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.
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)
In 1941, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams was on vacation in the South-West of America within the famous Carlsbad Caverns. While exploring Carlsbad’s vast expanse, he observed it hosted thousands of indigenous Bats. Adams was monumentally impressed by what he saw and then just as history has often taught us previously, the most remarkable ideas often derive from the strangest of places, at a random moment, when separate paths conjoin. Much like Sir Isaac Newton when the Apple hit his head, thus propelling him in founding the theory of gravity. Adams’ similar ‘eureka’ moment did not derive from when he observed the Bats in Carlsbad’s deep and damp expanse; it was when he turned on his car radio when departing, which amplified that the Imperial Japanese Navy had devastatingly attacked Pearl Harbor. Adams at that precise moment began plotting an unorthodox plan of revenge against America’s new enemy; the Japanese, using what he had seen previously that day; the Bats.
The idea that developed from Adams’ eureka moment was to attach incendiary material onto swarms of collected Bats, who previously (through the research and development stages of the idea) were trained to hibernate in large storage refrigerators. The final phase of Adams’ plan was for these Bats to be dropped from an aircraft in a bomb casing encompassing similar properties to the aforementioned refrigerators. These would then open mid-air, dispersing the Bats outwards onto Japanese cities below to seek warmth and sanctuary within enemy building structures, inside eaves and roofs, which during that period in Japan were made of highly flammable material. The Bats would then go kinetic, catch fire, and subsequently demolish their host building target. Adams’ own words would describe the predicted results of the later titled Project X-Ray. ‘Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped.’ He later recalled that ‘Japan could have been devastated, yet with a small loss of life.’
Adams’ creation of Project X-Ray could be perceived as pure lunacy to the untrained eye, however, with the present-day parameters of modern warfare constantly evolving, sometimes a little bit of lunacy can be effective in achieving the desired strategic aim. Adams’ premise of causing considerable amounts of effective damage upon one’s enemy, with the least amount of innocent lives taken, through the hostile deployment of these mini-warfare-vessels might, in the future, be a viable solution. Project X-Ray’s legacy, concept and its underpinning tactical peripherals of swarm-based aerial strategies will be forwarded within this narrative as still being relevant and possible within the delivery of modern warfare. This will be proven by substituting the Bats for the new technological assets: MAVs, which when deployed would give a modern force, like the RAF, a viable tactical equaliser and advantage within wider strategic operations.
Project X-ray principles of tactical swarm-based aerial attack have possible relevance within historic, present-day, and future western military operations due to two distinct and transcending reasons. The first is the current evolving development and procurement of military platforms and assets, which are now gravitating towards small, smart, and cheap technology that encompasses the ability to deploy in swarm formations. This ability includes overpowering your enemy within all areas through greater aerial deployments while retaining a cheaper overall financial outlay. The second reason is the potential future opportunity to reduce the amount of military and civilian deaths caused by historic and currently deployed air operations. Below we will explore these two reasons in depth while answering if aspects of Adams’ idea could be implemented within future UK warfare scenarios by using the vast range of MAV technology available and placing them in historical conflict case studies, which will position how they will affect future air-centric operations globally.
As a platform, MAVs are a small remotely, or autonomous air-asset. Typically, they exist in three size classifications; small, medium, and large. This article focusses on small and medium-sized MAVs. Small MAVs, which the US Department of Defense defines as being 20lbs or lighter, are typically hand sized, like the U.S ‘Cicada,’ which is a Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft used for carrying out undetected missions in remote battlefields. Medium MAVs are typically ‘dinner-plate’ sized like the ‘Quad,’ ‘Hexa’ or ‘Octo’ copters, currently used by UK police forces for surveillance operations within the airspace of airports like the ‘Aeryon-Skyranger’ drone. There are also large MAVs like the ‘Harpey’ Drone, which is currently used by the Chinese military and has a nine-foot wingspan and 32 Kilogram warhead payload that is guided by radar, can loiter in the air and can deploy with 17 others systems from a single five-ton truck.
