Drone and Counter-Drone Warfare At Tactical Level

 By Col Akshaya Handa


The 2010s are often called the golden age of drones. In the military domain, they caught popular imagination due to their extensive use in Afghanistan post 9/11. Two decades later, their decisive battle-winning role in Nagorno Karabakh – propelled them to the military mainstream as weapons that were more likely than not to be confronted in future.

They are difficult to detect and useful for a large number of military tasks[1]. Their applications include tasks like reconnaissance and espionage, night vision, target designation, mapping enemy movements, over the horizon communication and navigation aid, transporting logistics, swarm attacks, search & rescue and gun platforms. Airborne disposable autonomous drones with their suicide missions are the latest quintessential reality.


  • The concept of an unmanned flying object possibly dates back to 1849, when Austria attacked Venice using unmanned balloons stuffed with explosives[2]. While balloons are strictly not in accordance with the current definition of drones, it does show that conceptually usage of unmanned aerial crafts was considered even then.
  • The first aerial unmanned vehicle was the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target, which appeared in 1916[3]. Subsequently, technology improvement ensured better drones, albeit most were nothing more than one-way missions or targets for anti-aircraft crew[4].
  • The 50s saw the appearance of recoverable drones. They provided a solution to the vexing issue of losing pilots during aerial recce/photography, which by then had become essential. On 15 Nov 1964 a Firebee Spy Drone was shot down over China[5] – the first known use of recce drones. Vietnam saw the first en masse use under Operation Buffalo Hunter[6]. Loss of 31 Americans when North Korea shot down a US aircraft on 15 Apr 1969[7] incited US drone research.
  • Israel an early adopter of the technology, used these extensively for intelligence gathering[8]. In Yom Kippur War, their drones were credited with reducing losses[9]. The combination of drone recce and decoy capabilities was again credited with the destruction of Syrian forces in the 1982 Lebanon war[10].
  • Subsequent developments in the miniaturized transistor and power source permitted increased payloads and brought the drone industry into the recreational and commercial fields – boosting further improvement. Concomitantly assault drones emerged and became household names post 9/11. There have been few conflicts thereafter wherein reports of drones being used have not emerged.
  • While, Nagorno-Karabakh suggests drones being extremely difficult to counter, over the last few decades multiple have been shot down[11]. Prior to the autumn 2020 war Armenia and Azerbaijan had clashed in July 2020 when 13 drones had been shot down by the former[12], apart from 3 captured in 2012 and 2017[13]. As drone usage increases, counter-drone technology is catching up[14]. In days to come, the heavier more expensive drone may lose its relevance as a low-cost multitask aviation.
  • It can therefore be reasonably inferred that drone technology is not a technology of the future but of today. It has been around for more than a couple of decades and has been used as a weapon of war in various theatres. As technology develops, the balance between the sword and the shield is likely to be restored once again and counter-drone technology development will take center stage in the years ahead. Resultantly, drone losses are likely to mount and the logic of its employment – as a low-cost option – may well come into question.

Tactical Versus Strategic Drones

  • Advantages of Drones The raison d’être of drones[15] is affordability[16], the safety of the pilot[17] and end-user control[18]. The experience of the drones in Idlib[19], Libya[20] and now in Nagorno-Karabakh shows that
    • Losing men and equipment to cheap equipment whose handler is beyond strike range, is demoralizing enough to cause a rout.
    • Drones need to be preceded by the degradation of enemy air defenses.
    • Kamikaze-drones are ideal for countering enemy air defenses.
    • Drones flying over hills and mountains can control valleys thereby negating the defensive advantages of mountains.
    • Military personnel and equipment without overhead cover and camouflage are easily detected and neutralized.
    • Drones can assist in indirect fire control.

Classifications Drones are essentially classified as class I, II, and III, depending on the weight[21], the equipment they carry, and cost.

