The integration of tactical level Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) contributes to achieving the Chief of Army’s (CA's) intent as outlined within Accelerated Warfare. These enhanced reconnaissance and surveillance systems are resident in Combat Brigade manoeuvre elements; however, their accessibility is varied and their employment concept at Combat Team (CT) level can be improved. The Australian Army must develop and improve tactical employment of UAS at the CT level to win the Accelerated Warfare land battle.
During the Joint Warfighter Series (JWS) incorporating the 1st Armoured Regiment Warfighter and subsequent Talisman Sabre (TS19) exercises in 2019, Bravo Company from the 5th Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (5 RAR) trialled the implementation of UAS at the platoon level. The provision of this platform significantly enhanced the capability of the CT, but also exposed it to the limitations and planning considerations necessary for its employment. This article will discuss the necessary planning considerations, risks, limitations and potential methods of employment for UAS at the CT level, in addition to outlining the requirement for a standardised construct and doctrine for the Royal Australian Regiments (RAR) implementation. Developing a standardised construct and doctrine for employment of UAS at the CT level will enhance tactical employment and interoperability of units across the Combat Brigades.
5 RAR Employment and JWS Usage
Bravo Company was force structured as a motorised CT to operate forward of the main body to clear terrain and gather information. This necessitated the requirement for an organic UAS capability. The UAS utilised was the PD–100 Personal Reconnaissance System (PRS), or more commonly known as the Black Hornet. This lightweight aerial reconnaissance unit provides manoeuvre elements an integral intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability. The Black Hornet was utilised by two of the three rifle platoons in the company as well as the Reconnaissance, Surveillance, and Sniper (RSS) patrol attached to the CT. The general specifications for the Black Hornet stipulate a total weight of approximately 1.3 kg: inclusive of both UAS assets, ancillaries, display unit and base station. This provides a planning range of 2 km with an operating time of three hours if both UAS are employed and recharged through the battery system. Whilst this is largely accurate there are certain limitations and opportunities regarding the Black Hornets employment which will be discussed further. During the conduct of JWS, Bravo Company primarily executed clearance operations for subsequent armoured manoeuvre, interdiction tasks to disrupt enemy armoured fighting vehicles (AFV) and assaults on enemy objectives to seize key terrain for the Battle Group (BG). To facilitate these tasks, UAS was primarily utilised to gain observation on vulnerable points along the route or subsequent areas to be cleared, as well as assessed enemy locations to coordinate offensive support onto identified AFVs. The latter was largely effective, particularly during the Warfighter exercise, due to the CT projecting the RSS patrol well forward of the main body and each platoon being attached with a Forward Observer (FO) to coordinate offensive support. Although the Black Hornet is the CT commander’s asset, the provision of these platforms to platoon commanders for employment at their discretion in support of the CT commander’s intent generates significant tempo and effects with minimal friction. Employment of Black Hornets at platoon level has been adopted across the RAR and must be maintained for operations in the contemporary operating environment.
Whilst the Black Hornet allows platoon commanders to enhance their execution of the CT commanders plan, the provision of a UAS platform at company headquarters (CHQ) would allow greater support to the BG commanders design for battle. In the current environment where force elements are operating in a motorised or mechanised construct the time available from information gathering to kinetic action is continuing to compress. This was particularly evident during TS19 when BG commanders required CTs to provide an ISR function due to a lack of available time for reconnaissance. The Wasp All Environment (AE) is an ideal platform for company commanders to utilise for CT manoeuvre and to support the BG commanders plan. The Wasp AE provides greater endurance than the Black Hornet, up to 50 minutes in ideal conditions, with an enhanced range of 2.5 – 5 kilometres depending on the antenna system utilised. Whilst Bravo Company did not have access to this during the JWS, 5 RAR has implemented this across each company in the unit as an organic asset with the Black Hornet being a platoon asset. The Multi Rotor UAS (MRUAS) has been implemented across the RAR also, with this asset being held by the S2 Cell within 5 RAR. Though this platform can provide potential benefits, it lacks the tactical application to a kinetic environment and is far too overt for utilisation in dismounted manoeuvre environments.
