24 June 2015
War In The Drone Era
Drones And Extreme Automation Are Today's Technology, Not Vaporware.
The age of drone warfare is already here.
Unmanned armed aircraft have been regularly used by the U.S. to kill suspected terrorists and insurgents for more than a decade. Cruise missiles and "smart bombs", which are even older, are likewise basically just suicidal drones. Reconnaissance drones in the air and in the water come in sizes as small as hummingbirds and as large as Cold War era manned spy planes and 1930s airships. There are drone cargo helicopters that have been used regularly in Afghanistan.
And, prototypes of drone aircraft carrier based unmanned fighter aircraft have done everything that a manned fighter aircraft can do (and more) in realistic tests. Indeed, there is good reason to believe that drone fighter aircraft might outperform the best of the best manned fighter aircraft for the simple reason that they can withstand greater G-forces allowing for more complex maneuvers and because one can field a larger fleet of drones for one's money because drone aircraft will very soon be cheaper than manned aircraft because the former does not require expensive and engine capacity consuming life support systems for the pilot. So far, the military has avoided those kinds of tests, in part, because they fear the conclusions that would be drawn for the future of the manned fighter fleet if the drones perform as expected.
There are also a variety of unmanned ground vehicles, some armed. The remote controlled version of these area ready for prime time, although early battle field tests have revealed some weaknesses for smaller ones, like using civilian women and children whom the rules of engagement don't permit the ground drones to shoot to cover the ground drone's sensors with opaque cloth rendering it blind and useless.
Extrapolating drone technology to new platforms is increasingly a relatively trivial engineering problem now that model software programs exist to operate them and the electronics needed have become commercial off the shelf technology to a great extent.
Also, highly automated technologies short of true autonomous robots or remote controlled drones are also having an impact. Gun turrets no longer need to have a vulnerable gunner in them exposed to hostile fire. New, highly automated ships can operate with about 1/9th of the crews that were necessary as recently as Vietnam.
The number of people needed to run an artillery battery is much lower than it used to be, and "smart" artillery rounds, like the "smart bombs" used by aircraft, are now so accurate that perhaps 95% of artillery rounds fired will hit their targets, an order of magnitude or more above historical artillery accuracy. So, it takes far fewer people to operate artillery batteries necessary to hit X number of targets per day than it did a generation ago. Improved drone and spy satellite reconnaissance also means that target selection is far more accurate, although reducing the number of rounds that must be fired to destroy all known targets.
Just as "smart bombs" maneuver after being released to an intended target, "smart bullets" that do essentially the same thing after they have been fired from a sniper rifle are in workable prototype stage right now. These bullets could make it feasible for snipers to hit distant targets that are moving in unpredictable ways, or that are behind cover such as a simple low wall that the bullet could maneuver around.
No One Knows What Mix Of Drones Is Best, Or How It Impacts The Current Mix Of Forces
While all the individual weapons platform technologies are now a reality, however, no one has really developed an overall tactical approach to exploiting these technologies most effectively. There is no clear consensus on what mix of drones is needed.
For example, while it is now technologically possible, and indeed trivial given current technology, to use drone aircraft to deliver smart bombs, keeping human operators further from the fray, so far this hasn't been done.
No one has meaningfully re-evaluated how an increasingly accurate ability to deliver ordinance based upon real time quality visual reconnaissance and signals intelligence without putting any human operators close to where the ordinance will be delivered, tweaks the mix of air power resources, artillery resources, heavy ground forces in tanks, naval forces, old fashioned front line infantry, and behind the lines forward operating base personnel are needed in a modern military force.
For the most part, military procurement operates on autopilot, replacing old systems for comparable new systems on a one to one basis using mixes of forces established in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, before these transformative technologies arrived.
There has been some adjustment within the Army, of its relative balance of different kinds of capabilities, for example, with some heavy battle tank divisions replaced by medium weight Stryker brigades. But, the U.S. military still haven't taken on the job of rebalancing its forces in light of modern capabilities at a larger scale.
For example, no one has seriously rethought issues like the relative roles of aircraft, submarines and surface combatants in naval warfare against other near peer surface combatants, since World War II, the last time that world had much significant naval warfare between navies, despite the fact that the scant available evidence suggests that the surface combatant component is much more vulnerable than the submarine and aircraft components of the anti-surface combatant warfare force of the military.
Likewise, no one had really made a principled determination about our relative need for small, medium and large drones that span the entire range of existing military hardware from handgun size class drones and smaller, to drones that rival the size of the largest warships.
