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‘This is only a foretaste of what is to come, and only the shadow of what is going to be.’ – Alan Turing

Alan Turing’s prescient warning was in relation to the rise of machine intelligence. An ominous forecast at a time when the true potential of drone technology had not been fully grasped; but the indicators and warnings of the military potential of drones have existed since WWII. Recall the United States Navy’s TDR-1 drones used in the late stages of WWII and the Wehrmacht’s radio-controlled Goliath tracked mine. Rudimentary drone systems, but lethal nonetheless. So while there could be an inclination to dismiss the influence of drones on military force structure and capability decisions, it is always useful to consider a range of views. Drones, like aircraft in WWI, were initially used for reconnaissance roles before it was realised just how deadly armed aircraft could be. Such as it now is with drones.

In future war, tactical drones and not crewed armour may be the decisive factor. Drones may one day be able to seize and hold ground, then repel counter-attacks.

Drone technology development is also a contemporary analogue of tank improvements, where crude, unreliable tanks were initially used in relatively small numbers in WWI. Then in the interwar years advanced tank systems and tactics were perfected, resulting in the German Blitzkrieg (lightning warfare) that plunged the world into a second conflagration. Drones, like technological progression in tanks, have emerged as a prominent landmark in military evolution that is challenging military norms around the world.

Threat potential of modern Blitzkrieg 2.0 or Dronekrieg in context of advances in offensive drone technologies may be on the cusp of exponential proliferation.

Combined Arms Entropy

Weaponised drones and surgical Dronekrieg tactics are poised to be harbingers of ruinous entropic shifts in combined arms warfare

Entropy is the level of disorder or chaos in a system. So, entropy is relevant to combined arms, as combat teams are a system-of-systems. Discrete combat team ‘systems’ can include: infantry, armour and combat engineers as core ground combat elements, supported by aviation and artillery units. This highly lethal system-of-systems is unified with a common purpose. Each ‘system’ contributes its inherent strength to generate complementary combat effects that reduce entropic risks in action.

Drone attacks on combined arms teams may amount to the old axiom – divide and conquer – depriving combat teams of key enablers at a critical time(s) in battle.

Individual ‘system’ weaknesses are modulated by strengths of the collective force, but therein lies the intrinsic flaw of combat teams – many systems, many weak points. Thus, tactical drones may be configured to target separate ‘system’ vulnerabilities to undermine the system-of-systems. Drone attempts to intensify combat entropy will also be inventive and deceptive, with variable tactics to dismantle combat teams. These might include attacks on aviation and artillery resulting in the degradation or loss of offensive fires and air support. 

Helicopter Hunters

Helicopter landing zones may have never been so hot.

Combat aviation will be a high-value target for progressively sophisticated anti-helicopter drones. Moreover, surface-to-air missiles are set to be eclipsed as the nemeses of helicopter crews by tactical drones. Drones could have machine intelligence and networking; and will work as efficient teams to bring down their rotary-winged prey. Flying at ultra-low level to avoid radar detection, drones may activate and deactivate temporal air ambushes as target opportunities arise, or in response to tactical decisions delivered at machine speed from quantum command posts.

Hunter-killer drones with machine intelligence will fight systematically to win tactical air superiority and to deny combined arms teams of valuable air support when they need it most; rotary-wing support which can mean the difference between mission success or failure. Air assault support demonstrated at the Battle of Ia Drang is illustrative of this phenomena. Early versions of anti-helicopter drones may be hard-pressed to match airspeed of powerful twin-engine helicopters, but drones will coordinate themselves precisely and use terrain features to overcome velocity disadvantage. 

Manually operated door machine-guns that require rapid barrel changes to avoid overheating will be inadequate protection. Extant helicopter defences are not optimised to defeat coordinated anti-aviation drones that will attempt to evade fire from door guns. Drones will approach from helicopter blindspots to enhance attack vectors, such as directly from below, above the rotors or from the tail section. Drones may also pop-up from behind terrain or directly in an aircraft’s flightpath, forcing pilots to take immediate evasive action. 

Bespoke onboard hard-kill and soft-kill anti-drone defences and early warning systems will be vital to aircraft survival. Loyal Wingman drones used by jet fighters must also be adapted as security support for combat aviation elements.

