Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) (Drones) have been around for more than two decades. Initially, drone technology was limited to a few players and deployed by only a handful of countries. Drones were primarily used for ISTAR roles and were deployed in challenging topographies to reduce risk in a conflict. Since then, drones have advanced technologically and proliferated exponentially over the past decade. As technology has progressed, both reconnaissance and attack capabilities have matured to the point where it is now a ubiquitous component of armed conflicts across the globe. The near-exclusive availability and use of armed UAVs by a select few countries are no longer valid. Relaxations of export restrictions, the influx of new players, and the expansion of the commercial drone market have facilitated an extensive proliferation of the technology and capability beyond the hands of large or militarily advanced states. UAVs are increasingly being integrated with other arms and employed in conventional and unconventional battlefields by state actors, non-state insurgent groups, terrorist groups and criminal gangs, and individuals. Doctrine and tactics are constantly being adapted to integrate UAVs into all military operations. The Nagoma-Karabakh clashes in 2020 demonstrated its potential as a force multiplier in conventional engagements. The next major widespread drone usage was during the war in Ukraine, albeit with mixed results. A study of these two conflicts, spaced by a couple of years, will provide an insight into the strategic and tactical implications of these systems for future conflicts.
The war in 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region heralded the UAV as a game-changer weapon. Though the conflict was brief, drones were extensively deployed and proved pivotal, showcasing how unmanned systems can be integrated into more advanced combined arms operations. Although Armenia deployed some of their own indigenously produced drones, and the more sophisticated Russian-made Orlan-10 UAV, it was Azerbaijan who took control of the skies. In fact, Azerbaijan’s large and more advanced arsenal of armed drones has been cited as a cornerstone of its success in the conflict and has become a point of study among the defence community for how UAVs are changing the nature of modern state-vs-state conflicts.
The drones deployed by Azerbaijani provided significant advantages in ISR as well as long-range strike capabilities. They enabled Azerbaijani forces to find, fix, track, and kill targets with precise strikes far beyond the front lines. UAVs were operationally integrated with fires from manned aircraft and land-based artillery but also frequently used their own ordinance to destroy various high-value military assets. Open-source reporting suggests that drones contributed to destroying 120 Armenian tanks, 53 fighting vehicles, 142 towed artillery units, and numerous other targets including air defence systems. Their penetration of Nagorno-Karabakh’s deep rear also weakened Armenian supply lines and logistics, facilitating later Azerbaijani success in battle.
The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 was extensively used and established the versatility of UAV platforms, reiterating the lessons learnt from the previous deployment of these drones in Syria and Libya. The TB2 drone is a medium altitude long endurance UAV, capable of ISR and armed attack. It can fly for up to 27 hours and reach altitudes of 25,000 feet. It can be armed with four guided missiles to destroy targets such as tanks or combat vehicles at a maximum range of 14 km. It is also equipped with optic systems including a thermal imager, several daytime cameras and a laser range finder, or alternatively, radar with AFAR (Active Phased Antenna Array). The drone does not have any countermeasure system against cannon fire at short range or missile fire at long range. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the TB2 performed well providing identification and targeting data for destroying enemy defences. The high-definition cameras of the TB2s were used to produce many propaganda videos. Videos showcasing attacks on Armenian fighters and equipment were posted online and broadcast on digital billboards in Baku.
While there is no doubt that drones played a large role in this conflict, their operational capabilities need to be analysed in relation to the available air defence assets of the defender. In this conflict, Armenia did not have adequate or suitable air defence systems to counter them. The bulk of Armenia’s air defences consisted of obsolete Soviet-era systems, like the 2K11 Krug, 9K33 Osa, 2K12 Kub, and 9K35 Strela-10. TB2s flew too high for these systems to intercept even if they were able to detect these relatively small aircraft. Electronic warfare systems were not deployed to disrupt Azerbaijani drone operations. Air defence systems like Buk and Tor-M2KM had some limited success against the TB2. However, they were deployed late in the conflict and in limited numbers and were themselves vulnerable to attack. The S-300 are not designed to counter-UAV missions and were targeted early in the conflict by Azerbaijani loitering munitions. Unconfirmed reports estimate that Azerbaijani forces destroyed seven S-300 transporter erector launchers, two guidance stations, and one radar.
