Following the disruption at Gatwick airport, it is unsurprising that the potential dangers and disruptions that private drones can cause have come sharply into focus. For many experts, the use of a small, readily available, and easily affordable drone to achieve the disruption witnessed at Gatwick was not unforeseen. Instead, there have been increasing warnings from security advisors, financial service experts and even the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, regarding the emerging risk exposures created by the recreational use of drones. The use of commercially available Drones to disrupt civil aviation has been one of the most apparent consequences of allowing the huge proliferation of these devices without ensuring there are relevant safeguards in place first. The prospect of a drone temporarily putting a major airport out of action was a threat which was predicted and reflected the lower end of warnings regarding ‘the potential for catastrophic damage.’ The question must surely be to ask why it has taken so long for this danger to be taken seriously by the government and aviation authorities.
There have been warning signs that drones while offering potentially enormous economic advantages, will be used by those with malign interests. In 2018 alone Drones have been involved in near-misses with RAF jets; caused low-level disruption at numerousairports; been used in an attempted attack on the Venezuelan President; they have also delayed and imperilled aircraft and helicopters involved in fire-fighting efforts. In Syria, the use of Commercially available drones by non-state forces is commonplace, and Kurdish forces released evidence of what they claimed was an ISIS Drone factory in July 2017.
The challenge of countering Drones without sufficient preparation is enormously difficult if the perpetrators are intent on causing disruption. During events at Gatwick, many observers may ask why such drones could not merely be shot down. It is difficult for those not familiar with military topics to immediately conceive that firing high-powered rifle bullets at a target can have potentially lethal collateral consequences if that target is missed – no small possibility when the target is a small, fast and agile Drone in flight. As the UK Security Minister, Ben Wallace stated following the disruption at Gatwick ‘the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions.’
This is not to say that there are no devices capable of disabling Drones, there are. Point-and-shoot ‘drone killers’ exist. These ‘drone killers’ use software-defined radio to jam the specific frequency a drone is operating on causing them to crash. Alternatively, for more sophisticated models, such ‘drone killers’ can force drones to land on auto-pilot. Even minimal preparation at UK airports would have ensured the capacity to detect the frequency a drone was operating on, and the use of a higher-powered transmitter would have provided the capacity to deal with the threat from commercially available Drones which do not possess the capacity to ‘channel hop’. Elsewhere, some thought has been given to counter the dangers posed by commercially available Drones. However, until the three days of disruption at Gatwick, there had not been any systematic preparations or hardening of vulnerable targets in the UK.
The future development of micro- and nano-drones, and their potential use in the civil environment brings with it the possibility of further disruption and dangers. The recent regulations which among other things have set height restrictions and, from November 2019, will require users of devices heavier than 250g to register with the authorities provide limited protection against those intent on the criminal use of drones. What is required is forethought and preparation to ensure that we are not discussing, in the not-too-distant future, why authorities were unprepared to deal with ‘swarms’ of these devices.
Harry Raffal is the Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum and has recently completed his PhD thesis on the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940 at the University of Hull. Harry has previously published research on the online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces and presented papers at several conferences and events including the RAF Museum’s Trenchard lecture series, and the 2017 Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials conference. His research has been funded through bursaries and educational grants from the Royal Historical Society, the 2014 Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities research grant, the Princess Royal Trust, the University of Hull, the Sir Richard Stapley Trust and the RAF Museum PhD bursary.
Peter Lee, Reaper Force: Inside Britain’s Drone Wars. London: John Blake Publishing London, 2018. Index. Hbk.
In this book, Peter Lee sets out to describe the ‘unknown community’ that is the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Reaper Force. In doing so, Lee focuses on the aircrew in the ‘cockpit’ of these remotely piloted aerial vehicles (RPAS) and their partners, rather than all the other personnel needed to operate Reaper. Lee originally proposed the work to the RAF as an attempt to answer some of the questions that readers in one hundred years’ time might ask about these individuals, as a way of ensuring that those future enquirers would know more than we do about the RAF aircrew of 1918. Given this genesis, the limitation of scope is understandable and an outline of Lee’s research approach can found in his submission to the UK All Party Parliamentary Group that was established in 2016 to ‘analyse the emerging technologies of drones [and] the ways in which the UK works with allies with regard to the use of armed drones.’ Moreover, this starting point is a pleasing historical touch as 2018 marks the centenary of the formation of the RAF. Indeed, it was during the First World War that we saw human-crewed flight come of age as a weapon of war, and one hundred years later, the success of the Reaper Force raises the question of what the future is for manned aviation in the RAF. However, Lee does not pursue this or many other intriguing avenues, for reasons of time and space. He does not engage in detail with the debate about whether drones are ‘fair’, quickly dismissing this by rightly arguing that war has always seen one side aiming to gain an ‘unfair’ advantage over another, and this is just another manifestation of this trend. So, this is not a book to read to understand more about the ethics of drones. A reader seeking this debate should look elsewhere, and indeed Lee has already little on this subject himself.
