Defence Industry

UAVs & UCAVs: The Next Generation Threat
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Issue Vol. 34.1 Jan-Mar 2019 | Date : 27 Oct , 2019

The evolving UAV threat poses a significant challenge to all ground forces. Of the emerging combat force multipliers, UAVs are unique in their integration with existing systems as it requires little more effort. Relative to other reconnaissance platforms, UAVs are both technologically attainable and affordable. The trend of UAV proliferation is clear and countering this threat must be addressed when planning any operation where enemy forces have the potential to successfully employ UAVs. Looking at the future, with development of own Air Defence capabilities, passive countermeasures will be reduced and eventually replaced by Air Defence proactive protection such as destroying enemy UAVs at an advantageous point in the friendly battle space. Proactive Air Defence protection will provide battlefield commanders with greater freedom of manoeuver and will deny the enemy’s capability to successfully execute asymmetrical attacks from the third dimension. 

“We can readily see that except for certain types of missions, the manned combat aircraft will become technically obsolete in the future.” — Maj Gen David Baker, United States Air Force

With the proliferation of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs), the battlefield today has become much more complex than it used to be. Earlier, the air threat implied a visible manned platform in the field of unmanned aircraft, with its combat teeth as guided/unguided munitions. With technological advancements in the field of unmanned aircraft, more lethal and accurate capability of delivering combat loads at stand-off ranges, the severity and the lethality of the threat has increased manifold and has become more intense.

UAVs & UCAVs today have become the new emerging threat as a large share of combat responsibilities in the overall air threat continuum is claimed by them. In the 21st century, UAVs have emerged as a potent force and are looked upon as true Force Multipliers with the ability to share information with other aerial platforms and delivering precision strikes on targets of choice. UAVs, integral to the ongoing Revolution in Military Affairs, are seen as the new generation threat created for the age of Information Warfare and Net-Centric Operations to be fought in an integrated and absolute joint environment threading the entire sensors-to-shooters cycle. The future of UAVs is rapidly moving towards miniaturisation, weaponisation and multiple mission employment because of their versatility and inherent advantages. UAVs are a force to reckon with in future and merit detailed analysis of the threat perception and the means of countering it. Army Air Defence warriors need to include it in the present and future threat spectrum and devise ways and means to counter this highly potent and challenging threat.

UAVs & UCAVs today have become the new emerging threat as a large share of combat responsibilities in the overall air threat continuum is claimed by them…

The Present State of UAV Operations

Enhanced Roles and Counter Insurgency

In the 21st century, UAVs have become the weapon of choice. Today, technology has reached a point of sophistication that the UAVs are now being given a greatly expanded role in war fighting which includes Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, targeting, aerial combat, combat support, target acquisition, target designation, assistance in fire support/fighter/helicopter strikes, Battle Damage Assessment, Electronic Warfare, deception operations, special and psychological operations, transport of logistics, espionage activities, alternate communications, counter weapons of mass destruction in their storage/Assembly Areas, meteorology observations and maritime operations.

Post weaponisation, UCAVs are being widely utilised for Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defence missions, striking high- value targets, tactical deterrence, integrated missions, clandestine operations and Battlefield Air Strikes. UAVs are now heading towards miniaturisation so that these can be employed for section/platoon level reconnaissance and surveillance during day and night. Based on the parameters of range, endurance, operation altitude, payload, mission capability as well as envisaged roles, UAVs are classified as Handheld (600m altitude and 2km range), Close (1,500m altitude and 10km range), Tactical (5,500m altitude and 150km range), Medium Altitude Long Endurance or ‘MALE’ (9,000m altitude and over 200km range) and High Altitude Long Endurance ‘HALE’ (over 9,000m altitude and over 500km range) UAVs.

Operational Advantages              

UAVs are difficult to detect and thus are highly survivable because of their small size and weight, low Radar Cross Section, high altitude operations, low acoustic signal, state-of-the-art Early Warning suites, stealth design and stand-off capability. Modern drones can remain airborne for more than 24 hours providing them the opportunity to strike repeatedly, even fleeting targets more rapidly than the manned warplane. UAVs cost substantially less to build/acquire and operate than manned warplanes and helicopters however, the lower costs must be weighed against the greater losses experienced by these aircrafts. UAVs perform dangerous, dull or dirty tasks for piloted airplanes, ensuring military men remain safe as UAVs can reach and strike remote areas with speed and precision where inserting SF teams is risky.