A motorised or mechanised CT will seldom have a dedicated RSS patrol attached throughout the mission due to being a BG asset, answering the higher commander’s priority information requirements (PIRs). An organic ISR asset in CHQ like the Wasp AE allows commanders to answer their own PIRs as opposed to leveraging off a BG asset that may not be able to support their task. This will inadvertently allow the BG commander to focus the Battalion's ISR assets on separate information requirements, enhancing the capability provided by the RSS platoon. If operating independently from the platoons, CHQ would be able to conduct reconnaissance of subsequent mounted movements or hide/harbour locations, gain confirmatory observation prior to stepping off from a form up point (FUP), provide a battlefield commentary effect and allow his/her FO team to coordinate fires onto an objective. Further, this additional asset held at company level can be utilised to support other attachments to the CT such as engineers, military police, DFSW and logistic support elements as required. The provision of these assets to platoon and company commanders has been largely adopted across the RAR and must become the norm moving forward to increase familiarity with the assets and refine their employment to achieve a combined arms effect. The high tempo motorised and mechanised environment requires nothing less.
Methods of Employment and Planning Considerations
The visual capability and ease of operability for both platforms provide a multitude of options for commanders and should be used in conjunction to layer effects and redundancy for ISR collection. Some potential methods of employment for the Black Hornet include, but are not limited to;
- route clearance and vulnerable point assessment,
- reconnaissance of assessed enemy locations,
- armoured vehicle detection,
- deception plan implementation,
- video and image collection for planning,
- confirmatory observation prior to an assault, and
- collection of grids to coordinate offensive support.
Each of these employment methods were utilised by Bravo Company during the JWS, which shaped the general usage of the asset as the exercise progressed. Whilst facing an AFV threat, particularly if operating in a motorised construct with limited anti-armour weapons, the Black Hornet facilitates the early detection of armour particularly at night due to its thermal capability and by day to a lesser extent. The Black Hornet's ability to capture 10-figure grids and imagery of an identified location allows offensive support to be coordinated accurately onto enemy AFVs with battle damage assessments following further observation. Whilst conducting route clearance operations UAS enables the observation of the route to identify any obstacles or vulnerable points for subsequent vehicle movement, whilst the infantry clears the ground either side of the route for enemy ambush or observation locations. This allowed for economy of effort in Bravo Company’s clearances during the JWS, as well as for risk to be accepted to increase tempo if required by having the Black Hornets visually clear the subsequent route prior to movement. At times, vegetation can hinder observation of dismounted personnel or areas; however, the Black Hornet was highly effective for the reconnaissance of urban areas. During the urban assault on the Warfighter exercise, UAS facilitated the identification of enemy forces locations, vehicles, approach routes, building entry points, minefields, and vulnerable points prior to moving to the FUP. This generated effective planning at the platoon and section level prior to H-Hour, providing commander’s real time observation of the objective for appreciation and the ability to inform subordinate commanders. These methods of employment are largely similar for the Wasp AE; however, the signature of the platform needs to be considered when conducting reconnaissance prior to kinetic action due to the risk of compromise. The Wasp AE can provide a potential screening effect to the flanks and can provide real time updates to the CT commander during the assault to inform subsequent decision making.
With units being either mounted or mechanised, the Black Hornet and Wasp AE provide significant opportunities for vehicle commanders, MOT/MECH SGTs as well as a manoeuvre commanders. The ability to utilise a UAS asset to scout subsequent movements for vulnerable points, suspected minefields or difficult terrain, facilitates proactive planning prior to friction occurring once the advance has commenced. If operating in isolation from the dismounts and UAS is not required by the manoeuvre commander, this asset can continue to be utilised by the vehicle commander for future marches, observation forward of the hide and to identify any armoured threats. The employment of UAS does not need to be interchangeable between mounted and dismounted elements and can generate significant tempo for mounted units.
