Aerial warfare technology has come a long way from bows & arrows to fighter jets to missiles to military drones in the 21st century. Ongoing Ukraine’s defence against the Russian invasion has brought to the notice of the world the undeniably increasing role of military drones in modern-day warfare, as their drones have effectively kept Russian invading forces at bay and have inflicted heavy costs upon the Russian arsenal. The fresh footage released by the state department of Ukraine, showing the US-supplied Kamikaze Drones blowing up the Russian tanks, admittedly underscores the decisive role of drones in 21st-century warfare. Military drones not only help the troops with their spying abilities but also provides precision firing upon the enemy targets with relative ease and accuracy. Owing to their multitude of abilities, they have been deployed with telling effect in many wars such as the US-Vietnamese war, Yom Kippur war, Libyan war, Syrian war, etc. Before we make an effort to know about their multifarious utility in modern warfare, we shall first discuss what drones are and their types.
Military Drones: An Overview
The term drone usually refers to any unpiloted aerial vehicle. These can operate without the presence of any pilot onboard and hence are termed unmanned aerial vehicles. These can be as large as an airplane or as small as your palm. They operate with various levels of autonomy ranging from remotely controlled to total autonomy using their onboard sensors and computers. As they can be controlled and monitored remotely and can be flown at various altitudes, distances, and terrains, they make perfect candidates to be employed in military operations. The military drones carry out a wide range of operations and are rightly regarded as force multipliers.
How are they operated?
Military drone systems are essentially comprised of four components i.e., UAV which is the heart of the system and possesses fixed wings, or either a single or multi-rotary fans built for flight; Payload, which ranges from medical aid to ordnance; Ground control station, which can be user-controlled or operated via satellites is capable of controlling flight payload, sensors, mission planning and tethering the data link system of the drone; Datalink, that acts as the transmission centre allowing the drone to communicate with the ground operator typically utilizing radio wave technology.
Types of military drones
Drones can be classified on basis of several criteria. However, confining to our point of discussion, drones in military operations can be broadly classified into three types;
- Surveillance drones: Drones that are comprised of computer vision, face-recognition, object-recognition, and other tracking technologies are essentially flying cameras. They are used to capture still images and video of the targets, which might be individual groups or environments. This data helps in spying up on the enemies and track their movements. E.g., Ultra leap, Global Hawk, etc.
- Combat drones: Drone attacks can be conducted by dropping ordnance, firing a missile, or crashing into a target. As they can penetrate deep into the enemy territories without being picked up by the ground radars, they provide an unmatched edge in cross-border attack operations. They have been widely deployed By the US in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, etc., and by Turkey and Azerbaijan. E.g., Israeli Harops, American RQ-2 Pioneers, MQ-9 Reaper, etc.
- Logistical drones: They deliver vital supplies to the frontline troops operating in terrains that are inaccessible to the conventional transport system. They deliver supplies like ammunition, medical aid, Food, etc. E.g., Mistral Xherpa was used by the Indian army.
Evolution of Drones: A Historical Perspective
Albeit drones have only recently hogged the limelight, particularly after the shooting of Iranian major general Soleimani, they have a lengthy history that dates back to the 19th century, when Austria attacked the Italian city of Venice on July 15, 1849, with balloons laden with explosives that were controlled by timer-set fuses. Although balloons were far away from being called Drones, the basic idea wasn’t too far away.
Until the end of WW-2, UAVs aka Drones, were largely confined to the role of ‘flying bombs’ that crashed upon the target sites. One such famous example was the US navy’s UAV project in 1944 that retrofitted B24 bombers with remote controlling mechanisms and was unleashed upon the German bunkers. The most infamous case of WWII-era UAVs was the German V-1 “flying bomb,” which wreaked havoc upon cities of allied nations. Even during the early cold war, much of the attention was paid to developing intercontinental missiles as they had single-headedly tilted the balance in favour of missile-possessing nations. It was not until the US-Vietnam war in the 1970s, when the US had lost many of its fighter pilots, that America started developing the drones to fill the shoes previously worn by manned aircrafts. Henceforth, UAVs began to undertake roles traditionally undertaken by manned aircraft and hence were called “remotely piloted aircraft” (RPAs). This tweak in lexicon marks a paradigm shift in notion from the world war era label of “flying bombs” to a force-multiplying platform. During the same period, the utility of UAV drones was taken to the next level when Israel used them for reconnaissance during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 against Egypt. Inspired by this, the US has borrowed Israeli technology and developed its own drones, named the hunter and the pioneer in the 1980s, which made their combat debut during the Gulf war. Since then, UAVs have increasingly become an indispensable part of modern warfare. After the successful demonstration of the effectiveness of UAVs during the gulf war, modern militaries began to invest in the research and development of combat UAVs. Post the 9/11 attacks on the USA, America had been deploying them at an unprecedented scale to exterminate terrorists and adversaries of Washington in the Middle East and to destroy terrorist camps and bases.