Lee aimed to record how the Reaper Force feels about their ‘experiences and day-to-day lives’, and the book does an excellent job fulfilling this aim. His interview-based approach provides a distinct perspective from books written by those operating drones, which lack the reflection and perspective on experiences that Lee provides through the questions he puts to the aircrew. The bulk of the book is made up of content taken from interviews Lee conducted with members of both No. 39 Squadron based at Creech AFB in Nevada, and No. XIII Squadron based at RAF Waddington and these provide genuine insights into the aircrew’s (and their partners’) feelings about what they do. One comes away with a sense that this is a highly trained, highly dedicated group of men and women, with a culture that among other things is focused on ‘zero CIVCAS,’ that is a ‘policy direction’ of no civilian casualties (p. 279). Lee (p. 279) describes this focus as ‘almost an obsession […] that has had a significant impact on how they operate and make decisions.’ He recounts a mission where the aircrew believed the target was valid, as did the Joint Terminal Attack Controller (JTAC) on the ground, but the Senior Mission Intelligence Coordinator, an acting sergeant outside the aircrew, objected to the strike. This was because they believed it was a child rather than a parcel on the back of the target and was proved right (pp. 284-8). This is an excellent illustration of the commitment to zero CIVCAS, given both the hesitation to launch the weapon and the freedom the most junior person in the process felt to halt it. This indicates a very healthy culture if one believes zero CIVCAS should be accorded that level of importance.
Lee discussed further a 2011 ‘CIVCAS incident’ in Chapter Five when an RAF strike killed four civilians riding in lorries transporting explosives. This attack occasioned many levels of review, and it is clear that there is a huge determination in the Reaper Force that this should not happen again – even though as Lee (p. 113) notes, ‘the crew’s actions were in accordance with the Law of Armed Conflict and their procedures and directives.’ This message is one the RAF’s Air Staff would presumably be no means averse to having more widely understood. However, Lee also makes the point through his interviews with several of the aircrew’s partners that this care and skill should be more widely appreciated, to counter all those who claim drones have killed thousands of innocent civilians, including the Reaper Force in this blanket condemnation. Indeed, one is left with the evident understanding from the interviews that the Reaper Force does not operate in this way; Eye in the Sky (2015) was a good film but what is depicted would never have happened under the RAF’s Rules of Engagement (RoE), and the Reaper Force is not guilty of causing wanton civilian deaths. There are, however, hints in the book that at times those looking for support from the Reaper Force are frustrated by these RoEs, for example, when a British Army JTAC is frustrated that a Reaper crew will not launch a missile and calls for assistance from an Army Air Corps Apache instead (p. 282). These RoEs can also frustrate those in the Reaper Force, as described in Chapter Nine when on Boxing Day 2014 permission to destroy a suspected IS-controlled ex-Iraqi armoured vehicle was denied, with the result that the Reaper crew had to watch then the aftermath of a successful IS attack using it.
The above example affected the crew in question, and Lee uses this and other cases to explore the issue of how the high-tempo of Reaper operations, and how the nature of those operations, with the graphic and detailed images they see as part of launching strikes, may be impacting the mental health of the aircrew. His interviews provide illuminating examples, and those he interviewed have a range of ways of coping, dependent on the various ways what they do affects them. Some aircrew seems to be able to operate for several years without being adversely affected; others burn out much more quickly. This issue links to the RAF’s perception of bravery, and how this should be recognised. Historically, bravery has been defined by physical courage. Lee, however, makes a case for those who continually put their mental health at risk through flying Reaper operations as showing as much bravery as aircrew who get physically airborne. In reading this, about issue continuing to put oneself at risk, one is undoubtedly reminded in some ways of the courage Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir Arthur Harris described seeing in his Bomber Command crews.
Chapter Eleven looks at the question of bravery in its most visible military form, namely the award of decorations to Reaper crews. This is a subject that has generated discussion more widely over recent years. Lee addresses it by reference to a particularly challenging strike, footage of which was used by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) as part of the press release announcing the award of campaign medals to those involved in the campaign against IS. The irony was that since the Reaper crew executing the strike were not deemed to be ‘in theatre’, they did not qualify for the medal. However, as Lee points out both in the book and in his October 2017 lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society, they were exposing themselves to not insignificant risks of mental injury, and certainly were knowingly taking greater risks with their health than those working in a mess at Akrotiri. This again reminds one of RAF Bomber Command, and Harris’ unsuccessful campaign to have his groundcrews awarded a campaign medal despite cooks and bottle-washers in other theatres being entitled to a campaign medal.
Lee, however, does note that the MoD announced on 18 July 2018 that the medal would be awarded to Reaper pilots (p. 249). There will always be those who wish to equate heroism with physical courage, and hence would never see Reaper crews as eligible for medals, but this decision feels appropriate given the increasing level of discussion in society around mental health and, in a military context, post-traumatic stress disorder in particular. To what extent these issues will impact Reaper Force aircrew in the future is a subject for a later book, but this volume makes it clear that they have seen sights, repeatedly, that no-one would ask to see given the choice.