This article will start where the Bats ended. Although the aforementioned ‘Project X-Ray’ was not implemented operationally during the Second World War, its premise – to inflict regional mass damage to Japanese cities without mass fatalities – is a tactic that is still desired today by the majority western militaries and governments. The Cicada as an individual platform has the same tactical properties and potential as Adams’ Bats in that they can be deployed en-masse, equipped with small thermobaric NANO munitions, which could easily perform the small kinetic solution positioned during the Project’s design stage, and are also more importantly incredibly small. The potential capability of this MAV within a swarm configuration has already been adopted again by the US Air Force (USAF) when it deployed ‘Tempest’ tactical balloons at high altitude. These then released medium Tempest MAVs who during mid-flight then distributed smaller Cicadas MAVs en-masse (again all at high altitude) to collect environmental data. A more warfare centric illustration of Cicada’s possible capability was demonstrated during the recent deployment of 103 ‘Perdix’ MAVs from an American F/A-18 fighter jet, which once deployed (mid-air) flew to three different target locations and simulated a swarm attack scenario on each designated enemy position. A Chinese civilian corporation who specialises in MAV development had also illustrated this possible small-MAV swarm scenario when it deployed 67 MAV’s simultaneously which performed a ‘saturation’ attack on an enemy anti-aircraft battery, subsequently neutralising the anti-air threat. The U.S Navy has also recently reinforced the effectiveness of mass MAV strategy when it deployed 8 LOCUST (medium) MAVs simultaneously towards one Aegis-class destroyer warship (the most effective global air-defence system currently available). This exercise resulted in 2.8 of the 8 MAVs penetrating the ships defence system, causing subsequent damage and the conclusion that if this deployment were increased by 10 or a 100, the consequences would be more devastating, proving that smaller, smarter and more lethal technologies are the future of air-centric warfare.
The potential benefits of these attacks can be dissected further. The Bat inspired slow-burn-combustion Cicada MAV attack would, as Adams conceived initially, cause the necessary damage to enemy territory, buildings, and infrastructure while reducing the human-centric ‘collateral damage.’ This reduction in lives taken by this type of operation (if appropriately deployed) would achieve its aim by allowing the residing population the choice to flee their residencies and disperse the area, therefore allowing a secondary larger tactical air-strike to occur on key infrastructure targets like nuclear reactors, power stations and government/military buildings. If civilian dispersal was not forthcoming then maybe using MAVs to deploy dispersal gas, or even recorded PA warnings played through speakers on the MAV’s could be utilised. The former ability already exists and was demonstrated by the Skunk MAV, which were bought by a South African Mining company which deployed 25 of these (medium) multi-rotor MAVs to quell potential protester uprisings. Skunks have four barrels which fire pepper-spray or paintball rounds at protesters. Less potent aerosols could potentially be designed to encourage the necessary civilian movement and dispersal passively.
This above mentioned strategy would in the first instance reduce the mass-death scenario created from current air-strike strategies, and also decrease the erosion of a state’s global-moral currency, a process which was demonstrated when the US disclosed 116 innocent civilians were killed through its UAV centred strategy in Afghanistan in 2016, and in response culminated in extensive global condemnation. The erosion of a state’s moral-currency is not outwardly/globally post-strike, it is also internally eroding within the conflict itself as air-strikes can have an extensive degrading effect on the local population, which has historically been the catalyst for the worlds emerging and multiplying insurgencies in Middle Eastern conflicts.
It Always Comes Down to Money!
From a fiscal perspective using small MAVs as weapons could also be highly beneficial in future tactical strikes. MAVs as a platform can now be designed and created using additive 3-D printing. Within the West geographically, 3D printing has already transcended into the world of MAVs through pioneers such as Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University of Southampton University, who, through 3-D printing, produced a drone with a five-foot wingspan. This process has further expanded globally through the online ‘Maker movement’ which shares 3D drone designs and do-it-yourself guides for anybody who wishes to construct a Drone. Ang Cui, a Columbia University PhD, also has a ‘Drones at home’ blog with step-by-step instructions for would-be drone makers to follow. The first commercial and military MAV produced at scale through 3D printing was the small ‘Razor’ drone, which is not only highly effective but can be printed in one day in the US for $550 there are also cheaper variants which cost $9 per unit.
The Razor’s wingspan of forty inches, cruise potential of 45mph and a flight capability of forty minutes comes in complete form for $2,000, and its production company MITRE believe future projects will arrive under $1,000, or cheaper as the MAV market expands. Further evolutions include Voxel8 a 3D electronic printing company whose $8,999 3-D printer can print an operational drone with electronics and engine included.