UAVs are very useful in Counter Insurgency operations for striking terrorist targets in remote locations/ Built Up Areas with precision controlling collateral damage. In short, UAVs are perhaps the most efficient, precise, economical and effective tools in a war based on intelligence and fought against a covert/overt enemy with minimum collateral damage.

The Chinese as well as NATO are pursuing miniaturised rotary wing UAVs measuring as less as a square centimetre…

Challenges and Risks

UAV operations at times create contradictions with Humanitarian Law such as drone attacks in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq resulting in collateral damage and deaths of civilians raising profound and timely questions on the legal aspects and fixing responsibility. Use of UCAVs/drones in case of targeted killing, may further complicate the issue as there is a risk of destabilisation of a political situation in the region with a huge impact on the rest of the world. Assigning UAVs military roles by one state may cause legitimate concerns and reaction by other states and can also stimulate regional arms race. The main risk associated with most of the unmanned systems is due to their low reliability and vulnerability to weather, enemy Air Defence and mechanised/communication failures. UAVs frequently malfunction or go out of control, resulting in significant costs besides causing substantial damage as they fall on the ground in urban areas. Under these risks, modern armies are even planning to induce robotics and artificial intelligence in UAVs to make things even worse in the fog of war. As UAVs share airspace with manned aircraft, it makes airspace control a difficult and complex task. Another risk involved is UAVs falling in the wrong hands of non-state actors such as terrorists. Therefore, it is essential that UAV operations be carefully planned, synchronised and utilised.

Development of UAVs

The United States today leads the globe in production and holding of UAVs and UCAVs to cater to the entire spectrum of its operational requirements. Chinese UAVs are based on older Western UAV designs. Pakistan is currently operating short-range tactical UAVs procured from other countries with only Falco manufactured indigenously. The Chinese ASN 206 is the main component of the Pakistan UAV fleet. Pakistan UAVs have limited range and endurance and maximum depth of coverage up to 350km. The Luna UAV and its variants such as the ‘indigenously’ developed Bravo, are rail-launched and belly landing parachute recovery. This makes them independent of the requirement of runways and provides flexibility in launch and recovery:–

Name Type Endurance Hour Operation Range Km Payload Primary Role
                                                                  USA
RQ-1 Predator MALE 40 650 FLIR, SAR, Video Camera, Hellfire missiles ISR, UCAV armed with GM 114 Hellfire missiles
MQ-9 Reaper MALE UAV 40 650 FLIR, SAR, MTI Radar, JDAM, LGBs, Hellfire Missiles Armed Recee
RQ-4A Global Hawk HALE 42 22,000 SAR, EO, IR, MTI Radar Strat ISR
MQ 5C E Hunter Tactical UAV 30 250 SAR, FLIR, EO and Laser guided munition Tactical ISR, Optional combat roles
Raven Switchblade Desert Hawk Mini UAV 9 5-20 IR, TV ISR for small teams
                                                                 China
ASN 206/207 Tactical UAV 8 180 FLIR, SAR Video Camera, Laser Range Finders and Designators ISR
ASN 229 A MALE UCAV 20 400 FLIR, SAR, Two Missiles Armed Recce
Xianglong (Soaring Dragon) HALE 30 3,000 FLIR, SAR, Two Missiles Strat ISR, Maritime Recce
ASN 15 Mini UAV 1 5-8 CCD TV ISR for small teams
                                                             Pakistan
Falco Tactical UAV 18 200 SAR, ELINT, FLIR Tactical ISR
Luna Tactical UAV 4-8 80 SAR, CCD TV Tactical ISR
Burraq MALE 12-14 1000-1200 FLIR, SAR, 2 x BARQ Missile Aerial Recce
Bravo Capability and design same as the German Luna UAV