This potential to see bravery redefined is one example of how Reaper and its successors could change the RAF, and this is an area where one feels the whole growth of the Reaper Force raises many interesting issues that Lee has probably rightly only touched on very briefly. What will it mean for the RAF’s culture when perhaps many attack missions do not require a human in the aircraft? Already aircrew are being trained solely to operate Reaper, and the RAF, while awarding them aircrew brevets, is making them subtly different from the ‘normal’ brevets given to those who get airborne – does this demonstrate a reluctance to admit that Reaper crews are as valuable as those who get airborne? Moreover, what will this mean for the RAF as RPAS aircrews undertake more missions? The Reaper Force from its inception was crewed mainly by aircrew who served on Harrier, Nimrod and Tornado aircraft who transferred to Reaper as these aircraft were taken out of service. The aircrews who operated on manned platforms brought with them the culture and attitude from those environments, and Lee describes several interesting stories from aircrew about the different operating styles. For example, Lee recounts how a former Tornado navigator said she could not get used to the amount of talking an ex-Nimrod pilot would do, which was a huge change from the fast jet where ‘a good cockpit’s a quiet cockpit’ ethos was one that she was used to (p. 132).
As such, even within the Reaper Force, there are still vestiges of the culture that the members brought from their previous aircraft types, and the force will need to evolve its own culture over time. One suspects it will not be as extrovertly self-confident as the fast jet one it is partially replacing. Indeed, Lee recounts that his initial inquiry about when it would be time to ‘kick the tyres and light the fires’ on his first day watching an aircrew was met with a swift ‘very funny’, clearly meant to shut him up (p. 31). The RAF’s public image is very much built around the image of the fighter pilot, from the aces of the First World War, through the pilots of Fighter Command in the Battle of Britain to today’s Typhoons on QRA, intercepting Russian Bears out over the ocean. Indeed, it is interesting that the RAF’s historic flight is called the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight when far more aircrew served and died in Bomber Command during the Second World War. Reaper and other automated weapons (such as standoff missiles) can already deliver many of the classic roles of air power (reconnaissance, strategic attack, close air support, for example), but without a human to build a corporate (self) image around, how will the RAF’s own picture of itself change, and what image will it use to engage broader public support?
In summary, this is a valuable book for the insights it provides into the pressures of serving in a critical element within Britain’s armed forces. The Reaper Force is an element of the British military that will only grow in importance given both the capabilities it offers and the low risk it presents of unfavourable press. Indeed, between January and August 2018, Reaper has accounted for around 45 per cent of all RAF strike over Iraq and Syria during Operation SHADER. The only reservation that can, I think, be expressed is that this book leaves the reader feeling there were so many other avenues that could have been explored as well. Had Lee examined them, though, we would not have had this book now – we would have been waiting several years longer. What would be interesting would be to see a similar book in ten years’ time, to see how the Reaper Force (or Protector Force as it will likely be known by then) has evolved.
Mark Russell graduated with a degree in History in 1985 and has worked in professional services ever since. He returned to academia in 2015 and graduated with an MA in Air Power from the University of Birmingham in 2017. His dissertation looked at whether the RAF was a learning organisation in the period 1925 – 1935, with particular reference to how the Air Exercises helped the RAF develop and test tactics and technology. He continues to work in professional services, but his current research interest is the RAF in the interwar years and how the organisation managed technological change. Since graduating from Birmingham, he has had two books reviews published by the RAF’s Centre for Air and Space Power Studies and is currently working on articles for both RAF Air Power Review and The Aviation Historian.
Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)
 Peter Lee, ‘Rights, Wrongs and Drones: Remote Warfare, Ethics and the Challenges of Just War Reasoning,’ RAF Air Power Review, 16:3 (2013), pp 30-50.
One cannot venture very far in the field of contemporary air power studies without encountering remotely piloted air systems, which have become a central feature of western military operations. Their use has raised many questions regarding their ethical status, and the effects they may have both on the battlefield and in the control cabin. Kyle Grayson, Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Newcastle University, has taken a slightly different approach in this volume, looking more widely at the interaction between culture, technology, the economy, government, and geostrategic elements. The book is part of the ‘Interventions’ series, which aims to examine international issues through a range of disciplines including critical, post-structural, and postcolonial approaches; this is not simply a primer on the rights and wrongs of conducting war with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS) – or drones. Grayson’s focus is on what he describes as ‘targeted killing’, which he sees as a form of modern-day assassination from the air, an activity which has often been debated on the fringes of the western ethical tradition (p. 4). In writing the volume, he seeks to demonstrate how modern liberal societies have come to terms with targeted killing through culture, emphasising ‘the incorporation of disparate elements including the non-human, power-relations, plasticity and the importance of discourse’ (p. 199).