Commercial American companies have also illustrated the MAV mass production potential of 3D technology, such as United Postal Service (UPS) who have established a factory with 100 3-D printers, which accepts orders, prints them, allocates a price, and then ships them the same day. Furthermore, UPS plan to increase its plant size to 1000 printers to support major production runs. China has also recognised the benefits of embracing civilian technological advancement to improve military procurement. The expansion of 3D printing within China’s commercial sector has recently empowered its military to evolve its procurement of warfare assets and platforms effectively. This was demonstrated to observing media by the Chinese Army who repaired a broken military class oil-truck in an austere battlefield environment using only a single 3D additive manufacturing machine. This process allowed the crew to replicate and replace the unserviceable components both on-site and within a short period. Furthermore, this demonstration revealed the ease, skill, convenience and reliance China places on 3D printing, which in this instance prevented them experiencing routine operational issues like losing their re-fuelling capability, the requirement for a truck recovery team to deploy and the need to wait for an expensive part from a geographically distant manufacturer to arrive. A final and more strategic advantage this 3-D process has provided is removing China’s potential reliance on global commercial industry to provide these technical parts en-masse as the US does within its own present-day military procurement cycles.
Not only does 3D printing provide numerous tactical and speed efficiencies, but it could also, if correctly exploited, arrive at an incredibly cheaper cost financially. Using the Razor as an example, it currently costs $2000 per individual platform (complete). Therefore, a smaller Cicada MAV would arrive if produced within the same process at $250 or cheaper due to its smaller size, reduction of material required and after necessary production efficiency has been achieved. Once assembled, if a small incendiary were then attached at an estimated cost of $200, it would make the platform an incredibly cheap and deadly weapon. This overall manufacture-to-deployment financial pathway compares favourably to the recently released UK Ministry of Defence figures that an average Tornado aircraft operational flight costs £35,000-per hour. This figure, when plugged into an operational scenario, creates the following financial outlay; two Tornados performing a six-hour (one stop) strike operation carrying four Paveway bombs (£22,000) and two Brimstone missiles (£105,000) would cost on average £1 Million. If the Paveway munitions were later exchanged for the Storm-Shadow munition variant (£800,000), the cost would increase exponentially. This price, even without the latter munition, would allow you to purchase 2,000 Cicada’s with the ability to be dropped from a more fiscal efficient platform and would then as a swarm fly straight to the target area with a potential kill radius of 2 metres per MAV depending on incendiary attached. This type of attack would reduce the possibility of human collateral damage, firstly from a surface-to-air threat to the pilot and innocents on the ground exposed to the aerial kill-chain, while giving the swarm operator the ability to increase or decrease the swarm size depending on the amount of damage desired or required. The financial benefits continue to expand in favour of small MAVs when they are compared to rival high-technology air platforms like the fifth generation F-35. Using the previous larger Razor MAV as an example; it costs $2,000 per fully functioning drone, which when compared to the cost of 16 F-35s would allow you to purchase for the same price one million Razors. If the F-35s and these Razors were then deployed against each other in active hostile deployments, the Razors would retain the tactical potential if designed correctly to swarm the 16 F-35s, destroying them, even without incendiaries, through intended foreign object debris damage. Therefore, eradicating the superiority that the F-35 previously held. Of course, scenarios, testing and system advancement would dictate these hypothetical scenarios, however as all the scenarios suggest there is a new dimension in modern warfare and it is the MAV.
Sergeant Lee Tomàs is a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Royal Air Force. In a 13-year career in the RAF, he has deployed to the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Oman, and Cyprus. He holds a Post Graduate Certificate from Brighton University, an MA from Staffordshire University, and an MA from Kings College London. He runs a political online blog and lecture series at RAF stations which tries to develop junior Ranks knowledge of current affairs. In 2017, he won the prestigious CAS ‘Fellow of the Year’ award.
Header Image: A Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle flies over a simulated combat area during an operational test flight, c. 2006.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sean Walsh considers some of the issues surrounding the use of Uninhibited Aerial Vehicles with a particular focus the on the implications for ground units who may increasingly come to rely on such platforms that operate at ultra-low-levels.
In the near future air operations will happen at altitudes as low as the heel of a soldier’s boot as aircraft capable of offensive and defensive operations reduce in size and increase in range.
