Counter-insurgency has been the defining format of military operations, particularly for Western countries, for the past couple of decades. As regular forces adapt to a more conventional approach to conflict, so too do unmanned vehicles have to take into account the prospect of denied-airspace operations.
As expressed recently by a NATO official in London, platforms and operators are so accustomed to working in compliant airspace that operating in contested environments could well prove difficult. As it stands, the UAV is a sitting duck for ground and airborne defence systems, given that it is slower, less manoeuvrable and infinitely less robust.
Militaries and industry aren’t complacent about the problem, however, and are busy trying to find the best ways to get their platforms into areas that might be viewed as less than welcoming.
However, there exists a way of thinking, doing and building that emerged as a consequence of a time in which we once lived and that is rather less suited to the time in which we now find ourselves. As fast as technology moves, mankind and its way of dealing with state and non-state combat moves faster, and is looking to leave present unmanned CONOPS in its dust.
We have seen unmanned systems shot down by both sophisticated and relatively simple methods in battle zones from Yemen, to Syria and Ukraine. There is no evasive manoeuvring, no reaction to the threat, just a target plodding along in unfriendly skies.
But then again, do we need to bother about ensuring drones are safe from physical attack? If you have hundreds, if not thousands, of systems saturating a denied area at a single time there will be a point when air defence systems won’t be able to cope. Making the rate of attrition high enough to effectively physically and financially overwhelm a targeted enemy remains one of the best possible use cases for unmanned systems. A machine going down in a plume of smoke is still just a machine.
Of course, at present, the more capable systems are of a cost that more or less prohibits these tactics, although some tactical platforms now come in at a price that may allow such action when technological miniaturisation and sophistication improves. Swarm programmes are also being investigated and researched by militaries and government keen to explore this capability.
But it is not just the physical threat that the drone has to worry about. Being bounced out of the sky by modern day versions of Me109s and flak cannon are only the most visible of threats for unmanned systems, with cyber security generally considered as critical to safe and secure operations. Examples of drone hacks usually only refer to suggestions or rumour but one – the optical hack of Israeli drones by Western allies in 2016 – lay bare the scope of the threat and the potential ease with which it can be accomplished.
Hardening systems that generally require a great deal of data throughput between the platform and ground station is ongoing throughout industry and operator alike, but until the UAV is able to ‘think’ for itself and decide on actions without having to refer back to control, it remains a significant issue.
Even today, there are very few manned aircraft that have the capability to penetrate denied airspace and successfully carry out the assigned mission, and all this with the benefit of having one of the most sophisticated systems ever made – the human being – controlling the platform and making on-the-spot decisions in real time.
Creating an artificial system that is able to imitate enough of the machine learning and decision-making functions of a human operator is one of the great challenges for industry.
For more on counter-UAS trends, see the latest issue of Unmanned Vehicles magazine.