Emerging technologies, with splendid assistance from Artificial Intelligence (AI), are driving remarkable Research and Development (R&D) in the area of unmanned systems for use on land, over and under sea, in air and in space. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also termed Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) by some air forces and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) by some others including the Indian Air Force (IAF), are at the forefront of the unmanned panorama. The term RPA may soon have to be modified as the increasing automation and autonomy being embedded in UAVs will remove the ‘remote pilot’ from the loop for major portions of missions, if not for complete missions from take-off to landing. Ballistic missiles/vehicles, cruise missiles and artillery projectiles, even while they are unmanned and use the medium of air, are excluded from the definition of UAV.
In comparison to manned platforms, the increasing availability and low costs of UAVs has rendered them objects of desire for not just militaries but also non-state and terrorist organisations for a vast continuum of roles on the battlefield and away from it as in urban warfare against militancy. As is the case with all military systems, UAVs started modestly with humble roles and tasks, but have developed into important components of militaries across the world. Indeed, the ongoing Ukraine war has seen extensive use of UAVs and some of the roles for which they were employed could not have been executed with similar effects and economy by aircraft or other systems.
The capability, lethality, efficacy and wide spectrum of UAV platforms have already attained levels of sophistication with R&D continuing at high speed that raise some UAVs from tactical weapon systems to strategic handmaidens of air warfare. This article looks at the impact of UAVs on air warfare strategy.
UAV Roles and Tasks
To understand how UAVs impact air warfare strategy, it would be useful to take a brief look at the roles UAVs can perform in all domains of warfare. The initial evolution of UAVs was for tasks related to Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) activities to support the commander’s conduct of war. More offensive roles were added on later. Thus, UAVs, depending on their size and design, can be ISR-oriented, combat oriented or have both capabilities.
In the context of war on land, UAVs can be used in the battle space for strike – conventional or Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC), suppression, destruction of land target systems, reconnaissance, surveillance of enemy activity, monitoring of NBC contamination, electronic intelligence gathering, target designation and monitoring, location and destruction of land mines and Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). There is also the innovative concept of loitering munitions which can hover around in an area and, at the touch of a switch, be used as munitions or be recalled if the limit of endurance is being reached. Increasingly, this decision is being autonomised.
In the maritime context, UAV operations from decks and in conjunction with ship-borne weapon systems and aircraft are possible and they can be used for electronic intelligence, relaying radio signals, protection of ports from offshore attack, placement and monitoring of sonar buoys and possibly other forms of anti-submarine warfare, shadowing enemy fleet and decoying missiles by the emission of artificial signatures. Interestingly, at the beginning of April 2023, Turkey commissioned Anadolu, its largest warship, with the distinction of being the world’s first UCAV carrier.
Coming to roles related to aerial engagements, their specific roles in aerial battles can be long-range, high-altitude surveillance, jamming and destruction of radar systems, electronic intelligence, airbase security, airfield damage assessment, elimination of unexploded bombs, as decoys for deception against enemy Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) and more spectacularly, as unmanned wingmen to combat enemy fighter aircraft in support of own. UAVs can gather vital intelligence information about targets and then can be used to soften the target before the actual launch of attack. In any event, their capability to carry electronic warfare suites bestows upon them the capability to take on cyber warfare roles as extensions of contending forces reaching out deep into enemy territory or territorial waters. Thus, of the five domains of warfare – land, sea, air, cyberspace and space – UAVs are already present tangibly in the first four while in space they have an arguable presence as satellites that are unmanned, are increasingly being weaponised, and Anti-Satellite (ASAT) satellites capabilities have already been demonstrated by some nations.
UAV Deployment with Strategic Consequences
In September 2019, Abqaiq and Khurais, two major Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities were attacked by a combination of drones and cruise missiles. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed that they had perpetrated the attacks in retaliation to Saudi Arabian intervention in the Yemeni Civil War. The US and most European countries believed the attacks were Iran’s doing. Whoever may have been behind the attacks, the result was that around half of Saudi oil production was affected leading to a sudden hike in oil prices internationally. This was, undoubtedly, a UAV success of strategic reach.
On January 03, 2020, at the height of the 2019-2022 Persian Gulf Crisis, US President Donald Trump authorised the military use of an MQ-9 Reaper for the assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, a Major General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Soleimani was the head of the Quds Force of the IRGC. The US Department of Defence justified the targeted killing in which nine others were killed, including four Iraqis as the attack took place near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport, by stating that Soleimani and his troops had been “responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition members and the wounding of thousands more”. Some strategic fall-outs were accrued to this attack. The Iraqi government said the attack undermined its national sovereignty and considered it a breach of its bilateral security agreements with the US and an act of aggression against its officials. On January 05, 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a resolution to expel all foreign troops from its territory while on the same day, Iran took the fifth and last step of reducing commitments to the 2015 international nuclear deal. Five days after the airstrike, Iran launched a series of missile attacks on US forces based in Iraq, the first known direct engagement between Iran and the US in over three decades. Again, this was a case of UAV employment with strategic corollaries.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020 is significant from the UAV point of view. In the 1990s, Armenian military had generally had the upper hand over Azerbaijan; but when war broke out on September 27, 2020, things were different. Azerbaijan relied heavily on UAVs, especially Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and Israeli-made Kamikaze drones with payloads of merely 55kg and 15kg respectively. In the years preceding this war, Armenia had ignored UAVs altogether in its military inventory while Azerbaijan had procured expensive UAVs, an investment that paid high dividends in the short war.