Latest and Futuristic Trends       

The future of UAVs is to achieve complete automation to become smart, decide and act like humans in the battlefield with a continuous improvement in payloads. Worldwide efforts are on to improve the UAV’s aeronautical design and capabilities to include sensors, avionics, navigation techniques, control systems, processing and decision making system, communication to achieve miniaturisation, weaponisation, stealth, precision, endurance, high manoeuvre and operation control. The tactical UAVs are giving way to strategic UAVs with possible ceiling height of 50,000 feet to 60,000 feet with range of 14,000 Nautical Miles and loiter time/endurance of up to three months (Zephyr HALE UAV of UK). Offensive UAVs like Predator are being equipped with the latest missiles. Miniaturisation of UAVs is on the rise making them small, man-portable and self-contained for employment at the lowest levels of command.

Due to their small size, low Radar Cross Section, acoustics and stealth features, it is difficult to acquire and destroy UAVs…

Wing designs have been improved with swept-shaped and delta shaped wings. Propulsion systems have been made more efficient with Embedded Turbine Engine and Small-Scale Propulsion products to improve power-to-weight ratio and reduce noise. Composite materials and monocoque structures are being used to improve structural material to reduce weight and cost. Stealth is being achieved with incorporation of internal bays, V-shaped tail, stealthy body contours and small engines in UAVs to reduce Radar Cross Section and Infra-Red signals thereby enhancing survivability in hostile environment. The launch and loading system are being simplified to operate with hydraulic rail-/catapult launch system/arrestor hook for loading/retractable tricycle loading gear for shortened loading run/VTOL system and air launched system, with auto takeoff and loading mechanism.

To reduce the probability of crash when taking off or landing, Laser powered beams are being utilised. Solar energy is being used as a power source to enhance the endurance of the UAV. The ground control systems are now being made compact and vehicle mounted with real time data link both Line of Sight and satellite link. All modern age UAVs have digital flight control and management system using Global Positioning System (GPS), radio command guidance, Terrain Contour Matching (TERCOM) and satellite links giving UAVs and enhanced operational range and accurate guidance. Modern UAVs are being constructed as modular components so that the detachable wings and fuselage could be put in storage containers and transported over long distance from one theatre to another at short notice. Network Centric Communication is being achieved to transfer images/data to the Grand Control Station without delay in real time. Efforts are on achieving inter-operability between manned and unmanned system for synergy and seamless integration.

Current Developments

Ultra-Long Endurance UAVs powered by hydrogen fuel cells or solar energy to remain airborne for weeks with much greater ranges and operational altitude (18,000 – 25,000m) and variety of sensors onboard are being developed. The ‘Fire Scout’ Vertical Take-Off & Landing (VTOL) UAV is being developed by the United States Northrop Grumman with operational range of 2,500km and 40-hour endurance with a payload of 140kg. Smaller and lighter micro-munitions and jamming units are being manufactured which can be carried internally, improving the stealth characteristics. UCAVs in future would possess Electro Magnetic (EM) warhead capability which would release a short and powerful burst of EM pulse for only a few micro-seconds to destroy the electronics of its target i.e. radar system, GPS system, radio system and computers.

In terms of effective current counter measures against UAVs, there are both passive and active tactics and techniques…

UCAVs are being designed to carry Ground Attack Directed Energy Weapons and Self-protection missiles which can be employed to protect armed Intelligence, Surveillance & Reconnaissance UAVs operations in a high risk environment. Advanced UCAVs would be used to gain control of the airspace, acting as unmanned fighter aircraft operating in hostile environment, required to conduct aerial engagements from long range and also at close quarters. UAVs with network services like Command and Control, Data Management and Flow Control are being integrated in the net-centric system and concepts of operations. Onboard processors would outstrip data link capability and allow UAVs to relay the results of their data to the ground for decision making. Airborne optical data links/Laser communications offer higher data rates than those of the best future Radio Frequency systems.