When utilising the Black Hornet, platoon commanders need to appropriately assess its usage volume, method of employment and opportunities available based on the assets within their call sign. Although UAS should be organic at platoon level it remains the CT commander’s asset and needs to nest within their design for battle. Any anticipated UAS employment should be back briefed prior to execution with key risks highlighted to the CT commander for tolerating, treatment or termination. Due to the limited battery life of the Black Hornet (approximately 30 minutes from take-off), commanders must provide operators with definitive named areas of interest (NAIs), PIRs to search for and an understanding of the ground prior to launching. Without this information the operator will waste operating time as they gain an understanding of the terrain they are navigating and will not move immediately to the areas the commander has assessed as likely being of interest. Further, this also increases the risk of detection where counter–UAS measures may be employed or the friendly deception plan may be compromised due to the enemy being wary of the limited range the Black Hornet has from Point of Origin (POO). During the Warfighter exercise, Bravo Company’s platoons largely operated in isolation, conducting clearance and interdiction tasks with an FO attached to enable this. The opportunity presented itself to detach a small security party of two rifleman forward with the FO, commanded by a JNCO who was a qualified operator on the Black Hornet, to conduct observation points (OPs) on likely AFV locations and provide early warning. This was highly effective and allowed the platoon to destroy five AFVs through offensive support and anti-armour ambush positions. Utilising the Black Hornet as an enabler for CT disruption tasks, particularly against AFVs, needs to become a common operating method to limit the disparity in combat power between armoured, mounted and dismounted call signs.
Risks of Employment
Although both UAS platforms provide significant benefits to manoeuvre, the primary risk revolves around volume of use and counter–UAS tactics being employed by the enemy force in reaction. The volume of UAS observation implemented at the platoon and company level to answer information requirements or observe subsequent areas to clear needs to be managed with an ISR plan. If enemy elements observe significant UAS usage along an avenue of approach it can potentially inform the enemy commander of the likely size of the friendly unit moving along that corridor and what may be the main effort for the BG. This inadvertently removes the element of surprise and compromises the deception plan that may be trying to be generated by the BG commander. During the Warfighter exercise, Bravo Company’s clearance was twofold; to clear the route for subsequent armoured vehicles and to deceive the enemy as to the main effort of the BGs approach. Significant UAS usage along a movement corridor could potentially compromise the achievement of this effect and disrupt the higher elements design for battle. To mitigate this, the employment of UAS at the platoon and CT level requires the formulation of an ISR plan to manage the volume of use during the mission and to avoid compromising any deception plans. This does not imply that opportunities to target the enemy by utilising UAS should not be exploited; however, judgement should be used prior to requesting authority to launch through the Joint Fires and Effects Control Centre (JFECC), and risk can be accepted by the CT commander, if required.
With UAS now being employed with greater frequency in the battlespace, consideration of the enemy’s potential counter–UAS tactics is required. Despite the Black Hornet and Wasp AEs small design, it can be observed by ground units and over a period begin to inform the enemy of expected friendly force actions. Key actions being the clearance of a movement corridor, confirmation of enemy disposition prior to an assault and offensive support coordination. Despite the benefits provided by Bravo Company’s usage during the culminating assault on the UOTF in the Warfighter exercise, the enemy was able to track the flight path of the UAS back to its POO and direct OS on a likely FUP location. This required the combat team to withdraw to an emergency RV and then adopt a hasty FUP for the assault. Mitigating this by using an alternate flight path to and from the POO to conceal friendly force locations must be considered by the operator and commanders when employing UAS during this period of the mission. Further, enemy observation of a UAS asset over a position before an expected attack window can negate the element of surprise. Employing the Black Hornet at a more sub-optimal range which limits the clarity of images and ability to answer PIRs may be required if the risk of compromise is too great and the information is not vital to mission success.
