A drone and cruise missile attack that occurred on Saudi oil facilities in August 2019 revealed just how important short-range air defenses are becoming for defense against cruise missiles and drones that are proliferating across the globe.
Existing air defense batteries like the Patriot missile or THAADs have been optimized to defeat high-flying jet fighters and ballistic missiles.
Drones and cruise missiles are fairly small and can skim close to the ground. That makes them relatively difficult to detect on radar, meaning they may only be detected once they are fairly close to their targets. And that’s where short-range defense can provide protection and a final layer of defense, like a goalie in a soccer team.
In a recent article, I highlighted that the Army is moving rapidly to acquire Stryker mobile air defense vehicles, and Israeli Iron Dome batteries for more static defense roles to fill in this increasingly dangerous gap in its air defense capabilities.
However, a colleague of mine in the Air Force challenged me: what specific capabilities did the new Stryker anti-aircraft vehicle possess would perform so much better against drone swarm attack?
After all, the Saudi had deployed radar-assisted 35-millimeter flak cannons and Shahine self-propelled anti-aircraft systems (basically Crotale missiles plopped on top of a French AMX-30 tank) already deployed at the sight didn’t have?
If this sounds like another near-religious invocation of the Air Force’s classic mantra “The bomber will always get through,” it is, sort of.
But this time it’s rather that “the drone swarm will always get through.”
Large numbers of missiles or drones can overwhelm air defenses with little concern. Not only are many existing air defense systems incapable of dealing with numerous targets fast enough, but their individual missiles costing tens of thousands of dollars may be to expensive and limited in number to expend in the volumes necessary to clear the skies of cheaper types of drones in particular.