In a rather unusual show of force, a U.S. ally shot down a small quadcopter drone using a Patriot missile, according to Gen. David Perkins, speaking at the Association of the United States Army's Global Force symposium. And it wasn't a drill. “We have a very close ally of ours that was dealing with an adversary using small quadcopter [unmanned aircraft systems]," Perkins said. “They shot it down with a Patriot missile.”
A Patriot is a surface-to-air missile (SAM) that can strike long-range targets at all altitudes. Capable of reaching speeds in excess of Mach 2, Patriots are produced by U.S. defense contractors Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and each one costs around $3 million. Meanwhile, a typical quadcopter drone can travel 80 km/h (50 mph) tops and can be bought on Amazon for about $200.
"I'm not sure that's a good economic exchange ratio."
The strike wasn't arbitrary. According to some reports, groups have attacked security forces in the past using this type of small commercial drone by attaching weapons to it. It appears the particular U.S. ally in Gen. Perkins' anecdote didn't want to take any chances on that being the case and decided to swat down the drone using a more-than-capable missile.
Obviously, this was a disproportionate response. "That quadcopter that cost 200 bucks from Amazon.com did not stand a chance against a Patriot," Gen. Perkins told his audience in Alabama. Yes, the Patriot did the job. But was it worth the cost?
"I'm not sure that's a good economic exchange ratio," the general said, noting the glaring difference in price between the drone and a Patriot. "In fact, if I'm the enemy, I'm thinking, 'Hey, I'm just gonna get on eBay and buy as many of these $300 quadcopters as I can and expend all the Patriot missiles out there.'"
Responding to Evolving Threats
Perhaps the strangeness of this encounter actually highlights the changing landscape of war. On the one hand, we have modern weaponry, the tech designed for the battlefield. However, recent advances in technology have extended the possibilities of how warfare could be conducted to include even commercial devices, such as drones.
This story from Perkins illustrates our need to develop appropriate responses to every level of security threat. Andre Liptak from The Verge laid it out nicely in a very precise analogy: “While a fly buzzing around is a nuisance, a fly swatter is a better solution than a shotgun.”
"It is clearly enormous overkill," Royal United Services Institute researcher Justin Bronk told the BBC in reference to the drone takedown. "It certainly exposes in very stark terms the challenge which militaries face in attempting to deal with the adaptation of cheap and readily available civilian technology with extremely expensive, high-end hardware designed for state-on-state warfare."
One thing is for sure, though. At that particular moment, it was better to be the one with the Patriot than the one with the drone.