Lasers, integration and mobility: Israel races to stop growing threat from drones

JERUSALEM — On April 27, personnel with the Israel Defense Forces downed a drone that crossed into the country from Lebanon. They also found a second drone “belonging to the Hezbollah terrorist organization” that had been taken down in early April, according to an IDF statement. It was the latest Israeli targeting of a drone — yet more evidence of an emerging threat that Israel is looking to counter.

The most recent incident came the same day that Israel’s national security adviser visited Washington for a meeting with his counterpart, Jake Sullivan. The U.S. and Israel agreed to establish an interagency working group to focus particular attention on the growing threat of UAVs, per a readout of the meeting. Since 2018, the U.S., with congressional support, has backed Israeli efforts to acquire technology for countering unmanned aerial systems.

Israel’s large defense companies make c-UAS systems and combine their expertise to benefit Israel’s multilayered air defense systems, like Iron Dome. These measures include air defense systems using interceptors against large UAVs as well as a plethora of systems against smaller threats. Elbit Systems makes ReDrone, which in 2019 it mounted on vehicles for convoy protection as the ReDrone Vehicular Tactical System. ReDrone was first launched in 2016 and can detect, identify, track and neutralize smaller drones.

An Israeli Iron Dome system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is shown in the Hula Valley in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, on July 27, 2020. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)
An Israeli Iron Dome system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is shown in the Hula Valley in northern Israel near the border with Lebanon, on July 27, 2020. (Jalaa Marey/AFP via Getty Images)

At Israel Aerospace Industries, a variety of technologies for confronting drone threats are in operation. Yoav Tourgeman, CEO of IAI subsidiary Elta Systems, said the company is now in its fourth generation of c-UAS solutions with the Drone Guard, which he said has been sold to 100 customers. Israeli companies usually don’t identify customers, and IAI did not specify in this case.

“We have an on-the-move solution, as opposed to those who have to stay still. We have a solution that can work in a fast-moving convoy, multiple abilities to detect and multiple tools to counter, including hard- and soft-[kill],” he said.

Elta has incorporated two hard-kill solutions, one of which uses a drone itself to strike the drone threat; the other uses Smart Shooter technology, which is a fire control system mounted on a rifle that enables accurate shots against drones at up to several hundred feet.

Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab shows a box that he alleged carried explosives in an Israeli-captured drone that fell over a southern Beirut suburb, during a news conference on Sept. 19, 2019. (Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images) Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab shows a box that he alleged carried explosives in an Israeli-captured drone that fell over a southern Beirut suburb, during a news conference on Sept. 19, 2019. (Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images)
Lebanese Defence Minister Elias Bou Saab shows a box that he alleged carried explosives in an Israeli-captured drone that fell over a southern Beirut suburb, during a news conference on Sept. 19, 2019. (Joseph Eid/AFP via Getty Images)

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On the radar-detection front, IAI makes the Multi-Mission Radar that is used with Iron Dome, the lower tier of Israel’s multilayered air defense systems. Israel recently said Iron Dome, which uses missile interceptors and is developed by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, has new capabilities, noted that it can simultaneously counter multiple UAV threats.

Elta touts its various radars, including the Green Pine system, as tailored for the customer requirements. “We see emerging requirement and interest from aerial threats becoming a more significant factor today, and we see more customers in that,” Tourgeman said.

Israeli firm Rada also produces radar for maneuver short-range air defense and c-UAS.

Rafael’s Drone Dome has been updated with new capabilities, the company says. Last year the system used lasers to intercept multiple drones.

Despite any updates, the doctrine of the system remains the same: It detects drone threats and their signals at several kilometers away. The system uses a signals intelligence approach alongside radar to determine the location of a drone, then uses electro-optics with infrared sensors to confirm it.

Data from cameras and sensors are used by an algorithm to search for drone threats. The goal is to prevent false alarms, such as when birds are confused for drones, the company said.

“C-UAS have a big problem with false alarms,” a Rafael official noted. Drones that may fly without a signal can make detection more difficult.

Drone Dome also uses a jammer to try to stop drones, but can also use lasers at shorter ranges. The laser system has been presented to delegations from 16 countries. Still, challenges exist because an effective laser requires a high-quality beam and accurate tracking to burn drones out of the sky. Confronting a swarm of drone threats requires this be done quickly.

The system is deployed in more than 10 countries in various configurations, including the United Kingdom and Singapore.

Rafael noted that while threats often come from small quadcopters, there appears to be a growing use of fixed-wing UAVs. Iran used a combination of fixed-wing kamikaze drones and cruise missiles to attack Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq oil facility in 2019.

Rafael also provides a naval solution for c-UAS threats as an upgrade to its Typhoon weapon system. Active with 23 navies, including the United States, it is installed on a dozen different platforms at sea. The MK-30c can now hold up to 400 rounds — double the capacity of the previous Typhoon system — with 70-degree elevation, coupled with air-burst ammunition to confront small and medium UAVs. Rafael has installed and integrated the operationally proven image-processing automatic target recognition technology, the company said. The system can confront UAVs at a range of several kilometers.

Israel’s Xtend Skylord c-UAS system, called Griffon, was delivered to U.S. Army Special Operations Command, the firm announced April 5. The company, whose system uses a drone-launched net to stop drones, has taken part in joint c-sUAS trials. According to the company, it has delivered 150 systems since last year, and the system is currently operational in Israel. The firm also has contracts in Germany and has qualified for use by Spain.

The Griffon participates in the U.S. Army's counter-small UAS demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., in April 2021. The Griffon participates in the U.S. Army's counter-small UAS demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., in April 2021.
The Griffon participates in the U.S. Army’s counter-small UAS demonstration at Yuma Proving Ground, Ariz., in April 2021.

The U.S. Army’s Rapid Capabilities and Critical Technologies Office completed a mid-April counter-drone demonstration at Yuma Proving Grounds, Arizona, during which Xtend, Elta North America and Aurora Flight Services participated.

The Griffon integrates command-and-control technology with various radars. The system uses a drone to confront other drones, with that interceptor drone being able to fly out to 2.5 miles to seek and then use its net.

The company is currently looking for new foreign opportunities, such as Gulf customers amid recently renewed diplomatic relations with some neighbors.

Other Israeli companies also see promising opportunities in the region following February’s International Defence Exhibition and Conference. Israeli delegates and businesses were invited to the event for the first time this year. A month later, IAI and Emirati defense conglomerate Edge signed a strategic agreement to develop c-UAS solutions.

For its part, Israel-based Netline Communications Technologies offers a multilayer c-UAS product called DroneNet, which detects, tracks and jams drones. In a separate success for Israel’s Smart Shooter, the company was chosen by the U.S. Army in June 2020 as one of a number of Pentagon-approved products. It is also used by the Indian Navy, and 10 other countries are in various stages of evaluating the system.

Israel’s ThirdEye, which is used by the IDF, can also be used as an electro-optical detection system against small drones. Skylock also makes c-UAS products, including a new hard-kill system called DroneLock that used artificial intelligence to kill incoming drones.

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