That this is likely is demonstrated by the slaughterbotsvideo that went viral in November 2017. The slaughterbots are autonomous offensive drones that can fit in the palm of a human hand. Fitted with explosive warheads designed to impale human skulls, these very low altitude drones were depicted in the video as having the ability to autonomously select and engage targets based on age, sex, fitness, uniform and/or ethnicity.
The video ended with one such robot killing an unarmed student lying under a desk in a lecture theatre (a clear-cut war crime). Legitimate militaries have no interest in perpetrating genocide, but the prospect of autonomous drones attacking human combatants with explosives and projectiles is very real.
Very Low Altitude Drones
Future weaponised micro-aircraft will be capable of operations at very low altitudes – just millimetres above the ground. Indeed, some aircraft may become hoppers having the ability to fly through the air and drive on the ground.
This descent to ankle altitude of air power will fundamentally change the nature of army operations. Increasingly, they will come to resemble air force operations. Effective air power is now small enough to fit in a backpack or armoured personnel carrier. This low-altitude air power is mostly used for reconnaissance enabling an infantry unit to have an eye in the sky; however, these systems are starting to become weaponised.
In future high-intensity war, infantry units will need to be familiar with air force logistics and tactics. Future ground troops may need to be airmen as well as soldiers in that they will need to understand low altitude air war in addition to land war. Alternatively, combat airmen may need to be embedded in infantry units. One might argue this is the continuation of a process that started when the cavalry switched to helicopters from horses. Regardless of the institutional arrangements, ground units will need defensive drones, portable anti-aircraft weapons they can carry themselves, or both.
Tiers of Air Superiority
In the near future, it may be there are tiers of air superiority. At low altitudes, the air will be dominated by large numbers of relatively small and cheap aircraft flying at low speed and having relatively low range. At higher altitudes, existing air force concepts of air superiority will continue to apply. There will still relatively small numbers of expensive supersonic fighters clearing the skies of enemy aircraft but F-35s burning through the sky at high speed will be of limited use against swarms of slaughterbots flying less than 10 feet above the ground at relatively low-speed attacking infantry and other ground-based targets.
Indeed, already we have seen how such cheap low altitude drones can be used to attack expensive hi-tech aircraft sitting on the ground. In Syria, in January 2018, a low-tech attack by Syrian rebels was made on hi-tech Russia on its airbase at Hemimim and its naval station at Tartus. Militaries will find it irresistible to develop weapons costing a few hundred dollars that could destroy supersonic aircraft worth tens of millions on the ground. Naturally, countermeasures to guard against such threats have already been developed. The Russians were able to see off the attack.
As an aside, this gives the lie to the claim made in the slaughterbots video that ‘humans will have no defence’ against such attacks. In the history of war, the measure has always led to the development of counter-measures. The spear led to the shield. The submarine led to the depth charge. Barbed wire and machine guns led to tanks. The slaughterbot will lead to counter-measures just like every other technological innovation in military history.
Traditional High-Altitude Air War Will Still Be Critical
Even given the new low-altitude threats, F-35s and other fighter aircraft will still be able to target the transport planes and vans delivering the low altitude ‘slaughterbots’ to a range close enough for them to attack in a conventional war. Destruction of enemy logistics will still be a key to victory as it was in the Battle of Midway and many other historic engagements. However, given suitable terrain, it is conceivable that one belligerent in a future high-intensity war might have air superiority at altitude while the other has air superiority close to the ground.
Even in an asymmetric war, a plucky low-tech belligerent might find a way through the emerging countermeasures and achieve low-altitude air superiority with devastating effect to a high-tech foe. We can expect those who perpetrated the failed attack on the Russians in Syria to go back to the drawing board and try again, this time targeting the low altitude air defence systems first (perhaps with a suicidal or stealthy ground attack) before unleashing the drones on the high-value targets in the hangers.
Increasingly these low altitude aircraft will be autonomous in their combat functions. This is because such craft is far too small for an onboard human pilot. Also, in the near future, a fight between a human-telepiloted Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAV) and an autonomous UAV will be as fair a fight as Kasparov vs Deep Blue or Sedol vs AlphaGo. There will come a time where the AI has advanced to a point where humans cannot defeat it. A further reason is that existing drone counter-measures use techniques such as jamming GPS and telepiloting frequencies. To counter the counter-measures, drone-makers could resort to dead-reckoning or visual navigation to avoid the GPS vulnerability. To avoid the telepiloting vulnerability, they could disconnect the network card and develop onboard autonomy.
