Suicide drones threaten to bankrupt Western militaries

Article published in The Daily Telegraph, 16 April 2024. © Richard Kemp

Yesterday marked one year since the war in Sudan started. There, Iranian manufactured drones fielded in the last few months have been turning things round for the army against the Rapid Security Force militias. Drones have also been used extensively by Tehran’s Houthi proxies in Yemen, attacking international shipping in the Red Sea.

In Ukraine, Shahed drones have been used in their thousands by Putin’s forces, especially to target civilian population centres and critical infrastructure. Many people have been killed and huge damage inflicted on Ukraine’s food and energy sectors by attacking grain silos and power plants. In 2019, drones were used by Iran or one of its proxies to attack Saudi oil installations. They have also been used in multiple attacks against US forces in Iraq and Syria.

Combat drones have been with us now for several years, but the remarkable increase in Iranian production and export over the last two years is altering the impact of asymmetric warfare by giving far greater potency than previously imagined to a much wider range of state and non-state actors. They are highly flexible and can be launched from a wide range of platforms including trucks, shipping containers and vessels. They can be readily disassembled and re-assembled and easily transported and concealed. As the Russians have frequently done in Ukraine, drones can be deployed in swarms to overwhelm air defences.

The most dramatic attack to date using Iranian drones came, of course, this weekend. Repelling that bombardment is estimated to have cost up to 1.5 billion dollars, a significant amount of which must have been expended on downing the drones. This illustrates one of the most pressing problems facing our national defences today.

Both attack and reconnaissance drones, which also endanger deployed forces as shown in Sudan, can be very cheap, as little as $2,000. Even the Shahed drones which have been used extensively in Ukraine and in the attack against Israel, can deliver large explosive charges with great precision at ranges of around 2,000 miles, at a cost of only $20,000-$50,000. Some of the missiles that have been used to intercept these drones can cost upwards of a million dollars a shot and sometimes much more. In broad terms, the earlier on the flight path they can be knocked out of the sky, the better the chances of preventing them from hitting the target, but the higher the price tag.

Iran’s drone production and export, as well as Russia’s use of drones and other missiles in Ukraine has given a long overdue wake-up call to Western countries who are now applying greater focus and resources to counter-drone technology as well as missile defence. Israel, under the most immediate threat for many years, has long been leading the way. It expects to field Iron Beam, a laser interceptor for drones and missiles, in the near future. It is the first weapon of its kind anywhere in the world. It will be a game-changer, bringing down the cost of interceptions.

Britain is also developing a laser interceptor called DragonFire, expected to enter service in five to ten years. The US, Russia, China and India are also working on such systems. Despite the promise of lasers, however, they cannot at present replace kinetic air defence missiles entirely. They are short-range only, probably not much more than 10 miles, and degraded by atmospheric conditions such as rain and fog.

Until technology can be developed to dramatically reduce the disproportionate cost of neutralising drones, air defence systems can still only be seen as a partial response. Offensive action to destroy production facilities, storage centres, transit routes and launch sites will remain paramount, just as it was in 1944 when Germany launched the first attack drones, the V1 pulse jets, or ‘Doodlebugs’, against Britain.