This article appears in edition 72 of Smart Soldier.


The evolution of the modern battlefield has led to a complex multiplicity of kinetic and non-kinetic threats. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have long played a part in asymmetric warfighting. However, the low unit cost, intuitive controls and ease of access have found commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) UAS becoming prolific in modern fighting forces. With a requirement for air superiority to be achieved in the early stages of a conflict, COTS UAS provide conventional and militia forces with adaptable capability to meet almost any mission.

Background – UAS Capacity and Capability

In the last two decades the use, evolution, efficacy and accessibility of UAS technology has become increasingly more prevalent. The threat profile is now so expansive and developing that a known threat register becomes obsolete in a matter of months. The purchase of COTS UAS cannot be tracked, and they make an extremely cost-effective contribution to the battlespace. COTS UAS can include payloads capable of kinetic strike capabilities (kamikaze and improvised explosive devices (IEDs)) and non-kinetic action such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) through imagery across multiple mediums, high-fidelity video, audio, battlefield commentary, tracking, damage assessments, target acquisition, electronic-warfare capabilities, signature measurement (radio frequency (RF), CBRN, etc), and vectoring IDF.

Recent advances have seen the development of UAS technologies paired with artificial intelligence computing to develop autonomous and semi-autonomous systems capable of the aforementioned effects. Further, the concept of swarming has created the capability to deliver an effect en masse or to decrease the ability of countermeasures to effectively mitigate against a multitude of targets. Differences in design, construction, capability and capacity, as well as the task and purpose of these modernised UAS, presents a significant challenge when implementing effective counter UAS strategies for both conventional and non-conventional forces in the modern battlespace.

Development of Group 1 (COTS) and Group 2 (small UAS - SUAS) has accelerated exponentially in recent years. Kamikaze tactics, loitering munitions, 40mm grenade launcher UAS, and micro-drones have become commonplace, each requiring their own considerations for mitigation. C-UAS operators must remain flexible to best target threat profiles: state vs non-state actors, COTS vs military application UAS, recreational vs malicious use. These affect how a UAS threat is mitigated when detected.

C-UAS systems and effects

As the threat of UAS platforms has evolved and their prevalence in the battle space has expanded, so too has the requirement of the development of C-UAS to become its own subsidiary group within defensive counter-air as part of wider integrated air and missile defence.

Current advancements in fixed and rotary wing aircraft have resulted in air defence systems modernising to provide a bespoke solution to one or two specific threat profiles within a layered and integrated defence. This has led to larger expenses being associated with those bespoke kinetic payloads with the unintended consequence that is no longer cost effective for those solutions to be utilised against the use of the SUAS in the modern battlespace. As a result, C-UAS systems must differ in size, capacity and the effects they generate, providing multiple functionalities in order to mitigate against the variety of threats UAS can produce in the most cost-effective manner. C-UAS effectors can produce kinetic mitigation of the UAS – gun systems, missile systems, hunter-killer drones, netting and even birds of prey –as well as non-kinetic options – direct energy weapons, targetable high-powered radio frequency emitters, and protocol "hackers". Each has tailored purposes with pros and cons comparative to their counterparts. Used proportionately together these systems can create a layered C-UAS defence.

The linking of sensor and effector platforms is critical for effective prosecution of UAS threats in an evolving battlespace. Companies globally boast a measure of C-UAS platforms. These platforms consist of portable and static RF jammers, as well as larger vehicle-mounted or containerised directed energy weapons. Most of these capabilities are still in their infancy and will continue to develop in line with the growing demand to counteract the escalating use of UAS in the battlespace. What is critical is that we as the users must understand and define our requirements for what effects we need to generate on the battlespace to protect the force.

Studying past and current conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine at the tactical level, complex systems must be utilised by well-trained air defence units dedicated to the operation of those countermeasures. However, tactical user-friendly C-UAS effectors could be distributed to military land forces. Small and robust RF jammers could provide units with an organic countermeasure to the UAS threat at low cost to Defence and minimal training requirements.

UAS and C-UAS in the Middle East

The widespread availability of DJI model UAS (Phantom) in the early 2010s enabled insurgent forces throughout the Middle East to access cheap and intuitive reconnaissance and targeting capabilities. Coupled with the continued development of IEDs, this resulted in the inevitable implementation of modified COTS UAS within their TTPs to achieve effects in a relatively low cost and training demand. Due to the success of COTS UAS being utilised within the Middle East region, nations and non-state actors around the globe began to recognise the risk to conventional forces and the cost-effective nature of employing these assets. In turn, the ever growing requirement to develop C-UAS within traditional integrated air defence networks was recognised. The success of COTS UAS against unprotected elements within the Middle East region, and their evolving effectiveness and prevalence in ensuing conflicts, has resulted in demand for portable C-UAS to be employed within conventional force elements at the tactical level.