Soon Our Opponents Will Use Drones Against Us And We Aren't Ready For That
Most problematically, given that drone and automation technology can proliferate much more easily than, for example, nuclear weapons or nuclear powered naval craft, because they are almost COTS technologies at this point, U.S. military planning related to drone warfare to date has been almost entirely devoted to how to wage offensive military operations with our drones, rather than to how to defend ourselves and our interests from attacks by drones operated by our opponents that are anything more sophisticated than a cell phone operated IED.
It is too late to interdict technologies like laptop computers, fly by wire model aircraft controls, cell phones, long distance wi-fi routers, and model fixed wing and rotary aircraft from the international market in a way that would be an effective barrier to a foreign military or a well organized and funded terrorist group.
Our navy, for example, struggles to figure out how to defend its ships and commercial ships that it is escorting, from attacks by swarms of missiles and/or small craft operated by nations such as Iran or North Korea. Similarly, the U.S. Navy already struggles to a devise ways for its surface combatants to survive attacks from just one or two modern coastal submarines, or from a large number of sea mines with its limited anti-submarine warfare and anti-mine warfare systems. But, this already difficult problem would be compounded greatly if a nation like this could simultaneously deploy hundreds of drones in the air, on the surface and underwater to attack of U.S. destroyer or commercial ships that it is escorting.
Nuclear weapons turned out to be less important in modern warfare than anticipated mostly because it is rare for obliteration of an entire city or metropolitan area civilians and all in a single overwhelmingly blow to be a military objective. They are also expensive to build and require scarce materials. Yet, usually, combatants who can afford to build or acquire nuclear weapons want to wrest political control of urban areas from somebody else, not to destroy it entirely.
But, drones and automation may have tools, like infantry support scale drones, that are better suited to more ordinary military objectives. For example, a drone that can barge into a house in urban warfare and identify and kill any enemies who are a threat to soldiers seeking to occupy and control the neighborhood where the house is located without placing their own lives in undue danger.
Using drones in warfare against a near peer is very different from using drones in warfare that is highly asymmetric against guerrilla insurgent fighters, as the U.S. has done so far.
For example, a near peer might be able to jam remote control signals or GPS signals that a drone's operator relies upon to command and control it, or might shoot down satellites critical to the command and control and intelligence function, or might be able to use an electromagnetic pulse weapon to disable the electronics that run drones or automated systems.
Fighting mass produced drones on either side makes a war of attrition with a military force made up mostly of humans, a dismal prospect. Even a 100-1 win loss ratio for the humans in drone-human engagements, can portend an eventual certain defeat of the human force if the other side can mass produce enough drones at a cost that it can afford.
Drones are also well suited to very long range, highly targeted missions. One can imagine a small, stealthy glider sized "mother ship" drone traveling from North Korea or Algeria or China or Iran to the sky near a U.S. or European or Canadian or Japanese or South Korean city and releasing a smaller, shorter range drone with fire power equivalent to a handgun and tracking cell phone signals or using information provided by a forward observer with a cell phone-like targeting device, to assassinate a single targeted individual, perhaps a political leader or business leader or scientist or clergyman or a few armed guards at a targeted facility. Or perhaps the final stage short range drone would drop a hand grenade sized bomb into a busy market or mall, or bus or train depot, or school or church, again from a launch area thousands of miles away. The local spy culprit who identifies the target's location may be carrying nothing more incriminating than a civilian GPS and camera equipped cell phone to identity targets that has encryption software and calls an anonymous phone number or web address to convey its encoded targeting information. The actual smart phone used in a particular operation (or at least its identifying SIM card) could be destroyed after each operation at a modest cost.
If the target is a fixed location, instead of an individual, like a particular office in a government building or a particular tourist attraction, aerial photography or a local cell phone or car navigation system user's data can be used to set GPS coordinates to which a fully automated armed drone can proceed to launch a surprise attack, eliminating defenses based on disrupting signals used to control the drone remotely. Tracing the source of such an attack could also prove very difficult, particularly if the drone self-destructs either in the attack or in some remote location far from the scene of the attack where it would take a long time to recovery any useful information about the source.
It might be possible to design systems to protect a President or Prime Minister or chief military officer of a country from that kind of targeted attack, but it would be much more difficult to defend hundreds or thousands of possible targets that are almost as significant from that kind of attack. And, as noted above, treaties will be worthless in preventing deadly drone technology from proliferating in the very near future.
Once again, the tale of modern warfare, in which offense almost always overcomes defense, will repeat itself.