Drone Wall Limits of “complete” defence against aerial threats

In late May 2024‭, ‬Lithuania‭, ‬Latvia‭, ‬Estonia‭, ‬Finland‭, ‬Norway‭, ‬and Poland decided to establish a new defensive zone along their‭ ‬borders with Russia‭, ‬dubbed the‭ “‬Drone Wall‭.”‬

According to the initial plan‭, ‬this zone will rely on drones and anti-drone systems to counter eastern provocations and threats‭,‬‭ ‬and to prevent smuggling‭, ‬implicitly referring to Russia‭, ‬however‭, ‬the timeline for implementing this plan has yet to be determined‭.‬

This study aims to analyse the dimensions of this new defensive concept and assess its effectiveness‭, ‬especially as it may escalate tensions with Russia‭. ‬The primary purpose of the drones is to gather intelligence on the Russian interior close to the borders‭, ‬making these systems susceptible to targeting by Russian forces‭.‬

The Air Defence Dilemma‭ ‬

Air defence systems typically comprise two main components‭: ‬airborne systems and ground-based systems‭. ‬The primary objective of‭ ‬any air defence system is the effective interception of attacks‭, ‬whether from fighters‭, ‬missiles‭, ‬or drones‭, ‬by detecting threats from a sufficient distance and deploying weapons to engage them‭.‬

Satellites are also a critical element of robust defence systems‭. ‬For example‭, ‬American satellites from the Defence Support Program have been an essential part of early warning systems in North America‭.‬

These satellites help detect missile launches‭, ‬space launches‭, ‬and nuclear explosions using infrared sensors to detect heat from‭ ‬missiles and their exhaust plumes‭. ‬Since 1995‭, ‬the United States has made technological advances to enhance the detection of smaller missiles‭, ‬providing better warnings of short-range missile attacks against US and allied forces worldwide‭.‬

Despite efforts to develop sufficient capabilities to detect all aerial threats‭, ‬a defence system capable of intercepting all types of threats‭, ‬including drones‭, ‬ballistic missiles‭, ‬and emerging threats like hypersonic missiles‭, ‬has not yet been developed‭.‬‭ ‬

The United States has spent approximately‭ $‬165‭ ‬billion over 65‭ ‬years developing air defence systems to counter intercontinental‭ ‬ballistic missiles and other aerial threats‭. ‬However‭, ‬these efforts have not yet succeeded‭, ‬especially as US adversaries like Russia‭, ‬China‭, ‬and North Korea develop more advanced and complex missiles‭, ‬such as hypersonic missiles‭, ‬which current air defence‭ ‬systems cannot intercept‭.‬

Furthermore‭, ‬the Russian-Ukrainian war since 2022‭, ‬and the Israeli war on Gaza since October 7‭, ‬2023‭, ‬including limited skirmishes between Israel and Iran‭, ‬have revealed that there are no air defence systems capable of providing complete protection from all threats‭. ‬The Iron Dome system collapsed entirely during Hamas’s October 7‭ ‬attack‭, ‬when Hamas and other Palestinian groups simultaneously launched a large number of rockets‭. ‬In June 2024‭, ‬Hezbollah claimed to have targeted and destroyed an Iron Dome platform at Israel’s Ramot Naftali military base‭, ‬even without launching a large number of rockets to paralyse the system‭, ‬as Hamas did‭.‬

Dimensions of the Six-Nation Plan‭:‬

The‭ “‬Drone Wall‭” ‬proposal announced by six European countries can be detailed as follows‭:‬

1‭. ‬The Parallel European Project‭:‬‭ ‬Five of these six countries are members of the European Union‭, ‬except Norway‭. ‬Therefore‭, ‬it is expected that these countries might request European funds to finance this project‭. ‬However‭, ‬this project does not seem significantly different from the‭ “‬European Sky Shield Initiative‭,” ‬announced by several European countries‭, ‬led by Germany‭, ‬on 13‭ ‬October 2022‭. ‬The initiative aims to establish a‭ “‬European Sky Shield‭” ‬to fill gaps in European air defence systems in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine‭. ‬The number of member countries increased to around 21‭ ‬after Switzerland and Austria joined the initiative in mid-2023‭, ‬and Poland joined‭ ‬simultaneously with the‭ “‬Drone Wall‭.”‬