Moral Arguments regarding Lethal Autonomy
There is, of course, a moral argument here in addition to the technical ones regarding lethal offensive autonomy. It is foreseeable that there will be a ban on autonomous weapons but terrorist and criminal groups (narcoterrorists) will readily adopt such low altitude air power because of its low cost and easy availability. Indeed, they already have. ISIS weaponised telepiloted hobby drones in 2016. Drones are now being used to smuggle drugs across borders. It is only a matter of time before cartels use them to assassinate police, judges, and ministers. This will force democratic nations to adopt counter-measures. To be effective, such counter-measures, like existing close-in weapons systems such as Phalanx, will need a high degree of targeting autonomy. Historically, military necessity has trumped moral objections to many new weapons because belligerents will do whatever it takes to win.
Jefferson Davis objected to ‘torpedoes’ (mines) as ‘cowardly’ weapons, but when the Confederacy got desperate, he acquiesced to their use. Submarines and bombers were similarly objected to on moral grounds yet because they were militarily effective and could be used in compliance with principles of discrimination and proportionality, they survived. Military norms changed to accommodate them. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots may get a ban on autonomous weapons, but these efforts may not bear fruit.
A human officer might say to a swarm of robots, ‘clear that house’ and the robots will autonomously work together to search for threats and clear it. Swarm robotics is a rapidly progressing area of research. If the swarm of robots needs to shoot enemy combatants therein (be they human or robotic) they will do so within the scope the human order “clear that house” gives them.
Similarly, having disposed of the low altitude air defence, a commander could say to his swarm ‘search for and destroy all Sukhois on this airfield’, and the robots would do this. If they needed to shoot airmen trying to defend their craft, they would do so within the scope of their human order and the normative constraints of targeting law.
Such airborne robots would integrate with ground-based robots. Ground-based robots will be primarily logistical with strike ability mostly airborne except for some very particular tasks, such as sneaking up like snakes on enemy low altitude air defence posts. Command and control will be distributed and redundant. Cybersecurity will be critical.
Much research and development will be needed to ensure these drones operate in accordance with targeting law. However, such research is being funded. In the absence of a policy prohibition, the advanced powers will succeed in developing normatively compliant autonomous weaponry. In a climate where major powers do not trust each other, each will keep their guard up.
Increasingly, given the advances in AI and robotics, the front line of combat will be a combination of Uninhabited Ground Vehicles and UAVs on land and Uninhabited Sea Vehicles, Uninhabited Underwater Vehicles and UAVs at sea.
Future War May Be Predominantly Robotic in the Front Line
Future war may well evolve into robot vs robot at the front line. Human resistance against robots may become futile. Should such conditions evolve in war, it may be conventions evolve to take human surrenders in such hopeless circumstances.
Indeed, future war might become as ‘civilized’ as the wars of the Italian condottieri in the Renaissance. Machiavelli wrote of the Battle of Zagonara in 1424 that it was a ‘great defeat, famous throughout all Italy’ and yet ‘no death occurred except those of Lodovico degli Obizi and two of his men, who having fallen from their horses were drowned in the mud.’
Historians doubt the body count in Machiavelli’s report as he had it in for the lack of warfighting prowess of the condottieri, but even so, just as the wars of the condottieri were more about manoeuvre and posture than actual hard fighting, future war might become a matter of destroying material rather than people.
Some would argue war has been as much as about destroying material rather than people since the Second World War as evidenced by the raids on Schweinfurt and Bologna and the U-Boat campaigns in the North Atlantic. Once the opposing robots are destroyed, the humans may surrender as the ability of humans to defeat robots in combat might no longer exist. Resistance without robots may turn out to be as futile as trying to beat Deep Blue at chess without a computer.
In a future high-intensity war, it might be written:
[u]sing a new technological invention, the Red robots wiped out the Blue robots in the first days of the war, compelling the Blue humans to surrender. Some Blue humans tried to fight on, but the Red robots disarmed them, laughing at their slowness. The videos taken by the Red robots went viral.
