drone was used to shoot down another UAV using air-to-air missiles. The US’s 432rd Air Expeditionary Wing carried out the field trials in November 2017 at the Creech AFB, Nevada during which the air-to-air kill by a drone was achieved.
Coming back to the drone swarms- the first reported use of drone ‘swarm’ may have ended as a failure, with all the drones being neutralised, the threat from drones remains and is a challenge for the air defence systems.
The Pantsir- S1 anti-aircraft missile may have been able to able to shoot down most of the rebel drones but relying only on missile systems to counter drones is not without its problems and limitations. Using a missile like Pantsir-S1( or any other similar missile) is not a cost effective method of shooting down $100 drones that can literally be ordered online. The twin 30mm autocannons with 5,000 rounds per minute rate of fire are designed to engage larger targets as engaging small, improvised drones can deplete the ammunition with the Pantsir mount very fast. Also, missiles and its associated radars are not ‘fool -proof’ in picking up small, slow-moving targets like drones. Even in Syria, Russian Pantsir-S1 operators found it difficult to pick up drones, as commented by a Russian defence expert who claims that Pantsir-S1practically “do not track” low-speed and small-sized targets, which include drones, but at the same time regularly spotted big birds flying around the base2.
If this was not enough, In early 2018, the Houthi al-Masirah TV reported that the Houthi Air Force and the Missile Forces had conducted a joint operation and destroyed a MIM-104 Patriot PAC-3 air defence system using “a swarm of unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs]”. Though the details of the damage caused to the Patriot missile system were never confirmed, what emerged from the follow up reports was that the drones were primarily used against the associated radar systems and may have been severely damaged by the drone strike. While the drones have increasingly been used to target enemy installations and defences, this was perhaps the first use of drone swarm against the adversary’s air defence systems.
This incident laid bare the vulnerabilities of missile systems, especially when used against drones.
The need thus is of an air defence system not only capable of engaging small targets but also the aircraft, cruise missiles and air-to-ground rockets. Moreover, the system should have ammunition expenditure that is economically viable and be capable of selecting the ‘right’ ammunition depending on the type of target.
The newly developed Russian 2C38 Derivatsia-PVO does precisely this. Its 57mm guns can engage all type of aerial targets, using the fragmentation, tracing, and armour-piercing ammunition. In addition it has multifunctional guided artillery shells with a time fuze that ensure higher accuracy. Further, the selection of ammunition is done independently, depending on the type of target to be engaged3.
Mounted on a BMP-3 chassis, the gun has a range of six kilometres and uses optical and electronic target acquisition system to ensure a 360-degree observation4.
- ‘A swarm of armed drones attacked a Russian military base in Syria, Jan 11, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/11/swarm-of-armed-diy-drones-attacks-russian-military-base-in-syria.html
- ‘Expert was forced to remove post about failure Russian Pantsir-S1 in Syria’, 4 Nov 2018, https://defence-blog.com/army/expert-was-forced-to-remove-criticism-post-about-failure-russian-pantsir-s1-in-syria.html
- ‘Militant mini drones are now toast thanks to Russia’s new anti-aircraft system’ 3 Sep, 2018, https://www.rbth.com/science-and-tech/329073-militant-mini-drones-against-new-russian-defenses
- ‘Purported Photo Lifts Veil Off Russia’s Next Generation Air Defense Gun, Sputnik News, 28 Jan, 2018. https://sputniknews.com/russia/201801281061135980-russia-gun-photos/