Tactical and Technical

Concept of Employment for the WASP SUAS in Mortar Platoons

By Andrew Dunn-Lobban September 23, 2020


On 02 Sep 2020, 7 RAR Mortar Platoon, as part of their Basic Mortar Course, conducted a call for fire utilising the WASP Small Unmanned Aerial System (SUAS). This test was the culmination of work over 2020 for 7 RAR and proved the potential for SUAS to transform how mortar platoons operate.

This paper outlines the WASP SUAS, how 7 RAR Mortar Platoon has employed the platform and how other units can utilise the system for offensive support. The paper will then describe a concept of employment that sees the WASP operated from the mortar line to provide an intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) capability. Ultimately, this will significantly enhance the employment of offensive support within an infantry battlegroup.

The WASP

The WASP is a lightweight, all-environment sensor designed to be hand-launched and recovered from unprepared ground. The WASP is rugged and its easily replaceable components make it durable enough to survive in the field. The SUAS communicates with Ground Control Stations (GCS) via Digital Data Link (DDL). The GCS is lightweight and quick to deploy, but not especially sturdy.

Current employment sees the GCS placed at a static location with a deployment time of approximately 5 minutes, including pre-flight checks. The GCS can be mounted to vehicles and the WASP employed from a moving platform; however, the static configuration better supports pre-flight procedures, launch and recovery.

The SUAS can auto-pilot on waypoints set by a mission operator (MO) and transmit live video and high-resolution images to Remote Video Terminals (RVT) over an omni-directional distance of 5km and a single-directional distance of around 12km. Flight time is, in general, 50 minutes but this can be lessened by altitude, wind, temperature and mission profile.

The WASP does not have a laser designator and relies upon the calibration of its angle of sight and the accuracy of Digital Terrain Elevation Data (DTED) to mensurate the target grid and altitude. It therefore uses its position and altitude, together with the angle of its camera, to estimate a grid. With an accurate DTED, the WASP can provide a 10 figure grid with a doctrinal variation of 20m. The lack of a laser designator also lowers the chance of detection of the WASP; however, the WASP cannot measure objects not accounted for in the DTED, such as vegetation or buildings. This shortfall needs to be considered when employing the WASP.

Live Fire Test and Range Design

On 02 July and 02 Sep 2020, 7 RAR Mortar Platoon employed the WASP during its live fire ranges. This was in accordance with current range doctrine which allows the employment of UAS within a live fire trace with CO approval. The range design is based on guidance from the Mortar Cell at SOArty and is depicted below:

 

 

On 02 July 2020 and the 02 Sep 2020 7 RAR Mortar Platoon utilised this range design to enable a WASP to engage a designated target. These live fires confirmed the accuracy of the WASP with target rounds from a fire for effect being achieved from the initial engagement. A more detailed summary of these tests, along with video, can be found on the Mortar Cell ADELE site or by contacting the author.

Results, Observations and Range Design

The testing by 7 RAR Mortar Platoon confirms the relative accuracy and potential of the SUAS to provide target mensuration for mortar engagement. The accuracy of a target grid provided by UAS is categorised by their Target Location Error (TLE). A Category One TLE (0–6m) is preferred for target engagement, especially for precision-guided munitions. The data from our live fires indicates that the WASP has the accuracy of Category Three (16–30m). This is commensurate with the WASP manual, which estimates 20m variation of a given grid. Given the inherent inaccuracy of mortars, the WASP is highly suitable to conduct target engagement.

This range design is appropriate and enables the safe conduct of indirect fire ranges. The SUAS is close to the target and there can be some trepidation regarding how close the fall of shot appears. However, given the WASP does not have a laser designator and so relies on the accuracy of the DTED to mensurate the target, any further distance than 250-300m will degrade the accuracy of grids provided by the UAS. A correctly calculated orbit point, placed perpendicular and downwind, ensures that the SUAS is safe during the target engagement.

