Drone Wars are coming whether we like it or not. That is why we need to focus on ways to avoid the consequences of their massive usage on the battlefield.
It is obvious the world is changing very rapidly and today’s generation of 30-40-year-old soldiers was born when the general population did not know what the Internet is. CERN created the first website in 1991, and since then it has dominated our lives. The very same generation has eye witnessed the development of mobile phones which do not resemble the large bricks from the ’80s. Computers that flew us to the moon are no match for the tools that we carry every day in our pockets. A bit later the Artificial Intelligence (AI) started to take shape and is getting integrated into more and more daily used electronics. We have also seen with our own eyes first commercial drones and were able to take control of them thanks to the mentioned above inventions. All of this changed the lives of today’s soldiers serving in various armies around the world, but one can assume that the future has a few tricks up its sleeve.
If we combine all of the above, we will face new threats which can emerge in the coming years and will be faced by the very same generation of soldiers. Will they be able to wrap their heads around it? Most certainly yes, as they have possessed a handy asset in their toolbox – adaptation. Through their whole lives, they had to learn so many inventions that we cannot compare them with any other generation of soldiers, and yet they still carry on.
The future is here
In not that distant future we will be facing a new type of wars, the title drone wars. The media outlets around the world are fascinated with light shows conducted by more than a thousand drones which are directed by one man, using one computer, with computation power of a regular laptop. They fly in a formation, change their positions, and work in a team to achieve a common goal, a beautiful illumination. Up to this point, this is only done for creating spectacular shows and braking at the same time another World Guinness Book record. However, this state may change rapidly, and the threat is becoming very real. The recent closing of Gatwick airport and the Heathrow alarm showed us how vulnerable is our society to various drone threats.
It is not hard to imagine that they could be armed. Field modifications conducted by ISIS fighters have shown that this is not something impossible. We have to remember that these were amateur drones and state actors can achieve much more. Of course, today’s systems are not perfect, and there is no point in sounding the red alarm just yet. There are a few key issues to be solved, like for instance the duration of the flight. The batteries are Achilles heels of every modern electronic equipment, but this is not a show stopper. Perdix program has shown us that small drones are easily deliverable from the air even with a fighter jet. Using a bigger platform, we would be able to deliver a bigger fleet of drones with more lethal equipment. Lunching them in a parachute HALO style is also not impossible.
How can we protect our critical infrastructure against for example one hundred drones coming from various directions? How will we protect the canopies of our fighters, the radar stations, and communication equipment? For sure they are military grade equipment, but a swarm of 10 drones with micro explosives could disable our long-range radar eyes for at least a certain period. We can also imagine a small drone landing on an F-35 canopy and blasting a downward pointed cumulative round — a 100 million dollar aircraft disabled by a 1000 dollar drone.
With commercial grade drones, there is an ability to jam the connection with the command and control panel which should trigger an automated landing, but we cannot expect that to work on a military grade assault drones. They would probably have a pre-planned battle order which could be conducted even after losing connection with the command center. This scenario would be especially plausible in well recognized, mapped and tracked permanent military bases. If we add AI to the mix, a swarm of drones could have a pre-configured plan B to search for suitable objects when the primary target is not present, and all of this would happen without human interaction.
Do we have the right tools?
Can we today defend our forces from an attack like this when a hundred or more drones pop out from the forest at ground level and infiltrates a base, climbs to attack level, identify targets and conducts a massive synchronized attack? As mentioned earlier all of the pieces are there, and we cannot be sure that key global players are not working to bring them together. What can we do to combat those threats?
The currently used weapons seem to be not suitable for this task. It would be difficult to shoot down a rapidly maneuvering drone with an M4 rifle. The currently used lasers, like the one tested by the Marines, might be a good solution but they still need a bit more work. The question is how powerful those lasers should be if the drone would have some protection build in, for instance from heat resistant ceramic materials? Will we be able to pinpoint the laser beam on the rotor blade? Will it be somehow protected and inserted into a fan? We would also have to asses how many of those lasers would be sufficient to protect a base. At this point, it seems that some combination of various weapons would be the most realistic solution. There are also concepts of other directed energy weapons that might be useful, but they seem to be even less mature than the lasers.
Here comes the enemy cavalry!
It seems that the not so distant future might bring besides drone swarms an additional vector of attack. The robots developed by Boston Dynamics are a great example of what type of land threats we might be seeing in the next decade or so. They will not feel pain, they will not feel cold or hunger, and when it comes to a one on one situation, a soldier cannot smack them in their face with a rifle butt because they might have none. Combating them might be much easier when compared with small flying drones, but still, they might be a real problem for isolated outposts like those in Afghanistan. At this point they are still a bit clumsy and unarmed but when their movements will be more fluid, and they will have greater stabilization in rough terrain, arming them seems like a next logical step. This evolution will force us to change the state of mind of our soldiers as they might combat machines and not humans bringing to mind the immortal Terminator II movie.
Drone wars here we come!
While assessing the situation, up to this point, we have put the current soldiers in a bit uncomfortable situation. They were in the defense with possibly inferior weapons systems. We should not allow this to happen and instead, try to broaden the available tools and put our drone systems in the filed. While creating offensive drones which could be used in our favor a batch of defensive or even better multi-role ones should be developed. This way we could leave humans as the last resort and leave the initial fight to our flying robots which could destroy enemies with kinetic energy or possibly weapon systems or use nets to catch them.
If we carefully examine all of the linked in this article technological examples, most of them come from the United States. This should not bring the decision makers back to their comfort zones with thinking that the US is still in the lead. The F-35 history has shown that even the most secretive data can be intercepted and provide a solid foundation for their work.
Does this sound like Star Wars stories from the future? It seems that not, and today’s soldiers will have to adapt to yet another threat and combat it with the tools at hand. The critical factor is to deliver them those tools as thanks to them they will be able to overcome the threat. One can have high confidence that they will adapt, but the decision makers, scientific laboratories and the military industry has to help them. Fast.