— U.S. Army (@USArmy) March 17, 2017
With a price tag of about $3 million, the U.S. Army’s Patriot missile is among the most sophisticated, not to mention costliest, surface-to-air defense weapons in the world. Capable of flying five times the speed of sound, the 700-pound, five-meter-long Patriot’s main purpose is to intercept other missiles.
But according to an Army general, a U.S. ally recently used one to shoot down a different target: a $200 drone aircraft.
Gen. David Perkins, commander of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, gave a brief account of the incident at an Army symposium on March 13 in Huntsville, Ala., available on YouTube.
“We have a very close ally of ours that was dealing with an adversary using” small quadcopters, Perkins said, indicating the situation was not a drill. “They shot it down with a Patriot missile.”
“The Patriot won,” he added with a grin. “That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from Amazon.com did not stand a chance against the Patriot.”
A disproportionate response? No doubt. But that’s exactly why Perkins brought up the anecdote in his talk, which focused on how military commanders should deal with new threats.
Though the Patriot easily took out the encroaching drone, he said, it wasn’t a very cost-effective way of dealing with the problem.
“I’m not sure that’s a good economic-exchange ratio,” Perkins said. “In fact, if I’m the enemy, I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’m just going to get on eBay and buy as many of these $300 quadcopters as I can and expend all the Patriot missiles out there.’ ”
Developed and manufactured by Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, Patriot missiles have been purchased by 13 countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and Israel, since they came into service in the 1980s. The missiles are guided by radar, making them ideal for locking onto other projectiles, as well as fast-moving aircraft. Drones, for what it’s worth, would seem to fall into that category.
The research firm Forecast International has a handy (albeit jargon-laden) description of how the Patriot works in practice:
When launched, the PAC-3 missile flies to an intercept point specified prior to launch by its ground-based fire solution computer. Target trajectory data can be updated during flyout by the means of a radio frequency uplink/downlink. Shortly before arrival at the intercept point, the missile’s on board Ka-band seeker acquires the target, selects the optimal aim point and initiates terminal guidance. The attitude control motors, located in the missile forebody, fire explosively to refine the PAC-3 missile’s course to assure direct body-to-body impact.
While there’s something laughably absurd about a retail quadcopter taking on a surface-to-air missile designed for full-scale war, the threat of weaponized drones is no joke. In recent months, Islamic State fighters have used consumer-grade drones loaded with explosives to attack Iraqi security forces and Western troops in Iraq.
One of the first strikes came in October, when a drone carrying munitions detonated at a Kurdish and French position in northern Iraq, killing two soldiers and injuring two others. Dozens of similar attacks have been carried out since the beginning of the year when the Islamic State announced a new “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahideen” unit, as The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick has reported.
Still, the incident related by Perkins seemed to invite a degree of mockery.
“It is clearly enormous overkill,” Justin Bronk, a researcher at the British defense think tank Royal United Services Institute, told the BBC. But, he added, “it certainly exposes in very stark terms the challenge which militaries face in attempting to deal with the adaptation of cheap and readily available civilian technology with extremely expensive, high-end hardware designed for state-on-state warfare.”
Andrew Liptak of the Verge explained the drone-versus-Patriot problem by way of analogy.
“While a fly buzzing around is a nuisance,” he wrote, “a fly swatter is a better solution than a shotgun.”
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