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Drone at Sunset

Attack of the drones: The next threat is from above

By Malcolm Davis

In 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a brief but intense war over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Azerbaijan won a decisive victory in large part to its very effective use of loitering munitions and UAVs against Armenian ground forces, most notably, its armoured vehicles, which proved highly vulnerable. Once Armenia’s air defences were eliminated, the Azeris could operate largely unopposed and made good use of surveillance and targeting provided by higher altitude UAVs to co-ordinate attacks.

A key observation was that the low cost of the offensive capability which contrasted sharply with the high cost of modern AFVs. In September 2009, the Indian Air Force purchased 10 IAI Harop loitering munitions for $100 million, equating to about $10 million per drone. As more advanced manufacturing technology advances, the cost of these systems will fall in comparison to the cost of an AFV or MBT as noted above.

When the cost per kill equation is considered in the context of the use of swarming, the outcomes look alarming for army’s future plans for heavy armour, with $27.1 billion for 450 armoured fighting vehicles under LAND 400 Phase 3, and $2.15 billion spent recently to upgrade army’s main battle tanks under LAND 907 Phase 2.

Both of these capabilities will confront a much more challenging operational environment, in which a key concern must be a looming threat of advanced combat UAVs and loitering munitions. There needs to be attention directed towards the threat of swarming low-cost loitering munitions which could overwhelm traditional ground-based air defence systems.

Its notable that China is investing substantial effort and money into swarming drone technology, including for loitering munitions capabilities.

China tested a swarm of 200 loitering munitions in 2017 with the swarm being launched from a single-wheeled vehicle and helicopters. The ability to swarm large numbers of loitering munitions, makes it clear that investment in limited ground-based air defences based on traditional surface-to-air missile technologies may not be effective against hundreds, or even potentially thousands of armed UAVs that can identify targets independently.

In short, we could quickly run out of missiles, and then see ground-based air defence overwhelmed and destroyed. The deployed armoured forces, and even infantry, will become highly exposed.

Army needs to consider a future battlespace that will see a clash of generations – large, armoured fighting vehicles and tanks against swarms of advanced UAVs and loitering munitions, which are fully autonomous rather than controlled by a “man in the loop”.

A failure to adequately defend mechanised forces will essentially make them too vulnerable to swarming UAS. We must go in effectively defended or go home.

Part of the solution is integrating counter-UAS (C-UAS) technologies across fighting forces, rather than relying on traditional ground-based air defence systems exclusively.

Secondly, its time for army to consider developing the means to use its own counter-swarms to combat adversary UAS and loitering munitions.

In considering defences beyond that to be provided by LAND 19 Phase 7B, it’s sensible to pursue a more aggressive and accelerated research and development schedule for directed energy weapons (DEW) such as high-powered solid-state laser weapons to provide a C-UAS capability for very short-range air defence against large swarms of loitering munitions and attack drones. The low cost per shot and the “deep magazine” of laser systems would complement NASAMs beyond visual range capabilities, and “thicken” battlefield air defence against adversary air threats.

Maybe it’s also time for army to look at dedicated counter-rocket capabilities similar to the Israeli Iron Dome system most recently demonstrated in very effectively destroying Hamas rockets, with Israel already developing a “drone-dome” system based on jamming or high-energy laser systems. But army’s MBT and AFVs also have to be equipped with their own C-UAS systems on-board to provide the last layer in a multi-layered defence capability, rather than simply betting all on NASAMs being sufficient.

Electronic warfare (EW) capabilities also need to be considered. The key element is ensuring all these systems – NASAMs, DEW-based C-UAS, and EW as well as last-ditch defences – can work together in a coherent networked system rather than as individual capabilities.

If an adversary can swarm drones against our ground forces, then army might consider acquiring its own counter swarms. The emphasis must be detecting an adversary drone threat and killing it before it can be deployed. This could be done through high-altitude UAVs such as MQ-9B Sky Guardian, but they are unlikely to operate in contested airspace. So, a low-cost low-altitude armed UAV or loitering munition supported by swarms of cheap ISR UAVs may make more sense.

The Raytheon Coyote Block II UAS would be an ideal type of counter-UAS system that could be integrated with LAND-19 Phase 7B to better protect army’s future AFVs and MBTs.

We’ve been given glimpses into the next war, where autonomous systems are prolific above the battle space. We can’t simply invest in capabilities for the last war and expect them to survive. Tanks and AFVs have to be defended against drones, if they are to survive.

Originally published by: The Australian on 01 Jun 2021