This raises questions about the differences between the‭ “‬Drone Wall‭” ‬and the‭ “‬European Sky Shield‭.” ‬One possible answer is that‭ ‬the Sky Shield has not progressed quickly enough‭, ‬partly due to the substantial funding required to purchase air defence systems‭. ‬Additionally‭, ‬European countries have been directing a portion of their military industrial output to support Ukraine against‭ ‬Russia‭, ‬especially after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s calls for Western countries to provide air defence systems to‭ ‬help Ukraine counter Russian attacks during the first half of 2024‭.‬

The German project has faced criticism from France‭, ‬as the European Sky Shield relies primarily on purchasing American and Israeli air defence systems‭, ‬thereby neglecting European companies and their potential to develop defensive systems against perceived‭ ‬future Russian threats‭. ‬To reconcile German and French perspectives‭, ‬some research centres have suggested that European countries borrow funds to purchase American defence systems while allocating part of their budgets to develop European air defence systems‭. ‬This would mean that short-term purchases of American systems would not conflict with European defence industries‭’ ‬medium and long-term development‭.‬

Nevertheless‭, ‬both the Drone Wall and the European Sky Shield face significant funding issues‭. ‬Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne‭ ‬Bilotaite announced that the Drone Wall is still in the early stages of development and has no specific timeline for implementation‭.‬

2‭. ‬The Increasing Fear of Russia‭: ‬There is a growing number of defence and security projects in Europe‭, ‬reflecting an increasing fear of Russia‭, ‬especially in light of Ukraine’s failure in its counteroffensive against Russia‭. ‬Many European countries‭, ‬particularly in Eastern Europe‭, ‬had hoped this offensive would weaken Moscow‭.‬

An example of conflicting defence projects is not only the discrepancy between the Drone Wall and the European Sky Shield but also the signing of an agreement by Estonia‭, ‬Latvia‭, ‬and Lithuania in January 2024‭. ‬This agreement aimed to‭ “‬deter and defend against military threats if necessary‭,” ‬despite the three countries being NATO members‭. ‬This raises the question of whether these countries fear that NATO might not provide sufficient support‭, ‬a scenario that seems unlikely‭.‬

3‭. ‬Mitigating Potential Threats‭:‬‭ ‬The six nations announced that the primary goal of the Drone Wall is to monitor drones and acquire the capability to counter Russian activities‭. ‬Thus‭, ‬this alliance might be aimed at thwarting any Russian sabotage operations‭. ‬In September 2022‭, ‬Western countries allegedly used an explosion to sabotage the Nord Stream 1‭ ‬and 2‭ ‬pipelines‭, ‬which seemed to have angered Russia‭. ‬Conversely‭, ‬another attack occurred in northern Lithuania targeting the Amber Grid gas pipelines‭, ‬connecting the Baltic States to Poland‭, ‬in January 2023‭, ‬just months after the Nord Stream explosions‭.‬

Although the operator of the Amber Grid pipeline ruled out sabotage‭, ‬it cannot be dismissed that Moscow might retaliate against‭ ‬any NATO country involved in similar sabotage acts‭, ‬like the Nord Stream explosions‭. ‬Hence‭, ‬the Drone Wall aims to counter threats from border infiltration and sabotage operations‭. ‬This is reinforced by the fact that the Lithuanian Interior Minister announced the Drone Wall initiative‭.‬

4‭. ‬Potential Threat to Moscow‭:‬‭ ‬Despite the Drone Wall being presented as a defensive measure‭, ‬it cannot be overlooked that it might pose direct threats to Russia‭. ‬Drones are known to be used for reconnaissance and espionage‭. ‬Even though they fly outside the targeted state’s borders‭, ‬they can use their surveillance equipment to spy and capture signals and images within the target state‭, ‬which could escalate tensions with Russia‭.‬

Prominent Challenges

Despite the ambitious European projects to secure their airspace from potential Russian threats‭, ‬these plans will face numerous‭ ‬challenges‭, ‬which can be detailed as follows‭:‬

1‭. ‬Overcoming Russian Superiority‭:‬

US and Ukrainian military officials recently acknowledged Russia’s superiority in electronic warfare‭, ‬negatively affecting the performance of American weapons‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬Daniel Patt‭, ‬a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute‭, ‬noted that Russian jamming reduced the effectiveness of the GPS-guided Excalibur 155mm artillery from 70%‭ ‬to 6%‭. ‬Drones‭, ‬small-diameter bombs‭, ‬and some communication systems have proven similarly vulnerable to jamming‭, ‬undermining their effectiveness‭.‬