  • Detection and two-way communication equipment are essential in all, albeit the quality & genre varies.
  • For detection, while class I are mostly equipped with only electrooptical equipment; the more expensive and heavier drones may have radars or radiofrequency detectors.
  • Similarly, direct data link from a satellite/ground-station combination is common in tactical drones, while the strategic/operational maybe have onboard artificial intelligence too.
  • Albeit, all drone operations will have a Flight Controller [22], Ground Control Station[23] and Data Links[24]. Control can be visual line-of-sight using direct radio-waves or beyond visual line-of-sight requiring satellite communications[25].
  • Further, all drones need to be backed with strike capability – either onboard or in a follow-up mode. Former could be projectiles fired from the drone or a suicide-mode. Follow up mode, on the other hand, would involve other assets and precision munitions, which would raise the cost of the operation. Hence, it can be reasonably inferred that heavier more expensive drones will be used more at the outset of a conflict before enemy counter-drone capability has been deployed or post its suppression. The latter would require holding back adequate stocks of precision-guided munitions. Albeit, tactical drones are more likely to be employed at all stages of the war for surveillance cum strike.
  • Having been positioned as an effective multi-task weapon in warfare and thus a cheaper option for tactical aviation[26]; the lighter tactical drones are more likely to adversely affect the soldier in battle. Risking a similar or more expensive drone to engage an opponent’s equipment would be contrary to the raison d’être of using the drone.

Drones at Tactical Level

  • Aviation assets are seldom available for tactical commanders and hence not sufficiently responsive to their needs. Resultantly there is significant turnaround time between requests and realization of tasks. The delay could be critical and have serious consequences. Moreover, with their costs, aviation assets even when available, tend to fly much higher and therefore tactical information and contact tasking is often scanty. The gap is exacerbated by the time taken for information (when available) to filter down. This critical gap, of timely, responsive and accurate airborne assets at the tactical level can be bridged with drones. Apart from strikes, tasks which tactical commanders can execute with drones include: –
  • Intelligence Determining enemy intent is critical for all commanders. While commanders at higher levels seek enemy intent at ranges where the latter is still beyond immediate contact, at the tactical level the intent is discernible once contact is imminent or has commenced. Hence. real-time intelligence is more pertinent at the tactical level then at operational or strategic levels. Indicators for the intent are best available from an aerial platform.
  • Coordination of own resources is critical in battle. Commanders have to rely on reports, to assess the battle-situation and form a picture. A wrong claim or report can lead to defeat. For tactical commanders, the shorter reaction time makes it perilous. Drones can be valuable in permitting the commanders to view the battlefield in real-time.
  • Fire Control Observation is the limiting factor for indirect fire. If the same can be provided further ahead, weapon ranges can be fully exploited. While air observation provides it, its assets are limited. Drones provide ideal solutions for the same.
  • Over the Ridge Line / Around the Corner / Defiles’ Visuals Ridgelines have always provided a challenge to tactical commanders. Whether climbing up or down or whether on the flanks – these locations which lend themselves naturally for ambushes and stand-off attacks – always induce an extra caution. The varied terrains of operations have added corners and defiles (especially in jungles) to the list. Drones can be invaluable for the tactical commanders in such areas enabling sight to be projected far before.
  • Over the Horizon Communication With essentially line-of-sight communications, tactical commanders are adversely affected by the limitation. Drones can help overcome this problem with ease. Also, when required they can assist in extending the range of the communication equipment.
  • Critical Supplies Weight carrying capacities of tactical drones are limited. Albeit, in an emergency, they can carry essential emergent supplies, a difference between life and death sometimes.

Counter Insurgency (CI)

  • SADO[27] Among the most challenging of the operations. Drones can not only be used as a guide to the areas which need to be sanitized but also engage moving targets which maybe lost during the planning and launch of the operation. If used in the latter mode, they can trammel rural insurgency.
  • Counter Infiltration and Plugging Cordon Gaps An effective cordon is a prerequisite of any successful CI operation. Albeit, no cordon can ever be a hundred percent effective especially in hilly jungle terrain. Counter infiltration too faces similar challenges. Tactical drones can be effectively used to plug these gaps. They can spot insurgents exfiltrating the cordon line and redirect troops to intercept them. If need be, they can even be used to neutralize insurgents.
  • Round the Corner Corners of lanes/houses and other structures blocking view cause forbiddance while operating in built-up areas. Restricted vision, inability to use line-of-sight weapons and possible collateral damage are an issue of concern. With their sight projection capabilities, drones would be an invaluable aid.
  • Crowd-Management Crowds are increasingly becoming an issue of concern during urban and semi-urban CI. Albeit, crowds take time to build. If prior warning is available, they can be managed. Drones’ eye in the sky is ideal for the role.
  • To harness these advantages US marines added drone batteries in 1984[28].

