Future Operating Environment
Australian Land Force's Vulnerability to Drone WarfareBy James Harvey March 4, 2021
Australia’s land force has a capability gap in its capacity to respond to the emerging, low cost drone threat demonstrated by Turkey and Azerbaijan. This doesn’t appear to be a result of a lack of planning on our behalf, but rather an unanticipated, emerging capability which is proving to be cheap and effective. We must adapt quickly, to ensure our capacity to credibly deter and respond to threats in our region is developed and maintained.
Case Study 1 - Operation Spring Shield
In northern Syria between 27 Feb - 03 Mar 2020, Turkey launched a major offensive against the Syrian forces, called Operation Spring Shield (OSS). The Turkish forces utilised both artillery and massed drone attacks to cause staggering casualties amongst the Syrian forces. On 02 Mar 2020, Turkey claimed to have destroyed two jets, two drones, eight helicopters, 135 tanks, five air-defence systems and hundreds of other vehicles of the Syrian regime.  In reply, Syria claimed to have shot down six Turkish drones.  Surprise was certainly a factor in the contrasting casualties of the two belligerents; however, the brief conflict clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of conventional land power to the emerging capability of concentrated drone attacks.
Case Study 2 - Azerbaijan vs Armenia 2020
In September and October of 2020 Azerbaijan and Armenia engaged in a substantial conventional conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. An effective peace deal was agreed in early November 2020, enforced by Russian peacekeepers in the region. Prior to this, the Azerbaijanis had notable success with drones, using both Turkish and Israeli models. Armenia’s army is a numerically superior, well equipped, legacy soviet, mechanised force, incorporating tanks, SP artillery, IFVs etc, in a mode of warfare that would be familiar to any western military planner trained in recent decades. Unsophisticated, but substantial. In the first week of fighting, Azerbaijan claimed to have destroyed 250 armoured vehicles, 250 artillery pieces, another 130 military vehicles and over 30 air-defence systems. Armenia claimed to have downed around 100 Azerbaijani drones in the same period. The contrast in this case is not as staggering as in OSS; however, the difference is still substantial. Armenia’s significant territorial losses in the conflict speaks to the lack of response a conventional land force has to an effective, drone augmented force.
Turkey fielded two types of drones in OSS, the TAI Anka, which is broadly analogous to the US Reaper, though probably less sophisticated and capable, and the Bayraktar TB2, a small, slow, low flying drone analogous in scale to the Shadow, fielded by Australian forces. On the face of it the TB2 is not very threatening; however, it is small, cheap and effective enough. It appears its armament is capable of achieving K-Kills up to MBT, exploiting that AFV weakness of (lack of) top armour.
Azerbaijan also fielded two types of drones, the TB2 and the Israeli Harop, an even smaller drone that is launched out of a vehicle mounted tube, similar in function and appearance to the familiar MLRS. The Harop is again, effective enough. It carries a small HE payload, similar in scale to a medium artillery round and the operator simply crashes the drone into the target. Again, the attributes of small, cheap and 'effective enough' are observed.
The Drone Niche
These drones and the means of employing them have found a niche in the contemporary battle space. They have two key characteristics; first they are effective; and second they escape engagement by sophisticated GBAD systems. Their efficacy has been discussed, but their apparent indifference to GBAD is not immediately obvious. It is fair to say that most GBAD systems and their concept of employment are predicated on the fact that military aircraft are highly capable, highly valued, very expensive to build, and require significant pilot training.
All of that means that; first, surface to air missiles (SAMs) can be justifiably very sophisticated and expensive, while still maintaining a substantial cost benefit ratio per downed plane. Second, their very presence in the battle space imposes significant dilemma on the adversary commander, regarding the risk of lost aircraft versus the opportunity presented by its use. However if sufficient combat effect of the aircraft can be replicated at little cost, in large numbers and with no risk to the ‘pilot’ per sortie, all of a sudden both the cost of the SAM and their disruptive effect on the battle space are substantially, if not entirely, undermined.
Australia’s GBAD Concept of Employment
Australia’s own emerging GBAD concept of employment is broadly convergent with the generic example provided above. While this will represent a major step forward for our GBAD capability and the deterrent effect that is provided by its mere existence, it still leaves our force open to the niche mass drone attack described above. Our land force is made up of a small number of highly capable, highly valuable elements, that when combined, behave as force multipliers for each other and in the best case achieve a capability which is significantly greater than the sum of the parts. This is exemplified in our combat brigade model; however, our highly capable combat brigades have neglected integration of GBAD as an organic capability.