In his first chapter, Grayson’s approach is to examine the use of RPAS for targeted killing as primarily a cultural phenomenon, trying to understand how culture interacts with such practices in such a way that they can become ‘part of the common sense of security thinking’ (p. 200). His second chapter looks at the legal frameworks which maintain a distinction between assassination and targeted killing while expanding the legal scope of such operations. Chapter three looks at the ‘moral problematics and gender relations’ of assassination and targeted killing, arguing that the use of RPAS systems can help overcome some of the ‘narrative ambivalence’ that these relations involve (p. 201). Chapter four examines how technology alone does not explain the increased usage of RPAS. Rather, a much broader scope of ‘chaoplexic thinking, network centric imaginaries, and preferences for speed, maximising information flows, flexibility, delayered organisational forms, and automation’ help explain current trends to use such systems (p. 201). The fifth chapter focuses on what Grayson describes as the ‘aesthetic’ of killing, examining how those who authorise and those who participate in RPAS warfare experience what is taking place on their screens. In the last chapter, the author emphasises the effect that missile strikes have on the homes of those targeted, arguing that this ‘colonises places and seeks to disrupt their temporalities’ (p. 202).
Grayson concludes his work by elucidating six factors that arise from liberal political culture; issues involving the legitimacy of assassination/targeted killing, the influence of modern camera technology, the role of information technology networks, politics of gender, the use of the law, and representation of the other (pp. 202-6). In his final comments, he urges the need for modern liberal societies to continually evaluate their relationship with RPAS usage, and to critically reflect upon their political culture.
There is much in this book that is of great interest. For instance, Grayson very helpfully notices the importance of the contemporary market economy in world affairs, emphasising how much the private sector engages with defence. In Grayson’s analysis, ‘the continuing growth of the RPA industry is benefiting from a favourable constellation of politico-economic elements’ (p. 125). Alternatively, to put it another way, the unmanned aerial vehicle is an ideal fit for the current economic climate and the political ecosystem. It would have been fascinating to see even more of an interaction with current thinking on neoliberalism, such as the writing of Wendy Brown, on how the market economy has effects far beyond the market. Grayson’s observations on the ‘complex social assemblage of war’ are thought-provoking and could arguably have been pressed even further, on such subjects such as deskilling and delayering of the economy. Similarly, Grayson’s interaction with Guy Debord and the role of spectacle in society merited further attention (pp. 93-135).
Grayson’s book has the potential to ask real and meaningful questions about the use of RPAS in contemporary warfare. By offering an approach that goes beyond a basic ethical analysis, considering the wider role of culture and warfare, his work could offer real insights into the interface of weapons and worldviews. Thus, for example, his comment that ‘a disproportionate amount of applied innovation in forms of governmentality under liberalism has been directed at the margins within territory, or oriented towards its periphery […] [liberalism] has shown great brutality to those it identifies as being beyond reclamation’ (p. 206). Such considerations are worthy of serious debate and analysis, whether one agrees with Grayson’s premises or not. Many commentators such as Nicholas Carr and Neil Postman have commented on the highly visual nature of contemporary culture – Grayson’s focus on the ‘aesthetics’ of RPAS warfare has the potential to offer real insights in this field. However, a great deal of his writing is delivered in a style which, in generous terms, one would describe as technical. The general reader who wishes to avail of Grayson’s insights is obliged to hack, word by word, through a lexical jungle overgrown with the bon mots of social theory. Many of the terms such as ‘problematisation’ and ‘biopolitics’ are inadequately defined for the non-specialist, which means that reading the book can be a profoundly frustrating experience. This is unfortunate, as Grayson shows an ability to express himself clearly in portions of the book where social theory assumes a lesser role, such as when describing the interaction between the global market and the armed forces of western nations. In short, Grayson raises many useful questions, but this is a book for only the most determined reader.
The Reverend Dr (Wing Commander) David Richardson is a chaplain in the Royal Air Force, initially ordained into the Church of Ireland. A graduate of the universities of Edinburgh, Dublin, Belfast, and King’s College London, he has served on a variety of RAF stations. His operational experience includes tours across Afghanistan and Iraq.
Header Image: A Royal Air Force Reaper RPAS at Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan, c. 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery, UK Ministry of Defence)
Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.
In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft. Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.
In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.
Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance. This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.
In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.
Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.
Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.
Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.
The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.
By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.
The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.
As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.
The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken. To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.
In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.
After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.
Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)
From the British conception of air policing to the myriad of coalition air assets deployed as part Operation Inherent Resolve, counterinsurgents have enjoyed their ability to be the sole force in skies and the plethora of benefits that brings. Throughout late 20th and early 21st century, there have been rare instances where insurgents have tried to either contest this or at the very least exploit the air domain for their operations. These include the development and deployment of the ‘Air Tigers’ of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil and Eelam (LTTE) and the more recent use of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by a host of actors including ISIS and Hezbollah. LTTE’s attempts were largely ineffective, and ISIS’s small UAVs have been only deployed for tactical effects. Assumedly developing a counter to this ISIS threat will be part of the broader effort to deal with the UAV threat writ large. In Gaza, Hamas has developed something different and is going back in time technologically to exploit the hybrid space and launch an air campaign.
