‘The decisive weapon in war has always been known, if but in a crude and undeveloped form, in the last war.’ B.H. Liddell-Hart
Scenario 1: A light infantry platoon advances cautiously without tank support along a narrow rubble strewn street in a regional town, recently occupied by an extremist group. Then with no warning a swarm of flying attack drones appears 100 meters forward of the lead rifle section. Each semi-autonomous quad-copter carries a nanoexplosive device, which when detonated acts as an anti-personnel grenade. As two-dozen+ ‘flying nano-grenades’ hurtle towards the rifle platoon, a prescient Section Commander does not hesitate in ordering the rifle section to open fire. The drones are too close to call for indirect fire support, but accurate rifle and machine-gun fire destroys most of them. However, some drones penetrate the platoon’s defensive line and detonate deadly payloads amongst the soldiers. The soldiers are wearing advanced light-weight body armour, which provides some protection from the blasts, but many are wounded. Moreover, the swarm attack was only a diversion from the drone ambush (dronebush) massing down a side street on the platoon’s right flank. Fortunately, the quick-thinking Platoon Commander had anticipated their flanks were insecure and reorientated the platoon into all-round defensive posture. This time there were more flying attack bots, but even with mutually supporting machine-gun, 40mm grenade and rifle fire a few of the drones cause more casualties. The platoon survives the ‘dronebush’, but they exhaust half of their ammunition and have many injured soldiers to evacuate.
Scenario 2: After the lead section (as per Scenario 1) identified the initial kamikaze drone swarm vectoring towards them, the grenadiers fired 40mm ‘acid’ rounds with proximity airburst fuses into the cloud of bots. The quick-acting highly corrosive acid is optimised to melt drone components, so this volley of acid grenades quickly defeats the leading drones. Then as the remainder close to within 30 meters, soldiers equipped with rifles fire spigot anti-drone rounds, which deploy nets disabling several drones mid-flight. The few drones that approach to within 15 meters are engaged with gas-operated rapid-fire ‘glue-ball’ guns. These guns use paint-ball gun technology optimised to fire polymer balls filled with quick-setting sticky glue that blinds drone sensors and obstructs rotor systems, so they fall from the sky. Then as the ‘dronebush’ masses on the right flank it is severely depleted by accurate, withering fire from two Anti-Drone Gun Systems (Drone Phalanx Detachment) from the Battalion’s Anti-Drone Platoon. The all-electric Drone Phalanx consists of a millimetric radar targeting system and a 7.62mm mini-gun mounted on a tracked chassis, similar in mass to a quad-motorbike. Spigot drone nets and 40mm acid rounds further thin out the lethal swarm and several bots that breach the defensive perimeter are wrecked by a fusillade of glue balls. So in this alternative scenario, some soldiers are hit by stray glue balls in the counter-penetration fight, but none are wounded and the platoon retains its first-line small arms ammunition load. The platoon then continues the mission.
While the ambush scenarios are speculation, the reality is that drone swarm technology is being developed and counter-drone systems are considered essential to defeat them. So it may only be a matter of time before Australian soldiers are confronted with advanced drone attacks in future conflicts. As Liddell-Hart correctly points out, decisive weapons are seen in an undeveloped form in previous wars, then feature in the next war in a more advanced configuration. There are early indicators of this in the Middle-East, where ISIS modified commercially available fixed-wing drones to bomb targets. Therefore, it follows that more capable drones designed to conduct close combat swarm-bombing analogous to the ambush scenarios could eventuate. Moreover, innovative munitions and weapon systems tailored to defeat drone threats will continue to emerge.
The first ambush scenario highlights that massed small arms fire, infantry combat tactics and world-class leadership may not be enough to defeat a fast-moving drone swarm, whereas the second scenario illuminates how leveraging technology could be the unstated eleventh Principle of War. Counter-drone technologies can yield effective defence thus enabling the infantry platoon to survive the swarm. However, while new technology will be a vital part of the solution, counter-drone combat doctrine and tactics will also need to evolve for warfighters to practice and perfect.