Correcting the Cost Imbalance in Counter-Unmanned Aerial System Solutions

Epirus News
NOV 10 2022

With militarized drone usage on the rise, it’s time for cost to take center stage in the counter-electronics conversation

The threat Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or ‘drones’, pose to U.S. servicemembers has ramped up in recent years. In August, U.S.-led coalition forces in Syria repelled multiple drones near the At-Tanf base, with one of the explosive-laden drones evading defense systems and impacting in the compound.

This is, unfortunately, not an isolated incident. Multiple drone attacks threatened American troops in the first few weeks of 2022 alone. And Russia’s war in Ukraine confirms drone warfare is here to stay, as Russian forces launched Iranian-supplied “kamikaze” drones aimed directly at civilian and infrastructure targets in Kiev – working alongside missiles to seriously damage 40 percent of Ukraine’s power stations.

As the UAS threat rapidly increases in severity and scope, combating it in a cost-effective manner remains a challenge. Israel used F-35s to strike down two Iranian drones approaching its territory in 2021. F-35s can cost over $100 million per unit.

Commercial, off-the-shelf drones can be purchased online for hundreds-of-dollars and easily outfitted with malicious payloads or used for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). This tactic, favored by non-state actors such as ISIS and Hezbollah, has led to scenarios as seemingly ridiculous as a $3 million Patriot missile being used to down a $200 small quadcopter drone.

This unacceptable cost imbalance is created by the fact that UAS are an asymmetric threat – not only are small drones more easily accessible than military-grade jets and missiles, but they are also dramatically cheaper. This has left the U.S. and its allies scrambling to find solutions to form a layered defense network that is not only effective at combatting a range of threats but also cost-effective.

Figure 1: Cost per unit of kinetic counter-UAS solutions vs. cost per unit of a small commercial drone


The wide variety of technologies used for counter-Unmanned Aerial Systems (c-UAS) effects can be sorted into two primary categories: kinetic approaches and non-kinetic solutions.

Among the most expensive kinetic approaches are using F-35s as interceptors and Patriot missiles. But even comparatively less expensive approaches can rack up huge price tags. For example, using a defensive interceptor drone to counter an incoming offensive drone is estimated to cost anywhere from tens-of-thousands to over a hundred thousand dollars per kill.

Similarly, the Marine Air Defense Integrated System (MADIS), a c-UAS solution being developed by the U.S. military, is equipped with Stinger missiles. 1,300 Stinger missiles were recently purchased for $624 million. This appears to put the total cost per missile well above $400,000.  

Kinetic solution’s munitions can generally only be used one-time per fire (and generally only kill one-drone per fire), and magazines must be constantly replenished, leading to both increased costs and supply chain issues. By contrast, non-kinetic solutions typically have unlimited magazine depth, and only cost as much as the power used to generate each fire. Non-kinetic solutions to c-UAS – such as jammers, lasers, and high-power microwave (HPM) – therefore present a dramatically more cost-effective approach than kinetic solutions.

The cost-effectiveness of non-kinetic solutions can be further improved with innovative approaches to power management, which waste less power in the process of converting energy from the power source to the non-kinetic effector, that is, the waveform. Leonidas, Epirus’ solid-state, software-defined HPM system, uses a form of machine-intelligent power management to gate power at the nanosecond level, dramatically improving the efficiency of power output.

In this way, Leonidas can neutralize drones at an estimated cost of less than 1 cent per kill.

With this, Leonidas effectively turns the c-UAS cost imbalance on its head by making hundred-or-thousand-dollar drones significantly more expensive to deploy than defeat, reclaiming the financial advantage for defenders.

And even while Leonidas is a non-kinetic solution, it yields effects that are wholly different from jammers, which solely effect a drones’ the Command and Control (C2) platform, and lasers, which cut through the UAS like a ‘bullet made of light’. HPM, by contrast, can create a range of effects – from ‘soft kill’ resets to ‘hard kills’ that fry the electronics – and take down entire drone swarms in addition to single targets.

Epirus has introduced three iterations of Leonidas in record time, with more under development – achieving this all with private capital. Other companies often take decades to field prototypes and require significantly more capital, typically billing the government for individual engineering hours, rather than providing a ready-made and mission ready product. By absorbing the engineering fees, and including an efficient engineering process, Epirus has radically reduced upfront costs for the U.S. military.

Figure 2: Cost per fire of Leonidas HPM system vs. cost per unit of small commercial drone


The c-UAS cost imbalance will continue increasing alongside the sustained rise of affordable and easily accessible drones. When integrated alongside existing air defense solutions, Leonidas serves as an element of layered defense that provides an affordable alternative to kinetic solutions. Its cost per shot is significantly less than Patriot missiles, its cost per unit is significantly less than F-35s, and it is not a single-use technology as are many interceptor drones.

Leonidas is also exceptionally effective at countering sophisticated threats, such as drone swarms, that pose a significant challenge to other c-UAS solutions. While kinetic solutions, such as drone-on-drone dogfighting and other forms of ‘metal in the air,’ typically only kill one drone per shot, and maximum two to three drones at once, Leonidas’ unique beam steering capability allows the system to down large swarms of autonomous drones simultaneously.

Other forms of directed energy, such as high energy lasers, are essentially bullets made of light that usually only take out one target at a time. Lasers, in addition to requiring large power sources, also have a long dwell time, rendering them ineffective against drone swarms. The performance of lasers can also be degraded by adverse ambient weather conditions – such as rain or snow – whereas HPM systems do not suffer the same limitations. Non-kinetic solutions such as jammers are also set to become obsolete with the rise in demand for autonomous UAS that do not require C2l, as well as other forms of jamming-resistant drones.

A sustainable and strategic path that is both cost-effective and innovative is one of U.S. Army Secretary Christine Wormuth’s top objectives, and this goal is shared across many leaders throughout the joint force. Highly interoperable, Leonidas can integrate alongside existing kinetic and non-kinetic solutions to form a robust layered defense network that protects both fixed sites and maneuver forces against a range of threats.

By providing modern, maneuverable, mission ready and cost-effective HPM technology, Epirus kills two birds with one stone – and swarms of drones in one pulse – thus empowering the joint force to accelerate and enhance its response to one of the most significant threats of our time.