The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine and other regional conflicts in the world have once again highlighted the relationship between tactics and technologies. Having the right technology at the right point of time can change the course of any conflict. The Armenia-Azerbaijan war also proved this point, when tanks and drones encountered each other. This article analyzes the emerging domain of drones, UAVs and missiles that are expected to shape the future war tactics of nation-states.
The UAV challenge
Unmanned Aerial Vehiclesare basically flying machines, without a pilot, and can be guided by on-board systems or from a ground station and controllers. They come in various shapes, sizes and capabilities depending on the requirements. Today the UAV market has products ranging from drones of a few centimeters in size like the nano drones, bee drones etc. till the large scale war machines like the HERON, Predator, Reaper etc. This flexibility to make and customize a drone as per the requirements of the client has made this a dual use technology- it can deliver a pizza to your house in a few minutes, while it can also be used to deliver a bomb on your rooftop, within a few seconds!
The emerging security challenges from UAVs have been mentioned in official documents of nations like USA. Drones and Cruise Missiles have been clearlyidentified as an emerging threat to American security, acknowledged by the US government in its Missile Defense Review – a policy document that was released on 27th October 2022[i]. The Nuclear Policy Review documents also highlight the emerging threats from missiles and drones. USA has identified UAVs as a security challenge and has sought to develop technical solutions to counter the same. The Pentagon is collaborating with private companies as well for developing these solutions.A huge market opportunity for private defense companies has thus emerged inthis sector.
While the American Ballistic Missile Defence Shield is well developed, in addition to the Strategic Forces of the USA, the anti-drone systems are yet to be fully developed. The American Department of Defense has also demanded a hike in the annual defence budgets to develop and deploy anti-drone systems. The US Air and Space Force would be the main operators of these assets. The US Army, Marines, Special Forces and Coast Guard will be given these new systems in a phased manner. The Homeland Security department and intelligence agencies like the CIA already use advanced UAVs like the Reaper for surveillance and targeted killing operations.
Though missile defense systems have been in use since a long time, some of them arebeing modified to suit the new age requirements like countering drones and UAVs, increasing the stealth factor, testing re-usable missiles, developing ballistic missile defence shields, interceptor missiles, nuclear triads etc.
Many countries like USA, India, Israel, Russia etc. are developing tactical rockets and missiles to be used against incoming drone attacks from the enemy side. These missiles and rockets are seen as an effective deterrent. They are also looked upon as an option that can cause huge damage to the enemy, without risking a war, since deniability in such missions is easy. Also, since the human element is not involved, the risks of collateral damage are minimal.
The Space Force of USA has announced the successful trial of a missile warning sensor in space which was conducted by the US Space Force from an unknown location[ii]. Many years ago, USA had changed the nomenclature of its Airforce Command to Aerospace Command, to develop military capabilities of the US Space Force. The US Space Force partnered with TAP Labs for this mission and is satisfied with the test results as the new space based sensor has proven effective than traditional warning sensors. The sensor can be placed on a platform orbiting in space, like a satellite, which would give an advanced warning about a missile launch by the enemy well within time, as compared to ground based sensors.
America’s Space Force will continue to develop new capabilities and tools for offensive and defensive roles. Most of these new devices are not expected to be acknowledged in public. USA may develop such weapon, but may not announce it publicly. Another major development on the American side, was to publicly disclose the closure of a Pentagon program that was supposed to develop a tactical cruise missile. This missile was to be submarine launched, with nuclear warheads. But the project has now been cancelled due to technical and time-delay issues. The US government has said that they have other better options when it comes to tactical nuclear weapons. The cruise missile plan had to be dropped as the product would not have been ready before 2035; a factor the US Navy was not ready to accept.
The tactical usage of missiles also became a point of discussion globally recently, when it was alleged that Russia used the S300 missiles to attack Ukraine[iii]. Russia is said to have fired one S-300 missile on the Mykolaiv city of Ukraine on 28th October 2022. Reportedly, no human life was lost in the incident. But it also raises a question mark on Ukraine’s ability to defend its airspace, as no interceptor was launched, neither the air-force of Ukraine could shoot the S300 down.
Far away from Ukraine, the Korean peninsula is again witnessing military drills and missile testings. As per an analysis done by the US-based James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, North Korea has succeeded in ¾th of all the missile tests they have conducted since 1984[iv]. This year around 22 tests have been reported. The most recent test was conducted from theTongcheon area, North Gangwon Province. The data report of the missile launches since 1984 has been uploaded on the website of the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It says that these missile tests are a threat to US security.
Worried about proliferation of missile technology and the probable Chinese assistance to North Korea, this project of NTI monitors every single missile test of North Korea. But North Korea keeps conducting such tests regularly and also issues deterrence warnings to other countries . Such missile tests are done for capability demonstration, verification of developed technology, deterrence portrayal etc. North Korea is expected to continue its weapons development programs; may come under new sanctions by the USA or the UNO. A paranoid South Korea will also continue developing its military capability, with or without outside support, to balance the North Korean’s capabilities.
Supashock Defence Technologies, a private defence company from Australia and Germany’s Rheinmetallhave agreed[v] on a Joint Venture to supply missile launch pods for Hungarian Armed Forces on 28th Oct 2022. The companies look forward to this mutually beneficial joint venture as Hungary is eager to get pods developed with new materials technology. This will be an important project for all the stakeholders in the backdrop of the ongoing war in Ukraine.
It seems from the above events that although land warfare holds relevance, the air and space warfare domains are the dominant ones in the 21st century. When it comes to wars in space, there exists no major international consensus on the peaceful uses of space. UAVs and new age missiles have also heightened the risks of conflict in the high atmosphere. Militarization of space will be the next big phenomena that the world would witness, if the current pace of weapon’s development continues for the next few years. An arms race will thus also ensue, in a race to secure space and ground based assets. It will further alter the balance of power equations in the world, increasing the security dilemma of the developed as well as the developing countries. The best solution therefore, would be to leave out the space, only for peaceful purposes, by signing a Treaty under the UNO, a proposition that sounds more idealistic than pragmatic, at this point in time.