In late May 2018 Israeli security forces identified an explosive-laden UAV launched by one of the militant groups from the Gaza strip. In the same month, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) destroyed a Hamas base containing unmanned underwater vehicles. Both these capabilities while impressive represent an evolution of what combatants have already observed the world over. Militant groups increasingly have the capabilities to employ low-cost unmanned systems in a variety of domains. The interesting evolution out of Gaza strip is not the use of advanced technology by militant groups but a return to simple and cheap solutions.
Over the past month, militants in Gaza have launched numerous strikes using incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons. These devices come in several forms; some are kites released on to the wind current carrying flaming material and accelerant dangling from a rope. Others are helium balloons (or helium-filled condoms) with trailing flaming materials and accelerant. Although there are variations most of these carry metallic mesh pouches contacting burning oil-soaked rags or coal. These take advantage of the dry summer conditions in Southern Israel to spark fires out of proportion to the amount of accelerant. In addition to these, there are varieties with small impact based explosive devices attached and more recently explosive devices designed to litter the ground.
This is the past returning. During the Second World War, the Japanese military was unable to bomb the mainland US and turned to balloons with incendiary devices as an attempt at a solution. By 20 June 2018, 75 days of balloon and kite attacks had seen over 700 attacks which burned over 6,100 acres of primarily agricultural land causing millions of dollars of damage. For Israel damage to its agricultural sector presents a serious threat given the relatively small amount of arable and pasturable land.
The balloon and kite launched devices present significant challenges to the Israeli military (IDF). Due to their low signature, they are harder to detect than UCAVs. Unlike rockets and mortars, they do not follow a set trajectory making counter battery fire more difficult. They are cheap and therefore employing short-range air defence such as Iron Dome makes little sense. The helium-filled condoms which trail burning liquids or rags may only cost as much as the helium (condoms are distributed in Gaza by the Palestinian Authority and international NGOs) while Iron Dome costs near $100,000 per launch. Other forms of Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar systems rely on a more prominent radar profile and are designed for point defence not protecting a whole broader.
The biggest challenge they pose may result from their place in the narrative domain. Often launched by teams including children, balloons and kites do not seem as threatening as other, more significant, more conventional types of attacks. Targeting those who launch them with lethal force would likely play poorly in the media and the international community overall. Unlike rockets and mortars, kites, and balloons – no matter the threat they may pose – are not often thought of within the panoply of tools of war. In this way, they are emblematic of an entire strategy – namely causing as much strategic threat as possible while remaining below the threshold of escalation. In his 1991 book The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld identified the challenge this strategy poses to conventional state militaries stating: ‘Since fighting the weak is sordid by definition, over time the effect of such a struggle is to put the strong into an intolerable position.’ The kite and balloon attacks represent a new form of air power for insurgent groups which takes advantage of exactly this dynamic. As of now these attacks also provide a narrative victory to the militant groups allowing them to showcase in video and photo their ability to reach out and attack Israel. If the success of the balloon and kite attacks continues, we can safely assume they will spread. The more they are featured in regional media and militant media the more likely this is to happen.
So what options exist to counter this counter this new aerial threat? Thus far the IDF has looked to technological solutions deploying cheap commercial UAVs to bring down the kites and the balloons through physical contact. The Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that this has had mixed results. The IDF has recently deployed a new system called Sky Spotter. The IDF employs this electro-optical system, to identify and provide an alert of incoming attacks mitigating the damage caused. Sky Spotter also serves to guide defenders to the incoming targets. There are plans to equip Sky Spotter with a laser system or to the ability to autonomously vector mini-UAVs. In the meantime, with an increase in the threat, some Israeli officials have suggested targeting those launching the attacks, and the IAF has begun firing warning strikes near those launching the attacks. As previously noted this tactic is rife with problems.
Another possible solution might be retaliating against targets and in doing so establishing deterrence. Although this might work in the unique operating environment of Gaza it is doubtful it would be as possible if another insurgency adopts this new use of air power globally. Just as lookouts may be more useful for identifying incoming attacks from balloons and kites than more high-tech radar, so too might defeating the threat requiring an examination of the past for inspiration. In the past, the best air defence consisted of layers of surface to air missiles (SAMs) and gun systems. These balloon and kite attacks exploit the intellectual and perhaps, even technical space, below the threshold for the employment of SAMs. Kites and balloons are vulnerable to gunfire and integrating rapid firing weapons aimed and operated by humans might provide a solution to this threat. Even this is not without problems as it potentially risks causing inadvertent casualties due to inaccuracy. Regardless, until a solution is found, it is likely insurgents will continue to exploit the air domain not only by developing drones but by evolving from drones to balloons.
Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include ‘Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military Operations, War on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate.
Header Image: A missile from an Israeli Iron Dome, launched during the Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)
Disclaimer: The views presented here do not represent those of any contributors employer, funder, or government body.
Editorial Note: In the first part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War.