Requirements of a Tactical Drones

Technical Requirements

  • Modular to enable adaptation for multiple roles in field conditions.
  • Capable of day and night operations.
  • Adequate command and control.
  • Survivability in a high threat environment with electronic counter-measures.
  • Responsiveness and quick turnaround.

Policy Requirements With the proliferations of drones, a policy to regulate its boundaries in all the physical domains and electronic bands is essential. Unless implemented strictly, they can cause serious accidents and interference with other equipment.

Counter Drone Operations

  • With their proliferation, drones are a potent threat to soldiers. Inability to counter them at the tactical level would lead to loss of lives. Counter drone equipment is expensive and hence unlikely to be available at the tactical level. Latter hence, would have to implement non-technical counter drone measures.
  • Al-Qaeda issued its own guidance for avoiding drone attacks[29]. A perusal of the same, along with the videos of drones in action in the various recent conflicts shows that most of men and equipment hit, were not following the passive measures recommended by this document.

Overhead Camouflage and Concealment

  • Anything which can be spotted by the drone, can be hit.
  • Majority of the drones as yet are equipped with electro-optical equipment. Other technologies while available, are expensive and their availability therefore limited.
  • This necessitates a review of the camouflage and concealment policy, as also authorization and holding of equipment. No stationery individual or piece of equipment can afford to be without overhead camouflage. Overhead camouflage would also have to cater for thermal imagers as these are frequently found on all drones. Conductive material[30] is known to be able to defeat these and hence would have to be included.

Shot Guns and Tactical Weapons

  • Drones are so fragile that almost anything that hits them or touches them is likely to cause them to crash or lose orientation[31].
  • While high flying drones would be beyond the range of weapons normally available at the frontline – tactical drones may well be within range. Shotguns, snipers and automatic weapons used with tracer rounds can be employed against them.

Data Links and Control Stations Unlike the rest, tactical drones will rely on data links direct with ground control stations. For the increasing line of sight communication, these may well be established on existing towers. Developing adequate intelligence of ground control stations and their early destruction would be required.


Drones are not the technology of tomorrow; they are the technology of today. On a development scale, they are akin to aircraft in 1939. No longer a wonder, capable of changing the battle but only with asymmetry. While unfavorable asymmetry is disastrous, favorable asymmetry is battle-winning. The costlier class II and III drones are likely to be challenged and may be available only sporadically. Tactical drones offer an opportunity to create such a favorable asymmetry. The advantages they accrue for tactical commanders are disproportionate to any other single system or the costs involved. Simultaneously, anti-drone measures and drills need to be introduced, practiced and followed to deny these advantages to the adversary.


[1] These miniature pilotless aircraft generally based on microelectromechanical systems and nanotechnology; are cheap, low flying and stealthy. Blended with artificial intelligence, they have sensor fusion, multiple channels of communication, autonomous navigation, and scheduling of tasks sometimes even of choosing tactics.

[2] Austrian forces, who were besieging Venice at the time, launched around 200 of these incendiary balloons over the city. Kashyap Vyas (2020) “A Brief History of Drones” Interesting Engineering 29 June 2020 available on https://interestingengineering.com/a-brief-history-of-drones-the-remote-controlled-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-uavs#:~:text=The%20Vietnam%20War%20saw%20the%20first%20use%20of%20drones%20with%20cameras%20for%20reconnaissance&text=Leaping%20forward%20a%20few%20years,drones%20as%20dedicated%20reconnaissance%20UAVs accessed on 24 January 2021.

[3] Used mostly for suicide missions against zeppelins, these could not be recovered for reuse. Nikola Budanovic (2017) “The Early Days Of Drones – Unmanned Aircraft From World War One And World War Two” War History Online 23 July 2017 available on https://www.warhistoryonline.com/military-vehicle-news/short-history-drones-part-1.html accessed on 24 January 2021.

[4] German V-1 flying bombs was an attempt to incorporate most such technologies into a mass-produced weapon.

