As the militaries of the world struggle to adapt to the threat posed by small cheap drones, sometimes the obvious needs answering. Which is why, when the Air Force announced that a fighter jet had successfully shot down a small drone, it caught the attention of the counter-drone world.
Maj. Jeffrey Entine, flying an F-16C with the 85th Flight Test Squadron, shot a rocket at a test drone near Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, Dec. 19, according to a statement from the service. The stated purpose of the test was to “demonstrate shooting a small drone at low altitudes,” and it appears to have been a success.
While “small drone” may call to mind hobbyist quadcopters or the tactical drones used by infantry, the target drone in question was a BQM-167, a kind of drone specifically designed as an aerial target. With a length of 20 feet tip-to-tail and a maximum gross takeoff weight of over 2,000 lbs, the BQM-167 is small only in relation to the jet fighter that shot it down.
Confusing target drones for hobbyist quadcopters is full circle for military terminology. For decades, the most popular use of drone in military circles was as a collective term for flying aerial targets. Training human pilots and gunners on simple moving targets is a long-standing practice; before she was Marilyn Monroe, Norma Jeane Dougherty assembled aerial targets for the Radioplane company during World War II.
What is novel about the recent shoot-down by Entine is that non-target drones, which date back at least as far as World War I, are now a regular part of military operations and civilian life. Air Force pilots shooting down drones outside of combat is an expected practice. While shooting down plane-sized drones in combat is expected, using a whole anti-air missile on a smaller, cheaper target would be overkill.
The weapon used against the drone was an AGR-20A Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) laser-guided rocket, guided by a targeting pod on the F-16.
And, while the F-16 demonstrated an anti-drone capacity with the test, the greater aim was to demonstrate that the laser-guided rocket could be used as an anti-cruise-missile weapon.
“Originally developed as a low cost, low collateral damage air-to-ground weapon for use in Afghanistan and Iraq, adapting the AGR-20A for counter-air use is momentous. The AGR-20A is a fraction of the cost of an AIM-120 missile commonly used for cruise missile defense,” said 53d Wing Office of Public Affairs in a statement. “Additionally, the AGR-20A can be loaded faster than an AIM-120 and an aircraft can carry two-to-three times the number weapons.”
Militaries have yet to settle on a common arsenal of counter-drone tools, and in the absence of such silver bullets, F-16s with laser-guided rockets could fit into a broader picture of layered defense against drones and missiles.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.