In the Solomon Islands off Australia’s northern shores, on the 19 October 1944, a US Navy flown, Interstate Aircraft-built TDR-1 dropped a mix of ten 100lb and 500lb bombs against Japanese gun emplacements on Ballale Island. This was the first operational armed unmanned aircraft attack in history.
The twin-engined unmanned aircraft involved was just one of some fifty sent into combat in late 1944 with Special Task Air Group One. The armed unmanned aircraft took off under radio control that was then transferred to accompanying manned TBM-1C Avenger control aircraft for the long transit to the target area. The control aircraft remained some 8-12 kilometres outside of the ground defences while using a data linked real-time video picture displayed on a cockpit mounted television screen for close-in guidance. Few of the Air Group personnel involved had even seen a television set before they joined the unit. Their feats would not be replicated until early in the 21st century.
In truth, while after 1944-armed unmanned aircraft continued to attract considerable interest and at times funding, the technology available was too immature. The crucial issue was to find technological solutions that could overcome the many problems arising from not having a person in the aircraft. Finding the right blend of complex technological solutions took several decades, but this was not enough to see armed unmanned aircraft fly again in combat. There had to be a compelling operational need only they could best meet.
Curiously enough, the next armed unmanned aircraft was again operated by the US Navy. In the 1950s, the US Navy was concerned that the Soviets were building submarines faster than it could build anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. The solution was to upgrade a large number of old Second World War vessels, but these were too small to operate manned ASW helicopters from. Soviet submarines of the time could fire on ASW destroyers at longer ranges than the destroyers could fire back. A helicopter that could drop homing torpedoes was necessary to allow them to engage first. The answer was the small QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter controlled by the ship’s crew through a line-of-sight data link and able to deliver two MK-44 ASW homing torpedoes where and when required. There were numerous problems and many crashes, but hundreds were built and saw service throughout the 1960s.
QH-50 enthusiasts consider the more pressing operational demands arising from the worsening Vietnam War prematurely killed the unmanned helicopter off, and in this, they may be right. In the second half of the 1960s, there was a significant air war almost daily over North Vietnam. Attacking US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy strike aircraft were pitched against a continually improving Soviet-equipped integrated air defence system featuring the latest SA-2 and SA-3 Surface-to-Air Missile systems. Bomb damage assessment was a real problem; bad weather and the heavy defences made manned aircraft reconnaissance problematic.
The solution was a fast jet, unmanned aircraft and again hundreds were built, and thousands of sorties flown. These Ryan Lightning Bugs were launched from modified C-130 transport aircraft, flew pre-planned missions and were then recovered using a parachute that was caught in mid-air by a large helicopter. This was an inflexible and expensive way to do business that only fitted the oddities of the Vietnam air environment. With the war’s end in 1975, interest also faded albeit after some trials of armed unmanned aircraft carrying bombs and missiles.
The USAF’s focus shifted to the European Central front then characterised by strong air defences, long-range fighters, a harsh electromagnetic environment and extensive jamming. Launching and recovering unmanned aircraft using slow, vulnerable C-130 transports and CH-53 helicopters in such a hostile air environment looked both very unappealing and most probably operationally ineffective.
The need that drove TDR-1 development however remained. When attacking well-defended targets in a significant war, aircrew survivability was still a real concern. In the late 1970s, the aircrew losses in a new major European War looked as though they would be exceptionally heavy, but there would not be time to bring newly trained aircrews into service as in the Second World War: what should be done? Could armed unmanned aircraft meet the need? After much thought and numerous experiments, the answer adopted instead was to invest sizable funds into high performance manned aircraft equipped with stand-off precision-guided weapons that lowered the sortie numbers required to inflict the necessary damage, field a fleet of electronic warfare attack aircraft able to defeat hostile SAM systems and build secret stealth bombers, the F-117 fleet. This approach was stunningly validated in the short very successful air campaign of the 1991 Gulf War.
Unmanned aircraft lost out not because of aviator biases as some assume but because of their technological immaturity, their relative operational ineffectiveness and their prohibitive costs. Other systems were just plain better. Unmanned aircraft were left as a potential solution in search of a mission. However, the world was about to change.
Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.
Header Image: An Interstate TDR-1 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida. (Source: Wikimedia)
‘Drones’ are the air power topic de jour. Unfortunately, much of the discussion taking place in the media, and even in some academic circles, displays a lack of nuanced understanding of what is a complicated subject. The use of the term ‘drone’ to refer to platforms from the networked high-altitude long-endurance MQ-4 Triton to small tactical hand-held systems such as the Black Hornet conflates vastly different capabilities in the mind of the public. Similarly, the statement made in a recent article by a professor at the Swedish Defence University that remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) can ‘strike targets with greater precision to avoid collateral damage’ when compared with inhabited systems highlights that even academics in the field do not appreciate what distinguishes inhabited from uninhabited systems. With the subject often overly simplified and the claims at times unrealistic, it is little wonder that policymakers do not understand RPAs well enough to make informed and effective decisions about their acquisition, development, and employment. This is a problem.
