UK Defence Minister Gavin Williamson’s announcement that British armed forces are in the midst of developing drone “squadrons” created a buzz in both the defense and UAS worlds. Appearing at an engagement at the Royal United Services Institute, Mr. Williamson spoke of swarms of tiny UAS steered by a single pilot and designed to saturate and eventually completely overwhelm enemy air defenses.
The move comes as the Minister maneuvers to close budget and manpower shortages by employing AI and a combination of commercial and military technology.
Britain is far from alone in its interest as cheaper drone models are seducing military strategists worldwide. In 2018, the Pentagon included UAS among the emerging technologies it was looking to incorporate into its new “Flight Path” strategy for the US Air Force. It came to that conclusion after Red Team exercises revealed that traditional staples of US air power like Predator and Global Hawk military drones were becoming a thing of the past.
“What we see is that the traditional big wing ISR has been routinely losing effectiveness over time,” noted Kenneth Bray, the Air Force’s deputy chief for ISR, at a conference held in August 2018, adding that the Pentagon was not going to wait to move forward with new innovations, even if there will still a few kinks to work out.
Drones, specifically devices made of lower cost, sometimes mass-produced materials, provide an interesting alternative to the much more expensive Predators of old. And they bring with them the additional benefit of speed, with their artificial intelligence powered sensors and processors allowing airmen more leeway to think critically rather than merely process data according to another official.
Of course, those in know are aware that expensive materials and sophisticated AI aren’t obligatory to turn a drone into a military asset.
The separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine has been marked by a steady stream of commercial and locally produced drones employed by both sides in a surprisingly wide variety of roles: providing surveillance footage of on the emplacement of artillery, tanks, and rocket systems, smuggling of provisions and even “kamikaze” drones designed to be sacrificed in an attack on enemy forces.
An emphasis on surveillance and attack was similarly observed in fights with the Islamic State during the Syrian Civil War as well as the effort to push the jihadist fighters out of Mosul, Iraq. Coalition troops regularly reported being harassed by quadcopters and dozens of Iraqi troops were killed or wounded by 40-millimeter grenades and light explosives dropped from UAS buzzing just out of reach, described by one serviceman as “killer bees.”
In most cases the devices were either off-the-shelf hobby drones modified to carry a single explosive or locally-produced UAS whipped up out of mix of homemade and commercially available parts, often sourced through third parties from unsuspecting wholesalers in Europe and Asia.
Beyond the Middle East, Islamic State affiliates in the Philippines, Libya and Yemen have reportedly used drones for surveillance as well Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
For Dan Gettinger, co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, nothing can stop the coming flood of UAS expected to darken the skies of battlefields all over the globe: “The U.S. military and any military has to prepare for an operating environment in which enemy drones are not just occasional, but omnipresent,” adding, “Whether it’s a small, tactical UAS, midsize or strategic, drones of any size will be commonplace on the battlefield of the future.”
The easy availability of drone technology itself might be partly to blame for their increasing presence in war. The devices can be mass-produced cheaply, parts are simple to procure and online vendors can ship them to virtually any part of the world.
Even for UAS specifically conceived for combat, prices are falling as producers like China are challenging American dominance in the field in more ways than one. A report on drone proliferation in the Middle East released by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies noted that in addition to the relatively low cost of Chinese made drones, China’s “no questions asked” sales methods did much to contribute to the jump in drone numbers in Middle Eastern nations:
“Purchasing armed drones from China, a country which does not abide by the MTCR, enables them to gain access to this technology without being barred by international norms. Although Chinese operators often conduct initial sorties, including combat ones, they do not appear to insist on particular procedures but instead enable and teach new users to employ their armed UAVs as they wish.”
The report also names Iran as an emerging manufacturer of low cost (and no strings attached) UAV technology, noting that Iran does discriminate between state and non-state actors such as insurgent groups. Though evidence and details are still “feeble”, it is suspected that Iran “might have supplied armed drones to Hamas, Hizbullah and the Houthis as well as the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.”
As noted in a previous blog post, some non-state groups have become particularly adept at adapting Iranian or Chinese low-grade military drone technology with the addition of commercial parts or technology to produce a sort of “Frankendrone” that while clunky, gets the job done.
The Houthi rebels of Yemen are an excellent example of this. In January 2019 they sent an armed Iranian-made Qasef-1 fitted with civilian GPS to attack a Government military parade, killing several including a high-ranking intelligence official.
Even though militaries appear to be enthusiastic about the potential of UAS and well aware of the risks stemming from its proliferation – actual rollout of reliably functional battle drones seems to be proceeding at a slower pace than many would prefer.
In the case of the UK, many were skeptical of Williamson’s promise that the UK could develop drone swarm squadrons “ready to be deployed by the end of this year (2019)” with one expert stating that the idea of swarm drones was “very much at the concept stage, and it’s very unlikely he can meet the deadline of the end of the year.”
Indeed, for the moment the most dynamic players in the new drone arms race appear to be non-state actors, who faced with the overwhelming fire power and budgets of traditional state militaries are making due with what they can find and in an often very effective and potentially deadly way. It seems necessity really is the mother of invention.