Emerging technologies, bolstered by Artificial Intelligence (AI), are propelling significant advancements in Research and Development (R&D) within the realm of unmanned systems, spanning land, sea, air, and space. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), also known as Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASS) in certain air forces and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPAs) in others, such as the Indian Air Force (IAF), stand as the forefront players in the unmanned landscape. The term RPA may soon necessitate modification, given the growing incorporation of automation and autonomy in UAVs, which diminishes the remote pilot’s involvement for substantial portions of missions, if not for the entirety, encompassing take-off to landing. It is important to note that ballistic missiles/vehicles, cruise missiles, and artillery projectiles, though unmanned and airborne, fall outside the UAV definition.
In contrast to manned platforms, the increasing accessibility and cost-effectiveness of UAVs have made them coveted assets, not only for military forces but also for non-state entities and terrorist organisations, spanning a wide spectrum of roles, both on the battlefield and in urban warfare against insurgencies. Similar to the evolution of all military systems, UAVs began with humble roles and functions but have evolved into pivotal components of armed forces worldwide. Indeed, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has witnessed extensive utilisation of UAVs, some of which were deployed for tasks that could not have been accomplished with similar effectiveness and efficiency by conventional aircraft or other systems.
The capabilities, lethality, effectiveness, and diverse range of UAV platforms have already reached sophisticated levels, with R&D progressing rapidly. This advancement elevates certain UAVs from being mere tactical weapon systems to becoming strategic assets in the domain of air warfare. This article delves into the impact of UAVs on the strategies employed in air warfare.
Roles and Implication
Understanding the impact of UAVs on air warfare strategy requires a brief overview of the diverse roles they can perform across various domains of warfare. Initially, UAVs were primarily developed for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions to support military commanders in their decision-making processes. Over time, they took on more offensive roles, making them versatile assets capable of serving different purposes depending on their size and design.
In the context of land warfare, UAVs find application in a wide range of tasks. These include conventional or Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical (NBC) strike operations, target suppression and destruction, reconnaissance, surveillance of enemy activities, monitoring NBC contamination, electronic intelligence gathering, target designation and monitoring, locating and neutralising landmines, and conducting Battle Damage Assessment (BDA). An innovative concept known as “loitering munitions” allows UAVs to hover in a specific area and, with the push of a button, be employed as munitions or recalled if their endurance limit is reached. Increasingly, these decisions are becoming automated.
In maritime operations, UAVs can operate from ship decks and collaborate with ship-based weapon systems and aircraft. Their roles encompass electronic intelligence, relaying radio signals, safeguarding ports from offshore threats, deploying and monitoring sonar buoys, and potentially engaging in anti-submarine warfare. They can shadow enemy fleets and deceive incoming missiles by emitting artificial signatures. Notably, in April 2023, Turkey commissioned the Anadolu, the world’s first UCAV (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle) carrier.
When it comes to aerial engagements, UAVs play distinct roles in aerial battles. These roles involve long-range, high-altitude surveillance, jamming and disabling radar systems, electronic intelligence gathering, airbase security, assessing damage to airfields, disposal of unexploded ordnance, acting as decoys to mislead enemy Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems, and, notably, serving as unmanned wingmen to assist in combat against enemy fighter aircraft. UAVs are adept at gathering critical intelligence on targets and can be used to weaken the target before launching a full-scale attack. Additionally, their ability to carry electronic warfare suites allows them to play roles in cyber warfare, extending the reach of contending forces deep into enemy territory or territorial waters.
In summary, UAVs have established a tangible presence in the first four domains of warfare – land, sea, air, and cyberspace. They are also making a case for their presence in space, where unmanned satellites are increasingly being weaponized, and some nations have already demonstrated Anti-Satellite (ASAT) capabilities.
The Strategic Deployment
In September 2019, a pivotal event unfolded when Abqaiq and Khurais, major Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities, were subjected to an attack involving a combination of drones and cruise missiles. The Houthi movement in Yemen claimed responsibility, citing it as retaliation for Saudi Arabia involvement in the Yemeni Civil War. However, the US and many European countries attributed the attacks to Iran. Regardless of the perpetrator, the outcome was indisputable: roughly half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production was disrupted, resulting in a sudden surge in global oil prices. This incident underscored the strategic significance of UAVs.
On January 3, 2020, during the height of the 2019-2022 Persian Gulf Crisis, US President Donald Trump authorised the military use of an MQ-9 Reaper to target and assassinate Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani, a Major General in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who headed the Quds Force. The US Department of Defense justified the strike, which claimed nine lives, including four Iraqis (as the attack occurred near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport), by asserting that Soleimani and his forces had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition personnel and the injuries of thousands more. This targeted killing had strategic repercussions, including the erosion of Iraq’s national sovereignty, as well as the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, a resolution passed by the Iraqi parliament on January 5, 2020. On the same day, Iran took the fifth and final step to reduce its commitments to the 2015 international nuclear deal. Five days later, Iran launched missile attacks on US forces in Iraq, marking the first direct engagement between Iran and the US in over three decades. This event exemplified the strategic implications of UAV deployment.