A few academics and military professionals are working to clarify the reality of RPA. Michael P. Kreuzer’s 2017 book Drones and the Future of Air Warfare: The evolution of Remotely Piloted Aircraft is one such example. In a compact 218 pages, Kreuzer, a serving US Air Force officer with a PhD from Princeton, places RPAs in their organisational, operational, strategic, and technological context, enabling the reader to reframe their understanding of RPA away from the hype towards an appreciation grounded in facts and logic.
Kreuzer aims the book at:
[t]hose who are active or have an interest at the level of national policy, and for those who have an interest in understanding the macro-effects of RPAs in modern warfare to understand to what extent they can be used to achieve strategic objectives, and what are the true hazards of their use. (p.22)
On this, the book delivers.
The first step is to address the curious definitional problem contained within the book’s title: is it ‘drones’ or ‘remote piloted aircraft’? Kreuzer’s approach to defining the subject is simple yet effective. He states unequivocally that RPA is the preferred term; ‘drone’ when used appears in quotation marks. He then distinguishes between ‘tactical’ RPA and ‘networked’ RPA, with the distinguishing characteristic being the integration of the sensors and weapons of the latter into a global network. Network connectivity has enabled RPAs such as Reaper to conduct ‘strategic bombing against non-fixed targets such as individuals’ (p.7). This, Kreuzer asserts, has made a significant impact on the conduct of air warfare: ‘The network, rather than the platform itself, is key to this innovation’ (p.7)
Kreuzer makes clear that he does not consider RPAs to be revolutionary in isolation; they are an enabling capability for a broader ‘targeting revolution’. To support his claim, he disentangles the often-conflated concepts of technological revolution, major military innovation, and revolution in military affairs:
A technological revolution is marked by a major change in technology with widespread effects across all sectors of society, a major military innovation is a major change in the conduct of warfare that increases the efficiency with which capabilities are converted to power often stemming from the technological revolution, and a revolution in military affairs is a shift in the character of warfare fuelled by a transformation of military systems. (p.8)
The proliferation of drones is undoubtedly a technological revolution; commercial and civilian RPA applications are already affecting airspace management, privacy laws, and delivery services. RPAs are also increasing the efficiency of military operations for both state and non-state actors. ‘Drone strikes’ conducted by the Western countries in the Middle East and South Asia, and the use by ISIS of commercial drones in surveillance and attack roles evidences a shift in the way military operations are being conducted, the rise of the so-called ‘remote control warfare’. RPAs are not, however, causing the changes in the character of air warfare which Kreuzer refers to as the targeting revolution, they are only contributing to it. Kreuzer’s point here is subtle but well made.
Precision munitions and intelligence are given as the key enablers of the targeting revolution. Guided weapons provide the ability to strike targets precisely; the development of networks enables the processing, exploitation, and dissemination of information to know where the targets are. These are the foundations of Kreuzer’s targeting revolution. What RPAs have provided is persistence, allowing improvements in the timeliness of targeting information. The addition of precision munitions on networked RPAs has marked a culmination of an evolutionary process.
[t]he main revolutionary capabilities have come about when RPA serve as critical nodes in a broader system of warfare enabling networked intelligence collection, global communication, near real time processing, target development, decision support, and strike operations. (p.80)
Technology has played a significant role in driving this revolution, but Kreuzer also highlights the importance of doctrine and organisational factors in realising the benefits of RPAs. He looks at two separate but related organisational issues: the organisational challenges in developing an RPA capability, and the influence of organisational capacity on a state’s ability to develop an RPA capability.
According to Kreuzer, the ‘human challenges’ of RPA are:
[s]ome of the greatest faced by states and organisations seeking to employ such weapons and will be the greatest barrier to successful employment. (p.89)
Unfortunately, these challenges are rarely examined in any great depth. This book addresses this deficiency in the literature.
Integrating RPA operators within a culture and hierarchy that favours pilots of manned platforms are proving difficult. Kreuzer draws attention to the disparity in promotion rates for RPA pilots and the controversy surrounding the Distinguished Warfare Medal as examples of how the United States is struggling to integrate RPA systems into existing culture.
The problem faced here is that ensuring the right people are attracted to and employed in RPA operations will be a crucial determinant of their operational success. Similarly, the development of an emerging capability is dependent mainly upon the promotion of RPA operators into positions of influence and power within the organisation. Kreuzer quotes from Stephen Rosen’s 1991 work on innovation arguing that it occurs ‘only as fast as the rate at which young officers rise to the top’ (p.110). This is appropriate, and in this regard, this, and his subsequent discussion on the implications of the ‘tribes of airmen’ and existing organisational culture on the integration of RPAs into the USAF is as applicable to other air forces investigating the development of an RPA capability.
