Drones: “History, Types & Role in Modern Warfare”

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One of the most researched and pursued military technologies over the past decade has been the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), more commonly known as a drone. These drones are highly resourceful systems which rely on information technology principals to function (storing, retrieving, and sending information) used for a large variety of important roles such as gathering intelligence behind enemy lines, conducting airstrikes on enemy positions or transporting vital information to friendly forces along with a long list of other uses which no other systems can provide with the low cost and efficiency these drones offer. Today drone technology has grew so much that smaller weaker militaries / organizations have gained access to them, something that was once only exclusive to superpowers, as a result a new kind of arms race around the globe has begun where each player is trying to overtake the other in drone technology.

Introduction

A modern Unmanned Aerial vehicle or UAV for short is basically an aircraft without a human pilot aboard which needs to send and receive information in form of signals to operate being controlled by a ground based controller or operates itself autonomously by onboard computers. They are a safe and cost-effective alternative to manned aircraft which can perform the same roles as them, these drones come in a large variety of sizes and types each of which has different roles and classification. What sets military grade drones apart from enthusiast drones is that these drones have more the endurance, range and altitude climbing capability while carrying along a lot of high tech equipment and computer systems needed for reconnaissance purposes such as infrared, thermal and image detecting camera’s/sensors which store and send the data they collect or airstrike purposes such as Anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) or computer guided munitions such as Glide bombs or cluster bombs.

As technology further evolves so will drones in their capabilities and roles, already there are many groundbreaking new drone concepts which will forever change warfare. Concepts such the explosive swarm or micro autonomous drones. Because advancement in technology is making drones cheaper and cheaper, they are becoming more and more deadly due to having the ability to penetrate the most expensive and high-tech defenses rendering investments of Billion’s useless. However, despite how useful they are they are also at risk of being hacked and manipulated by the enemy. All of these concepts will be explained with in this report

History of Drones

Whenever a drone is mentioned many people imagine the US predator drone armed with High tech sensors and missiles that has been on the front lines of the recent war on terror but drones have actually been in use for a long time. The first recorded use of a drone was back in 1849 when Austria launched 200 pilot less bomb carrying hot air balloons against Venice. Later on drone technology quickly grew during WW2 as radio controlled aircraft made their debut, the US army air force built thousands of these most of which were used as aerial targets for either target practice or decoys like the OQ-2 ,the rest were modified radio and television controlled aircraft armed with bombs

After WW2 drone technology grew further slowly turning into the drones, we are most familiar with today. The cold war saw the rise of the reconnaissance drones, UAVs like the US Ryan fire flew several thousand missions over Vietnam returning imagery of enemy locations and assets. With the dawn of information age the real advancement in drone technology happened as communication and computer systems became advanced and small enough to be installed onboard to be used to send and receive signals from hundreds of km away without a medium in between. This granted 21st century drones a massive advantage over its previous ancestors as they had now effectively been infused with information technology and grant its operators a massive tactical advantage over its foes. Today we have a huge variety of drones which have many of the same capabilities as piloted aircraft while some have even more. In the near future we will witness a whole new generation of stealth drones that can be launched and land on aircraft carriers. Today many manufacturers are favoring the stealthier design as drones have very little options for defense but as time goes on we will see further improvements on drone design.

How Drones Work?

Modern drone’s operation is based on simple information technology principals which are sending, receiving, and storing information. Drones receive information from its operators which it uses to get instructions and sends back data to those operators which is military intelligence. From takeoff until it leaves the line of sight drones are controlled with a direct data link from a ground-control station. When the drone leaves the line of sight the ground-control station switches to a satellite link to control the aircraft, drones also use GPS to relay their position. If the communication link is lost, the drones are programmed to fly autonomously in circles, or return to base until the link can be reconnected. While on paper it seems like a very simple concept however in reality drone’s operation and communication are very difficult. Weather conditions, geomagnetic interference, enemy electronic warfare jamming interference etc. all factors are taken into consideration and appropriate technological countermeasures are installed onto the drones. This increases operational success and increases technological dependence.

