An Eye on the Sky – UAS as an Enduring Presence in Conflict and Training

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The Australian Army’s use of drone footage in its recent video of 7 Brigade’s Combined Arms Training Activity (Ex Diamond Run) reinforces the growing trend of employing Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) to provide observation from previously inaccessible perspectives. As a recent article in The Economist stated, “Once you have a flying camera, there are lots of things you can do with it.”

Certainly, 7 Brigade’s footage exemplifies the significant opportunities offered by this remarkable tool (far surpassing the initial Public Affairs victory of increased viewings due to trendy footage). Beyond this, however, it is impossible to deny the ongoing threat Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pose to all force elements in the battlespace, and it is widely accepted that the presence of varied systems will be an enduring feature of conflict. Appropriately, there has been a vigorous focus on platform solutions to disrupt and/or destroy these threats. What is yet common practice is an equally vigorous focus on training that involves the presence of this threat. To that end, I believe there are two key observations to be made from a video whose original purpose I presume to be a fantastic demonstration of 7 Brigade’s capability.

Before such observations antagonize many of those intimately involved in the Counter Unmanned Aerial System (C-UAS) framework, I must make several caveats. Firstly, I am removed from the Combat Brigades and the observations made are done so unaware of the existing training. Secondly, I am acutely aware that the observations made have limited utility based on the threat UAS; however, noting the current trend of quadcopter to Tactical Unmanned Aerial System (T-UAS) to Medium Altitude Long Endurance UAS (MALE UAS) and so on, I believe we should focus on what we can control. For those forward elements of the Combat Brigades, this is far more likely to be quadcopters similar in nature to those employed by Public Affairs Officers. Finally, my observations are focused on the controllable elements at the lowest level. There will always remain the need for a highly detailed and integrated C-UAS framework but it starts with the individual soldier.

My first observation is perhaps best summed up by a scene from the 2002 film Reign of Fire:

Quinn Abercromby: What do we do when we are awake?
The Children: Keep both eyes on the sky.
Quinn Abercromby: What do we do when we sleep?
The Children: Keep one eye on the sky.

The applicability of this scene to C-UAS is obvious. With few exceptions, our focus as a land force has been at the ground level; ensuring all elements, from individuals to larger units, identify threats and develop methods to counter them. Yet in order to effectively counter the threat of UAS, situational awareness must be extended to include the sky, and the detection of relatively small airborne platforms. Success will be greatly influenced by a thorough understanding of the threat systems.

In the initial stages of any operation, there are likely to be information gaps surrounding the specific nature of the UAS threat; however, recognizing the proliferation and likely presence in the operating environment, the implementation of C-UAS focused Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) is essential. In order to disrupt the effectiveness of low-slow UAS, TTPs such as exploiting poor weather conditions, pausing during operations, where reasonable, to scan the airspace, and limiting movement to areas where vegetation provides overhead concealment should become common practice. The UAS footage from Exercise Diamond Run demonstrates both open terrain’s exposure and closed terrains concealment of the individual soldier and small teams. Just as it is for the children in the post-apocalyptic world of Reign of Fire, keeping at least one eye on the sky is now an essential habit for all ground forces.

Secondly, we should be using available assets in the field to repeatedly prompt the conduct of such basic C-UAS practices as those noted above, in order to inculcate these procedures as basic and fundamental to operations. The resources exist and should be employed beyond getting some fantastic footage of troops in action. Quadcopters during training events should be employed to test the effectiveness of passive C-UAS measures such as camouflage procedures, patrolling methods, and the employment of dummy positions. Post-exercise, footage should be provided to units as an educational tool in order to allow widespread awareness of the capabilities of UAS and the effectiveness of various measures to counter these tools.

At a soldier level, this will provide visual evidence of the appearance of their procedures from the air, significantly enhancing their appreciation for the disproportionate effect of focused passive air defence. Similarly, the presence of such quadcopters during a training exercise is likely to force soldiers to pay attention to the sky. Attempts to ingrain a habit of ‘keeping one eye on the sky’ are likely to fall short if it’s known that there is nothing there. Whatever platform employed to achieve this presence must be made clear during the orders process. In doing so we force soldiers to discriminate between threat and friend. For commanders, educational aids such as exercise footage will reinforce the necessity to ensure greater attention to detail, and increased situational awareness at both the individual and patrol level, while presence of quadcopters in the battle space would necessitate enhanced planning mechanisms and greater awareness of the risks posed by UAS.

These observations are not revolutionary, quite the opposite, but after decades of ground forces largely ignoring the air, habits need to change. Reinforcing the need to keep one eye on the sky is essential to success against this enduring threat but will only be achieved if there is a commitment to producing the threat in training. Training exercises employ ground forces in an enemy role and occasionally rotate aircraft between red and blue tasks. Acknowledging that low-slow UAS are a significant and enduring presence in conflict, efforts should be made to make them an enduring presence in training activities.

About the author 

Captain James Easton is an Air Defence Officer currently posted to the United States Fires Center of Excellence.