[5] While China blamed the US for trying to spy on them, the latter denied any link to the machine- though later it emerged that post the Tonkin Gulf Incident, US had deployed drones under Operation Blue Spring. David Hambling (2020) “The Weird And Worrying Drone War In The Caucasus” Forbes 22 June 2020 available on https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2020/06/22/the-weird-and-worrying-drone-war-in-the-caucasus/?sh=79be8e6f45da accessed on 24 January 2021.

[6] It is believed that under the program more than thirty thousand flights were operated by drones over North Vietnam. R Cargil Hill (2014) “Reconnaissance Drones Their First Use in The Cold War” JSTOR Fall 2014  available on https://www.jstor.org/stable/26276490?Search=yes&resultItemClick=true&searchText=Reconnaissance+Drones+Their+First+Use+in+The+Cold+War&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3DReconnaissance%2BDrones%2BTheir%2BFirst%2BUse%2Bin%2BThe%2BCold%2BWar&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_solr_cloud%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3A21a51618919543f0498f4ae7dd9c4a3b&seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents accessed on 01 February 2021 and “Ryan Model 147” available on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ryan_Model_147 accessed on 24 January 2021.

[7] Samuel J Cox (2019( “H-029-2: The EC-121 “Deep Sea 129” Shootdown” Naval History and Heritage Command April 2019 available on https://www.history.navy.mil/about-us/leadership/director/directors-corner/h-grams/h-gram-029/h-029-2.html accessed on 12 January 2021.

[8] Faced with constraints on long-range manned flights over Arab territories, imposed by the 1970 ceasefire agreement – Israel turned to unmanned flights. See “War of Attrition” available on  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/War_of_Attrition#:~:text=In%20August%201970%2C%20Israel%2C%20Jordan,as%20a%20precondition%20for%20peace.&text=The%20Egyptian%20Air%20Force%20and%20Air%20Defense%20Forces%20performed%20poorly accessed on 02 January 2021.

[9] Drones drew out the enemy air defenses for targeting See Kreis, John F. “Unmanned Aircraft in Israeli Air Operations.” Air Power History, vol. 37, no. 4, 1990, pp. 46–50. JSTOR, available on www.jstor.org/stable/26271146  accessed 27 December 2020.

[10] Operation Peace for Galilee – the Syrians reportedly lost most of their air defenses and 85 aircraft at the loss of just one Israeli aircraft. See Kreis, John F. “Unmanned Aircraft in Israeli Air Operations.” Air Power History, vol. 37, no. 4, 1990, pp. 46–50. JSTOR, available on www.jstor.org/stable/26271146  accessed 27 December 2020.

[11] Cal Pringle (2019) “5 times in history enemies shot down a US drone” C4ISRNET 22 August 2019 available on https://www.c4isrnet.com/unmanned/2019/08/23/5-times-in-history-enemies-shot-down-a-us-drone/  accessed on 15 January 2020.

[12] AFP (2020) “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict: Armenia shoots down drones near capital” AFP and Reuters 02 October 2020 available on https://www.dw.com/en/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-armenia-shoots-down-drones-near-capital/a-55127908 accessed on 13 January 2021, Associated Press (2020) “At least 16 killed in Armenia-Azerbaijan border clashes” Guardian 14 July 2020 available on https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jul/14/soldiers-killed-armenia-and-azerbaijan-border-clashes accessed on 13 January 2021 and “July 2020 Armenian–Azerbaijani clashes” available on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/July_2020_Armenian%E2%80%93Azerbaijani_clashes#21_July all accessed on 15 January 2020.

[13] During the July 2020 hostilities in the north-eastern section of the border with the neighboring republic, Azerbaijani drones of Israeli production Orbiter 3, Orbiter 2, SkyStriker, Hermes 900, and Harop were shot down or captured with the use of electronic warfare. In four days of clashes in the Tavush region, in total, 13 enemy drones were neutralized. Another Hermes 180 and Orbiter 3 were captured in 2012 and 2017, respectively. All UAVs were hit by the Armenian air defense systems which range from the anti-aircraft artillery to the use of modern air defense systems. Ridvan Bari  Urcosta (2020) “Drones in Nagorno-Karabakh” Small; Wars Journal 23 October 2020 available in https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/drones-nagorno-karabakh#_edn11 accessed on 13 January 2021.