As for the flight of drones there are mainly three methods: Propeller driven, jet powered or by vertical rotor action. These are largely different from each as the propeller driven ones are cost effective to operate but are slower while jet powered ones cost much more to operate but are much faster. Then there are also rotorcraft UAVs which operate in the similar manner of helicopters. Their advantage is they can hover stationary in midair which can be useful in scenarios such as supply delivery. Hence mainly there are

  • Propeller driven UAVs
  • Jet powered UAVs
  • Rotor powered

Meanwhile to fly, drones mostly use the same principal’s drag, lift weight, and thrust as normal manned aircraft. The only difference is that there is no need of space for a pilot so that area is often utilized for carrying equipment making the drone more compact. Another point to note is drones whether they are of same role or not come in different sizes each of which has different roles, although there are many size classifications used by the military due to complex nature of drones and their use , most drones can all be divided up into 3 basic classes:

  • Class I (<150 kg) Small: These drones are small in size making them easily man portable and are highly effective for the recon role or target acquisition in nearby locations. There are several types of Class I drones from micro to mini to small drones all fit in the Class I category.
  • Class II (150-600 kg) Tactical: These are the most common types used for medium range recon role. They have a vital role of filling the gap between the ranges of functions of the short-range UAVs and the strategic UAVs. These drones achieve this by having a combination of flexibility, endurance as well as ruggedness. While most are for recon some are designed for attack purposes to conduct airstrikes.
  • Class III (>600 kg) Strategic: These are the biggest drones available which do the same roles as medium sized one expect they have extremely larger endurance and longer range. The Class III UAVs are usually referred to as Medium Altitude Long Endurance, MALE systems as well as High Altitude Long Endurance UAVs which are especially ideal for surveillance as well as reconnaissance on a non-threatening area. They can also carry much larger payload.

UAVs in Modern Warfare

Drones in modern warfare have become an important part of a military’s arsenal. They are very practical in use due to being cheap but can perform the same roles as manned aircraft and in the worst case scenario that the drone gets shot down no loss of life occurs due to no presence of an onboard pilot. Meanwhile despite being cheap they undertake important tasks which can determine the tide of battle or conflict. The most important of these is conducting recon and gathering intelligence, this is done by flying the drone over the area that needs scouting and scanning / recording everything happening there, something modern drones can do for hours while simultaneously returning valuable intelligence. This way the operators can get real time Intel and situational awareness, something very important which helps them plan. This is done by using onboard high-tech computer systems and sensory devices which send and receive information from the operators, or any other party connected to the drone. Today more and more advanced drones are being introduced as technology advances.
Another important and often used role is conducting airstrikes. Drones can be armed with a deadly pay load of ATGMs or guided bombs which are flown close to a designated target and used to eliminate it. They can function as close in air support for friendly troops on the ground, by using drones you can target enemy armored units or infantry with relative ease if they do not possess an effective anti-aircraft weapon. This is sometimes more practical to use rather than a full loaded ground attack aircraft because no pilot is endangered and operating it is less costly. They are also more silent as compared to manned aircraft and for an enemy without aircraft detection system or Anti air weapons they are an absolute nightmare. They can appear out of nowhere in the sky, detect and rain down missiles or bombs on the enemy. They have become the modern incarnation of the Stuka bomber igniting fear into the heart of enemies hence becoming a weapon of “Psychological warfare”.
The core principals of Information technology are so well used in modern drones that these aircraft can be called the weapons of information. Using the advancement in technology Modern drones are becoming more and more autonomous needing less human factor which results in less human faults or accidents. It is due to this decreasing human factor behind drone’s operation is that use of drones is becoming controversial all around the world. Human right activists and organizations are concerned that this lack of human factor behind a drone can result in more civilian casualties during wartime. However, the autonomous nature is making drones a very popular option for military planners and intelligence section due to the advantages it offers. The advantages can be further explained by expressing and explaining the types of modern drones used by militaries.

Types of Drones

UAVs can be classified based on the specific roles they are meant to play military operations. Based on this we have the following UAVs:

Combat UAVs
These are the fearsome drones purpose designed to provide attack capability for some high-risk missions. To simplify a combat drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle that usually carries aircraft ordnance such as missiles or guided bombs what are used to conduct airstrikes on designated targets. They use their detection computer systems onboard to track targets and engage them in the combat zone, these combat drones have limited reconnaissance capabilities as well. Interestingly while drone technology is widespread presently only 10 countries (the UK, US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, China, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Turkey) have armed UAVs.