The capacity for militaries to adapt organisationally to the opportunities offered by RPAs will also determine the diffusion and proliferation of the capability. This is one of the most important points raised in the book. Drawing on Michael Horowitz’s adoption-capacity theory, Kreuzer predicts the rate of diffusion of RPA technology and the type RPA likely to be developed by states based on the state’s ‘financial intensity and organisational capacity available to implement major military innovations’ compared with their ‘perceived strategic imperative to develop innovation’ (p.157). His prediction is succinctly captured through an analogy with established air power capabilities: ‘it is easier to think of networked RPAs like strategic bombers (which few countries adopted) and tactical RPAs like attack helicopters, which are common worldwide’ (p.5). The organisational and financial costs of acquiring and maintaining networked RPAs creates high barriers to entry for this capability. Unless a state has compelling operational/strategic requirements or is willing to invest in a prestige capability, as some states have done with aircraft carriers, networked RPA proliferation will be limited to only a few states (p.184). Kreuzer’s logic is sound and well-argued; as with all predictions it may eventually prove to be wrong, but his matrix of probable RPA diffusion provides an excellent starting point for the discussion of RPA proliferation.
Overlaying questions of innovation and organisational adaptation is the contribution RPAs make to air warfare. Much has been written and discussed about the impact of RPAs on the conduct of military operations, but the majority of this discussion conflates platform with strategy. As Kreuzer puts it:
Too often, debates over RPAs ignore or write off counterfactual means of military intervention and criticise RPAs for traits that would be similarly exhibited by alternative means of conflict. In many cases, attacking the RPA becomes a substitute for attacking the underlying policy, which is an unnecessary distraction from the real debate which should be made. (Emphasis added) (p.21)
The question of RPAs impact on air power permeates all aspects of the book, which is not surprising given the book’s title; however, the way in which Kreuzer does this provides the book with utility beyond the narrow subject of RPA.
In discussing the importance of RPAs in the realisation of the targeting revolution, Kreuzer explores and analyses the strategic implications of targeted killings and signature strikes. His analysis goes beyond the use of armed RPAs and is just as applicable to the employment of manned platforms. Kreuzer highlights, quite correctly, that the developments of information age air warfare are challenging existing international legal treaties and norms, but to focus solely on RPAs is a distraction as these are issues of modern warfare generally which go beyond the question of having a human in the cockpit. The legality and ethics of these types of operation is a vexed issue, but the book’s treatment is balanced, considered, and informative.
Operationally, the employment of RPAs has already raised several questions relating to sovereignty, and the implications of airspace violations and the subsequent shoot-down of RPAs operating in sovereign or disputed airspace. Recent events in Israel have raised this issue in the public consciousness. Kreuzer’s examination of this topic looks beyond the usual case studies of US operations in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (though these are also discussed) to include RPA operations in the Caucasus and the Middle East. The use of RPAs by Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Hiz’ballah, and their subsequent shoot-downs by the Russians, Armenians, and Israelis respectively, provided test cases for the international community to consider the legal and strategic ramifications of airspace violations by uninhabited systems. The shoot-down of relatively expensive RPAs followed by reprimands from the international community for airspace violations demonstrate that RPAs have not changed the existing norms of airspace sovereignty. This does raise the question of US operations in Pakistan, but this subject is also well covered by Kreuzer.
Finally, Kreuzer addresses one of the perennial problems for airmen which has been exacerbated by the development of RPA: people just don’t get air power.
For all the attention airpower receives in modern war, it remains one of the least understood systems of war for outside observers […] for the average reader with a basic interest in what airpower means the subject is abstract, complex, and often subject to detailed debates about tactics and airframes rather than broader strategic implications. (p.198)
The lesson for air power professionals, scholars, and advocates is clear: more needs to be done to improve the way that air power is explained and articulated to the public. Kreuzer’s book is an excellent example of how this can be done.
Drones and the Future of Air Warfare is a must read for anyone involved in the decision to acquire, develop, and/or employ RPAs as it lays the conceptual foundation which should inform any decision to invest in an RPA capability. It would be wrong, however, to view the book solely as a treatise on RPAs. By placing the subject within their broad operational and organisational context, Kreuzer also provides insightful and informative commentary on military innovation, organisational design, capability development, and air power strategy. Accordingly, Drones and the Future of Air Warfare can rightfully be considered an analysis of the current state and future evolution of air power. It will, therefore, make an excellent addition to any air power professional’s reading list.
Wing Commander Travis Hallen is an Air Combat Officer currently serving as Deputy Director – Air Power Development at the Royal Australian Air Force’s Air Power Development Centre. He is also a Sir Richard Williams Foundation Scholar. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, the Australian Government, or the Williams Foundation. He can be found on Twitter at @Cold_War_MPA.
Header Image: The MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system completes its first flight on 22 May 2013 from the Northrop Grumman manufacturing facility in Palmdale, California. The 80-minute flight successfully demonstrated control systems that allow Triton to operate autonomously. Triton is designed to fly surveillance missions up to 24-hours at altitudes of more than 10 miles, allowing coverage out to 2,000 nautical miles. The system’s advanced suite of sensors can detect and automatically classify different types of ships. (Source: Wikimedia)