Header Image: Pictured is a Royal Marine controlling a Black Hornet 2 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). This pocket sized and hand launched RPAS uses micro thermal cameras, visible spectrum cameras and proprietary software for flight control, stabilization, and communications. Weighing 18 grams, the Black Hornet helicopter can fly for up to 25 minutes at line-of-sight distances of up to one mile at speeds of 18 km/h. It uses GPS navigation or visual navigation via video and can fly pre-planned routes via its autopilot. The Black Hornet was developed in 2007 and been used by NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011, with the United Kingdom the first to acquire the type and use it operationally. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)
 Niccolo Macchiavelli, History of Florence, Book IV, Chapter I.
With eyes pinned on Europe´s eastern frontier, it has never been more critical to have the means to reduce tensions between key NATO allies and Russia. Are there ways to help lessen costs that come with such an undertaking?
According to reports, Russian aerial platforms increasingly violate the airspace of its western neighbours, which is generating considerable unease. While NATO is responding routinely by intercepting the invading aeroplanes and increasing the presence of its combat troops on its eastern flank (four battalions stretching from Poland to the Baltic), a question has arisen over whether or not it is possible to beef up defences in Eastern Europe, while de-escalating tensions. Russian officials consistently say that NATO was responsible for openly displaying its anti-Russian intentions by deploying forces in Poland and the Baltic States.
However, NATO’s recent creation of a new Atlantic command and logistics command, with additional reports showing that since the end of the Cold War the alliance has never actually prepared for the deployment of combat troops on its eastern flank, is thus an implicit admission that NATO is not in a position to deploy large-scale forces the way Russia can. In particular, Russia is paying close attention to the defence of its airspace and has made plans to increase its air defence capabilities, to prevent violations. Meanwhile, NATO lacks both combat aircraft and short-range air defences. According to a report issued by the RAND Corporation, If Mr Putin opts to launch a land grab against the Baltic States, his forces could occupy at least two Baltic capitals within 60 hours.
Although the utmost effort should be taken to de-escalate and resolve the current crisis, preparations are necessary to maintain a state of deterrence against Russia, while also reassuring ‘front-line’ members, i.e. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Deploying squadrons of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) provide several key benefits: They offer credible ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities, which help maintain a level of deterrence, but will not pose a threat or spark offensive actions by the Russians.
Drawing upon a study that examined among other things, the rapid expansion of Israeli Air Force (IAF) squadrons in response to unforeseen needs following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a committed effort by NATO to amass six to eight armed UAV squadrons (each with 20-24 platforms) over a period of two years should be both feasible and more cost-effective than deploying conventional forces. The recent difficulties in mobilising and deploying a mere 4,500 troops to NATO’s eastern flank indicates that the alliance has a shortage of both combat troops and political capital to enhance recruitment among member states.
In contrast, turning to unmanned, increasingly autonomous platforms as the first line of defence could not only (at least in the first instance) rely on existing infrastructure (e.g. air force bases, communication infrastructure etc.) but would also sit better with electorates reluctant to send troops to allies in Eastern Europe. Politically, member states probably would be far more willing to finance the acquisition and maintenance of UAVs squadrons by local teams. This would also help solve the issue of mobilisation as was demonstrated with NATO’s brigades. UAVs can help realistically build deterrence and even if there are failures, or even if half of the squadrons are destroyed, no lives, i.e. aircrews, would be lost.
Relations between Russia and the West are in a poor state, and tensions continue to escalate. Those member states who oppose the increased deployment of combat troops and the build-up of more offensive capabilities (e.g. tanks or jet fighters), could be more receptive to opting for cheaper solutions, which negates the need to deploy military personnel. The fact remains that Europe needs better deterrence in the face of Russian aggression. Therefore investing in unmanned autonomous systems, would go some way in providing, the security and surveillance that will be crucial in the years to come.
Emily Boulter is a writer based in Switzerland. She is the creator of the current affairs blog ‘From Brussels to Beirut.’ From 2010 to 2014 she worked as an assistant to the Vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. She is a frequent contributor to Global Risk Insights.
