June 3, 2024No Comments

The viability of small Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) fulfilling conventional battlefield roles

by Joseph Moses - Military Strategy & Intelligence Team

Drone warfare has been one of the salient capabilities of the First World’s futuristic military arsenal through the conflicts of the 2000s and 2010s. The war that broke out in Ukraine in 2022, and the battlefields in Myanmar, Sudan and Gaza have since been the arena for another emerging technology that in tactical situations, proven to be decisive. These are the small drones ranging from the FPV variants, commercial hobby drones like the DJI drones. 

This essay focuses on smaller systems and aerial systems because these grant a force cheap options and also grant significant stealth, mobility, equipment safety, and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) collection capabilities and provide economically cheap tactically offensive capabilities than ground-based or water based systems. Another reason to focus on small drones is their assignment to smaller troop formations which grants these systems a very versatile and efficient [semi]autonomous usage. Furthermore, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI), also potentially negates the necessity of connecting the drones to nodal points like bigger drones or nearby aircraft which gives them relative immunity from detection and electronic countermeasures. This essay also focuses on electronic countermeasures (jamming) and not on energy weapons and kinetic countermeasures because this uniquely counters the threat posed by drones while rendering them temporarily inert as opposed to kinetic and energy countermeasures which destroy these systems.

Turkish and Iranian drones had been at the forefront of remotely controlled vehicles for precision strikes, kamikaze strikes and monitoring purposes in the initial months of the Ukraine war, providing cheaper options for drone warfare. However, over the course of the war, smaller drones have not only emerged but have caused major disruptions in the battlefield, dispatching enemy tanks, and armored vehicles, coordinating artillery strikes, and targeting small and mobile targets like combatants and individual vehicles. Initially, they were improvised to carry and drop grenades and mortars over enemy combatants and for surveillance. In recent months, these drones have begun to trickle into the battlefield on an industrial scale, with manufactured “pylons” to attach munitions onto these small drones. Modified FPV drones are used as guided kamikaze weapons. These drones also have increased ranges to increase their surveilling and strike capabilities.

These smaller drones can by no means in the short term, replace the bigger fixed-winged drones that are conventional in militaries nor will they have the costly sensor arrays and range of conventional kamikaze drones and other loitering munitions, but they do provide stealth, loitering and precision strike capability and above all, are expendable. In addition, given their precise nature, these drones also contribute to reducing collateral damage to both life and material which is inevitable with protracted infantry engagements, artillery and air strikes. 

In many ways, they fulfil the roles of snipers, forward observers, provide a good vantage point for observing and calculating firing solutions for artillery and conducting battle damage assessments, and one could argue, that the precision strikes by kamikaze drones and loitering drones are a form of Close Air Support (CAS). Another recent development as of the time of writing, is the emergence of AI being implemented in drone strikes in Ukraine to autonomously identify and strike targets. If developed, this would be a form of highly manoeuvrable and precise fire-and-forget missiles and would provide the drone launcher and operator significant situational awareness by relieving the targeting proces. It is yet to be seen at scale if autonomy is reliable across the ‘kill chain’ of target detection, discrimination, acquisition, and engagement.

While the improvised nature of the first iterations of loitering bomber drones carrying grenades and mortar shells was considered an asymmetrical and unconventional tactic, the new emerging technologies being integrated into these systems with the potential for these smaller and cheaper systems to replace conventional battlefield roles with the same quality of data collection, precision etc., could transform these systems into significant conventional and force multipliers. 

Replacing conventional battlefield roles:

The Drone Swarm: The recent attack on Israel by Iranian kamikaze drones and the number of attacks on oil refineries in Russia by Ukrainian drones are isolated examples of the drone swarm. While these drones can be intercepted, there are yet to be incidents involving swarms of smaller drones used against frontline troops where interceptions are much more difficult and where these drones will have the effect of cluster munitions or rocket strikes. The chief difference would be that these munitions would be far more accurate, and manoeuvrable and can potentially loiter, change course, make quick decisions, change targets etc.