Reconnaissance UAVs
These drones are used to provide intelligence at the battlefield. Basically these drones loiter over an area of interest and scan the area using whatever systems it has onboard such as infrared, thermal or blue light image detecting camera’s/sensors which it records and sends back to an observation post to provide real time situational awareness. Hence these drones fly over an area or a moving target, take pictures, record videos, scan the area for things of interests and return that information back to its operators that use this data for planning ahead.

Target UAVs
These UAVs are drones which can be used to provide ground as well as aerial gunnery a target which simulates an enemy missile or aircraft. Basically, a target drone is a unmanned aerial vehicle generally a remote controlled usually used as a disposable training target (Acting as a enemy aircraft or missile) for training of air defense weaponry crews. In their simplest form, target drones often resemble radio-controlled model aircraft. More modern drones may use countermeasures, radar, and similar signature to mimic manned aircraft. More of these advanced drones are made from large, older missiles which have had their warheads removed.

Decoy UAVs
These UAVs are the drones used as fake targets or decoys designed to confuse the enemies’ air defense systems or create the illusion of a big attack. Their main mission is to resemble as an air craft, a cruise missile
or even a drone by copying the profiles and signatures of the object it’s acting as, this is done to create distraction or as a deception for the enemy. These can also be used to confuse the enemy’s air defense system by using radar – jamming function.

Research and Development UAVs 
These are the drones used to further research and develop UAV technologies that can be integrated into future UAV designs to be deployed in the field basically these are prototype drones used for research purposes to develop newer and more advanced drones whose technology will be used to upgrade existing drones or in production of newly designed drones.

Growing Threat of Drones

Today many people are somewhat familiar with the term drones, these are usually the bigger class UAVs however there is a whole new category of smaller drones that is quickly growing, that is the smaller and much cheaper drone commonly used by enthusiasts being modified for military purposes a few examples of this are
• In 2004 Hezbollah first used these drones to conduct reconnaissance and to carry explosives into Israel
• Both sides in the Ukrainian civil war utilize these drones to gather intelligence on enemy locations.
Observing this today US, China, Russia and many other militaries are developing such drones to help their soldier’s gain the same capabilities of a recon drone on a small scale on the field.
The extremely low cost of these compared to spy satellites and aircraft has allowed smaller nations and more notably militant groups to acquire recon and attack capabilities which may become a massive threat for the defender. The fact that the billions of dollars’ worth most advanced missile defenses could possibly be at risk from a 200$ drone packed with explosives has become a fear for many nations. For example, in early 2017 Saudi Arabia fired a 3-million-dollar Patriot missile at a 300$ Quad Copter operated by rebels in Yemen. This shows the massive cost disadvantage the defender faces as any small group could get a few dozen of these cheap drones and potentially over whelm even the most advanced missile defense systems.
This advantage can be exploited to maximum effects by using the method of drone swarming. The basic concept is using a big swarm of small drones all of which are interconnected who communicate with each other to coordinate an attack on a designated target, increasing the chances of success dramatically. Currently there is no good solution for defending against these drones, but nations are working on systems like nets, radio wave interceptors or by simply training eagles to attack and take down such small drones.

Problems with Drones

Now a days many high-tech UAVs with advanced coding have been created, however the same drones with stealth coating and advanced technology can easily fall into enemy hands. For example, during the cold war the supersonic D-21 drone went off course over China and crashed into the Soviet Union. The Russians were able to recover the parts and utilize the advanced technology for themselves. Another time in 2011 a then top secret state of the art UAV (RQ-170) went missing over Iran, it was revealed that the Iranian Cyber warfare unit was able to bring down the aircraft relatively intact and were able to extract footage taken by the UAV and quickly work to reverse engineer the craft and produce their own variant. Hacking is a major threat to modern drones, since there is no pilot on board the aircraft needs to end and receive signals in order to operate which can be spoofed and manipulated by the enemy into making the drone doing things it would not otherwise do.*Conclusion*

Drones have revolutionized warfare and now become an important /essential part of a modern military force’s arsenal due to the advantages they offer. As drone technology evolves due to the advancement in information technology their role in military will continue to increase. Already they are integrated in every branch and agency and with stealthier aircraft carrier-based drones or logistics drones being developed who know what other roles they will soon be designed to perform. We are unconsciously moving towards the futuristic science fiction warfare phase faster than we can realize.

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