Ankara, Turkey – With the arrival of Turkish attack drones as weapon platform, not anymore a soldier or a commander felt very safe operating from a traditional trench, bunker, ditch cum bund, weapon emplacement, tank, combat vehicle, an artillery gun position, air defense gun platform, radar, communication post, command and control dug out among others.
Turkish attack drone strikes witnessed on electronic media, targeting Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh soldiers and destroying tanks, artillery guns and air defense systems reinforced this strategic view. The gruesome visuals first showed soldiers below in trenches, then came blasts and smoke, then nothing left on the scene.
The tactical employment of armed drones provided a huge advantage to Azerbaijan, forcing Armenia to capitulate in the 44-day war and offered the clearest evidence yet, of how, battlefields are being transformed by unmanned attack drones rolling off assembly lines around the globe including in Greece and Turkey.
Turkish attack drones are seen as the emergence of low cost weapon system for tactical military operations, surgical operations, and counterterrorism. Affordable to poor countries capable of unleashing incalculable damage in physical, psychological, economical, prestige terms and creating panic in public and outcry against well established superior powerful states.
The damage, destruction and catastrophe unleashed on an adversary will depend upon clever, creative and imaginative ways that this unassuming weapon system is put to use. Is it David and Goliath redoux? To ignore this reality or being dismissive of attack drones by any nation would put them in the shoes of Goliath with pre determined outcome.
Having said that, let us see how tactical attack drones operate. The system has basically three components, firstly Flight Controller, secondly Ground Control Station (GCS) that can be a static structure on the ground or road mobile and Data Link, a wireless link for control and flow of information between tactical attack drone and GCS.
Range of operation varies from 150 to 400 kilometers. Operational ceiling is between 18000 to 30000 feet. Can carry one to four mix of munitions capable of destroying tanks, gun emplacements, troops in trenches / fortifications, radars, multi barrel rocket launchers, command control communication centers among others.
Take off, landing and weapon firing is autonomous and pilot controlled i.e. human on the loop or human out of the loop. It is controlled by radio waves in visual line of sight and by satellite based communication system beyond visual range, by a single pilot from a static or mobile GCS. Loitering attack drones are like seek and destroy or fire and forget type.
Endurance is 24 hours to 28 days. Transmits real time video imagery of the battlefield and targets to multiple users in networked mode on mobile handsets. Negligible radar signature and some with anti radiation shield virtually gives attack drones free play over the battle air space. It therefore offers huge tactical advantage to field commanders at various levels for selection, engagement and destruction of targets in detail, isolation of battle space and neutralization of follow on forces.
Since attack drones provide overwhelming battle winning edge to field forces, how come it was not used in battlefields earlier? Even though drones had been in existence for decades and had been used only for assassination / killing of terrorist leaders in isolation. Was its cost effectiveness derived from cost benefit analysis?
A big no, considering approximate cost of one Rafale fighter aircraft is $155 million (without including the cost of the trained pilot and ground staff and infrastructure to keep the fighter in the air) and one attack drone is $1.5 to 5 million i.e. 1/30th cost ratio, which can kill upto four tanks, each tank costing up to $4-5 Million. On top of it attack drone is reusable multiple times till it is put out of action.
The answer lies in the attack drone factories of Turkey and its use in warfare testing laboratories of Syria, Libya, Lebanon and Iran/Iraq Kurd borders. Soon thereafter graduating to real Azerbaijan-Armenia 44-day war resulting in capitulation of Armenia at the hands of attack drones (Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made Kamikaze drones) skillfully employed by Azerbaijan in disputed territories of Nagorno-Karabakh.
This provides the clearest evidence how battlefields are transformed by attack drones to battle winning zones. Now the cost benefit analysis is actually in favor of attack drones. Military leaders all over the globe have taken a serious note of cost effective tactical advantage of attack drones.
The vast and varied basket of relatively low-cost attack drones offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force. The outcome in Nagorno-Karabakh has unequivocally proved that how drones can dramatically change the equation on ground of a long-standing border dispute and leave the defender dazed and attacker with complete supremacy over disputed territory.