Two years later, the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia has again seen the significant deployment of drones by Ukraine. The initial successes of drone deployment by Ukraine could not be sustained and the effectiveness of the drones was blunted by the Russians, notwithstanding the flood of TB2 strike footage that has made its way onto social media. An analysis of this conflict will provide valuable insights to military leaders and planners on using drones and UAVs in future conflicts.
Ukraine has deployed a wide array of drones ranging from the TB2 to hobbyist drones and the results are mixed. In addition to the much-publicised TB2, a number of drones supplied as part of the massive international military assistance effort to Ukraine have been deployed, which include the U.S. Switchblade Tactical loitering munition. These easily portable unmanned devices can be launched from on the battlefield and be directed via tablet to dive-bomb into targets. The 300 series variant has a range of 10km and an endurance of 15 minutes, while the larger 600 series can fly for 40km and for more than 40 minutes. In addition, the US has also provided a number of Puma drones – a man-portable reconnaissance drone. Although it does not carry or act as a munition, the Puma can be equipped with a variety of imagery and sensory equipment for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes. There are also reports of the supply of Phoenix Ghost Drones, another loitering munition whose capabilities and exact specifications remain undisclosed. There is also a wide and robust usage of commercially available civilian drones by Ukraine. Sourced domestically and from abroad, these small, off-the-shelf UAVs have helped sustain an ISR matrix across the country. Some estimates place the arsenal of non-military drones near 6,000, dwarfing the fleet of advanced military drones employed by Ukraine’s armed forces. Moreover, these drones are being employed by a wider array of actors, encompassing both formal security forces, paramilitary groups, and non-combatants.
There is no definitive accounting of the number of kinetic drone strikes conducted by Ukrainian forces, but some publicly available data suggests their scale has been relatively limited compared to the scope of Russia’s invasion, their deployed forces, and the publicity those strikes have garnered. But the impact of UAVs and loitering munitions in Ukraine may not be fully reflected in the scale of kinetic operations, which fails to capture how UAV usage has enabled and enhanced Ukraine’s conventional military operations.
There is no doubt that Ukraine is transforming the nature of UAV integrated operations, using a network of unmanned systems, of both commercial and military origin, to augment and diffuse ISR down to the unit level, facilitating Ukrainian troop movements, kinetic strikes, and military planning. Though the volume of loitering munition and UAV strikes may be more limited, the value of those strikes is likely enhanced by the quality of UAV-enabled intelligence. Reports suggest that Ukraine has used UAVs to pinpoint enemy artillery batteries and armour formations. The well-publicized sinking of Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva has also been attributed to the use of TB2. Similarly, Ukraine has used unmanned systems to track and disrupt Russian supply lines, air defence systems, and ships. In this context, the role of civilian and commercially available drones is notable and is changing the nature of military operations in Ukraine alongside the integration of military drones. The wide availability of small recreational UAVs has created a more diffused, localized, and expansive web of ISR, albeit of a lower holistic and integrated quality than might be expected from a more centralized effort.
Russia initially struggled to mitigate the threat posed by Ukrainian drones, generating new efforts to reconsider the nature of air defence systems in an era of UAV proliferation. Upgradation of air defence systems was taken up to address these operational air defence gaps. One such system which was upgraded and deployed successfully is the Pantsir. The system is now capable to launch new surface-to-air missiles to destroy aerial targets at a range of up to 30 km. This version is also fitted with a new SOTS S-band search radar to increase the detection range from 36 km to over 40 km. The system can now track in excess of 40 incoming targets up from 8-10 and can now engage targets travelling at up to 1,200 meters per second up from 1,000 m/s. Search azimuth has also been increased from 80° to 90° owed to electronic beam steering.