The Baltic States are among the most exposed to these threats‭. ‬In early 2024‭, ‬the foreign ministers of the Baltic States separately accused Russia of jamming GPS signals across the Baltic Sea region‭, ‬forcing civilian flights between Helsinki and Estonia to‭ ‬abort mid-flight‭. ‬The jamming also disrupted signals used by boats in the Baltic Sea‭, ‬prompting the Swedish Navy to issue warnings regarding shipping safety‭. ‬The Baltic States accuse Russia of jamming from the Kaliningrad enclave‭, ‬situated between Poland‭ ‬and Lithuania on the Baltic Sea‭. ‬This Russian measure might not necessarily be offensive but could be defensive‭, ‬as a senior official from one of the Baltic States suggested that Russia might be trying to protect Kaliningrad from potential Ukrainian drone‭ ‬attacks‭. ‬Regardless‭, ‬Moscow’s superiority in electronic jamming will undermine the effectiveness of employing drones as part of‭ ‬the European Drone Wall defensive system‭.‬

2‭. ‬Escalating Tensions with Moscow‭:‬

Air defence systems pose a significant issue‭; ‬although they primarily serve a defensive role‭, ‬they can represent a substantial threat to other nations‭. ‬The ability of a country to intercept all threats from ballistic or cruise missiles or other aerial threats theoretically implies it can launch ballistic missile strikes against other countries and intercept retaliatory strikes‭, ‬undermining nuclear deterrence‭. ‬Deterrence relies on a state’s ability to absorb a first strike and retaliate‭, ‬ensuring mutual destruction‭.‬

This reality is evident in the history of air defence systems among major powers‭, ‬specifically between the Soviet Union‭ (‬and later Russia‭) ‬and the United States‭. ‬Military theorists distinguish three main eras‭. ‬The first era spans from the 1960s to 1972‭, ‬marked by both countries developing intercontinental ballistic missiles‭, ‬submarine-launched ballistic missiles‭, ‬and air defence systems against such missiles without restrictions‭, ‬leading to a significant arms race‭.‬

The second era lasted from 1972‭ ‬to 2002‭, ‬following the signing of the Anti-Ballistic Missile‭ (‬ABM‭) ‬Treaty‭. ‬The treaty aimed to limit anti-ballistic missile systems used to defend against nuclear-armed ballistic missiles‭. ‬According to the treaty‭, ‬each party‭ ‬was limited to two ABM systems with no more than 100‭ ‬interceptors each‭.‬

The third era began in June 2002‭, ‬when the US‭, ‬under President George Bush‭, ‬withdrew from the ABM Treaty to develop missile defence systems‭. ‬However‭, ‬this spurred Russia to develop not only its air defence systems but also hypersonic missiles that are difficult to intercept with traditional air defence systems‭. ‬Thus‭, ‬a new arms race began post-2002‭, ‬with both countries striving to‭ ‬develop air defence systems and offensive ballistic missiles‭.‬

Therefore‭, ‬any nation’s attempt to secure itself fully ultimately threatens others‭. ‬Historically‭, ‬such efforts have not succeeded and often produced counterproductive results‭. ‬For instance‭, ‬the US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty and its attempts to develop‭ ‬a missile shield led to Washington’s failure to create such a shield and prompted Russia to acquire hypersonic missiles that current air defence systems cannot intercept‭.‬


Defending against aerial threats remains practically challenging‭. ‬Nations continue to seek defence against aerial threats by acquiring offensive missile capabilities to deter adversaries‭, ‬contributing to stability in interactions among major powers and their military alliances‭. ‬However‭, ‬all European defence concepts‭, ‬whether represented by the Drone Wall or the European Sky Shield‭,‬‭ ‬remain theoretical and untested in practical scenarios‭. ‬The ultimate goal of intercepting all aerial threats seems difficult to‭ ‬achieve‭, ‬as no Western air defence systems have proven capable of intercepting all aerial threats‭, ‬a fact evident in the Russian-Ukrainian war‭.‬

»‬‭ ‬By‭: ‬Dr‭. ‬Shadi Abdelwahab‭ ‬

(‬Associate Professor at the National Defence College‭ – ‬Abu Dhabi‭)‬

Al Jundi

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