Air Operations at the Level of Boots on the Ground

Air Operations at the Level of Boots on the Ground

By Sean Welsh

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.

Slaughterbots

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 slaughterbots video 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.

Increasing Autonomy

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.

U.S. Marines with 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines and Afghan National Security Forces conduct a joint checkpoint
US Marine Corps Corporal Andrew Margis of the 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 7 prepares a micro unmanned aerial vehicle for flight at a joint vehicle checkpoint with Afghan soldiers and Afghan civil order police in the Now Zad district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, 21 May 2013. (Source: US Department of Defense)

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.

Already, the Russian military has prototyped an autonomous tank, the Neretha, which was reported to have outperformed human tank crews in recent trials. A US team of researchers have already built an air combat AI that defeated a retired Air Force colonel in a tactical simulation.

Autonomous Swarms

It is likely autonomous low altitude aircraft will function in swarms and be teamed with humans who will increasingly focus on defining military goals at a high level rather than figuring out how to achieve them in detail.

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.

At present, such human-robot teaming is not practical, but it is a defined research goal. Most drones remain telepiloted; however, voice-controlled robots that are intelligent enough to respond to simple tactical instructions are not far away, and autonomous robots intelligent enough to comply with targeting law are not so far away either.

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.’[1]

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.

Sean Welsh (@sean_welsh77) is the author of Ethics and Security Automata: Policy and Technical Challenges of the Robotic Use of Force and a postgraduate student in Philosophy at the University of Canterbury. Prior to embarking on his PhD, he wrote software for British Telecom, Telstra Australia, Fitch Ratings, James Cook University and Lumata.

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)

[1] Niccolo Macchiavelli, History of Florence, Book IV, Chapter I.

#Commentary – UAVs: An Affordable Defence for Europe?

#Commentary – UAVs: An Affordable Defence for Europe?

By Dr Tamir Libel and Emily Boulter

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?

ROYAL AIR FORCE TYPHOONS INTERCEPT 10 RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT IN ONE MISSION
An air-to-air image taken over Baltic airspace by the crew of an RAF Typhoon, intercepting Russian Mikoyan MiG-31 aircraft. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

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.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
An RAF Reaper at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, c. 2014 (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

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.

Dr Tamir Libel has just finished a two-year Marie Curie COFUND fellowship at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). In early 2018 he will join the German Institute of Area and Global Studies (GIGA) as an associate fellow. He is the author of European Military Culture and Security Governance: Soldiers, Scholars and National Defence Universities (Routledge, 2016). He can be found at Twitter @drtamirlibel.

Header Image: A Russian SU-27 Flanker aircraft banks away with an RAF Typhoon in the background, 17 June 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

#BookReview – Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace

#BookReview – Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace

By Dr Ross Mahoney

A. Walter Dorn (ed.), Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. Figures. Tables. Notes. Index. Pbk. xxxv + 350 pp.

air-power-in-un-operations_cover_dorn_300x448_65k

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.

First Phase Digital
A partial view of Luluabourg airport, showing some of the Swedish Saab J-29 jet planes which were placed at the disposition of the UN Force in the Congo (ONUC), c. 1961. Called ‘flying barrels’, the jets were manned by members of the Swedish Air Force, numbering some 40 pilots and maintenance officers.(Source: United Nations)

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).

drone in Bunia.jpeg
A United Nations unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at Bunia airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UAVs are used for surveillance purposes by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Source: United Nations)

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.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

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)