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US troops are shooting at balloons to figure out how to beat one of the Ukraine war's most 'dangerous' and unpredictable weapons

A Wisconsin National Guardsman and a small drone holding a balloon.
A Wisconsin National Guardsman and a small drone holding a balloon.Jake Epstein/Business Insider
  • Small drones have emerged as a serious problem on the modern battlefield, especially in Ukraine.

  • The US military is training service members how to engage and defeat this dangerous threat.

  • At Fort Sill in Oklahoma, troops practice shooting down drones by firing at balloons.

An ordinary pink balloon dangling by a string from a small quadcopter drone shakes violently in the wind as it whips across the hills of southwest Oklahoma.

Two National Guardsmen closely track the movement of the balloon, which is unable to stay even remotely still. One of them steadily raises his rifle to the sky. A few seconds — and a few loud bangs — later, the balloon is gone.

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The balloon wasn't dangerous, but it represented a deadly and terrifying threat that has become a defining characteristic of the war in Ukraine and one that the US military is now training to fight against: small drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, that can be packed with explosives.

The two Guardsmen are students at the Joint C-sUAS (Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft System) University, or JCU, a new US Army initiative based at Fort Sill, less than 100 miles southwest of Oklahoma City. There, American service members from all branches of the military have started learning how to identify, engage, and ultimately defeat the emerging drone threat that is rapidly reshaping modern battlefields.

Two Wisconsin National Guardsmen identify drones with their instructor.
Two Wisconsin National Guardsmen identify drones with their instructor.Jake Epstein/Business Insider

"This is everybody's fight," Lt. Col. Moseph Sauda, the JCU director, told Business Insider in an interview during a recent visit to Fort Sill.

More than two years of war in Ukraine has featured drones of all shapes, sizes, and capabilities on both sides. Cheap, commercial drones in particular have performed a myriad of deadly tasks. Small quadcopters are often filmed releasing explosives above troops and armored vehicles or simply flying into them and detonating.

While such tactics have become exceedingly commonplace in Ukraine, they are not unique to the conflict. Weaponized commercial drones were, for instance, used by the Islamic State in the mid-2010s. Their usage presented a new headache for American and partner forces in the Middle East.

"The US took this very seriously," Sauda said. "This prompted us to start rethinking how we train people and getting some weapons systems, and just systems in general, out there to help protect people and save lives."

Operators shoot at a balloon dangling from a small drone.
Operators shoot at a balloon dangling from a small drone.Jake Epstein/Business Insider

The JCU, which is just one element of a much larger Pentagon response to combat the rising threat of drones, essentially emerged as a way to consolidate counter-drone training for service members across the US armed forces in one place.

Since October, hundreds of US troops have come to Fort Sill for two-week courses to learn how to understand, identify, and defeat potentially hostile drones.

"The intent here is to standardize and centralize the training, as well as become a repository and a think tank for this fight," Sauda said.

One aspect of the training involves having JCU pilots fly small drones above firing a range to replicate known and unknown threats. The students at the training center then practice engaging these threats using the Army's counter-drone equipment: the Dronebuster and the Smart Shooter.

The Dronebuster is an electronic warfare system. A user can point it at the drone, and it cuts the signal between the system and its operator. A second service member standing nearby can then use a Smart Shooter system — a rifle outfitted with a special optic that tracks the drone, calculates its trajectory, and informs the user when they have a good chance of hitting it with a conventional bullet — to neutralize it.