A Ukrainian serviceman of the 22nd Brigade controls a Leleka reconnaissance UAV drone near Chasiv Yar, Donetsk region, on April 27, 2024.

A Ukrainian serviceman of the 22nd Brigade controls a Leleka reconnaissance UAV drone near Chasiv Yar, Donetsk region, on April 27, 2024. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

The Marines want to ‘litter the battlefield’ with anti-drone sensors

Some units will get portable devices within a year, officials said.

The Marine Corps wants to employ more passive sensors and kinetic weapons to find and take down drones, and plans to field personal drone detectors in the next 12 months, officers said Thursday at the Modern Day Marine conference. 

Some Marines in Marine Expeditionary Units, U.S. Marine Corps Forces Europe, and the 4th Marine Regiment will get the scanners, said Captain Taylor Barefoot, the Counter Unmanned Aerial Systems Capabilities Integration officer in the Marine Corps’ Capabilities Development Directorate. 

“In the next twelve months, there’s going to be systems out there fielded to this at a basic level,” Barefoot said. More advanced systems are also in the works. 

Such scanners typically check for radio signals sent to and from drones. Some also use auditory cues to identify drones. 

Ukrainians widely use hand-held scanners to alert them to incoming enemy drones. Some models can identify specific models, like the Orlan-10 observation drone. Ukrainian soldiers say the scanners sound the alarm faster than their own eyes and ears. 

Barefoot said the Marines eventually plan to equip every squad with some sort of drone detector. He did not specify what specific devices would be fielded. The Army is similarly investing in soldier-borne drone scanners; the service’s 2025 budget proposal includes funds to acquire ten Bal Chatri devices. 

In the long term, Barefoot said, Marines may wear a haptic device that will buzz their chest when an enemy drone approaches. The Marine would then alert their squad leader, who would use a tablet to get more information. 

The Corps is also looking to improve the process for identifying enemy drones in the field, Barefoot said. Currently, most drones are ID’d by matching their radio signals to a library of signatures. But such libraries are “quickly outpaced” by drone developments, he said. So the Marines are looking into fielding systems that allow operators to update the libraries with real-time intelligence—or even to use artificial intelligence.

“We’re leveraging AI to the max extent” for drone detection, said Barefoot. 

Ukraine’s Kara Dag drone detectors use AI to identify new drones or parse fragmentary signals to make determinations about possible enemy drones. 

The Corps eventually hopes to field a dense layer of sensors, said Lt. Col. Robert Barclay, an air defense advisor at Marine Corps Aviation: “The idea is to litter the battlespace with sensors.”

Barclay said the Marines also need to be less reliant on the large, easily identifiable sensors they’ve used in the past, as well as become skilled in fusing data and sending information down to the most junior units on the battlefield. 

The “Ukrainians do a really good job of getting everything down” to lower-level units and then striking the drones, he said. 

Another problem, for U.S. and Ukrainian forces alike, is telling friendly drones from enemy ones.

It’s “something we haven’t quite figured out” yet, Barclay said.

The Corps is also seeking more ways to bring down drones. Barclay wants to explore the use of small drones to take down other drones, a tactic that is already playing out in the skies of Ukraine. Having more kinetic options will become increasingly important as drones become more autonomous and less reliant on jammable navigation and control systems, he said.

Barclay noted that visual terrain navigation systems and other autonomous navigation tools are supplanting GPS and other systems that are prone to jamming. Some Ukrainian drones use visual navigation systems, which fly by comparing their video feed to stored images of their desired route.

Amid concerns that the increasing use of drones limits the U.S. military’s ability to engage in the fast-moving warfare for which it trains, Barclay also noted the importance of using cover to avoid being observed by drones. 

Concealment is “critical,” Barclay said. “Passive air defense is a real thing, and it’s even more imperative now to move under cover.”