The use of air power as a tool by state actors is a regular theme examined by historians and policy specialists alike. However, the use of air power by non-state actors, in particular, intergovernmental organisations, is a different matter, though depending on one’s perspective, the United Nations (UN) – the subject of this volume – can be viewed as either a state or non-state actor. In this volume, A. Walter Dorn, Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, has brought together an impressive line-up of scholars and practitioners to consider how the UN has used both kinetic and non-kinetic air power as a tool for peacekeeping operations. Indeed, the narrative of UN peacekeeping operations generates images of soldiers in blue helmets on the ground. However, as this book ably demonstrates, air power has been a vital element of UN operations since the creation of its first ‘Air Force’ in 1960.
The book examines the use of air power by the UN since 1960 through to Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR – the air operations over Libya by NATO in 2011, which enforced UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. The book consists of 17 chapters split over six thematic areas: The UN’s First ‘Air Force’; Airlift; Aerial Surveillance; No-Fly Zones; Combat and evolving capabilities. The latter aspect looks at some of the challenges for the UN in the future. Indeed, by splitting the analysis into the themes mentioned above, Dorn et al. illustrate that UN air operations cover the broad spectrum of roles readily identifiable in modern air power doctrine: control of the air; attack; situational awareness and air mobility. It also ably illustrates the challenges and potential contradictions of ‘Ends’, ‘Ways’ and ‘Means’ in UN strategy and peacekeeping operations. As Dorn notes in his preface, ‘While peacekeeping is meant to de-escalate violence, it is sometimes necessary to use force to stop force.’ (p. xxvi). As such, to meet the ends desired by the UN – the cessation of violence between, states, groups or organisations – it is often necessary to utilise air power’s various capabilities to moderate and influence the behaviour of the parties involved. Therefore, air power offers a toolkit to try to support the enforcement of UN Resolutions. Indeed, as Robert C. Owen’s chapter on Operation DELIBERATE FORCE in 1995 (pp. 231-40) and Christian Anrig’s piece of Libya in 2011 (pp. 255-82) illustrate air power can be a useful tool in shaping behaviour. DELIBERATE FORCE ensured that the Bosnian Serbs complied with UN Resolutions and put the UN in a position to shape the Dayton Accords (p. 236). However, this, in itself, was only possible due to the technological changes, such as the emergence of Precision Guided Munitions, which allowed the multinational air forces involved in DELIBERATE FORCE to conduct a humanitarian war. Had the air forces involved been equipped with ‘dumb’ weapons then the diplomatic fallout from collateral damage would have, potentially, hindered the ends sought by the UN. Similarly, in 2011, air power offered the UN the means to apply military force to level ‘the playing field’ (p. 280) in defence of civilians during the Libyan Civil War. Furthermore, unlike in DELIBERATE FORCE, air power – as the means of applying military force – was the essential tool for both the UN and NATO because UN Security Council Resolution 1973 forbade the use of occupying forces in Libya. However, it should also be remembered that air power was not used in isolation and that it worked with naval forces and special operations teams to achieve the ends desired by the UN.
Importantly, this volume does not avoid discussing some of the challenges inherent in the application of air power by the UN. As with any forces it deploys, the UN is reliant on the support of its member nations to provide the ways and means to achieve its ends. At the time of publication (2014), the UN deployed around 200 to 300 aircraft to provide air support for peacekeeping missions (p. 283). Not only is relying on member states to willingly supply forces a risky strategy – but states tend only to support those missions viewed to be in its own interest – it is also costly as the UN pays for the use of lease of both military and civilian aviation assets to achieve its ends. Some of these challenges are considered in the final section of the book on ‘Evolving Capabilities’ (pp. 283-316).
This fascinating book highlights the many challenges concerning the application of air power in the context of peacekeeping operations. It considers both some of the practical challenges of deploying air power into the theatre to the many diplomatic considerations that affect the use of air power as a policy tool for the UN. Clearly, air power is not always the answer; however, as part of a toolbox of political, diplomatic, economic and military means, air power can provide the ways to achieve the ends sought by the UN if applied correctly. Finally, it is worth reflecting that many of the lessons found in this book should not be considered as unique to the UN, but can also be applied to peace support operations undertaken by individual sovereign nations. Indeed, David Neil’s chapter of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (pp. 147-64) highlights some of the regulatory challenges concerning their use, which are just as important to national air forces as they are for the UN.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Header Image: A Mil Mi-8 helicopter of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Juba, c. 2013. (Source: United Nations)