Countering Loitering Drones Over the Battlefield

Issue 117 - October 2022

Since the beginning of the 1990s, we started to see operational use of Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs) in different sizes and sophistication. The name UCAV contains a long list of Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) that are designed and used as a weapon system with munition payloads for a wide range of missions, primarily for ground attack purposes. Due to their sophistication and popularity in recent wars, this article will focus on Loitering Drones (LD) (also called Loitering Munitions), which is a specific category of UCAVs. In the final section of the article, we will also look at how to counter this threat from Türkiye’s defense perspective. Loitering Drones can be defined as UCAVs with an integrated warhead in the frame that can fly autonomously or under control by an operator, then hit their target with their body mass. If necessary, LDs can loiter over the target area to wait for their intended target to appear. 

We witnessed the proliferation of LDs in the 2010s as E/O or radar sensor or navigation technologies improved, and drones got smaller and more affordable. For example, high-resolution IR or daylight camera technologies meant that loitering drones could see and detect any target on the battlefield from long distances and could also send the live video feed back to the launcher platforms or a single soldier’s handheld control unit. With remote sensing capability operators can decide which target is important and target priority. Moreover, automatic image recognition and guidance technologies improved the accuracy of loitering drones. Over the years, miniaturization of these guidance and detection sensors has led to handheld loitering drones that could be carried and launched by soldiers at platoon levels.