Armies need their own drone air force flown by specialist soldiers, study says

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A Ukrainian soldier from the battalion of unmanned attack air systems “Achilles” of the 92nd Separate Assault Brigade prepares the “Vampir” night drone for an operation near the town of Chasiv Yar, Donetsk region, on April 22, 2024.

Drone warfare is changing fast and demands battalions of specialists to fully exploit its potential.The group would fly support drones to increase the effectiveness of its attack and spy drones.The air war in Ukraine has become a cat-and-mouse game where drones must constantly evolve.

Experience in Ukraine suggests that armies should concentrate drones in special battalions that have the skills pilots to fly them and the programmers to rapidly adapt to constant jamming, according to British defense experts.

Ukrainian data shows “the efficiency of [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] operations when conducted by a dedicated formation has risen from 10 percent up to 70 percent for some mission sets,” according to a report by the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. The report did not provide any more specifics on the data, other than a footnote that said it was based on Ukrainian General Staff “datasets of mission performance between different formations” that RUSI accessed in Ukraine in February 2024.

The RUSI report advocates the creation of “mass precision strike complex” units that launch integrated swarms of drones comprised of different types of reconnaissance and combat UAVs. The concept seems similar to “strike packages” of manned combat jets, which combine attack, escort and electronic warfare planes on a mission. To be clear, the report isn’t calling for infantry platoons to be stripped of their backpack-carried drones, which have proven indispensable in Ukraine and the Middle East. But it does argue that for some tasks, such as long-range surveillance and strike, it’s more efficient and economical to achieve this through dedicated units.

“UAVs may be distributed to provide units with situational awareness, but mass precision strike should be managed by a specialist formation,” the report concluded. In addition to better mission planning by personnel trained and experienced in drone operations, “experience from contemporary theatres shows that almost all UAV capabilities are highly susceptible to hard counters as the adversary learns how the UAV functions; capabilities must therefore be continuously adapted and their supporting mission data files updated. This requires scarce skills such as UAV design and programming and the accumulation of data centrally.”

RUSI envisions each drone battalion being equipped with everything needed to conduct a variety of UAV operations. The units would comprise “airframes and their payloads, and the launch crews, command links, planning tools, intelligence support and design teams required to field the capability,” wrote RUSI researchers Jack Watling and Justin Bronk.

Drone battalions would have five types of UAVs whose capabilities range from spying enemy advances to blasting critical rear sites with explosives. This would include “situational awareness UAVs optimized for tactical reconnaissance; tactical strike UAVs; ISR [reconnaissance] UAVs able to penetrate into operational depth; operational strike UAVs; and platform-launched effects designed specifically to synchronize with and enable other weapons systems.”

The idea is to have self-contained formations that can identify and destroy targets across the battlefield and beyond. To support friendly ground troops in contact with the enemy, flocks of expendable reconnaissance drones would operate up to 5 miles beyond the enemy front line. They would locate targets, such as armored vehicles and infantry trenches, that could be quickly hit by the battalion’s cheap attack drones.

Meanwhile, longer-range reconnaissance drones would stalk up to 60 miles into the enemy’s rear, searching for artillery pieces, air defense batteries and command posts that could be hit by missiles and other guided weapons. The drone battalion would also launch long-range strike weapons — with a range out to 300 miles — that could destroy fixed sites, such as supply depots, bridges and ammunition dumps. “By offering a persistent threat of precision strike against logistical infrastructure and command and control elements, these capabilities would add significant friction to the enemy’s ability to resupply and coordinate forces, and therefore to achieve concentration,” the report said. “These capabilities also represent a concern for air and naval forces insofar as they threaten infrastructure and basing.”

A Ukrainian serviceman launches a drone during a press tour in the Zhytomyr Region, northern Ukraine on September 20, 2023.

To maximize the effectiveness of reconnaissance and strike drones — and to keep them from being knocked down by enemy air defenses — the battalion would also have a variety of support UAVs. This would include long-endurance airborne communications drones to relay datalinks between the combat UAVs and ground operations, electronic warfare drones to jam radars and communications systems, and decoy drones to confuse enemy air defenses.

The Ukraine conflict demonstrates how warfare has become a cat-and-mouse game where drones must constantly evolve to survive enemy jamming of their control links. “As of mid-2023, the average period of peak effectiveness for a newly deployed UAV navigation and/ or control system on the battlefield was around two weeks, with degrading effectiveness over four more weeks,” the report noted. “Between six and 12 weeks, the adversary would have gathered sufficient data on the waveforms and techniques being used to start effectively jamming and/or spoofing the system across the front.”

Non-drone units lack the capability to identify and develop the software and communications challenges to respond to enemy countermeasures. “It therefore makes sense to concentrate UAV operation if UAVs are parts of a mass precision strike complex,” the report concluded.

The issue of whether to concentrate or disperse assets is an old one. Until World War II, tanks were dispersed in small packets among infantry divisions, while aircraft were assigned to the ground forces. But experience proved that tanks were most effective when massed in tank divisions, and aircraft were best assigned to an independent air force that specialized in aerial operations (some still question the wisdom of the latter).

Drone operations may very well be more efficient in the hands of specialized battalions. But regular units will inevitably want their own drones that are available when needed, rather than having to request support from others. The issue is unlikely to be settled quickly or easily.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds an MA in political science from Rutgers Univ. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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