Ex HAMEL 2018 saw the widespread use of Unmanned Aerial Surveillance (UAS) across the battlespace. The 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment (Queensland Mounted Infantry) (2/14 LHR (QMI)); 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment; 8th/9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment; and 20th Surveillance Target Acquisition were all Blue Force (BLUFOR) units operating nano-UAS and UAS within the battlefield. As the lead reconnaissance force for the Brigade, A Squadron 2/14 LHR (QMI) was tasked to identify enemy within the area of operations. Success in the reconnaissance battle, and the acquisition of information and intelligence, is a crucial aspect of warfare as it lifts the fog of war.
Cavalry are protected through the ability to remain undetected. This is traditionally achieved through out-thinking the enemy commander, using terrain to shield movement, and identifying gaps and surfaces through intelligence. With UAS dominating the air, it is extremely difficult to conduct reconnaissance whilst remaining undetected. As a Cavalry Troop Leader, I found it difficult to understand what tactical posture to take, and to know whether I had been detected.
There are numerous questions that go through your mind when you have identified an unknown UAS. There are also lessons to be learnt in the way we employ UAS, specifically, the de-confliction of airspace to release a UAS and its direct correlation to time. This paper will suggest two key lessons that can be learnt from HAMEL 18 and will focus on the release authority of UAS and the education surrounding this new capability.
As previously outlined, cavalry’s strength is the ability to remain undetected whilst reconnoitring the enemy. A reconnaissance battle is decisive; being in the right place at the right time is essential to being victorious. During the exercise, 2/14 LHR (QMI) employed the Wasp UAS within Surveillance troop (V16) to identify the enemy and, if the opportunity arose, call fires causing disproportionate destruction. Early within the exercise, the effectiveness of this was recognised, but the Squadron didn’t have authority to release the Wasp. During HAMEL 18, a request that originated in V16 had to be processed though the forward observer (FO), to the Battle Group Joint Fires and Effects Coordination Centre (JFECC) and then to the Brigade JFECC. This didn’t pose an issue for pre-planned missions. However, when required to adapt post-H, the authority to release the Wasp UAS took anywhere between 4 – 6 hours. This meant that the Sabre Troops requesting support would have to wait, losing tempo and the initiative. Ultimately, tactical UAS were unable to be employed despite operating below 700ft.
Time for combat units is limited. Commanders on the ground must be empowered to make decisions within their commander's intent. The current employment and release authority of the UAS is too imperfect and should be improved in order to allow tactical commanders in the field make decisions and execute tasks. For combat units to continue causing disproportionate effects on the enemy through the combined use of UAS, offensive support and direct fires, the authority to release tactical UAS must be at the Combat Team level.
Tactical UAS flooded the skies as each phase began. As a Cavalry Squadron providing reconnaissance to the Brigade, it became significantly difficult to differentiate between friendly and enemy UAS. There were several occasions during our night infiltration where tactical UAS were identified, however, we were unsure what sensors and imagery capabilities they had and if they could detect us. As a junior commander, identifying tactical UAS raises multiple questions and forces decisions to be made. Do you call H-hour and commence the raid, or have you been compromised? Is artillery about to fall onto your harbour/hide? Questions like these create doubt in a commander’s mind, causing indecision and defeat.
Education of UAS and their capability is lacking. There are two issues associated to this: for officers, how friendly and enemy UAS affect planning and execution of missions; for soldiers, what capabilities do these assets have and how can they be identified? Within Royal Australian Armoured Corps (RAAC), there is an emphasis on armoured fighting vehicle identification enabling us to recognise vehicles, avoid their strengths and capitalise on their weaknesses. This should be no different for UAS. HAMEL 18 has given us the opportunity to learn about the doubt a UAS can present to a commander. As a result, we can now focus on increasing the awareness and education about these capabilities.
An officer must be able to draw deductions when identifying any enemy capability. For example, if a single armoured vehicle is identified, it can be assessed that there is likely to be a second within weapon range providing support. UAS is no different; we must understand and analyse the distance a UAS has from its operator and the types of sensors and imagery it can provide. This will then reduce doubt, enable faster decision making and enable us to defeat or negate the threat.
HAMEL 18 saw the employment of UAS on a large scale in both BLUFOR and REDFOR. For us as a Cavalry Squadron, this created an uncertain environment during reconnaissance and from an employment point of view, lead to situations where our capability could not be used due to the extant release authority for the Wasp UAS. The employment of UAS continues to grow and HAMEL 18 has provided lessons Army needs to learn. Tactical UAS can enable a Cavalry Squadron to cause disproportionate effects on an enemy and the authority to release must be at the lowest level. Concurrently, we must continue to educate our soldiers and officers on how these capabilities can affect us.