The 21st-century military operation like the Afghan war, Iraq war, Syrian war, etc., bear testimony to the widening utility of the drones on battlegrounds. According to a 1993 congressional report, the Pioneer drone has proved to be the game-changer during the desert storm against Iraq operation during the gulf war. They rendered similar services during the Libyan crisis and Azerbaijan’s military operations during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Also, they are widely being deployed by Ukraine with a telling effect against the Russian forces. Why have UAV drones garnered such a high reputation? What makes them so lethal? It largely boils down to the wide range of roles they play in a war, which we shall discuss in brief.
- Kamikaze attacks: These drones belong to a category of weapons known as loitering munitions, which are generally launched without a pre-set target but rather search for targets and then attack by crashing onto the target with sheer kinetic energy and then exploding. This role is widely in display in the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, in which both sides are using such drones. More particularly, Ukraine has been taking great advantage of the US-supplied switchblade drones and has successfully thrown many Russian tanks out of the attack.
- Bombing: This is one of the most valued services of drones in warfare. They are used as a mobile platform to launch ammunition, guided bombs, air-to-surface missiles, air-to-air missiles, cluster bombs, anti-tank guided missiles, or other types of precision-guided munitions, autocannons, and machine guns. Drones enjoy the rare privilege of penetrating deep into the enemy territories without being detected by the radar networks. Their ability to fly at higher altitudes, with minimal radar detectable footprints like RCS, infrared radiation, etc., have rendered drones highly capable and reliable bombing platforms. More importantly, the bombing operations executed by the drones are so precise that they could be used to target individual humans and vehicles with pinpoint accuracy. The killing of Iranian general Soleimani by the US using a Reaper drone nearby Baghdad airport in 2020 is a testimony to the precision capabilities of the drones. Ukraine has been successfully blasting off the Russian military assets during the night time using the thermal imaging sensors onboard its drones.
- Surveillance, reconnaissance, and mapping: Drones boast of their unique abilities like staying stationary in the air, maintaining an unblinking stare, hovering over the same place for hours, etc. These unique features help the operators to take still images and videos of enemy installations on the ground, observe and track the enemy movement, map the ground terrain of the enemy territories, and spy on their activities. Drones helped America to spy upon and capture Bin Laden, the former al-Qaida chief. Similarly, Russia made full use of drones to map the ground terrain during the Syrian civil war.
- Subterfuge mission: Drones can also be used to deceive the enemies and distract their attention. Due to their relatively lower cost, they can conveniently be sacrificed for a larger cause. The Russian cruiser Moskva was recently sunk by Ukrainian forces through missiles, while Bayraktar TB2 drones were used to distract the ship’s defences. This allowed the Ukrainian forces to fire the missiles and sink the ship as the ship’s onboard defence mechanism was engaged elsewhere in combatting the TB2 drones.
- Curating Military propaganda: Drones have played a crucial role in the information war and in military propaganda, especially after the twin tower attacks. The popular perception of the war is curated by the videos people outside of combat zone can watch and discern. As Drones help in capturing the actual happenings on the ground during a war, they are instrumental in tailoring the perception of the general public. In 2008, Israel released footage of a drone strike on what it claimed were terror modules operating in Gaza to contest the notion that Israeli drone strikes targeted Gaza civilians. Similarly, Ukraine used footage captured by drones to counter the Russian propaganda that Ukraine is losing ground and is on the brink of conceding the defeat.
- Delivering aid and relief assistance: Usually, wars happen in the most rugged terrains or the most inaccessible places, so much so that it’s a herculean task to deliver supplies and replenishments to the forces operating in these areas. The delivery services rendered by the drones in the combat zones are worth their weight in the gold. Their agility facilitates them to operate in almost every terrain and atmosphere, day-in and day-out. They can deliver food, medical aid, ammunition, tools, small weapons, etc.
How they edge ahead?
Drones that have been used moderately till the dawn of the 21st century are now proliferating at an unprecedented scale the world over. They have almost become an integral part of the military operations of many countries, particularly like US, Russia, Turkey, China, the UK, etc. But what has triggered their exponential rise? What gives them such an edge over their counterparts? Let’s understand.
- Ease of use: Drones are lighter and could be as small as our arms. As a result, they could be mobilized at ease compared to the conventional aircraft and fighter jets. They could be transported at will and can be sprang into action in no time.
- Rugged nature: Drones, owing to their simplistic and lighter structure, can operate at higher altitudes than conventional crafts. Also, they could be landed on most of the terrains, obviating the need for runways. They are widely being deployed in the extreme temperatures of Russia and the temperatures of Saudi Arabia.