These drones are difficult to intercept because of how small silent and cheap they are. If expensive air defence systems are used to soak these swarms up, this leaves these expensive air defence systems vulnerable to counterstrikes and with a reduced magazine in their positions. If it is included in doctrine, to ignore smaller drones, this would prove to be catastrophic to frontline troops, isolated patrols, and vehicles. The American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), as of 2016 has already been experimenting with integrating autonomous systems into swarm drone tactics through their OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics program (OFFSET). The US Department of Defense unveiled its “Replicator” program in 2023 and has planned on fielding thousands of autonomous systems across multiple domains by 2025 to counter Chinese military build-up in the Indo-Pacific. It has been confirmed that one of the systems that is a part of this program is the Switchblade loitering munition in association with the Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance (LASSO) program. The first iteration of the Replicator program aims to tackle the problem of slowing or defeating an invading force with swarms of lethal surface drones and overhead loitering munitions. This would shift the most dangerous battlefield roles of frontline repellence and area denial from manned vehicles and posts to unmanned and semi-autonomous or autonomous swarms, creating a highly fluid, dynamic and unpredictable ‘minefield’ for an advancing enemy force.

With the battlefield potential of swarm strikes, and with the novel usage of AI in Ukraine to discriminate targets and avoid electronic warfare measures, it is only a matter of time before swarm tactics will be implemented in drone swarms of smaller UASs to react, improve and harass frontline troops and significantly attack an enemy’s tactical defensive posturing while not costing the user significantly economically and commercially. This drone could be FPV (disposable) to loitering bombing drones, to drones with attached machine guns, rockets and other anti-drone counter-measures. While these systems can be assigned at squad levels, these can also be assigned at higher levels and be used in fire missions, and joint operations across wider active theaters. 

Source: Image by Pexels from Pixabay

CAS and sniper/precision-strike roles: The mobility and silent nature of drones affords fighting forces in urban settings and open terrain likewise, map out, reconnoiter, stalk and even kill hiding and isolated combatants. Their manoeuvrability can be used to attack fixed encampments as we see in the conflict in Gaza between Hamas and the Israeli IDF. Similarly, we have seen videos of Israeli forces using small copter drones to enter houses and search for Hamas combatants room by room, after which they can either engage through squads or call in an artillery or air strike against the entrenched enemy. While these strikes can be expensive, we can soon expect to see these strikes being taken up by the same reconnoitring drone. This economically relieves artillery batteries, tanks or aircraft while it also frees up the squad can focus on other operations/activities.  

A similar argument can be made for these systems being used in a CAS role. Given the precision, and payloads these drones can now carry and/or drop onto enemy positions and also strike and harass mobile enemies they can fulfill a very versatile CAS role while being assigned to smaller units like squads and platoons. In a swarm scenario or in a dynamic battlefield that is not shaped by shaping operations, while deconfliction could be a challenge for controlled and autonomous systems operated by smaller troop formations, this is already being performed in Ukraine against individual targets and to harass and survey larger formations. While these small drones may not be able to conduct large scale Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD) operations, these smaller systems can be used as decoys, perform smaller precision strikes against less guarded enemy air defences, and psychologically de-motivate an infantry fighting force when used strategically. 

The primary advantage of conventional CAS systems is their precision, damage dealt and psychological effect of their munitions/guns with the disadvantage of being vulnerable to enemy ground fire from small handheld systems to surface-to-air missiles. With small drone systems, the advantage primarily is a relative degree of visual and audible stealth, the expendable nature of these systems and the shock-and-awe they provide to an enemy not expecting a highly mobile and smart targeting system. These systems can also drastically reduce the time required for a CAS aircraft to get to the battlefield as these will be at the hands of the squad or platoon members.

Electronic Warfare and AI:

The primary non-energy and non-kinetic deterrence against these drones have been electronic jamming countermeasures that are used to sever the connection between the drone operator and the drone. This has led to drone confiscations and loss of battlefield information and intelligence on drones that store information offline instead of storing/recording them on the operator’s system as a redundancy measure.

With the emergence of AI being integrated into kamikaze and FPV drones, these drones do not need operator control. An improvement already being made on non-autonomous FPV systems was for the operator to target an immobile or mobile enemy and place the drone on a trajectory towards the target at maximum velocity. This tactic negates the electronic countermeasure’s effects as the severance of the connection cannot stop the momentum of the inbound kamikaze drone. Integrating AI into these smaller and faster systems is a new concept but can be seen being implemented in the Ukrainian and Russian battlefields. These drones provide the tactical advantage of identifying and discriminating targets without requiring an operator but are also beginning to prove to be immune to electronic countermeasures as they have the target and terrain information and parameters pre-loaded into them.

