Modern warfare and tactics are regularly evolving, and asymmetric warfare is becoming a core discipline. Though this evolution raises the question of whether we are keeping up.
Using affordable drones on the battlefield enables effective payload delivery (either via the drone’s own arsenal or by calling a precision strike), and combat vehicles are clearly high-value targets on the battlefield.
The Australian government is in the process of renewing its land Order of Battle (ORBAT), with many large programs completed, underway, or about to move into delivery. Think the top-end of town: LAND 8116 (Self-Propelled Howitzers), LAND 400-2 (Combat Reconnaissance Vehicles), LAND 400-3 (Infantry Fighting Vehicles) and of course the mighty Abrams tank. All of these serve important roles in the battlefield.
However, much like many systems hardened against conventional attacks, they have glaring weak spots against small drones. The threat can’t be underestimated.
In the Hollywood universe, a machine gunner on top of a tank will take out a drone with a snappy three-round burst; back in the real-world, a manually aimed section attack will expend thousands of rounds and is still likely to fail to take down a small, highly manoeuvrable drone further than a few hundred metres away – all the while tunnel-visioning on the drone as they percussively announce their presence to everyone in the vicinity. A burst of well-aimed 30mm proximity rounds could be an effective, albeit expensive answer, but it assumes that the crew detect the drone before it is above their firing arcs.
In reality, large tanks are often unaware they’ve been geo-located, and are hit without warning. In the recent Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict, Azerbaijani forces relied heavily on the extensive use of Turkish-supplied drones, which are credited for taking out extensive amounts of Armenian combat vehicles.
Against a near-peer, the first they will know is that they have an intimate appointment with enemy Close Air Support. Against an asymmetric threat, it’s more likely a swarm of DJI Phantoms each armed with a medium-sized shaped charge or similar munition. Commercial drones have many options for attack, but they typically want to get above firing arcs and so come in high. As in very high. While DJI software limits the very affordable “Phantom 4” to 500 metres, it is easily cracked and it has a service ceiling of 6,000 metres (just under 20,000 feet). The physics of this scenario is “concerning" to people who are potentially on the receiving end.
Counter-drone systems are beginning to appear more frequently in the battlefield for their ability to ‘listen out’ around the clock, and identify expected and unpredicted threats before they’ve reached close proximity. These systems – compact and sparing precious vehicle real estate – are built with detection sensors that sweep the airspace around a vehicle looking for drones, and then use either jamming defeat (especially overhead), or when needed, cue a kinetic kill to take out the drone while they are still within firing arcs.
US combat vehicles routinely carry counter-drone equipment, however uptake down under is further behind.
The capabilities already exist, and are available right here in Australia.
However, these locally designed and manufactured technologies are typically exported to our allies in the UK and the US allies from multiple Australian companies as they remain beyond budget and scope for Australian vehicles.
This flies in the face of the Australian federal government’s ambition to foster and capitalise from sovereign skills, goods and services through the Australian Industry Capability (AIC) program. Under the AIC, Australian Defence seeks to maximise Australian content and foster the local defence industry, through its procurement policy.
The Australian defence industry has multiple solutions that are collectively sent around the world at a time when focus must increase on solving complex problems through innovation at home. Local companies are pouring investment into systems that can be tailored to fit a plethora of vehicles and scenarios as space, weight, power and cooling all remain at a premium – and they have the capability to do it quickly, cost-effectively and responsively – but that eagerness must be reciprocated by government.
Oleg Vornik is CEO of Australian listed company DroneShield, which specialises in RF sensing, AI and machine learning, sensor fusion, electronic warfare, rapid prototyping and MIL-SPEC manufacturing