Military Must Prepare for Unmanned Aircraft Threat

By Lamport, Jeffrey; Scotto, Anthony | National Defense, August 2016 | Go to article overview

Military Must Prepare for Unmanned Aircraft Threat


Lamport, Jeffrey, Scotto, Anthony, National Defense


Low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles are equipped with cameras, laser designators, radio frequency collection devices or weapons. The size and composite materials used in UAV production make them difficult to defeat with traditional force protection measures and short-range air defense systems commonly employed by maneuver forces.

In Ukraine, both Ukrainians and Russian-backed separatists are operating UAVs in relatively large numbers. They are reportedly operating more than a dozen variants including fixed- and rotary-wing configurations, each functioning at different altitudes with various sensor packages.

For nearly three decades, U.S. and allied forces have had the luxury of conducting ground and air operations in a virtually uncontested airspace environment. Development and fielding of air-defense systems has declined and passive air defense skills have atrophied across the force. Leaders at all levels cannot be lulled into a false sense of security because of the small size of these UAVs. They are as effective, if not more effective, than traditional manned aircraft (or even stealth aircraft) in reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition precision attack and indirect fire support.

UAVs can create serious problems for maneuvering or static forces. Conventional air-defense systems often "filter" out tracks to avoid confusion with clutter, large birds and aerostats. Systems optimized for this threat often forfeit effectiveness against other target sets (manned aircraft, cruise missiles, rockets and mortars, and ballistic missiles).

A reduction of dedicated air-defense units to maneuver brigades creates potential gaps in air defense coverage. And soldiers are "numb" to UAVs. Recent combat experience in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates troops may be highly accustomed to friendly UAVs and, therefore, less likely to be concerned about them flying overhead and less inclined to actively search for UAVs operating in their battle space.

Many soldiers lack UAV recognition training. This issue is compounded by the ever-increasing proliferation of new UAV designs and off-the-shelf systems sold to multiple countries. U.S. Army and joint doctrine have not kept pace with the threat.

UAVs provide the enemy critical intelligence such as a unit's precise location, composition and activity. They may also provide laser designation for indirect fires or direct attacks using missiles; rockets; small "kamikaze" munitions; or chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Some payload configurations can contain radar and communications jamming or other cyber attack technology.

UAVs are the air threat of the next fight. Technology development and employment around the world demonstrates a relevant and viable air threat. …

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