02 October 2023
Australian 'drone killer' system Slinger heading for Ukraine
Published 2 October 2023 | 7.30
In the back lot of an industrial site in Canberra, an Australian-produced response to the growing drone threat in Ukraine runs through its paces.
A replica cannon mounted on the back of a pick-up truck tracks its target, part of a weapons system that launches "hard kill" strikes to blow drones out of the sky.
It is called Slinger and it is designed to counter drones at a cost that countries like Ukraine can afford.
"We've seen this massive proliferation of drone threats in Ukraine," said Matt Jones from Electro Optic Systems, or EOS.
"The issue is the types of systems you would currently use to defeat drones are way too expensive to defeat a $10,000 or even a $1,000 drone."
War has changed forever in Ukraine. Drones play a huge role above the front line. It is estimated thousands of drones are in the air every day.
"The speed at which not only can you find people on the battlefield, the speed at which you can target and destroy them, that is changing tactics," retired Australian major general Mick Ryan said.
"It's changing formations, and it's going to have to change military doctrines and equipment everywhere."
'It's all about the cost'
In a world of multi-million-dollar weapon systems, drones are the great equaliser. The feared Iranian Shahed model used by Russia to target tanks and cities costs about $31,000. Others cost less.
The missiles used to shoot them down can cost 10 times as much.
"Up until recently we had to use very expensive missiles to attack these things," Mr Ryan said.
"If you're using a $100,000 or $200,000 missile to shoot down a $10,000 drone, that doesn't work for most countries."
Slinger uses sophisticated technology to achieve a blunt result. In Canberra, EOS test engineer Charlotte Capper used a joystick to follow a drone on the system's targeting screen.
"I'm just making sure it's staying on track, it's staying armed, and when we get the signal we can fire and take down the drone," she said.
"It's very quick and easy to learn. You don't have to know much about the technology. It's easy to see what each thing does and how it does it."
Last month, Ukraine's ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko saw first-hand during testing how Slinger can bring down drones for a fraction of the cost of missiles.
"Sometimes those missiles cost millions. And you hit the drones, which cost $20,000, right? And it's all about the cost," Mr Myroshnychenko said.
"But you never know where that drone is aiming at and what exactly that drone is going to destroy."
Slinger's price tag is less than $1.55 million per system. It aims to take down drones at a cost of between $155 and $1,550 per engagement.
"Ukrainian cities are being attacked by drones and missiles on a daily basis. And we have been seeing these drones now for a year and a half," the Ukrainian ambassador said.
"The Slinger system provides a unique way to target moving targets, especially when we can intercept their drones."
Slingers being shipped to Ukraine
In Queanbeyan and the ACT, EOS assembles the cameras, lasers, and gimbals that make its tracking systems work. Eighty-five per cent of the component parts are sourced from Australian suppliers.
The company's defence products are a direct link to its origins in the space business. EOS monitors objects as small as a 10-cent piece orbiting up to 36,000 kilometres above the Earth.
That technology translates directly into targeting fast-moving small objects – like drones.
"What we're really doing here is we're using the tracking, we're using the stabilisation algorithms we've used to develop for deep space tracking," Mr Jones said.
Ten Slingers now being made in the ACT are expected to be delivered to Ukraine by the end of the year as part of a US military aid package.
A spokesperson for the Department of Defence said the Australian government was committed to delivering on its current contribution to Ukraine. But there are no current plans to add Slingers to the $710 million in Australian military assistance to Ukraine.
Mr Ryan believes Ukraine needs as many counter-drone systems as it can get to defend against the new reality of war.
"This has literally been a Cambrian explosion in the use of drones in warfare," he said.
"One of the most intense periods of innovation and adaptation in the systems that we have ever seen, and we're probably not at the end yet.
"We're probably closer to the beginning than the end."