UAS and C-UAS in Ukraine

The Russo-Ukrainian war has seen both forces utilising UAS to generate effects across the battlespace. Ukraine has utilised a variety of UAS from Switchblade-style loiter munitions through to TB2s, a highly capable Turkish UAS.

The Russian forces have primarily used the Orlan 10, as well as Zala-KYB loiter munitions and more recently Iranian-made Shahed 136 loitering munitions used en masse against Kyiv. Ukraine’s advancements in UAS capabilities has resulted in Russian offensive forces being under-prepared and struggling to effectively neutralise or deter UAS threats. There has been an increasing use of small portable RF jammers used by both sides to combat these drones. However, if not paired with early warning sensors, these often prove ineffective.

With the continued successes of modified COTS UAS and continued ingenuity in methods of employment, the Ukrainian people have created a non-military organisation (Aerorozvidka) focused on exploiting this capability in conjunction with traditional military forces. By utilising these systems with a variety of different payloads they have achieved lethal and disruptive effects against modern military hardware and trained personnel. This capability has impacted on the attrition of Russian personnel and equipment whilst simultaneously increasing the risk to Russian forces when operating on and immediately behind the conflict zone. The psychological impacts of intuitive COTS multi-rotor UAS (MRUAS) readily available to untrained enemy forces, at a minimal cost, manufactured rapidly with effective employment with lethal results cannot be overstated. Russian conventional forces, especially in rear echelons, are now having to plan against an entirely new threat, not previously faced. The disproportionate threat of a low-cost MRUAS being able to provide kinetic effect to exponentially more valuable systems such as armoured vehicles and sensors and the ability of COTS UAS to perform a simultaneous ISR and strike capability further increases the value of these low-cost systems and their effect on the battlespace. This has been evident as Russian forces have been primarily using traditional air defence systems in order to attempt to mitigate a threat they were not designed for. Ukraine’s rapid capitalisation of UAS has forced Russian elements to attempt to rapidly augment their C-UAS capability with proportionate effectors outside of traditional man portable air defence systems, self-propelled anti-aircraft guns and longer range GBAD systems.

Multiple recorded instances of low-calibre all arms air defence (AAAD) have been observed as ineffective at denying the Aerorozvidka situational awareness and targeting reconnaissance. This conflict has seen UAS being countered by a variety of ground-based effectors. Although not as effective as against fixed and rotary wing aircraft, the use of traditional kinetic and non-kinetic air defence systems has been critical to minimising casualties.

Just as it was recognised in the modernisation process of traditional air defence assets, the tangible lesson observed from this conflict include the requirement for layered and integrated effects due to the vast array of COTS and military UAS. Any singular specialised C-UAS platform in isolation is not able to provide adequate protection.

UAS limitations and observations

MRUAS has some exploitable limitations which must not be overlooked.[1] Firstly, battery life and range are the two biggest weaknesses to an MRUAS controller. Typically limited to a few kilometres, the operator must be within relatively close proximity to their observed targets. Protocol sensors such as DJI Aeroscope are able to identify ground control stations (GCS) locations and relay a grid reference back to artillery or other strike assets. Russian informational pamphlets have shown that to combat this, operators are flying their UAS with GPS/GLONASS turned off, reducing the functionality of the COTS UAS and denying a return home protocol. Further, operators have noted that in as little as eight minutes from launch, IDF can be employed accurately against ground control stations. Operators must move while operating the UAS to combat this, as well as dislocate from their supported unit to avoid collateral damage.

Secondly, COTS UAS possess a very distinct and audible whine when flying. Operators are required to fly at increased altitude to mitigate their signature, exposing them to wind (therefore degrading flight time and manoeuvrability) and reducing the accuracy of any ISR or kinetic effects.


The rapid evolution and development of UAS and C-UAS have become a planning necessity for operations against non-state actors. The C-UAS capability is still in its infancy and there is a long way to go, with much that remains to be developed and trialled. It is evident that the development and employment of C-UAS systems is required in order to provide force protection to deployed forces in any theatre or stage of conflict.