The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in 2020 is a noteworthy case from a UAV perspective. While Armenia had historically held the upper hand militarily, Azerbaijan’s heavy reliance on UAVs, especially the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and Israeli-made Kamikaze drones with payloads of 55kg and 15kg, respectively, tipped the balance. In the years leading up to the conflict, Armenia had largely neglected UAVs in its military inventory, whereas Azerbaijan’s investment in these unmanned assets paid significant dividends during the short war.
Although concrete evidence is somewhat limited, it is believed that Armenia lost numerous armoured vehicles, artillery, air defence radars, and other assets, with many of these losses attributed to UAV operations. UAVs played a decisive role, decimating Armenian air defence systems and major weapons systems. In this case, it wasn’t traditional aircraft but UAVs that played a pivotal role in Azerbaijan’s resounding victory over Armenia in a conflict that yielded a clear victor and a decisively defeated opponent. While future conflicts may not exhibit such stark disparities in UAV capabilities between opposing forces, the lessons from Nagorno-Karabakh underscore the potential for UAVs to influence strategic outcomes in warfare.
More recently, UAVs have assumed a prominent role in the ongoing Ukraine war. When Russia initiated its incursion into Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the conflict was initially expected to last only a few weeks but has now persisted for over 13 months. Air defence systems, both long and short-range, deterred the use of manned combat aircraft by Russia due to high attrition rates in the initial stages of the war. UAVs have increasingly replaced manned aircraft in various roles, extending beyond intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) to include strike missions. As an illustration, in December of the previous year, Russian air defences reportedly intercepted Ukrainian UAVs over two military airfields housing long-range strategic bombers, located deep within Russian territory (approximately 500 km from the nearest Russian-Ukrainian border). This exemplifies the evolving role of UAVs in modern conflicts and their capacity to impact strategic outcomes.
The ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine has seen a significant proliferation in the use of UAVs by both sides. In June of the previous year, Popular Mechanics published an article listing seven rotary-wing, 24 fixed-wing, and five loitering munition UAVs that were in use in the conflict. Since then, the number of UAVs deployed has likely increased, with both sides continually adding new UAVs, some of which have demonstrated remarkable results. Ukraine has even adapted civilian drones for carrying makeshift bomb modules, prompting some experts to refer to it as a “drone war.” Notably, this war represents the first large-scale conflict in which military and dual-purpose UAVs are being used in such substantial numbers. There have been reports of drone-on-drone engagements, where small UAVs lacking any weaponry simply collided with each other. While UAVs have not yet provided a decisive strategic advantage to either Russia or Ukraine, their potential has been underscored. The shift from tactical UAVs to strategically significant assets is evident in the ongoing conflict and other illustrative examples discussed earlier.
In February this year, a noteworthy milestone was achieved when artificial intelligence (AI) software autonomously flew the Variable in-flight Simulation Test Aircraft (VISTA X-62A), which serves as a trainer model based on the F-16. This autonomous flight lasted for more than 17 hours and took place at the US Air Force Test Pilot School in California. This achievement foreshadows the next generations of combat aircraft, including the ongoing development of sixth-generation combat aircraft in at least four projects worldwide. One key criterion for these sixth-generation aircraft is the ability to operate with an optionally manned cockpit, meaning they can fly with AI software in an unmanned cockpit. Consequently, unmanned combat aircraft with cutting-edge technologies and capabilities are on the horizon, just a few years away.
Another significant development in the realm of AI-related capabilities is the concept of the unmanned wingman—a UAV that operates under the control of either a manned or unmanned lead aircraft sharing the same airspace. This concept, known as Manned-Unmanned Teaming (MUM-T), is in an advanced stage of development. Multi-role UAVs flying as part of formations led by manned aircraft have already undergone successful test flights in both the US and Australia. Concerning air-to-air combat by UAVs, a noteworthy milestone occurred in March 2003 when a Predator UAV launched a Stinger air-to-air missile at an Iraqi MiG-21. Although it failed to achieve a “kill” against the MiG-21 and was subsequently shot down, this engagement paved the way for future UAV deployments in counter-air operations aimed at achieving air superiority. With the continuous infusion of capabilities into newer UAV models, it is conceivable that they will gain the competence to engage hostile strike aircraft, and perhaps even air superiority aircraft. There has already been one reported incident in March 2023 involving a Russian Shahe 136 (Geran-2) UAV of Iranian origin shooting down a Ukrainian Su-27.
