Cannons and machine guns are being tested as drone-killers in 2 wars

Cannons and machine guns are being tested as drone-killers in 2 wars
  • Israel is considering mounting rotary cannons on armored vehicles to shoot down drones.

  • Israel may put the Vulcan cannon used on F-16s on an armored personnel carrier.

  • Ukraine uses autocannons and heavy machine guns to target incoming drones.

Ukraine and Israel are exploring cost-effective ways of countering drones as they both face repeated attacks from their determined adversaries.

Israel is exploring the feasibility of mounting the six-barrel M61 Vulcan cannons found on American fighter jets atop armored vehicles deployed in the country's northern border regions with Lebanon. Iran-backed Hezbollah has tripled the number of drone strikes against north Israel in the past three months, forcing Israel to seek an effective counter without resorting to missiles.

Israel has one of the world's most advanced air defense networks but is still having trouble countering these drones. The M61 may prove a viable, cost-effective solution for point defense of armored columns and ground troops.

Ukraine is at the forefront of drone defenses. Its troops have devised a novel solution for countering Russia's Iran-supplied Shahed drones. Kyiv is using a vast network of sensors to detect Russia's low-flying drones and passing targeting data to heavy machine guns and flak cannons mounted on vehicles throughout the country that then attempt to shoot them down.

There are similarities between Ukraine's strategy and Israel's new approach, said Federico Borsari, a defense expert at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA).

"In principle, yes, this effort resembles what Ukraine has done with the creation of mobile anti-drone teams with heavy machine guns, powerful searchlights, and other sensors to counter Shaheds and other low-altitude slow-flying drones," Borsari told Business Insider.

"This type of capability — which is relatively simple in nature — will be relevant for the counter-unmanned aerial system (C-UAS) task in the future but is not the only one, and it will be integrated into a broader set of other capabilities," Borsari said.

A Ukrainian rapid response anti-aircraft defense group tracks down Russian drones on March 31, 2024 in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian rapid response anti-aircraft defense group tracks down Russian drones on March 31, 2024 in Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine.Zinchenko/Getty Images

Ukraine needs a cost-effective solution to defeat the thousands of Russian one-way drone attacks that have forced Kyiv to expend large quantities of its expensive air defense missiles to shoot down. German-supplied Gepards, a cannon design dating back to the 1960s, have proven highly effective in countering Russia's drones and are a cheaper solution than more modern air defenses like the NASAMS; each NASAMS missile costs about $1 million. However, Ukraine faces severe difficulties acquiring more ammunition for the Gepard automatic cannons.

"I think the Israelis are likely seeing what does and does not work in Ukraine — the key is to create an effective and relatively cheap defense against incoming drones, and Ukrainians are one of the leading developers in that area right now," Samuel Bendett, an expert in unmanned and robotic military systems at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Business Insider.

"Another aspect to consider is that such weapons may work against specific drone types but not others," Bendett said.

CEPA's Borsari believes the M61 cannon could be an "interesting solution" for countering certain drones.

"In principle, its use in both fixed and mobile applications is not new and is conceptually similar to many other anti-aircraft guns that have been used for counter-drone purposes in Ukraine," Borsari said.

"The integration with radar or electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) tracking sensors can certainly improve its accuracy, but this weapon is still intended for close-range C-UAS missions," Borsari added. "The radar-guided Phalanx close-in weapons system, for example, has been in use for decades by the navies of the US and other countries."

The M61 is carried by jet fighters like the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the F/A-18 Hornet that can fire the 20mm rounds at targets up to nearly two miles away. It has the power and rate of fire to destroy incoming drones, but its cost-effectiveness turns on how many rounds it must shoot to do so.

"The longer the burst, the higher the cost per interception due to the use of more rounds," Borsari said, noting it costs $180,000 to fire the M61 for one minute, during which time it can fire 6,000 rounds.

"Furthermore, engaging faster drones could be difficult," Borsari said. "There are now short-range ground-launched missiles and guided rockets meant for C-UAS that cost around $40,000 each, along with reusable ones equipped with a high-power microwave payload (Coyote Block-3) to defeat swarms at short range."

"So, in general, the M61 can be a solution, but it's not the only one."

Israel previously integrated M168 Vulcan cannons and FIM-92 Stinger missiles on its Machbet short-range air defense system, which it developed in the 1990s based on the American M113 armored personnel carrier to defend infantry from air attack. Its present evaluation of the M61 may be the first step to developing something similar to deal with low-flying drones.

Interestingly, an unmanned Israeli M113 was reportedly sighted in southern Gaza in recent days.

Borsari believes the M113 is one type of vehicle that can be "repurposed" as an unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) to defeat drones.

"Soon, UGVs will certainly be used in the C-UAS configuration and be progressively integrated into maneuver formations, although they won't necessarily be the standard mobile air defense capability," Borsari said.

"Rather, they will be part of a diverse and layered set of capabilities for C-UAS attached to ground formations, some crewed, some uncrewed, and equipped with different effectors — both kinetic and non-kinetic — including heavy automatic guns, short-range missiles, directed energy like high-power microwave, and electronic warfare."

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