Adjustment

The WASP can also enable the adjustment of fire. Because it is difficult to gauge direction, adjustment can instead be conducted utilising the Range and Bearing software tool available in the GCS. Given the accuracy of the WASP, a one round fire for effect from either the section or platoon should first engage the target and then the beaten zone adjusted accordingly. A technical summary of how to conduct adjustment with the WASP can be found on the Mortar Cell ADELE site or by contacting the author.

Concept of Employment

Given the potential of the WASP SUAS to enhance the capabilities of the battlegroup, it is critical that the right tactics are adopted to ensure its effective use. While it is a potent ISR tool, its ability to provide target acquisition and adjustment also makes it highly desirable for direct support to manoeuvre. 

In an ideal environment, the WASP would be allocated to each rifle and support company platoon or company in order to provide its capabilities across a battlegroup. Currently; however, the WASP is a limited asset. To mitigate this, there should be a clear prioritisation and delineation of how the battlegroup allocates and operates its WASPs. This paper envisages two primary and complementary employments of the WASP. RSS Platoon employing the WASP forward of the battlegroup to enhance their ISR collection. Concurrently, a WASP should be employed from the mortar line to directly support the manoeuvre of the battle group. After these primary employments, supplementary SUAS could then be allocated to each rifle company or support platoon to enhance their organic ISR.

Capability and Requirement Similarity

The WASP SUAS and mortars have similar requirements. Both require a static location, time to place into action and both have a planning range of approximately 5-6km. Of all the organisations within the battlegroup, the mortar platoon or mortar section is unique in that it is planned and employed around supporting the battlegroup’s main effort within a 5km range. The mortar platoon is thus uniquely positioned to best employ the WASP.

The observer is a poor candidate to operate the WASP. An observer is ideally employed from a concealed position or co-located with the manoeuvring organisation. The requirements of the WASP, with its GCS and setup, makes it difficult to be correctly employed by the observer. The WASP’s scarcity also makes it difficult to correctly allocate across the battlegroup to ensure the battlegroup’s main effort has WASP support. The mortar line is better suited to establish and operate the WASP and ensure that the WASP is best positioned. The observer could utilise information from the WASP relayed from the line to aid in their call for fire and battle damage assessment or instruct the line to conduct the procedure directly. The WASP could also provide battlefield commentary to observers to help them support commanders.

An additional benefit of employing the WASP within the mortar platoon is the platoon’s well established procedures for gaining Clear Air Ground. As the WASP will require battlespace de-confliction to operate, the platoon is well-drilled to quickly and accurately gain Clear Air Ground for its use through the Joint Fires and Effect Coordination Centre (JFECC). 

Mortar Line WASP within the Battlegroup

For mechanised combat teams, the requirement for a static location (the use of a vehicle mounted GCS may alleviate this) and deployment time of the WASP can detract from its use. Additionally, the requirement for commanders to reduce their manoeuvre elements to act as operators or security can also detract from their overall manoeuvre plan. As a result, the SUAS could be utilised to greater effect if operated by a separate organisation that could generate this capability for combat teams.

The employment of the WASP from the mortar line is conceptualised as distinct and complementary to RSS platoon’s employment of the SUAS. Employing the WASP from the mortar line ensures that a SUAS is positioned on the battlegroup’s main effort to provide ISTAR. This enables RSS platoon to utilise the WASP to execute the ISR plan of the battlegroup, but not be tethered to providing an element to directly supporting manoeuvre. This delineation retains the flexibility of RSS platoon and enhances the support which mortar platoons can provide.

Mortar platoons and sections are planned around supporting the battlegroup or the rifle companies in either General or Direct Support. It would be a small change for the battlegroup to plan and allocate the WASP in a similar manner. The WASP would be allocated based the currently planning cycle and assigned a support relationship in line with existing doctrine. The mortar platoon would then operate the SUAS to provide support to a manoeuvring organisation in accordance with the battlegroup’s plan.