- Lower costs: Drones incur only a fraction of the costs incurred by the other airborne military vehicles. Many of the drones incur only about 1/10th of the cost of production of the fighter jets. Even a drone system requires a supporting infrastructure to operate. However, even with this infrastructure requirement, the end cost is US$3250 per hour of flight time, in comparison with US$16,500 per hour of flight time of F-35 fighter jets. Similarly, the Reaper drone costs US$6.48 million per unit, whereas the F-35 fighter jet costs about US$91 million per unit (as per the reports of the America Security Project).
- Obviates the need for a pilot onboard: The ghastly scenes of Jordanian fighter jet pilot Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh set ablaze by ISIS in 2014 are still fresh in our memory. One biggest advantage of Drones is that they obviate the need for an onboard pilot, thereby preventing many pilots from having to meet the same fate.
- Stealth: Most ground radars are designed to detect aerial vehicles that fly above a certain altitude. But drones have an enviable ability to fly at ground hugging altitudes, making it impossible for the ground radars to track them due to the curvature of the earth. The incident of a swarm of allegedly Iranian low-flying drones penetrating the Saudi airspace in 2019 and bombing the Abqaiq and Khurais oil facilities without being detected by the Saudi radar stations is a classic advert for their stealth capabilities.
Double Edged Sword
- Collateral damage: Despite their precision, they aren’t totally bereft of collateral damage. Independent estimates by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reckon that civilians made up between 7.27% to 15.47% of deaths due to U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia between 2009–2016.
- Extrajudicial assassination and violate human rights: The ease and precision with which drones could be operated, on the flip side, facilitate the extrajudicial killings and the violation of international human rights. For e.g., The United States euphemistically calls drone strikes “targeted killings,” a term that doesn’t find a place in international law. The targeted killings of Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al Mehandi by the USA violate international law, including human rights.
- Violation of the sovereignty of the countries: Strikes are usually executed without the consent and against the objections & reservations of the target countries. Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, etc., have all raised concerns against American drone strikes in their territories.
- The myth of decapacitation: Drone strikes are used as propaganda to turn high-profile killings into martyrs. The number of Al Qaeda core members in the Arabian Peninsula grew from hardly about 300 in 2009 when drone strikes resumed to at least 700 in 2012. Both the “Underwear Bomber,” who tried to blow up an American airliner in 2009, and the “Times Square Bomber,” who tried to plant a car bomb in New York in 2010, quoted that they were motivated by the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
- Abuse by the Non-state actors: Due to its relative simplicity in production and easy access, they have fallen into the hands of non-state actors. The attempt to assassinate the Venezuelan president in 2018 with a drone vindicates the concerns raised by the critics of the drones that they could be leveraged by the non-state actors to destabilize the regimes. Even ISIS is reported to possess swathes of drones and quadcopters.
The Future Prospects
So far, America has enjoyed the monopoly over military drones. But in the last decade, the world has been catching up fast with the USA. Countries like China, Russia, India, Iran, etc., have taken giant strides in this direction. This implies that major military powers have decided to increasingly integrate drone systems with their military arsenals. The USA, being the front runner, has already undertaken trials to integrate drones with its aircraft carriers. China has already begun to pour in investments in R&D, and India has been procuring a great number of combat drones in the recent past. All these latest developments reassert the fact that Drones are here to stay, and their graph is only destined to go upwards.
However, it is unwise to think that UAV drones are going to replace conventional fighter jets. Drones, as of today, can only track slow-moving targets like vehicles or individuals on the ground or stationary targets like military installations, buildings, and other infrastructure. They haven’t yet evolved to a point where they could engage and fight incoming threats like missiles and fighter jets. This job is still the privy of conventional fighter jets and AWACS. Sensors cannot be a substitute for human agency, at least as of today. Modern air warfare, particularly the one like the Abhinandan Varthaman’s dogfight episode, demands instant decision-making, prudence, wisdom, and a few other skills that Artificial intelligence currently lacks. Turkey has made a positive stride in this direction as its UAV had detected and attacked Haftar’s forces in Libya in 2020 with its artificial intelligence without ground command, as reported by the UN Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Libya. It is regarded as the first totally autonomous drone strike ever.
Despite the inherent drawbacks of drone technology, the nations are going to stack up a wide range of drones in their arsenal in the coming decades. With the progress in Artificial intelligence and sensor technologies, the deployment of drones in the combat arena will see an exponential rise. Keeping a tab on advancing UAV technology and its global proliferation, it is time to start thinking about the future strategic implications of the platform. It is imperative for the global community to reach a consensus under the aegis of the UN regarding the deployment of Drones, and there should be a binding international law to ensure that drones don’t violate the existing international laws.
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