Hostile surveillance drones might direct armed interceptor drones to intersect helicopter flight paths or seek targets flying slower during sling-load operations. Triggering a surprise robotic attack from multiple angles and altitudes at close range will leave little time for aircrews to react. Drones might also attempt to incapacitate pilots with fragmentation explosives or multiple shaped-charges directed at the cockpit. Blast and fragmentation effects may be preceded by accurate drone laser strikes to distract or dazzle aircrews.

Targeting pilots, while ruthless, is effective as it bypasses triple redundancy engineered in a helicopter’s critical flight systems – hence pilots may be a logical target of choice for calculating enemy drones. Also Forward Arming and Refuelling points may become quite dangerous during hot refuels if drone raids occur. Moreover, helicopters on short-finals delivering troops into Landing Zones (LZ), or while in ground-effect over rough terrain will also be a high-risk proposition for aircrews and pax; as it has been in past battles, such as the Battle of LZ Center, but more so with helicopter hunter drones in the mix.

Artillery Assassins

Like the ill-fated Guns of Navarone (a fictional movie based on the WWII Battle of Leros), artillery units will continue to be a key focus of attack from the air in future war. Stealth drones may be programmed to deprive land manoeuvre forces of their indirect fire support as a defeat precondition. To illustrate this point, imagine if Delta Company, 6 RAR had fought the Viet Cong Regiment without direct artillery support during the Battle of Long Tan. Australian casualties would likely have been tragically far higher.

Heavy-bomber drones, escorted by flights of drone fighters might be employed to carry small versions of daisy-cutter bombs, but large enough for just a few of them to devastate a towed-artillery gun line.

drone bomber command might be formed to destroy artillery and air defence units behind the front lines or mortar platoons in forward areas; flying low among trees or buildings to screen their approach. Then using escort drones to absorb drone counter-measures or to conduct diversionary attacks, heavy drone bombers carrying up to 500lbs of high explosive could unleash their deadly payloads. These ‘Platoon Killer’ bombs could cause destructive secondary explosions on gun and mortar lines, creating substantial entropy. It would be like the Battle of Britain all over again, except the Luftwaffe Heinkel He-111 Bombers and Messerschmitt Bf-109 fighter escorts are tactical smart drones. 

White-phosphorous (WP) incendiary munitions may be delivered by anti-artillery drones. WP released over individual artillery pieces would render them useless.

Towed artillery may be highly vulnerable to precision drone airstrikes without dedicated drone defences. Likewise Self-Propelled (SP) Artillery could be at high-risk, noting they might be subject to attack from anti-tank dronesSP Guns, like combat teams and towed artillery units, will also require integral drone protection systems. Examples might be a troop or section of Anti-Aircraft Artillery per Gun Battery – a heavy volume of automated rapid fire may be the only sure way of stopping the Drones of Navarone. Particularly if drones are engineered with immunity to electromagnetic forms of drone counter-measure.

Channelling War History

‘Nascent systems such as swarming and miniature aerial attack systems have the potential to radically change the character of war’ – 38thUSMC Commandant 

Some may suggest that considering the past is not innovative in terms of futures analysis. This may be the case in some circumstances, but such a view is dangerous in context of military futures where the changing character and enduring nature of war is axiomatic. Past battles and combat methods provide clues to the discerning analyst when considering new technologies and their applications in war. Hence, channelling Blitzkrieg and the Battles of Long Tan, Ia Drang, LZ Center, Leros and Britain in relation to drone warfare forecasting is instructive.

The Australian Army can no longer acquire capability systems and fight the way it wants to, divergent to how it will have to fight. Combat teams will need to become increasingly mechatronic in their form and function, with organic drone defence systems to prevail in future battles.

Drones will be the equivalent of a miniaturised air force but employed exclusively at very low-altitudes to support ground forces. So, the Australian Army’s force structure and long-term love affair with combined arms operations will face existential challenges in terms of Dronekrieg. There has been no secret made of the almost cult-like devotion to combined arms doctrine. Thus, Australian soldiers are expert combined arms practitioners and are accustomed to chaos. But good things allegedly must end – the paradigm is set to transform, so let’s progress tangible plans to equip Aussie warfighters with the right tools.

About the Author: Greg Rowlands, a recently retired Lieutenant Colonel, served over 27 years in the Australian Army, including service as a staff officer in a combat aviation regiment and as a mortar platoon commander in a mechanised infantry battalion. He has published extensively on drone defence concepts and military space operations, including other emerging technology trends and shocks affecting military affairs to provide an alternate view for Defence modernisation planners. He is also a former Project Director in LAND 400 Land Combat Vehicle System. You can find him on Twitter @glrowlands1.