Note from The Cove Team: This article is part two of a two-part series about what Australia can learn from the capabilities of the Houthi. Click to read part one. This second part of the series explores how the ADF could incorporate these lessons to enhance its own capabilities.
Relevance to the ADF and potential for OWA UAV within SOCOMD
The Force Structure Plan has articulated intent to acquire long range strike capabilities for the air, land and maritime components of the ADF, but not for the Special Operations component. One Way Attack (OWA) Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) present an opportunity to develop a sovereign unconventional long range strike capability, one that could be introduced into service well before other expensive and complex traditional systems.
Australia has a long history of Special Operations; however, this has been predominately based on ‘infantry like’ units. Special Operations have different definitions around the world; however, terms such as ‘unconventional’, ‘asymmetric’ and ‘disproportionate’ are often used to describe their effects. The experience of the Houthi shows that OWA UAVs can be described in similar terms. While Australian Special Operations have not traditionally had an organic long range strike capability, there is utility for both the Special Reconnaissance (SR) and Strategic Strike (SS) tasks that Special Operations Command (SOCOMD) are charged with.
In the event of an outbreak of high intensity conflict, SOCOMD will not be able to rely on the priority of fires it often enjoyed in Afghanistan or Iraq. Employing specialist Joint Terminal Attack Controllers (JTACs), SOCOMD has the capability to support terminal guidance of traditional long strike capabilities; however, an organic offensive support capability through OWA UAVs would provide the joint force a unique capability – the ability to support operational manoeuvre and strategic strikes. This is not to say we must train SAS or Commando operators to employ these systems – SOCOMD could look to employ Artillery members to integrate within these units and support the launching of these systems.
Some considerations for developing an OWA UAV capability in SOCOMD include:
- SR. OWA UAVs force an adversary to activate their air defence, or face being struck. This would provide an opportunity to collect intelligence on these assets to support more traditional strikes. Alternatively, if adversary fixed wing aircraft are utilised to intercept OWA UAVs, these assets are also unmasked. Another consideration is the employment of OWA UAVs could provide a low-cost distraction that would allow a force element to successfully insert undetected into an area of operations.
- SS. OWA UAVs provide a low-cost alternative to finite high cost missiles. The ability to launch from austere, unexpected locations and attack from multiple headings will limit the adversary’s chance to retaliate. The agility of the OWA UAV has the potential to force adversaries to disperse their air defence systems. By integrating with the joint force, there would be opportunities to synchronise strikes and increase the effectiveness of both unconventional and conventional long range strike. In the Indo Pacific, the option to launch from maritime platforms would be crucial.
- Historical precedent. A key capability of Special Operations is to operate behind enemy lines and strike at unexpected times and locations. Much like Doolittle’s Raiders of World War 2, a SO OWA UAV capability would allow long range strike to be launched from an unexpected location and attack targets considered immune from strike. In a conflict this could include airfields, fixed headquarters, Petrol/Oil/Lubricant storage, and naval maintenance facilities – all with a much lower risk to personnel and platforms.
- Supply Chain. As shown by the Houthi continuing to manufacture and improve these systems despite Saudi Lead Coalition (SLC) air strikes, the ability to locally produce is a significant advantage. If Australian Defence Industry can develop methods that utilise technology such as 3D printers, components of these systems could be manufactured in forward locations, cutting time to resupply.
- Adversary Cost. Even in the case that potential adversaries are able to develop effective counter-measures for low cost OWA UAVs, there is likely to be a disproportionate cost in the development of these capabilities. As long as the OWA UAV design is cheaper than the counter-measure, there will be an ability to strike at more targets than this counter-measure can defend.
If this concept of developing an OWA UAV capability for the ADF is supported, the challenge goes to Australia’s Defence Industry to produce its own variant. Considering the Houthi have been able to develop multiple OWA UAV variants, despite consistent pressure from the SLC, the Australian Defence Industry has inherent capacity to produce a sovereign OWA UAV that meets the requirement of low cost and long range.
The development, acquisition and introduction into service of an OWA UAV capability for the ADF would not be without its challenges or hurdles. Some of the potential concerns are addressed below.
- Payload. The explosive payload of these systems could be considered insignificant; however, the true value of these systems is the asymmetric effect. Even a small explosive charge can cause a large amount of damage or be enough of a threat to force the deployment of air defence systems. Whether the effect caused is direct or in-direct, the small explosive charge is not a constraint if the correct target is identified.
- Possibility of false lessons. There is a possibility that Saudi Air Defence has been poorly operated and maintained, thus Houthi success is not truly representative of the OWA UAV capability. It is doubtful that the Saudi’s would admit these shortfalls publicly; however, it would be expected that an attack as successful as the ARMACO attack would result in improved readiness if this was the case. Given that OWA UAVs continue to regularly penetrate Saudi Air Defence, it can be assumed that success is linked to the unique capability of the OWA UAV rather than Saudi shortfalls.
- Counter-measures. GPS Jammers are potentially a simple counter-measures to OWA UAVs; however, this would require the deployment of an expensive, finite asset and risk revealing its location on the battlefield. If the ADF developed its own OWA UAV capability, as long as low cost is maintained, there are options to harden GPS guidance to prevent such interference. While other UAVs are vulnerable to disruption to the link between operator and the UAV, the fact that the OWA UAVs are employed as cruise missiles with internal guidance means this is not an option.
- Other UAVs. There is potential that the ADF’s acquisition of more advanced UAVs such as the MQ-9 and MQ-4 will make the OWA UAV redundant; however, these systems have not fared well over many battlefields where air defence is present. Additionally, as discussed above, there is a risk that the link between operator and the UAV could be disrupted. In Syria, Libya and Yemen many of these systems or similar have been shot down, with the loss of a high value and finite asset. While these systems are excellent when air superiority is achieved, this is not certain in a high intensity conflict.
- Ethics. The ethics of OWA UAV and ability of systems to avoid collateral damage demands consideration. Given the method of employment of these systems, there is little difference to cruise missiles. Like all weapons, the targeting methodology needs to be applicable to the system being employed. For OWA UAVs, targets where there is low collateral damage are the most suitable. Alternatively, where there are collateral damage concerns, the OWA UAVs could simply be employed without their explosive payload to cause a distraction and enable more precise munitions to penetrate air defences. Other safety measures to ensure the OWA UAV does not ‘arm’ prior to reaching its target could easily be incorporated into an Australian version.
OWA UAVs offer an unconventional, low cost, long range strike system that can provide direct and in-direct effects. Due to its simplicity, there is potential to rapidly develop a sovereign industry and hence ensure supply chains. While Special Operations may not be traditionally associated with having an organic long range strike capability, OWA UAVs offer an opportunity to develop a unique capability to support the joint force or to provide niche strategic effects. Effectively procuring an OWA UAV will give the ADF a low-cost cruise missile capability that potential adversaries will be forced to develop a counter-measure for, likely at higher cost than OWA UAVs themselves. It could be even argued that this article may cause potential adversaries to consider this threat and take on a cost if they choose to develop counter-measures, thus providing the first indirect effect of an Australian OWA UAV capability.