Vignette of Employment

The employment of the WASP within a mortar line can be envisaged with the vignette below:
 

A mechanised infantry battlegroup is conducting an advance along a brigade allocated axis in order to open lines of communication for a brigade attack. As part of this advance, the Battlegroup places its RS Platoon forward in order to conduct route reconnaissance. Having already gained Clear Air for a pre-designated time, RS Platoon employs the WASP from a concealed hide onto a Named Area of Interest (NAI) located at a key river crossing point. The WASP detects the presence of at least a platoon of enemy with prepared positions and wheeled vehicles. RS platoon transmits the data and uses the WASP to provide grids back to Battlegroup Headquarters (BHQ). RS platoon then moves onto further tasks forward.

BHQ then conducts a planning cycle and orders Combat Team Alpha to clear the enemy position to enable the advance. As part of this planning cycle, BHQ allocates Mortar Platoon in direct support but also allocates the mortar platoon WASP in direct support to the Combat Team Alpha. The JFECC then moves the Mortar Line to provide fire support and SUAS support. The OC of Combat Team Alpha conducts their planning cycle. Based on their Mortar Fire Controller’s (MFC) advice regarding the lack of feasible points to observe the enemy directly, the OC decides to employ the WASP as an ISTAR asset to adjust fire support prior to the assault and provide battlefield commentary.

The JFECC de-conflicts both the fire support and SUAS with Brigade to enable the plan. 10 minutes prior to the Combat Team Alpha’s assault, the WASP team located at the mortar line, launches the WASP and loiters the SUAS near the enemy position. 3 minutes before the assault, the WASP team utilise their SUAS to adjust the belt of fire and ensure suppression. During the assault, the WASP provides cut off fires and battlefield commentary to both the MFC and the JFECC enabling situational awareness. Once the assault is complete, and concurrent to the Mortar Line relocating, the WASP returns to its operator and the Mortar Platoon prepares to step-up in accordance with the battlegroup scheme of manoeuvre.

Further Employment and Testing

In future, and based on further testing, an observer or MFC could employ a GCS to take control of the WASP once it is launched from the mortar line. They could then utilise the WASP to aid in their target engagement.

The downside of this concept is the requirement for the observer or MFC to carry, set up, and employ the GCS. Moreover, the scarcity of GCSs limits this option. An additional employment of the WASP could see the JFECC establish a relay GCS to enable battlegroup HQ to observe feeds. This would require a robust communications and signature management plan and would require testing and evaluation in a field environment.

A drawback of the employment of the SUAS from the mortar line is the increased electronic and visual signature generated by launching the WASP and operating the GCS. Experimentation and testing should also be conducted on ‘pistoling’ the SUAS to reduce the risk to the mortar line as a while. In the same way in which mortar platoons currently conduct a pistol mortar to adjust a target with one mortar separated from the line, it may be appropriate in high threat environments to adopt similar procedures to decrease the signature of the line when it operates a SUAS.

Operation and Resourcing

A WASP employed from the mortar line does not need to be operated by members of mortar platoon. What is critical; however, is that two correctly trained members are assigned to provide the capability and that their employment is included in the planning process. While at least one of these members should be an NCO, rank is not as important as their understanding of the equipment. What is crucial is that the WASP is not operated as an afterthought or supplementary capability. The live fire test has demonstrated that the WASP can significantly enhance the ISTAR of the battlegroup, but only if resourced appropriately and employed expertly. 

Conclusion

The presence and use of SUAS in the modern battlespace is not a new phenomenon. Our employment of the SUAS on a live fire range confirms that it can be employed safely, effectively and that it significantly enhances the speed and accuracy of target engagement. Therefore, what is needed now is to develop and refine the tactics surrounding the use of the WASP to ensure it is employed effectively. Mortar platoons are ideally placed to utilise the WASP to support the manoeuvre of combat teams and battlegroups.


Portrait

Biography

Andrew Dunn-Lobban

Lieutenant Dunn-Lobban is currently posted to 7 RAR as the Mortar Platoon Commander.  

 

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.



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