Patriot missiles, similar to those stationed in Saudi Arabia, are aimed skyward at a base near the Iraqi border.Todd Maisel / NY Daily News via Getty Images
But it turned out that the threat that has grown most rapidly in recent years comes not from manned aircraft, but the drones and low-flying cruise missiles that are proliferating rapidly across the globe due to exports from China, Israel and Russia.
Drones and missiles can be detected by radar, but they tend to have small radar signatures and can fly close to the ground, sharply reducing the detection range and thus opportunities to fire on them from far away. They also are easy to maneuver, allowing them to hit the coverage gaps between radars and Patriot batteries. And drones and cruise missiles are often cheaper than a $2 million or $3 million Patriot missile, meaning the supply of Patriots can be depleted much faster than the bevy of drones launching attacks.
Another option in development — by China and Russia as well as the United States — is the use of laser weapons that could burn drones or missiles out of the sky with a “shot” that costs virtually nothing (though the weapons themselves aren’t cheap). Lasers also boast very fast reaction times and a high degree of accuracy. On the downside, lasers lack a kinetic “punch” to jar an incoming missile off its trajectory if the laser’s heat doesn’t do the job; they can be degraded by foggy conditions; and they require a lot of power to work at longer distances.