This leaves a staggering vulnerability for which the common answer is something along the lines of “Div/US will deal with that”. This is a perfectly acceptable answer in a scenario where only one brigade faces a problem at a time; however, given the numerical superiority of any credible regional threats, we can be assured to be outnumbered and that ‘acceptable scenario’ becomes at best, unlikely. This is true even for the battlefield of yesteryear where our primary concern from above was a highly valued attack helicopter.
To understand Army’s responsibility to fight the complete land battle, it must be accepted that the land domain is in fact three dimensional; however, our land force is designed to fight across the battle field as if it is a chess board. It has a distinctly two dimensional construct. There is a risk of conflating the third dimension of the land domain with the air domain. We have done, and continue to accept this conflation at our peril. The enemy of the 21st century would be foolish not to attack this seam in our Defence architecture.
Nexus of the Emerging Threat and Australia’s Vulnerability
In the battlefield of 2021, the emerging threat hovers over our otherwise exemplary force, waiting to the fill the niche and take advantage of the opportunity we readily present to them. Our situation perfectly fits those described above, that the drone capability will readily take advantage of. We have a highly capable, two dimensional land force, with procurement plans to enhance that capability with self propelled artillery and IFVs, amongst others. These new procurements will be the match or master of any adversary in the two dimensions in which they excel. However, in the third dimension, when looked at from above, what difference is there between a BTR-80 and a Lynx? Between a 2S23 and K-9 Thunder? Nothing worth talking about when looking at the drone pilot’s kill board.
It might be suggested that our planned GBAD procurement is more than a match for this kind of drone threat, and in terms of capability, they certainly would be. Except that the drones leverage the fact pointed out by the famous Frenchman, 'quantity has a quality all its own'. How many AMRAM missiles will Australia field? Azerbaijan, a nation of about half Australia’s population, fielded a force of around 100 TB2s. It’s reasonable to assume our capacity to engage could be quickly exceeded, leaving our adversaries to enjoy an uncontested battle space.
But the niche they could fill goes deeper still. On a GBAD targeter's matrix of high pay off target lists, attack guidance matrices and target selection standards, where will the slow, low flying drone, which costs about the same as a single AMRAM missile, and only carrying a few small munitions sit? Probably below the fixed wing, fast air threatening the battle space; probably below the fixed wing surveillance or EW assets in the adversary ORBAT; and probably below the armoured attack helicopters, buzzing around without concern of anything smaller than a .50 cal round. In short, they probably won’t be engaged by our planned GBAD capability of the next decades in any case.
So what is the way forward? It is not easy to discern a comprehensive answer at this stage. The manoeuvrist desire is to find an elegant answer that can undermine the capability before it even knows it’s in a fight. The sophisticated answer is no doubt coming, and with time and investment will appear in our future ORBATs. It will probably include a sensor array that identifies the threat and slews the associated delivery system and either engages automatically or alerts a watchkeeper to decide. I don’t propose such an answer; however, I propose an answer for the combat brigade, which is a fighting answer, for today.
The drones’ niche hinges on the fact that our GBAD is sophisticated, expensive and few. It hinges on the fact that by only being 'effective enough' the drone can be cheap and numerous. But it has vulnerabilities of its own. It is slow, it is low flying, it is burdened to its limit with sensors and munitions and thus carries no countermeasures. In short: it is weak. There is just no one around who can pick a fight with it.
I propose that a workable answer to this emerging threat is an uninventive analogy of our current anti-armour philosophy. That is to say every vehicle (or as many as is practical) has a cheap, easy to use, shoulder launched anti-air weapon stowed somewhere. This comes across as decidedly inelegant, but it is importantly uninventive. It is important because it is a timeless truth of warfare that you must be able to strike your foe.
We have long known that in the two dimensional battle, every soldier must carry a rifle, not just the infantry soldier. Why is this? The reasons are numerous but a critical one is that every one of us is in the fight; the battle space is bristling with threats for the adversary, there is nowhere they can go without being threatened with destruction. The fact that most of the people carrying the rifle aren’t nearly as skilled as the infantry is no deterrence to us arming them all. Why should the same be different in this third dimension, when the threat is presenting itself in a numerous, but weak position?