[14] RF Jammers, GPS Spoofers, High power microwaves, Net Guns, High energy lasers and birds of prey are being experimented with for destruction and / or capture while video, audio, radar, RF detection and based techniques are being deployed for detection. “9 Counter-Drone Technologies To Detect And Stop Drones Today” Robin Radar Systems 22 March 2020 available on https://www.robinradar.com/press/blog/9-counter-drone-technologies-to-detect-and-stop-drones-today accessed on 22 January 2021.

[15] Ridvan Bari  Urcosta (2020) “Drones in Nagorno-Karabakh” Small; Wars Journal 23 October 2020  https://smallwarsjournal.com/jrnl/art/drones-nagorno-karabakh#_edn11 accessed on 13 January 2021. Also, Dombrowski Peter, Gholz Eugene,” Buying Military Transformation: Technological Innovation and Defense Industry” Columbian University Press, New York, 2006 pp. 67-77.

[16] As they are cheaper than aircraft and can perform the same role

[17] Unlike an aircraft, if a drone is lost at worst equipment will be lost.

[18] As it by enables the commanders to see the theatre of operations on real time and in its entire complexity. This is unlike an aircraft where only the pilot can see the target.

[19] Ridvan Bari Urcosta (2020) “The Revolution in Drone Warfare: The Lessons from the Idlib De-Escalation Zone” The Air Force Journal of European, Middle Eastern and African Affairs 31 August 2020 available on https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/JEMEAA/Display/Article/2329510/the-revolution-in-the-drone-warfare-the-lessons-from-the-idlib-de-escalation-zo/ accessed on 23 January 2021.

[20] Alex Gatopoulos (2020) “Battle for Idlib: Turkey’s drones and a new way of war” Al Jazeera 03 March 2020 available on https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/3/3/battle-for-idlib-turkeys-drones-and-a-new-way-of-war accessed on 23 January 2021.

[21] Class I drones are less than 150 kgs (also called tactical attack drones), while class II drones vary between 150 to 600 kgs and class III are over 600 kgs.

[22] Which is essentially the drone’s central processing unit Altawy R., Youssef A.M. Security, privacy, and safety aspects of civilian drones: a survey. ACM Trans. Cyber-Phys. Syst. 2017;1(2)

[23] Including the human operators and the necessary capabilities to control and / or monitor it

[24] Used to control the information flow depending on the operational range of the drone

[25] Marshall D.M., Barnhart R.K., Hottman S.B., Shappee E., Most M.T. Crc Press; 2016. Introduction to unmanned aircraft systems

[26] Robyn Dixon (2020) “Azerbaijan’s drones owned the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh — and showed future of warfare” The Washington Post 12 November 2020 available on https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/nagorno-karabkah-drones-azerbaijan-aremenia/2020/11/11/441bcbd2-193d-11eb-8bda-814ca56e138b_story.html accessed on 17 January 2021.

[27] Search and Destroy Operations

[28] VMU-2 was originally formed in June 1984 as Detachment T, Target Acquisition Battery, 10th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, Fleet Marine Forces, Atlantic, thus becoming the first Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV) unit within the Marine Corps. See “VMU-2” available on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/VMU-2 accessed on 25 January 2021.

[29] Jeff Blagdon (2013) “Al-Qaeda document suggests 22 ways to avoid drone attacks” The Verge 21 February 2013 available on https://www.theverge.com/2013/2/21/4016416/al-qaeda-22-suggestions-for-dealing-with-drones accessed on 10 January 2021.

[30] Infra Scan Thermal Images Sydney (2020) “Can Thermal Imaging Cameras See Through These 19 Things?” Infra Scan Thermal Imaging Pty Limited 22 January 2020 available on https://www.infrascan.com.au/blog/can-thermal-imaging-cameras-see-through-these-19-things accessed on 25 January 2021.

[31] Eric Limer (2015) “How to Shoot Down a Drone” Popular Mechanics 06 August 2016 available on https://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/drones/how-to/a16756/how-to-shoot-down-a-drone/ accessed on 24 January 2021.