Although authenticated evidence is a bit hazy, according to one account, Armenia is believed to have lost 185 tanks, 45 armoured fighting vehicles, 44 infantry fighting vehicles, 147 towed artillery guns, 19 self propelled artillery guns, 72 multi-barrel rocket launchers and 12 air defence radars. Most of these ‘kills’ were attributable to UAV operations. Armenian air defence radars and major air defence weapons systems were almost entirely wiped out by UAVs. It was not aircraft that served as the handmaidens of air power here but UAVs whose strength helped Azerbaijan to win the war decisively with, unlike most post World War II conflicts, one clear victor and the other decisively vanquished. Future wars may not be similarly imbalanced in terms of UAV holdings by contending forces, but the lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh are resounding inasmuch as a strategic outcome of a war was decided by UAVs.
More recently, UAVs have come of age in the ongoing Ukraine war which, when Russia crossed the border into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, was expected to last not more than a few weeks at the most but has been going on for over 13 months now. Air defence systems – long and short range ones – deterred the use of combat aircraft by Russia once the initial days of the war witnessed high attrition rates. For many roles, UAVs replaced manned aircraft and these roles were not limited to ISR, but played many other roles including strike. As an illustration, in December last year, Russian air defences reportedly intercepted Ukrainian UAVs over two military airfields housing long range strategic bombers deep inside Russian territory (around 500km from the nearest Russian-Ukrainian border).
The war is witnessing proliferate use of UAVs by both sides. In June last year, Popular Mechanics published an article listing seven rotary wing, 24-fixed wing and five loitering munitions UAVs in use in the Russia-Ukraine war. The number would have gone up more by now as new UAVs are being added to both sides with some spectacular results being demonstrated. To Ukraine is also attributed the use of civilian drones modified for carriage of make-shift bomb carrying modules. Some experts have called it a ‘drone war’ due to the fact that it is the first large scale war in which military and dual purpose UAVs are being used in huge numbers. There have been reports of ‘drone-on-drone’ engagements wherein small UAVs, lacking any bombs, missiles or guns, just rammed into each other. Although UAVs have not yet given a strategic advantage to either Russia or Ukraine and indeed, in recent weeks, headlines relating to UAVs have dwindled down, their potential has been highlighted. The promise of UAVs evolving from tactical organisms to beasts with strategic import has been underscored amply in Ukraine and the other sample illustrations discussed above.
In February this year, AI software flew a Variable In-flight Simulation Test Aircraft – VISTA X-62A – a trainer based on the F-16, for more than 17 hours at the US Air Force Test Pilot School in California. The flight is a portent of future generations of combat aircraft, the sixth generation of which is under development in at least four design projects around the world. One of the essential criteria of sixth generation combat aircraft is an optionally manned cockpit i.e. the capability to fly with only AI software in the unmanned cockpit. Thus, an unmanned combat aircraft with leading edge technologies and capabilities is just a few years away.
Another AI-related munificence is the unmanned wingman, an unmanned aircraft working under control of a manned or an unmanned one which is aloft in the same sky. This concept, termed as Manned-UnManned Teaming or MUM-T, is in advanced stage of development and multi-role UAVs flying as elements of formations led by a manned aircraft have already been test flown satisfactorily in the US and Australia. As far as air-to-air combat by UAVs is concerned, perhaps the first instance ensued in March 2003, two decades ago, when a Predator launched a Stinger air-to-air missile at an Iraqi MiG-21. Unfortunately, it failed to score a ‘kill’ against the MiG-21 and was, in fact, shot down by the MiG-21. However, the engagement blazed the path for future UAV employment for counter air operations in pursuit of air superiority. With snowballing capabilities being infused into newer models of UAVs, it is foreseeable that they would attain the competence to engage hostile strike aircraft or even air superiority aircraft. There has been at least one reported incident of a Russian Shahe 136 (Geran-2) UAV of Iranian origin shooting down a Ukrainian Su-27 in March 2023.
Aerial combat is the mission in which an aerial platform’s wherewithal is tested the most. From close combat of the olden days, air-to-air combat has progressed to rely more on Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles. Generally, a BVR air-to-air missile has a range exceeding 37km although modern ones have gone beyond 200km ranges. However, as target aircraft can be expected to carry inherent protection against air-to-air missiles, design of a BVR air-to-air missile has to cater for the possibility of close combat too. So there is increasing thought being given to designing UAVs with air-to-air missile carriage and the stealth, manoeuverability and agility to engage combat aircraft. There is also the problem of developing air-to-air weapons suitable for UAVs. These would have to be smaller than existing air-to-air weapons to be carried by UAVs that are generally smaller than combat aircraft, but would still have to be endowed with the reach and the accuracy for air-to-air combat. This lead time, the cost and the survivability features will decide whether and when UAVs attain prominence as air superiority platforms and wholly or largely replace manned aircraft in that role. However, the capability and the potential exists.