While the disadvantage of AI is the lack of human supervision across the entire ‘kill chain’, the real-world consequences and level of permissible and reliable autonomy are yet to be seen at scale. In the future, this would be a contentious matter, especially in a battlefield with a civilian population, in urban counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations and could cause deconfliction challenges in an active and fluid battlefield. Real-time decision-making relieves the operator while also leaving the door open for the aforementioned challenges when it comes to targeting mobile targets or operating in a highly dynamic battlefield. Active deconfliction of a changing battlefield would require a constant connection between frontline troops, the drone operator and the drone.

While the possibilities are many, it is yet to be seen how the current improvisations, augmentations to/for conventional battlefield roles with the added potential of machine autonomy, would affect the composition of smaller combat units and doctrine.

Where conventional CAS, ISR and precision strike systems and roles are expensive, require scarce expertise and are not expendable, these UAS systems are the exact opposite while also being a force multiplier. It is however yet to be seen whether they would have the same psychological effect and efficacy to either augment or replace major decisive battlefield interdiction roles.

November 19, 2021No Comments

The role of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles in Modern Naval Warfare

By: Marco Verrocchio and Danilo delle Fave.

Image Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MK_18_MOD_2_Swordfish_UUV.JPG

The two types of Unmanned Underwater Vehicles 

In order to intercept and strike isolated enemy forces, to organise ambushes to naval convoys, and, in general, to obtain naval supremacy, Navies around the world had to rely on air surveillance: until now maritime surveillance has always been dependent on the use of submarines. Not anymore.

In the recent decades a significant contribution to maritime surveillance has come from the use of UUVs (Unmanned Underwater Vehicles). Although they are less familiar in comparison to their Aerial counterparts and they operate in a different environment, the technology underlying both systems is similar. Underwater drones can be divided in two main categories: the remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROUVs) and the Autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs). While the former have a long history of widespread use in deep-sea exploration and underwater wrecks investigations, the second ones have been developed for research purposes. 

Despite that, AUVs military development and employment outbroke only in the last years in newspapers columns and news, creating an aura of mystery surrounding AUVs. This happened due to two factors. First, many AUVs are still in a semi-prototype phase of development. Secondly, they are used also in ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) operations. Not surprisingly, their use becomes public only when fishermen boats accidentally discover one of them.

Current use of UUVs

The major and well-known theatre of use of AUVs is the contested South China Sea. Not coincidentally, their employment in the region escalated since 2016, when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague refused China’s claim over the SCS. Although AUVs are unmarked, Indonesia, Philippines, Australia and Taiwan have warned the US about the use of Chinese AUVs, discovered close to their coasts by fishermen or coast guards. 

Politically, the AUVs have become a tool to raise the tension in the Area. For instance, the seizure of an American AUV by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) in 2016 has been announced in response to Trump's call with the Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen. The same happened in April 2021, with the allegation that a Boeing manufactured AUV was spying on Chinese coasts. Moreover, the use of UUVs raised a legal debate, due to the lack of a political framework on the use of unmanned systems underwater: they defy the laws and customs of the Law of the Sea, and will continue to do so without proper international regulation.

All these factors plus the technological advance will contribute to the massive use of UUVs in the future not only in South-East Asia, but also in other parts of the world, for instance in the Mediterranean: Turkey has developed a Stingray-shaped drone that can be used for surveillance or it can carry explosives to blow up a ship. Nevertheless, a major threat that concerns US NATO partners is the development of the Russian AUV “Poseidon”, a nuclear propelled torpedo able to carry a nuclear warhead that can be launched by submarines.

Aside from the development of UUV, countering underwater drones has been used to contrast enemy operations: in 2016 UK has hosted one of the biggest exercises together with US, using squads of UUVs which successfully detected other UUVs and submarines. Therefore, the UUVs will play a crucial role in naval supremacy: we will see the use of swarm drone attacks against enemy aircrafts, the massive implementation of UUVs in naval surveillance, the development of anti-drone ships and UUVs, the introduction of unmanned surface ships in Navies all over the world.  

With the development of the UUVs, we are heading towards a new era, as happened before with the development of the UAVs, the ever greater potential of these devices will completely change our perception of the war. In addition, given their low cost, they will create more competition and difficulties among the countries, allowing countries less technologically advanced as the West to obtain the means to counter Western naval supremacy.

