Successes With Drones

Recent conflicts in Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria have highlighted the low-risk, high-reward tactic of using unmanned drones to target military sites and personnel.  These drones are small enough to evade radar and visual detection and accurate enough to deliver small payloads to strike vulnerable targets.  When used in large swarms, their ability to strike targets multiplies, even if most can be shot down.

On a larger scale, ballistic missiles and long-range drones from the Houthis in Yemen have slowed supply chains, drawn the US military and its allies into combat, and risked escalation in a volatile and heavily transmitted part of the world.  Over in Ukraine, both sides have used drones to great effect, from striking targets far behind enemy lines to conducting surveillance and accurately eliminating strong points on the front lines.  In the future, ballistic missiles and long-range manned and unmanned bombers can overwhelm air defenses, leaving the US mainland vulnerable to an unprecedented attack,

While there have been some successes from advanced anti-air weapons that have shot down larger, long-range drones and ballistic missiles, current US military capabilities leave military sites and personnel vulnerable to smaller, shorter-range drone strikes.  One path forward is using lasers, but this is not without drawbacks.

Lasers Need Loads of Energy

Lasers require huge amounts of energy to operate and lose destructive power over distance.  The most feasible laser defense system will need to be stationed only on the largest ships and military bases, which house the infrastructure needed to store and release the energy required to fire such a weapon.  While sufficient energy will make using a laser almost infinite, this energy source will need rapid replenishment to function properly.

A highly focused beam of energy required to burn through the outer shell of a projectile or aircraft to damage critical parts will require more time to do so the further away a target is.  Airborne obstacles, such as smoke, mist, rain, or clouds, will slowly degrade the effectiveness of a laser until it is no longer a threat to such targets.  To strike longer distances, a laser defense system will have to be increasingly stronger at further ranges.  Likewise, a closer-range target will be eliminated faster than a target some distance away.

Effective Against Small, Slow Moving Targets…For Now

In the short term, lasers will be most effective against smaller, slower-moving, and closer targets, as seen in Iraq, Syria, and, to some degree, Ukraine.  However, to be effective against threats presented by groups such as the Houthis, advances must be made in energy storage and release to provide reliable defense at range.  Problems with energy usage are more easily solvable than atmospheric reoccurrences, and it is more likely that direct energy defenses will be used as close-range, last-effort weapons to defeat enemy airborne threats.

In the future, smaller portable nuclear reactors may be the best hope to protect isolated outposts on land and smaller ships at sea.  Eventually, airborne laser platforms on larger planes may provide some degree of defense against long-range missiles and enemy planes.  Until then, as seen in Ukraine and Russia, the best chance to avoid enemy drones is cover and concealment, as defensive technology has not yet caught up to offensive capabilities in the field of modern combat.