Strategic Impact On No-War-No-Peace Status
Some UAVs are as big as or even bigger than combat aircraft and their impact as remarkable as that of combat aircraft due to their characteristic of being usable at far-flung reaches and at short notice, eliminating the traditional build up to a war. Indeed, UAVs are not limited to a defined or localised battlefield, but can be used for missions globally. In a similar vein, they can be used even when there has been no declaration of war. Thus, UAVs have effectually eliminated the distinction between war time and peace time operations as also war zone and peace zone. This characteristic of UAV deployment works for kinetic action even when war has not been declared, but also has the inherent risk of escalating tense moments of ‘no-war-no-peace’ state to war due to the damage UAVs are capable of inflicting. This would be akin to the effect of a pre-emptive strike on enemy targets by bomber/strike aircraft and could achieve strategic impact without the risk attendant on use of expensive, manned bombers or strike aircraft. Some analysts have argued that due to their non-human nature and the allied lack of inhibition in their use, there may be dents caused on the very concept of deterrence between inimical states.
The availability of nano technologies have led to a proliferation of small (Micro and Mini sized) UAVs with the smallest ones being as big as houseflies and capable of the proverbial ‘fly on the wall’ role of ISR duties without being seen themselves. Although this class of UAVs was developed largely with anti-militancy operations in mind, their military value makes them assets far more useful than their Size, Weight, Power and Cost (SWaP-C) indicates. They can be carried, launched and controlled by individual soldiers or work in collaboration with bigger UAVs flying aloft without the need for foliage penetration sensors. They would be especially useful in urban anti-terrorist operations. Because they represent means of carrying out ISR tasks albeit constrained ones which otherwise would have to be undertaken by much more risky options (manual patrol, big sized UAVs) they have a contribution to make to air power.
Unmanned Political Assassinations
Targeted killing, or assassination by use of lethal force with the pre-meditated intent of killing individually selected persons not in the physical custody of the entity targeting them, is another role in which UAVs have been used to dramatic effect with strategic consequences. The concept was initially linked to the planned killing of an individual because of his association with a terrorist/militant organisation or group, but has evolved into political assassinations. The use of a UAV to target a person or persons far removed from a kinetic battle and presenting no direct threat to any other person’s life or property would not only be illegal but also unethical. Indeed, strikes outside established armed conflicts against personages of opposing political persuasions or nationalities would be tantamount to extra-judicial execution and violation of the victims’ right to life and right to due process under International Human Rights Law (IHRL). While the goal of killing military or political leaders may be tactical in nature, the use of UAVs for targeted killings would also serve the strategic objective of deterrence by way of conveying the intent and capability of the UAV threat. It may be mentioned here that while US-initiated political assassinations using UAVs have been executed against weaker nations, a similar mission against Russia or China may be unthinkable due to the threat of equal or heftier reprisal.
Non-State Actors and UAVs
The use of UAV strikes outside declared armed conflict zones by the US has set precedents to be emulated by other states and non-state actors. Decidedly, a terrifying possibility is the use of armed UAVs by non-state actors in non-conflict areas, especially as most UAVs are designed for dual use and their proliferation is impossible to control.
In February 2020, Elon Musk, the controversial business magnate, set a cat amongst the pigeons during an Air Warfare Symposium in US by stating, “The fighter jet era has passed. Drone warfare is where the future will be. It is not what I want the future to be – it is just, this is what the future will be.” Of course, the fighter pilot community was outraged and many analysts scoffed at the statement at that time. Since then, UAVs have distinguished themselves in operational scenarios. Attritable, disposable and economical UAVs are proving to be more efficacious than fixed-wing aircraft in several missions. So, is the manned fighter on its way out? Certainly not in the near future, but the growing importance of UAVs in roles that have strategic import is fairly evident as writing on the wall. The future, as many an analytical piece in academic journals avers, is unmanned.
India’s indigenous UAV industry, despite all the hype about ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ is mediocre and pales into insignificance when juxtaposed with its space accomplishments, the size of its military and its stated ambition to be an aerospace hub in the coming years. Israel has been a cooperative UAV supplier but cannot be expected to part with state-of-the-art UAV technologies to India. A lot more impetus is required to indigenous R&D, preferably private in contrast to DRDO-led, if India is to reach the leading edge of UAV technology which remains an inevitable imperative for India’s war preparedness. This issue is all the more important because China, our geo-political challenge, is taking huge strides in UAV design and development, while Pakistan is busy acquiring state-of-the-art UAVs/UCAVs from Turkey.