Last week two French soldiers were wounded and two Kurdish fighters were killed in Iraq by a weaponised Commercial off the Shelf (COTS) drone. This has sent shock waves across Western defence forces, with many looking for an innovative means with which to provide a solution to the emerging threat of weaponised drones.
A number of articles and solutions have recently been published on this issue but perhaps it is worth stepping back and taking a better look at the problem as a whole. There is no doubt drones pose a serious threat to Western militaries. For over a decade Western forces have focused on counter-insurgency, fighting against forces that couldn’t come close to their technological advantage. In this environment other nations and the private sector has started to catch up in regards to the development and use of drones.
Currently there are two main threats to Western forces from drones. The first threat is insurgent forces using COTS drones for surveillance and attack. The second, often forgotten threat is the use of drones by near-peer militaries such as Russian drones in the Ukraine. With the current fight against ISIS in Mosul the focus is heavily on the insurgent COTS threat.
So what do we do? The obvious answer should be to develop a counter drone system that will prevent the enemy using COTS drones to target our personnel on operations. Unfortunately it’s not going to be that simple. While there is undoubtedly a technical solution that will mitigate some on the threat, what is really needed is an adjustment to the way we fight. When we look for a technical solution we are hoping that we will not have to go through the long process of changing other behaviours. To place it in an historical context, it is like the emergence of the machine gun. Armies could not just look for a counter machine gun system and hope that their training, practices and tactics could remain unchanged. The entire way armies fought had to change and while the COTS drone is not as disruptive a force as the emergence of the machine gun, it too will change how we fight. But how do we change the way we fight? This is not a problem that can simply be “arm-chaired”, we cannot put a collection of clever people in a room and have them come up with the solution. We need to get out into the field. We need to start providing our OPFOR on exercises with COTS drones to use for surveillance. I for one would be very interested to see how a young platoon commander responds to having their platoon buzzed by an OPFOR drone. Out of these lessons we can start changing how we fight. We may have to improve how we camouflage vehicles and positions (a skill that has become less important in recent years). We may find that platoons have to patrol differently or that our own drones become more important in regards to controlling the airspace. Do we need to protect FOBs from drones or is it more important to protect patrols? The key thing is the only way we can learn these lessons is through trial and error. We need brave leadership willing to risk failure on exercise to ensure victory on operations.
The near-peer threat offers a whole host of challenges. Russia is currently using 16 different types of drones of varying sizes in the Ukraine conflict. Russia has been using the Ukraine as a laboratory of sorts in which to experiment with new ways of using drones. One of the most concerning tactics is the use of drones working in pairs, cheap drones fly low in order to attract enemy ground fire, this information is then passed on to another drone flying at a higher altitude which then feeds the information back to artillery assets. Ukrainian forces are very aware that the appearance of drones will often precede massive artillery strikes. Last year such a strike destroyed two armoured Ukrainian Battalions in less than three minutes. This is something that the West needs to pay attention to. We need to ensure that we do not solely focus on the issue of COTS drones being used by insurgents, but rather also look at what role drones will play in conventional conflicts against a near-peer aggressor.
Instead of looking at drones as something new we need to see them for what they are, surveillance systems. They are in essence no different to forward observers or helicopters; they have simply removed the user to a ‘safe’ distance. We need to focus on defeating the ‘system’ behind the drones rather than becoming too focused on the drones themselves. Even in regards to the use of drones as offensive weapons, they are essentially ‘smart’ RPGs. If we can attack the systems behind them then they will revert back to being ‘dumb’ weapons and the threat they pose is reduced.
I do not have the answer to the emerging drone threat but I think there is a road map to mitigating the problem. We need to start integrating COTS drones into our exercises, commanders need to become used to their troops being harassed by drones and from this counter-tactics will be developed. There is no doubt science and technology will find someway to reduce the threat of drones but invariably the enemy will find a way to adapt. Putting all of our faith in a technological solution is a strategically precarious option and will result in unneeded casualties on our part. We need to step up and show our willingness to engage in innovation and experimentation in the tactics space, not just in technological areas. This is how we use innovation to stay ahead of the enemy and ensure we are not left behind by this new technology.
About the author
Tim Jones is the New Zealand Army’s Innovation, Business Improvement and Efficiency Manager. DEF Australia is pleased to announce that Tim and the New Zealand Army’s Innovation Challenge Winners of 2015 and 2016 (Mitchell Lennane and Campbell Smith) will be attending the DEF[X] in December. We can’t wait to hear Tim, Mitchell and Campbell’s thoughts as we share ideas on military innovation.
 The Guardian, Isis booby-trapped drone kills troops in Iraq officials say. World: 12 Oct 2016.
 Nextgov, Army racing to catch up with Russia on Battle Drone. Defense: 29 Sep 2016.
 BBC, Are Russia’s military advances a problem for NATO?. World: 11 Aug 2016.
 Breaking Defense, Russian Drone Threat: Army seeks Ukraine lessons. Land: 14 Oct 2015.