Aerial combat represents the most challenging mission for any aerial platform. Evolving from close combat in earlier times, air-to-air combat has increasingly relied on Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles, with modern ones exceeding ranges of 200km. However, given that target aircraft are likely to have inherent defences against air-to-air missiles, BVR missile design must also account for the possibility of close combat. Consequently, there is growing consideration for designing UAVs equipped with air-to-air missile capability, stealth, manoeuvrability, and agility to engage combat aircraft effectively. Additionally, the development of air-to-air weapons suitable for UAVs is a challenge, as these weapons must be smaller than existing air-to-air missiles to be carried by smaller UAVs, yet still possess the range and accuracy required for air-to-air combat. The lead time, cost considerations, and survivability features will ultimately determine whether and when UAVs assume a prominent role as air superiority platforms, potentially replacing manned aircraft in that capacity. However, the capability and potential certainly exist.
UAVs Redefining the No-War-No-Peace Landscape
Certain UAVs are comparable in size to, or even larger than, traditional combat aircraft. Their remarkable impact can be attributed to their unique capability to operate at distant locations with short notice, thus eliminating the conventional build-up to a full-scale war. UAVs are not confined to a defined or localised battlefield; instead, they can be employed for missions across the globe. This flexibility extends to situations where no formal declaration of war has occurred. Consequently, UAVs have effectively blurred the lines between wartime and peacetime operations, as well as between war zones and peaceful regions.
This characteristic of UAV deployment allows for kinetic actions even in the absence of a declared war. However, it also carries the inherent risk of escalating tense situations in a “no-war-no-peace” state to full-fledged conflict, given the damage UAVs are capable of inflicting. This effect can be likened to that of a pre-emptive strike on enemy targets by bomber or strike aircraft, achieving strategic impact without the risk associated with deploying expensive manned bombers or strike aircraft. Some analysts argue that due to their non-human nature and the absence of human inhibitions in their use, UAVs could challenge the traditional concept of deterrence between adversarial states.
What Truly Matters
Advancements in nano technologies have led to the proliferation of small UAVs, including micro and mini-sized ones. Some are as small as houseflies and are capable of carrying out ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) duties while remaining inconspicuous. Although these UAVs were primarily developed for counter-militancy operations, their military utility far exceeds their Size, Weight, Power, and Cost (SWaP-C) specifications. They can be carried, launched, and controlled by individual soldiers or work in tandem with larger UAVs flying overhead, without the need for specialised foliage penetration sensors. These small UAVs are particularly valuable in urban anti-terrorist operations, as they provide a means of conducting ISR tasks with reduced risk compared to other options, such as manual patrols or larger UAVs.
Shifting Dynamics in Political Eliminations
UAVs have also been employed in targeted killings, a practice involving the premeditated use of lethal force to eliminate specific individuals who are not physically in the custody of the entity targeting them. Initially associated with the elimination of individuals linked to terrorist or militant organisations, this concept has evolved into political assassinations. The use of UAVs to target individuals removed from kinetic battlefields, posing no direct threat to the life or property of others, raises legal and ethical concerns. Such strikes outside established armed conflicts, targeting individuals based on their political affiliations or nationalities, could be considered extrajudicial executions and violations of the victims’ rights to life and due process under International Human Rights Law (IHRL). While the objective of eliminating military or political leaders may be tactical in nature, the use of UAVs for targeted killings can also serve the strategic goal of deterrence by demonstrating the intent and capability of UAV threats. It’s worth noting that while the US has initiated political assassinations using UAVs against weaker nations, undertaking a similar mission against Russia or China would carry the unthinkable threat of equal or more substantial reprisals.
Other Side of the Coin
The precedent set by the US in employing UAV strikes outside declared armed conflict zones may encourage other states and non-state actors to follow suit. A particularly alarming possibility is the use of armed UAVs by non-state actors in areas where no formal conflict exists. This is especially concerning given that most UAVs are designed for dual-use purposes, and their proliferation is challenging to control.
The Bottom Line
In February 2020, Elon Musk stirred controversy by proclaiming the fighter jet era was waning, giving way to drone warfare, despite initial scepticism. Over time, UAVs have proven themselves effective, especially in missions where attritable, disposable, and cost-efficient assets excel. While manned fighters won’t disappear soon, the growing importance of UAVs in strategic roles is evident.
India’s indigenous UAV industry lags behind its space achievements and military size. To become an aerospace leader, India must prioritise private-sector-led R&D over state-led efforts like DRDO. This is crucial, given China’s advances in UAV tech, while Pakistan acquires advanced UAVs from Turkey.
(Views presented in the article are of the author’s own and do not reflect the editorial stance of Business Upturn Asia)