According to reports, the Tor-M2 air defence missile system has also been quite effective in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR) and has been responsible for more than 100 UAVs, including the TB2 strike drones. The systems can detect the TB2 easily due to its large size, but the problem is to destroy them at a maximum distance before the TB2 launch a long-range missile. The integration of sensors and creation of a common air situation picture improves situational awareness and allows for transferring of target data to other air defence systems such as Buk-M2 (NATO code-named SA-17 Grizzly) and S-300 (NATO code-named SA-10 Grumble). This change in AD doctrine and capability build-up has resulted in the reduced deployment of the TB2 and using them where the air defence cover is limited. A TB2 costs the US $ 2 million apiece. This is also a reason for the rethink by the US to supply more advanced military drones, like U.S. Grey Eagles. Russian air defence doctrines and capabilities.
The two conflicts in this decade offer many lessons for military planners.
A convergence of commercial and military drones with the merging of military-designed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and unmanned aerial systems (UAS) with commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drone technology is reshaping battle space in the air.
These conflicts illustrate that while individual weapons systems can significantly change the nature of warfare, it is the fusion with other systems that will revolutionise the modern battlefield and make it more lethal. The combination of drones and artillery effectively targeted Armenia’s high-value military assets, most notably in attacks on T-72 tanks and S-300 air defences. Such strikes on air defence units constrained Armenia’s ability to counter Azerbaijanian UAVs, establishing their effectiveness.
In the future, the use of UAVs and missiles to suppress and destroy air defences through an integrated attack incorporating multiple threat capabilities will increase. Technology exists to conduct such complex well-coordinated and synchronized attacks.
The extensive range of UAV platforms in terms of size, velocity, range, altitude, flexibility, and capability make these platforms a very challenging task for Air Defence systems. In the future, drone swarms can be remotely operated, fly autonomously, or may accompany ground vehicles and aircraft. This new swarm technology will add an extremely dangerous capability and further compound the problem for AD systems.
The importance of full-spectrum air defence cannot be overemphasised. The non-availability of short-range air defence (SHORAD) provides gaps in air defence that adversaries can exploit. This was the case with Armenia throughout the entire war and more recently with Russia in the initial period of the conflict with Ukraine.
It is essential to reduce the electronic and thermal signature of forces on the ground. In an age of highly proliferated sensors and shooters, the electronic trails by ground forces are hard to conceal. There is a need to study and create new systems to camouflage and harden forces. Ground force tactics on dispersal and deception need to be reinforced. There is a clear requirement to limit electronic and thermal signatures for longer distances and times. The video and imagery available online suggest that forces do not have adequate resources or training in passive defence. Forces are constantly operating out in the open, static or moving slowly; poorly camouflaged; and clumped in tight, massed formations.
There is a need for developing comprehensive drone countermeasures which should include kinetic interceptors, electronic jammers, Laser systems and even counter-drone drones. These countermeasures should be integrated with the air defence network. While these technologies exist today, there are difficulties in developing them at an affordable rate to provide defence at multiple echelons, including the tactical level, particularly for mobile armour units.
Modern-day conflicts are constantly evolving as can be seen in the Nagoma-Karabakh clashes in 2020 and the ongoing in Ukraine continues to evolve. The success of deploying UAVs during the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict could not be completely replicated in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. While the battle for Kyiv saw the heavy and effective drone and loitering munition use, Moscow’s effort to expand its ability to defend the airspace around its forces has curtailed Kyiv’s air operations, including unmanned systems. Russia’s early vulnerability to armed UAS and loitering munitions was rapidly countered by a substantial improvement in air defence systems. These two conflicts offer many insights into the evolution of UAVs and their use in future warfare.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies
Title image courtesy: Middle East Post