COLOGNE, Germany — The U.S. military is trying to push its European allies to boost their capabilities against small UAVs, as Western forces absorb lessons from the conflict last year in Nagorno-Karabakh, dubbed the first true “drone war.”
U.S. European Command chief Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters told lawmakers in Washington that plans for the region involve “enforcing our allies and partners to improve” their capabilities in counter-drone warfare.
“In Europe, we have to ensure that — from an indications and warnings standpoint — our integrated air and missile defense programs take into account the capabilities of these systems,” Wolters said in April 15 testimony to the House Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., had asked Wolters if U.S. forces were in good enough shape to counter drones executing attacks in a coordinated fashion.
In the Nagorno-Karabakh war last fall, widely circulated video footage showed Azerbaijan’s drones, purchased from Turkey and Israel, destroying Armenian ground units, including armor. The tactic was so prevalent that analysts have said it contributed heavily to Azerbaijan’s eventual victory.
Previously, Russia used small drones as spotters for artillery fire in eastern Ukraine following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, inflicting heavy losses to local forces.
Those operations’ deadly successes spooked the U.S. military at the time, and defense leaders dispatched a small number of Army forces to Ukraine to record lessons for the Pentagon.
Since then, European countries have begun examining their own counter-drone capabilities. Germany, for its part, moved recently to sacrifice a longstanding effort for intercepting sophisticated, medium-range missiles in favor of defenses against nearer and smaller threats.
Within the American military structure, the U.S. Army is the lead for the mission of countering small unmanned aerial systems, Wolters told lawmakers. The service’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense program is the core around which officials plan to group future sensors, interceptors and command-and-control elements.
The program already accounts for the threats of small drones, Wolters said, but “it’s not good enough. We have to continue to improve.”
Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said governments on the continent have woken up to the threat of relatively inexpensive, small drones being used effectively in future conflicts.
“We’ve all learned a lot from watching Russian forces against Ukrainian forces during the last seven years,” Hodges told Defense News. The U.S. Army changed its relevant training scenarios in large part based on those observations, he said. “This has picked up speed since the the most recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.”
Russian drones have been reported to find Ukrainian units by way of soldiers’ cellphone signals and other equipment invisibly emanating location data. Electronic warfare sensing played a similar role in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Videos of Azeri drones destroying Armenian tanks — “drone porn,” as Hodges calls it — hold the risk of learning the wrong lessons, namely that employing tanks is a risky proposition in the first place.
“I’d say that the real lesson is that we have to be much better at field craft, which means camouflage and dispersion,” Hodges said. That means concealing troops and equipment not only from visual detection but also from being spotted by sensors that pick up heat and electromagnetic signatures.
Hodges pointed to Romania and the wider Black Sea region as another hotspot for bolstering the counter-drone posture.
The country should host a NATO- or European Union-sponsored center of excellence for defending against small drones, where countries could exercise with new technology and practice doing it under heavy enemy jamming, Hodges said.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.