Innovation and Adaptation
UAV at Platoon LevelBy Benjamin Grubb May 14, 2019
“Spy planes, drone aircraft, satellites with cameras that can see from a hundred feet. They see and they hear. Like ancient monks who recorded knowledge. These systems collect and process. All the secret knowledge of the world.” Don DeLillo, Libra 1988
The Black Hornet Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is a lightweight, durable reconnaissance tool distributed to infantry Reconnaissance, Surveillance and Sniper (RSS) platoons throughout the Army. The UAV weighs only 16g with a maximum radius of two kilometres, and contains a night and day sight, as well as thermal imaging and a GPS tracker for identification. Currently, the UAV is maintained by specialist recon teams and is rarely employed at rifle company level. This capability enables unit and sub-unit commanders (when allocated) to use organic Information Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) elements to identify enemy locations and execute plans within a shorter time frame and with greater intelligence. The purpose of this paper is to reinforce the premise that these systems should not only be held at unit level, but should also be distributed at minimum to the platoon level, affording platoon commanders the ability to work within their higher commander’s intent, use initiative, and shorten their decision-making loop based on intelligence gathered by their own organic ISR elements.
The Black Hornet UAV system was first developed in early 2007 and has been in service with the UK military since mid-2012. The system has seen operational service throughout the Middle East with multiple militaries, including US special forces, and has been a significant success with soldiers, especially when divested down to the section/ squad level. The UAV’s lightweight design means it can be easily transported by mounted or dismounted soldiers, and can be in the air conducting surveillance within minutes. Throughout its ongoing operational history with foreign militaries, the UAV has been instrumental in identifying enemy locations and has allowed infantry units to conduct close target reconnaissance on, and often inside of, compounds, villages and built up urban areas.
The Black Hornet has significantly decreased the potential for unknown threat engagements in these incredibly dangerous environments and has allowed areas to be visually cleared without exposing any friendly troops. This clearance can be achieved in the urban environment, the rural “bush” environment that the Australian Army often trains in, as well as desert and jungle environments. Importantly, the Black Hornet can facilitate the visual clearance of strong points, defiles and likely enemy locations, without exposing friendly troops or relying on unit, formation, joint or strategic ISR assets.
At all levels, intelligence on the enemy is essential for successful actions. ISR elements capable of providing information become some of the most sought-after assets for any combat commander. Typically, the burden on these assets is significant and under Army’s current system they are usually held at the unit level or above, to be distributed to subordinate commanders where the greatest need arises. If the asset is given, the commanding officer’s own ISR is accordingly reduced and its use denied to other subordinate commanders. The major flaw in this system is that often commanders must bid for the use of UAV prior to a mission. If denied, this may force changes to the plan.
Furthermore, apportioning reconnaissance elements will reduce the higher commander’s situational awareness of the battlespace. If tactical UAV systems such as the Black Hornet were pushed down to platoon level, the burden on existing unit ISR collectors would be significantly decreased. Subordinate commanders would have the ability to conduct UAV reconnaissance without having to request it, enabling higher commanders to maintain their own assets and utilise larger and more powerful UAV for their own tasks. This shift would enable ISR assets to focus on their specific levels (platoon, sub-unit or unit) without reducing their own capacity. The distribution of UAV at platoon level was trialled by B Company, the 6th Battalion Royal Australian Regiment (6 RAR) on Ex HAMEL 18 with significant success.
Throughout the exercise, the Black Hornet was utilised prevalently during defensive tasks including harbour recon drills and aerial clearance patrol tasks at platoon level, often during night hours using the thermal camera which allowed clear visualisation of body heat radiating from personal and the engine block from vehicles. The UAV allowed infantry platoons to clear 75-90% of the area (terrain dependant) up to a two kilometres radius of firm base locations before sending friendly troops on clearing patrols, listening posts or standing patrols around the immediate area. In the offensive, the Black Hornet was also used extensively during the advance where it was flown ahead of the forward element. This allowed Combat Teams (CT) to visually clear the area at distances up to two kilometres before advancing forward.
A good example was when 5 Platoon, 6 RAR was task-organised to a tank-heavy CT based on C Squadron 2nd/14th Light Horse Regiment. In one scenario, 5 Platoon halted on a feature complex just north of a major defile. The Call Sign decided to clear the defile and subsequent main supply route with their Black Hornet. During this clearance six enemy vehicles, four of which were dug in and camouflaged, as well as 2 dismounted enemy personnel were identified. The UAV enabled 5 Platoon to get a 10-figure grid reference on the enemy's location, allowing the CT commander to adjust SMART munitions to destroy the targets before they continued their advance unscathed. Without Black Hornet, 5 Platoon and their CT would have moved into an ambush likely sustaining significant casualties. This method of advancing, pausing and clearing with the Black Hornet essentially became a CT standard operating procedure due to the platform's effectiveness in: identifying and destroying enemy ambush positions; observing enemy ground troops using delay tactics; and establishing defensive positions without risk of direct fire contact. The platoon's ability to rapidly deploy and recover the system, as well as minimise information transfer ‘lag time’, resulted in reduced decision making cycles, greater tempo generation at the tactical level and superior results.
The Black Hornet UAV has seen wide use throughout the last decade by several major military powers, including employment on operations. The UAV is designed as a lightweight reconnaissance system to provide accurate intelligence to combat troops on patrol, providing ISR assets to the lowest levels, without placing an increased burden on higher commanders. Throughout Ex HAMEL 18 this system was utilised extensively allowing the battle group, right down to the platoon level, to clear areas from the sky without risking lives and materiel. 6 RAR’s use of Black Hornet as routinely and permanently allocated to the infantry platoon (instead of being exclusively retained within RSS Platoon) on HAMEL 18 validates Army’s intent to employ micro UAV at the lowest level in the future. The disproportionate effect that this low level employment had on the battlefield allowed commanders to exploit opportunities, generate tempo and gain or retain the initiative more efficiently for their higher commanders and in quicker time.