Design limitations of the Black Hornet also need to be considered when seeking to gain ISR. Due to the lightweight design, any inclement weather or high altitudes will heavily limit the assets ability to fly onto target, if at all, and will drain the battery life faster with the potential for it to not make it back to the POO. In this event the Black Hornet provides a ten-figure grid to its location but risks compromise to dismounts if retrieving the UAS requires moving too close to an enemy position. Darkness is effective for thermal employment although consideration of the range being utilised is a factor, as most instances of the Black Hornet not returning due to battery loss occurred by night due to the ranges being sought. Charging the Black Hornet is through connecting the UAS to the internal charger which is a BA-5590/BB-2590 standard battery (more commonly AN/PRC-150 battery). This provides approximately two to three hours of operating time before needing to be charged in a vehicle for further operations. For extended operations, the carriage of additional batteries can enhance operating time; however, should platoons be operating away from the vehicles for extended durations, its usage may need to be managed more closely. The primary limitations for the Wasp AE centre on its increased signature, required time for setup and launch as well as the requirement to remain stagnant for optimal employment by the operator. This can be mitigated by considering the appropriate windows to utilise the asset and conducting a time appreciation and suitability assessment of which platform should answer the required PIRs. Whilst operating in a dismounted role, the Wasp AE is not required for carriage to achieve necessary ISR effects. Due to the volume of UAS assets within the CT, if dismounted the commander would be able to utilise the Black Hornets at platoon level for any information requirements. This was effective throughout Bravo Company’s employment during the JWS and an advised consideration for all commanders.
RAR Implementation and Doctrine Development
Although RAR units have adopted the implementation of the Black Hornet at platoon level, the employment of the Wasp AE differs slightly among Battalions. Noting that Commanding Officers can force construct at their discretion, Black Hornets and a Wasp AE organic to each platoon and company, respectively, must become the norm within the RAR. In an evolving high tempo battlefield where technology is having a greater and greater effect on how CTs and BGs move within the battlespace, anything less is detrimental to tempo generation. The increasing focus within Army and the ADF more broadly on developing joint manoeuvre and interoperability necessitates the need to develop a standardised framework as a platform for units to operate from when it comes to UAS employment. Task organising and then trying to determine a concept for employment that is contrary to what each unit employs is too reactive and takes time away from refining other areas of the mission that should draw the focus of planning.
Within the RAR, development of mechanised and motorised SOPs is being conducted by relevant units to create a standard template for units to operate from, if operating in conjunction with other motorised or mechanised elements. Now that each Battalion has these assets, the same approach needs to be applied to UAS. This process needs to be driven from the bottom up, not from the top down with the experiences and knowledge drawn from section, platoon and CT level shaping the development of UAS employment within Army. Just as the RAR is doing with mechanised and motorised operations; sharing information, refining the processes for each task, providing input to shape the final product, UAS is falling behind in this aspect. No specific unit needs to take the lead or be assigned as the 'trial unit' for this to occur, but establish a proposed concept and set of operating procedures that can be pushed higher to decision making authorities within FORCOMD. This has likely commenced in most, if not all units; however, creating a formalised process to provide input for the development of UAS employment on the modern battlespace is necessary. A potential course of action is for all units to assign their UAS Supervisor as the primary point of contact within the unit for liaison to external RARs. These individuals should then endeavour to create a link with the FORCOMD UAS Capability Manager (CM) to provide feedback and post activity points on UAS employment to develop the capability further. Creation of a live document accessible by relevant UAS Supervisors and the FORCOMD UAS CM would allow all personnel to remain informed of the changes and contribute to the agreed final product. Mass involvement from each RAR will provide a more refined product and allow best practice to be achieved.
The implementation of small UAS platforms like the Black Hornet and Wasp AE at platoon and company level, respectively, provide a significant capability for the conduct of manoeuvre operations and enhances the lethality of CTs, particularly against an armoured threat. Although there are limitations and risks associated with the platform’s employment, these can be easily mitigated with a thorough appreciation of the operating environment and planning cycle. The breadth of opportunities these UAS platforms provide enhance the offensive capability of CTs and generates greater force protection and tempo for manoeuvre elements whilst fighting the land battle. Refining its employment and creating a common set of standard operating procedures will facilitate the interoperability of units within each combat brigade and contribute to each commander’s ability to succeed in the land battle and achieve Accelerated Warfare.
This article was written in consultation with the Commanding Officer and Officer Commanding Support Company, 5 RAR as well as the FORCOMD SO2 UAS Capability Manager.