The Chinese as well as NATO are pursuing miniaturised rotary wing UAVs measuring as less as a square centimetre. These miniature copters dubbed ‘Mecicopters’ could carry miniature EW payloads creating an Electro Magnetic swarm for neutralisation of enemy surveillance radars. Miniaturisation would enable UAVs to be launched from artillery or unguided rocket launcher pods. Swarms of Miniature Aerial Vehicles (MAVs) equipped with sensors and miniaturised warheads can be employed to gather intelligence and attack high-value targets.

Impact On Future Battlefields and Counter Measures

Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Capability

With enhanced range and endurance of the UAVs, dependence on manned aerial reconnaissance would reduce. The strategic commander can achieve complete transparency of his entire area of interest 24×7 continuous coverage with strategic surveillance UAVs. Timely NBC Reconnaissance of warhead storage sites and contaminated areas will facilitate timely intimation and bolster NBC defence capability.

Impact of UCAVs

Missions would be carried out by UCAV capable of staying on station over enemy territory for extended periods, sensing, and striking multiple items until relieved by another. They could even be used for air to air combat. They could be used in interceptor, sustained combat air patrol, or high speed ambush missions. A UCAV combining a long loiter time and Directed Energy Weapon (DEW) may soon be used in roles to augment manned aircraft and space system in theatre missile defence. UCAVs will be used for Suppression of Enemy Air Defence missions. They will be capable of sensing as well as striking in an operational environment in real time frame. This will also give the UCAV an immediate battle damage assessment and restrike capability.

Communications

UAVs could act as Airborne Communication Nodes (ACNs) which can enhance intra-theatre and tactical communication capacity and connectivity by extending the range of existing terrestrial Line of Sight communication system, extending communication to areas denied/masked to satellite service, acting as communication relays and providing significant improvement in received power density compared to that of satellites, while improving reception and decreasing vulnerability to jamming.

Logistics Operations

UAVs and UCAVs are envisaged to perform Route Reconnaissance, Convey Protection and Aerial Replication by cargo UAVs in support of operational logistics on the future battlefield.

Small Team Operations

Smaller and lighter means of display of UAV outputs such as palmtop computers will enable small teams to view UAV output and even facilitate mission and payload control. These could acquire information of critical enemy Command and Control, fire power or operational logistics system to enable precise and decisive targeting. They could also direct strikes by own Artillery, Air, Attack Helicopters, and even UCAVs based on precisely acquired target locations by UAVs.

Auxiliary Employment

UAVs can be used for Identification of Friend & Foe (IFF) enhancing the ability of the fighter aircraft to identify friendly players and their locations. These would also be invaluable in providing meteorological support to firepower resources of offensive formations that have staged forward beyond the coverage of existing meteorological system. In future, UAVs will also perform the role of Forward Air Controller during Air Interdiction, Battlefield Air Interdiction and Search and Rescue missions.

Challenges of Air Defence against UAVs

Low Cost – High Pay Off. Decoy UAVs and micro UAV swarms may be employed with the precise aim of activating own Air Defence system. A UAV Swarm could saturate own Air Defence system. It would be prudent to examine if these targets merit engagement by SAMs which are costly and available in small numbers.

Acquisition of Own Air Defence Asset Locations by the Enemy. The enemy may also employ these low cost UAVs to acquire own critical Air Defence assets for engagement by anti-radiation missile, as well as fighter aircraft and UCAVs from stand-off ranges.

Airspace Control. With increased number of UAVs/ drones in space, airspace management has become a more complex task.

Detach and Destroy. Due to their small size, low Radar Cross Section, acoustics and stealth features, it is difficult to acquire and destroy UAVs.

Counter Measures

To counter a UAV, its detection is of foremost importance which can be achieved by understanding flight profiles, survivability features, vulnerability features and means of detection i.e. visually, through electro optical means and radars (Fire Control radars, Surveillance and Early Warning radars, Phased Array radars, Over The Horizon radars, Pulse Doppler radars). A UAV requires constant uplink and down-link communication which makes it vulnerable to passive sensors by Infra-Red alerter, Electronic Support Measures and acoustic sensors. Other means of detection include AWACS, AEW, UAVs, satellite and Reconnaissance aircraft/aircraft on Cabinet Air Patrol mission.

