Recently a flight of cruise missiles and weaponized drones slammed into an oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia. Destroying, temporarily, half of the Kingdomâ€™s oil exports in one blow. Originally, the attack was thought to come from Yemen, where Iranian backed rebels are doing battle with the Saudi backed government. However, intelligence soon determined that the attack came from Iran. As of this writing, no military response has been mounted, even though the United States and her allies in the region are still mulling options.
As an aside, it looks like that the strategic goal of the attack has failed. Thanks to American fracking capacity, the world avoided a 1970s-style oil shock, with shortages and gas lines. According to Reuters, the Saudis have restored their oil output earlier than expected.
However, the attack on the Saudi oil facilities points out the need to stop drone attacks. The United States military is setting out to develop the technology to ward off drones, using a weapon called the PHASER (Star Trek reference no doubt intended) that will use microwaves to disable drones in flight before they reach their targets.
Drones have been a weapon of war since the late 1990s. At first, drones provided a real-time reconnaissance over enemy territory, spotting troop concentrations, supply trains, and so on. Later, someone came up with the idea to mount missiles on drones and send them aloft to kill terrorist targets. Before armed Predator drones, the way one would assassinate a terrorist leader would be to send in a team of well-armed, well trained young men to perform the mission. The method worked but had the feature of putting those same young men at risk of being captured or killed.
An armed drone does not place friendly lives at risk. Once intelligence determines where a terrorist leader is located, say in a hideout or a car moving from one place to another, an armed drone can be dispatched. An operator in an air-conditioned office in the United States can determine whether he or she had the target in sight, and, with a final authorization, launch the missile and shortly there are one or several fewer terrorists walking the Earth.
Of course, on occasion, the terrorist may be close to innocent civilians. Then the operatorâ€™s supervisor has to make a judgment call as to whether eliminating the terrorist target is worth the possibility of causing what is euphemistically called â€ścollateral damageâ€ť or as ordinary people might say, the deaths of innocents.
The United States military may have solved the problem of innocent civilian deaths with a new drone launched weapon called the â€śflying Ginsu.â€ť Instead of an explosive warhead, the missile has a set of whirling blades. The missile can penetrate a vehicle or a building, home in on a single individual, and then shred him. Anyone around the terrorist target will be disconcerted because of the blood and body parts, but at least they will be alive.
Eventually, terrorists found that weaponized drones could be useful. The set up is a little cruder than missile-firing drones. The idea is to pack explosions onto a drone and sent it to a target, such as a crowded marketplace, to cause the most death and mayhem. Terrorist drones have the feature of not having a jihadi martyr themselves with suicide bomb vests.
It is against these crude, bomb drones that the PHASER has been developed. Raytheon was awarded $16 million to build and deploy the weapon for testing. The PHASER emits microwaves that destroy the circuits of an oncoming drone, sending it to the ground short of its target.
â€śThe microwave weapons system can target drones that are “less than 55 pounds and fly at altitudes of 1,200 to 3,500 feet at speeds between 100 and 200 knots,” or about 115 to 230 mph, such as the RQ-11 Raven.â€ť
The PHASER is thus not able to take down larger, higher-flying drones such as the Predator, But it should be able to take care of the smaller, cruder aerial vehicles the terrorists and certain rogue states such as Iran might use to attack their enemies. The fact that the testing program is taking place so soon after the Saudi attack is considered to be a happy coincidence.