Drone Survivability

On 30 June, we posted a guest post from William (Chip) Sayers on Scoring the KF51 Panther and the Future of the MBT | Mystics & Statistics (dupuyinstitute.org). The article generated some discussion on the blog which he partially responded to, but he felt the need to assemble a proper response. This is included below:

KF51 Panther. Image Credit: Industry Handout.

——–William (Chip) Sayers———————-

After submitting my post last week, we had a little internal debate among ourselves concerning the viability of drones and their ability to displace the MBT as the apex predator of the battlespace. What follows is a rather lengthy expansion of my reply to my colleagues.

I have written quite a bit on other fora about our over estimation of what drones – particularly of the Medium Altitude/Long Endurance (MALE) and High-Altitude/Long-Endurance (HALE) varieties – are capable of doing in the battlespace. I believe them to be virtually unsurvivable in a modern air defense environment — though I may have to up their chances a bit, given that they Russians have not, so far, swept them from the skies of Ukraine.  

The Turkish TB-2 is almost an exact analog of our MQ-1 Predator, and our experience with that system has been very instructive.  Iranians and Saddam-era Iraqis have been able to shoot them down, despite their general incompetence. The target drones we use to train fighter pilots and air defense crews in live-fire weapons employment exercises are far more challenging targets. This is because the Predator and other similar drones have an exceedingly limited ability to see the world around them. The pilot flies using a fixed nose camera with what is commonly referred to as a “soda-straw” view forward. The enemy interceptor (be it a fighter or a SAM) has to literally fly directly in front of the drone for the pilot to see it. The weapon systems operator is a bit better off as his camera is mounted in a turret, but again, it has to be pointed to within a few degrees of the interceptor, and coordination between the two “aircrew” in such a scenario is problematic, at best. In practice, however, they rarely even perceive when they are under attack and can’t do anything about it if they do: large, light-structured, straight-wing drones are not designed for maneuverability and have very little chance of survival, once targeted. Watching drone footage of an armed fighter-interceptor flashing by, and then, after a few seconds, seeing the video feed turn to static gives one a supreme feeling of helplessness.

Worse, drone accident rates are high and often due to things a pilot could avoid, if he were on board. Flying from a remote ground station just does not give a pilot the feel and visual scan that he would otherwise have. In the 1990s, we lost the entire Predator fleet over former-Yugoslavia, mostly to icing that could easily have been avoided if the aircraft were manned. An onboard pilot might have picked up the subtle clues through his controls and might have seen the ice beginning to form. With such information, he might have been able to simply change his altitude and continue the mission, or abort and save a valuable platform. While drone accident rates have come down from the disastrous levels of the 1990s, they remain at least twice those of the worst of USAF fighters.

Taken together, these drones are less survivable in a combat situation and succumb to accidents at a high rate making them much less effective and much more expensive than people generally believe. 
 
On the other hand, the Switchblade and the HERO-120 are in a completely different category. They are both significantly smaller than a MALE (length 4.25 vs 21 feet, wingspan of ~4 vs 39 feet and a weight of 50 vs 1,500lbs) and they use electric motors, making them acoustically undetectable and difficult to find with IR sensors. Shooting down one of these things flying just above the treetops isn’t impossible – if you see it – but it will be significantly more difficult than shooting down a MALE flying fat, dumb and happy at 15,000 feet. 

Nevertheless, these small drones are not without their vulnerabilities. They are already threatened by Counter-Rocket and Mortar (C-RAM) systems, designed to shoot down individual indirect fire rounds fired at fixed targets. These systems already acquire and track small-signature targets, so kamikaze drones won’t present the challenge they do to more traditional air defense systems. The main drawback that will keep C-RAM systems in check is their expense and limited mobility. More menacing in the not-too-distant future will be ground-based Laser air defense weapons when they come into operational use. A larger aircraft can take a hit in the fuselage or wing, and as long as it doesn’t contain a vital system at that point, it may be able to shrug off the hit. Not so with mini-drones where their small size will work against them as a hit anywhere will not require much dwell time to do catastrophic damage. Virtually any part of the drone’s volume will contain vital systems. So, look for kamikaze drones as the first target of air defense Lasers when they finally come online.

Some have talked of an anti-drone role for systems such as the Switchblade 300. Presumably, this would involve acquiring the target drone, flying a collision course and detonating the warhead within lethal range of the enemy craft. This is no easy feat with no dedicated acquisition and tracking means and working in three dimensions. This might work better against a less maneuverable, large target like a HALE or MALE UAS, but altitude and airspeed limitations work against the mini-drones here. Generally speaking, the smaller the drone, the less power and thus speed and altitude capability are available.

The final threat to the kamikaze drone is the most readily available and, perhaps, the most effective: jamming. These drones use radio signals to communicate with their operators and have little capability to operate autonomously, other than to cruise to a designated waypoint. If the link between drone and operator is broken, the drone is effectively neutralized. It is possible to give these drones an autonomous target recognition capability, but this takes sensors, computing capacity and electrical power, all of which require space in an already packed airframe. It is also has somewhat less than ideal reliability and represents a tangible threat to friendly forces.

Historically, whenever electro-magnetic jamming has come into play, it has always become a game of measure vs. countermeasure. Once started, the cycle cannot be relied on to stabilize in favor of one side or the other for very long. The implication is that kamikaze drones will have their moments of relative effectiveness, but they are unlikely to be swept from the sky by any single solution and thus will be an endemic feature of the battlespace for the foreseeable future.

 

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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
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Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
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His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
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Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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2 Comments

  1. Very relevant to what you are saying, though not particularly detailed:

    Two Ukrainian Air Force pilots, who recently spoke with The War Zone and other media outlets, have dismissed the value of a proposed sale of U.S.-made General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed drones to their country. They also said much-lauded Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aircraft have become virtually useless in the face of more robust Russian air defenses and made clear that they are more interested in any plan that gets them closer to flying more modern Western fighter jets, like American-made F-16s. Their comments appear to point to a broader debate now ongoing between frontline pilots and senior leadership over priorities when it comes to bolstering Ukraine’s aerial combat capacity.

    https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/ukrainian-fighter-pilots-call-bullshit-on-need-for-mq-1c-gray-eagle-drones

    Or here:

    The risk of operating drones in Ukraine…has increased as the fight has moved east

    https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/06/21/ukraine-us-drones-pushback/

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