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In terms of effective current counter measures against UAVs, there are both passive and active tactics and techniques. Passive counter measures include camouflage, concealment, dispersion, terrain masking, using smoke at critical crossings and choke points and deception techniques whereas active counter measures including intercepting, jamming and destroying the UAV/Ground Control System or data link by air/ground based fire/raids before launch or during its flight. Ground Control System, the hub centre for controlling UAV missions is quite vulnerable to ground Airborne Electronic Warfare system due to its radio-based data link which can be located by intercepted and unencrypted signals. Despite the small size, small Radio Cross Section, low acoustic signal, low engine temperature, the air vehicle is still vulnerable to radars and other passive sensors. It can also be destroyed by small arms fire besides Army Air Defence weapons such as the Barak, Spyder and PAC-3 which are primarily designed for engaging hostile aircraft which can also take on UAVs to a great extent with the expertise of the operator.

Futuristic active countermeasures for anti-UAV operations include employment of long endurance UAV-borne receiver, bi-static radars, multi-sensor 3D tracking and employing (EO/Infra-Red cameras, an acoustic array and a radar for detection, tracking and identification of UAVs). To destroy UAVs, there are modern systems such as SLAMRAAM, high-powered Anti Aircraft Laser, Laser Avenger, Cougar Interceptor and HPM generator with high-powered EM energy. With the availability of AWACS and Aerostats, engagement of UAVs by interceptor aircraft is highly possible, but difficult due to high speeds of interceptor aircraft than that of the UAVs. However, Attack Helicopters can be very effective against them.

Conclusion

The evolving UAV threat poses a significant challenge to all ground forces. Of the emerging combat force multipliers, UAVs are unique in their integration with existing systems as it requires little more effort. Relative to other reconnaissance platforms, UAVs are both technologically attainable and affordable. The trend of UAV proliferation is clear and countering this threat must be addressed when planning any operation where enemy forces have the potential to successfully employ UAVs. Looking at the future, with development in own Air Defence capabilities, passive countermeasures will be reduced and eventually replaced by Air Defence proactive protection such as destroying enemy UAVs at an advantageous point in the friendly battle space. Proactive Air Defence protection will provide battlefield commanders with greater freedom of manoeuver and will deny the enemy the capability to successfully execute asymmetrical attacks from the third dimension.

Bibliography

Book Reference

  1. UAVs-Revolutionary Tools in War and Peace by Lt Col Richard P. Schwing, US Air War College Strategic Research Project.
  2. Unmanned Aircraft System Roadmap by Maj Gen James D Thurman.
  3. UCAV –The next Generation Air superiority Fighter? by Maj William. K. Lewis – Thesis presentation at School of Advanced Air power studies, Maxwell Air Force Base. ALBAMA.
  4. Uninhibited Combat Aerial Vehicles by Maxwell AFB, Ala.
  5. The Icarus Syndrome: The Role of Air Power by Carl Builder.
  6. Next Mission Unmanned: The Human Factor in Air Power Tomorrow by A Noguier.
  7. Strategic Affairs, Vol 5, Issue No 8, Apr 19, 2011.
  8. Air Power and Technology: A Tentative Approach to the Year 2025 and Beyond by Col Basilio Di Martino.
  9. Counter UAV Operations Pose New Challenges for Military Planners by Peter La Franchi.

Internet Reference

  1. http://www.global security. Org /military/rising/congress/thurman.htm
  2. http://www. af.mil/factsheets.asp?fsID=102
  3. http://www.af.mil//information/factsheets/factsheet.asp?ID=13225
  4. http://www.av.AF.mil/av/AWC/AWCGate/SAAS/Lewis.pdf
  5. http://www.avinc.com/nano
  6. http//:www.smartertechnology.com/…/Planes-Fly-off-Radar-With-Stealth
  7. http;//www.military photo.net/forums/show thread.ahp?175320
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BQM-145.perigrine
  9. http://www.flightglobal.com/articles…military.html
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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Lt Col Mukund Bhardwaj

commissioned into an Air Defence Regiment in 2007. He has excelled in major professional courses and performed important staff appointments.

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