October 22, 2021No Comments

Loitering Munitions, the new frontier of XXI° Century warfare

By: Marco Verrocchio, Danilo delle Fave

Source Image: https://www.pexels.com/photo/silhouette-of-camera-drone-flew-in-mid-air-442587/


In recent years, the development of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has increased rapidly, thanks to the successful use in unconventional warfare theatres, as well as for civil purposes, such as environmental disasters. Ranging from Aerial Reconnaissance to package delivery, their use is now consolidated all over the world in everyday life. Due to the large use of them in different fields, there is a significant interest in developing drones conceived to accomplish specific military purposes. Among them, today a new kind of drones is proving very popular among armed forces: The loitering munitions swarm. This weapon system combines the advantages of a UAV with the specifics of a swarm SAM rocket system with anti-armor, anti-personnel and anti-material targets. Called also “suicide drone” or “kamikaze drone”, a loitering munition differs from a conventional UAV because it is only equipped with an explosive warhead in order to crash towards the target. 

Although the interest in this kind of weapon rose recently, the development of an unmanned flying bomb can be tracked back to Nazi’s Germany. The German V-1 (Vergeltungswaffen 1 - retaliation weapon 1) can be considered as an ancestor of the loitering munitions weapon. It was an unmanned jet propelled flying bomb used to terrorize the civilians of Allied cities, especially London and Antwerp. In addition to be unmanned and one-target, the V-1 shared different features with the current loitering system, including low-cost production and easy assembly. Nowadays the modern loitering munition has been developed on a large scale by the Israeli Harop loitering munition system: presented in February 2009 at the Aero-India show, he represents the main model of modern loitering munitions for airforces around the world.

The modern use of loitering munitions

At the beginning, the initial model of loitering munition was designed to autonomously attack one kind of defensive installation, with the development of the communication system, technology, processing and miniaturized sensors, today the loitering munitions can serve a range of functions in war once reserved for crewed aircraft or artillery.

An example of their use during a conflict, and how they can influence the strategy of the warfare system, was during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where both Azerbaijan and Armenia used the loitering munitions in order to destroy the anti-air defences of the opponent. In addition to that, the loitering munitions can be exploited to turn into a missile and crash into a target without needing direct human supervision. 

This action was seen last year in march, when a drone was used in this way against a human target. The episode happened in Libya, and there was a convoy of the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar, which was attacked by drones, that may have included a Kargu-2 autonomous quadcopter and loitering munitions. 

Through the use of the loitering munitions during conflict or not, it is clear the fundamental importance of the airspace in the battlefield and moreover the necessity to establish a regulation of their use, because at the moment this technology, which enables this weapon system to be used without human control and to target people, is being used without regulation.

The future of unmanned warfare 

Loitering munitions and its systematic use has highlighted the new frontiers of warfare. As proven by recent experiments and projects, militaries around the world are developing programs in order to introduce the use of massive swarm attacks by drones, and countermeasures to drone warfare. Loitering munitions represents a peculiar use of drone warfare, which could be exploited primarily in the context of hybrid warfare. The most advanced militaries have the technology to implement countermeasures, from electromagnetic interference to anti-drone drones, while middle and small armies are the most affected by these cheap and effective weapons. 

The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has shown how efficient are the loitering munitions against old SAM systems, which were the main target of the drone strikes by Azeri army: after annihilating air defences, the aviation had proceed to operate without the risks of anti-aircraft fire, and with the help of the loitering munitions, it destroyed the Armenian fortification, allowing a swift victory. Without loitering munitions, the war would have been dragged into a stalemate, as the Armenians would have entrenched themselves with the help of the mountains. Therefore, these new weapons would probably see implementation by military forces, like Iran and Turkey,  who would provide their proxies with them. For instance, the Houtis or Hamas have the interest to economically logorate their adversaries, Saudi Arabia and Israel: the high cost of air defence systems as the THAAD, could be exploited to increase the “war fatigue” of their enemies, with the use of cheap loitering munitions. 

Unmanned warfare is going to revolutionize the way in which war is fought: low tech will present the main challenge to the advanced militaries around the world, since the massive use of loitering munitions can saturate defence systems, no matter how advanced they are. The mix between high tech and low tech could drop to its knee even the mightiest army: loitering munitions represents pre-eminently the spearhead of low tech warfare in modern wars.