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Shoot the drones out of the sky with Phasers

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Media caption Abqaiq has the world's largest oil processing plant

When a mixed formation of cruise missiles and small drone aircraft rained explosive charges on Saudi Arabian oil group Aramcoq area's Aramcoq area On September 14, they halved national oil production and cut 5.7 million barrels of crude per day from the company's production.

But they did more than financial damage. This attack has had a huge impact on how nations think about protecting the airspace.

Companies develop and distribute sophisticated new defenses, from roasting electronic circuits with powerful microwave radiation to precise jamming systems.

While both the United States and Saudi Arabia have accused Iran of the Abqaiq attack, it is still unclear who was behind it.

But it would be a mistake to confuse the use of drones or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in this attack with other incidents where off-the-shelf drones have disrupted airports, football matches or political rallies, said Douglas Barrie, an Air Force at Think Tank International Institute for Strategic Studies.

He says that this attack was carried out in part by sophisticated UAVs ̵

1; small, pilotless, winged aircraft – nothing the quadcopter drones flew in suburban parks.

Instead, they can cover hundreds of miles and be pre-programmed to fly around navigation points on the ground, so they can approach a target from an unexpected direction.

  • Saudis say weapons prove Iran behind oil attack
  • Saudi drone attack: damage assessment

"The level of complexity in this attack is above anything we have seen before. Using a mix of cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) ) arriving at the same time requires a serious level of skill and skill, Barrie says.

The attack has raised a question mark over the quality of protection available against UAV assaults.

Criticism of Saudi air defenses is widely known, Barrie says. The fact is that complex networks of air defense radars associated with guided missiles and advanced fighter squadrons are not designed to counteract this relatively inexpensive and disposable technology.

"Digital technology has made a big difference to what smaller UAVs can do . Suddenly you can pack a lot into a UAV, you can almost make it a precision controlled weapon. "

By programming a UAV to fly around multiple points before reaching the target, it can avoid the obvious directions that an attack is expected from This may explain why existing radars failed to detect the drone formation attacking Abqaiq.

And it may be that defenses tailored to counter this new UAV threat have been rushed to Saudi Arabia.

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Phaser uses microwaves to knock out targets

The US Air Force has just picked up Phaser, a microwave-based weapon from defense giant Raytheon. By shooting from a plate that looks like a giant satellite dish on top of a sand colored container, they wipe out digital elements in a drone.

Raytheon cannot say where the quickly purchased Phaser has been shipped, but the Pentagon has stated that it is in use overseas.

Perhaps Phaser's greatest strength is that it operates at the speed of light. It is the speed at which it shoots out microwave rays. And that can bring a nearby UAV down in a split second.

The beam from Phaser is 100 meters wide at a kilometer distance. That means a lot of dangerous space for an attacking UAV. Dimensions are tracked by an electro-optic sensor that converts images into electronic signals and works in tandem with the microwave.

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Although the system may be fully automated, it currently requires final approval from a human operator confirming the target through the optical sensor. By bringing the target down without explosion, Phaser prevents the type of debris and fragmentation that is very unwelcome in populated areas or over sensitive installations.

Another advantage of this microwave weapon is that it can handle continuous waves of targets without the need to reload it. So $ 16m (£ 13m) to deliver and support Phaser is relatively low compared to comparable systems.

  • Developing a Mobile Drone Protection System

Don Sullivan, chief technology officer at Raytheon's Directed Energy Weapon, has worked in this field for 40 years, and Phaser is the culmination of his life's work.

This is "potentially the most cost-effective way to counter drones," according to Mr Sullivan.

And the microwave beam is emitted in fast pulses, which means it's safe for people nearby.

I've been standing in the microwave with high power. It is not a heat jet, it is fired at very short pulses and it is safe for people. "he says.

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Paul Burt


Paul Burt served in Basra, Iraq, in 2007

Paul Burt knows a lot about air defense and his experience is personal. As a RAF officer based at Basra Airport in 2007, he helped both the British armed forces and Iraqi civil aviation leaders to keep the runway open despite hundreds of rockets being fired at the site by insurgents.

His answer was to attach a radar system to an American-built Phalanx gun, an automatic cannon that shoots out rounds at high speed, creating a wall of lead in the path of incoming missiles shredded by collisions with these shells. . Of the 860 rockets fired at the airport in six months, only one hit the runway, says Burt.

Today he works for the Anglo-Italian defense group Leonardo selling a counter-drone system that draws on his experience in Iraq.

"You can't defend every inch of air space, you have to think about what you can realistically protect," he says.

So rather than trying to build a defensive dome around a large area, Leonardo has developed what it terms as an electronic sniper rifle. This captures the digital components of any drone, although Leonardo won't say exactly how it's done.

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Leonardo's Falcon Shield anti-UAV defense system

Mr. Burt points out that this system, Falcon Shield, starts with a threat evaluation program on a laptop computer that decides where to point to provide the best chance of preventing drone attacks.

When it comes to an oil system that spans hundreds of square miles, the software tool should be able to create overlapping arcs with defenses.

Leonardo recently announced a joint research and development program with RAF. The purpose is to study how to detect, identify and defeat drones as they consider how drones will evolve.

The drone threat is developing at a dramatic pace; the financial damage inflicted on Aramco has opened a new front in warfare – and no one wants to stay.

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