Of course it is not so simplistic, varied factors such as air defense, surface to air missile defenses among others come into play, these require a separate analysis. Of immediate vital concern is how much importance military leadership in Turkey is according to this emerged threat given that not only does Turkey have a sophisticated range of attack drones, it has also invested heavily in anti-drone technology.
Turkey is one of the biggest makers and exporters of UAVs. Its Bayraktar TB2 model reportedly has a payload of 150 kg and the ability to carry up to 4 laser guided smart munition. Its operational – maximum altitude is 18.000 feet – 27.000 feet and endurance is up to 27 hours.
Coming back to attack drones, assuming that Turkey has procured or produced in sufficient numbers based on national war and defense of Turkey strategy, their employment can be analyzed. In defensive mode, one of the ways of defeating attack drone is by killing by detection, identification and engagement through air defense, artillery resources or air space missile defense. Both these methods have proven to be ineffective against attack drones and have limited value against traditional air attacks as well, due to vital gaps and flawed control and reporting architecture.
Thereby it can be argued that when cost intensive air defense artillery system are pitted against cost effective attack drones, the latter comes out as unquestioned winner as demonstrated in Azerbaijan-Armenia 44-day war as a clear evidence. Buying billions of dollars of expensive air defense artillery equipment that is ineffective and can also be easily destroyed by a wave of enemy drones is not a brilliant military strategy or investment or fiscal prudence. So there is a need to seriously consider reorganizing / collapsing / amalgamating / merging / fusing air defense artillery by shedding all prejudices and accepting evolving technologies and emerging battlefield realities.
Another way of defeating / killing / hijacking / hacking attack drones which is totally dependent on electromagnetic (EM) waves for operation, is by electronic and cyber warfare. Attack drones transmit and receive EM waves for command and control and transmit live video data stream hence is totally vulnerable to interception, interruption, jamming, manipulation, misdirection, hacking, hijacking and ultimately killing/neutralizing or making it ineffective.
It is worthwhile to build up and invest to upgrade in this cost effective technologies, some already existing in Electronic Warfare (EW) Units of Signals Arm. Furthermore existing cyber warfare elements would also need to be fused into EW Units. Thus Reorganized EW (REW) Units would need to be grouped with Integrated Battle Groups (IBGs) to a fight coordinated battle.
Tank is not the best defense against tank and is rarely deployed to kill tanks for obvious reasons besides not being cost effective. Therefore cost effective attack drones are best suited to not only kill tanks but myriad of other targets like gun in emplacements, radars, missile launchers, command communication centers, vital bridges, follow on assault echelons, ammunition dumps and assassination of key military leaders in the battle zone. Only imagination limits attack drones target list and employment is bounded by intellect and creativity.
It goes without saying that drones are now an integral part of modern combined arms warfare operational art. Therefore optimum employment of attack drones is by grouping them with IBG to boost their operational tempo and combat effectiveness along with REW fused with road mobile drone GCS.
It would obviously be foolhardy to depend solely on attack drones to win battles, territorial disputes, conflicts or wars. Intra-war deterrence would be triggered by the side being on the receiving end of attack drones to control the escalation patterns within an ongoing conflict by attacking say population centers with long range weapon systems.
Briefly put, it incorporates tacit or explicit bargaining with respect to thresholds and limits of an ongoing conflict. Therefore all other aspects of modern day warfare would continue to be applicable albeit attack drones providing the winning edge in tactical battlefield.
As a blatant sign of aggression, Greece heavily militarized the Aegean and Mediterranean islands in violation of the 1923 Lausanne Treaty against Turkey. High cost aggression that Greece is continuing to wage against Turkey, and now French Rafale fighters will be added to its aggression arsenal is gaining unpredictable strategic momentum. Turkey should therefore not get surprised in near or future date of Greece unleashing diabolical French Rafale fighters attack on the Aegean and Mediterranean tactical battlefields.
Consequently, it is being assumed that military strategic leadership must be planning defense against Greek Rafale fighters on war footing so also must be evolving offensive options to reinforced surgical strikes against Greek military arsenal on the Greek islands by Turkish attack drones across the maritime boundary.