There is no single moment more loaded with symbolism for the drone age than the March 2017 news that a U.S. ally used a Patriot missile to shoot down a quadcopter. The venerable surface-to-air missile, which has a unit price of around $2 million to $3 million, was built for an age of expensive targets and suddenly found itself employed against a hobbyist quadcopter that cost no more than a few hundred dollars. Existing anti-air weapons, while available, simply aren’t designed to an era of cheap flying robots. Enter Russia’s new counterdrone vehicle, the SAMUM.
SAMUM stands for Super-mobile Modernized Multi-purpose Artillery Station. It’s a specially built 4x4 all-terrain vehicle with an anti-aircraft turret on the back, featuring a Zu-23-2 23mm anti-aircraft gun. The first iteration of the SAMUM was simply the turret on the truck, and recently got some shiny new upgrades that transform it into a much more useful anti-air platform.
“[The SAMUM] received “new brains” in the form of an automated fire control system, multichannel sightings, and its power was augmented by two ‘Igla’ anti-aircraft missiles,” says Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses. “Targeting and firing from the installation is carried out in three modes: remotely from the armored cab; via electric drives from the gunner’s seat; and via traditional vertical and horizontal mechanical flywheels. In the first two modes, the targeting happens much faster; the third, 'old school’ mode is ‘just in case.’ ”
The SAMUM resembles nothing so much as a deliberately designed “technical,” the catch-all term for trucks and other vehicles armed with scavenged weapons and turned into light armored cavalry by irregular forces across the globe. For countries interested in a more budget-friendly alternative to existing 30mm or missile-dependent anti-air weapons — especially against small, inexpensive drones — the SAMUM is built to use the smaller and cheaper 23mm shells. The reach of the SAMUM’s weapons ranges from targeting nearly a mile high and at a horizontal distance of 1.5 miles to using Igla missiles that can hit targets at altitudes of up to 2 miles high and 3.7 miles away horizontally.
Testing of the SAMUM is expected later this year, with the possibility of the vehicle entering service and foreign sales by late 2022. Should the turret prove effective at its counterdrone mission, it could also be installed on other platforms besides its existing truck-like base. Given Russia’s experience in Syria against lots of cheap insurgent-operated drones, having a cheap and flexible counterdrone vehicle wouldn’t just be a novelty, it would be meeting a real military need.
“Today, Russian designers are working on a range of unmanned ‘gun turrets’ of all kinds. Installing and using such ‘automated firing points’ can be simple and more effective than using larger manned vehicles, tanks or artillery systems,” says Bendett. “This is also due to the improvements in automated targeting and combat situational analysis, something the Russian military has been working on since its Syrian campaign.“
Watch it drive around and pivot below: