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The Comparison of Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems with Bayraktar

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Summary

In recent years, unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) have proliferated rapidly around the world, in both military and civilian areas. Today, over 90 nations and non-state groups are known to operate unmanned aircraft (UA), including at least 30 countries that either operate or are developing armed UA. From the military’s point of view, UASs have already changed warfare, providing a more efficient alternative to conventional aerial missions.

Developments in weapon technology can improve targeting precision and accuracy while decreasing the presence of attacking forces directly on the battlefield. Today’s armed UA have greater endurance and sensor capacity, carry enhanced guidance technology, and respond faster between identifying a target and delivering force against it, all at significant distances from and with reduced risk to their operators.

UASs are mostly used on long-duration missions for intelligence search and reconnaissance (ISR) or precision strikes. Military UASs are designed with high quality components and show high performance during flight. They are designed for low cost with respect to manned aircraft. Armed UA are designed, equipped, or modified to engage targets by employing guided missiles, unguided rockets, bombs, or other weapons.

Armed UA are effective in a role often referred to as “hunter-killer”. UASs become an essential component of the sequence of find, track, target, engage, and assess, also known as the “Kill Chain.” This requires high-quality equipment for target detection and engagement. UA have taken the lead in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations and are expected to play increasing role in future military operations. 

However, technical limitations as well as likely improvements in competing technologies, notably air defense systems, will circumscribe the military role of UA. The vulnerability of UA to ground fire could result in greater casualties. Heavy losses to enemy fire would drive the overall cost of UA operations beyond sustainable levels. 

Developments in UAS technology are likely to contribute to the emergence of unmanned systems capable of operating far more effectively within military conflict areas in the near future. However, unmanned vehicles cannot perform all of the missions that manned aircraft do. They are unlikely to fully replace manned aircraft and will instead complement them in military operations.

This work analyzes the roles of unmanned aircraft in military operations. First of all, the components and classification of UASs and their mission types will be examined. After considering the advantages and disadvantages of manned and unmanned aircraft, the implications of using UASs in military operations will be considered.

Introduction

The use of unmanned aircraft systems in the spectrum of military conflicts is increasing. Today’s unmanned aircraft have greater endurance and sensor capacity, carry enhanced weapons and respond faster to identifying a target and delivering fire against it. Unmanned aircraft are generally operated remotely in real-time by operators with varying degrees of autonomy. Incremental advances in the capacity of armed unmanned aircraft to perform a range of military missions are rapidly changing the nature of contemporary conflicts.

This study provides the basic reference for Unmanned Aircraft Systems and their roles in military operations. The terms “Unmanned Aircraft” (UA) and “Unmanned Aircraft System” (UAS) refer to military-grade systems in this study. UAS are considered to be the system, whose components comprise the necessary equipment, network, and personnel to control an UA. UA is the overall term for all aircraft that do not carry a human operator and are operated remotely using varying levels of automated functions.[1] The term “Unmanned Aircraft” is synonymous with the previous term “Unmanned Aerial Vehicle” (UAV). However, the prevalent terminology in the civilian domain is “drone”, which is almost always used for the respective consumer and commercial UA variants.[2]

Developments in UAS technology are likely to contribute to the emergence of unmanned systems capable of operating far more effectively within military conflict areas in the near future. This work analyzes the roles of unmanned aircraft in military operations. First of all, the components and classification of UASs and their mission types will be examined. After considering the advantages and disadvantages of manned and unmanned aircraft, the implications of using UASs in military operations will be considered.

 UAS Key Components

The basic components of a UAS are the unmanned aircraft, payloads, human elements, control elements, data links, and support elements.

  • A UA is designed to be recoverable but can be expendable and can carry a lethal or non-lethal payload. UA are rotary or fixed-wing aircraft that are smaller than manned aircraft and are capable of flight without an onboard crew. 
  • UA payloads include sensors, weapons, and communications relays. Payloads may be internally or externally carried. The majority of today’s payloads are imaging sensors, such as electro-optical (EO), infrared (IR), and radar (synthetic aperture radar [SAR], ground moving target indicators, and laser range finder and/or laser designator. Current weapons employed by unmanned aircraft are in the 500-pound class or less and are usually Global Positioning System (GPS) or laser-guided.
  • For most UAS, primary personnel tasks include, but are not limited to, the operator (aircraft and/or payload), maintainer, mission commander, and intelligence analyst.
  • The control element handles multiple mission aspects, such as Command and Control (C2), mission planning, payload control, and communications. Larger systems may also incorporate a dedicated Ground Control Station (GCS) for launch and recovery as well as a Mission Control Element (MCE) for conducting the operation. Some GCSs are capable of controlling multiple UA from a single location. Future network architectures will enable authenticated users to control multiple UA, and/or access products being distributed by multiple UA.
  • UAS are constrained by data links, whether conducting line-of-sight (LOS) or beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) operations. The larger systems typically utilize space-enabled BLOS communications for the C2 and data links. Interruption or loss of the controlling data link could result in degraded mission effectiveness, mission failure, and in extreme cases, loss of the UA. Potential UAS data link vulnerabilities may be mitigated by encryption, the creation of redundant critical nodes, and further advances in autonomy.[3]
  • The larger the unmanned aircraft are, the greater the requirement for infrastructures such as shelters, runways, airfields, or airports. The same is true for the amount of logistics support, such as fuel, ammunition, and maintenance.

Classification of UASs

Governments and international organizations make use of various systems for classifying and categorizing UASs. UAS for military use, including those used to conduct armed strikes, can be distinguished and categorized based on physical characteristics such as maximum take-off weight, range, payload, endurance, and means of command and control. UAS are complicated technological platforms and require sophisticated organizational and technical support in order to operate. Commonly accepted and understood UAS categories establish the foundation for NATO UAS terminology. NATO UAS categories are based on UA maximum gross take-off weight and normal operating altitude. Weight classes are further divided on the basis of the operational altitude of the UA.

Class-I 

UA are typically defined as systems with a maximum take-off weight of up to 150 kg. Class I encompasses an array of designs, ranging from tiny handheld drones to larger multirole systems. Typical Class-I aircraft have an endurance of between one and three hours, a maximum range of approximately 80 kilometers, a payload capacity of 5 kilograms, and a top speed of 100 kilometers per hour. The majority of them are used to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions and do not carry weapons. Loitering UA armed with a small explosive warhead and designed to explode on impact are included in this group.

 

 

 

CLASS-I

MICRO/MINI/

SMALL UAS

CAPABILITIES
• Deliver payloads, including explosives, of no more than a few kilograms • Capture high-definition images and video; real-time transmission at ranges of up to a couple of kilometers • Persist for limited periods

• Operate in communications-denied environments using fully autonomous GPS and waypoint navigation 

• Low-cost inertial navigation systems provide limited navigation in GPS-denied environments

LIMITATIONS
• Limited payload, endurance, and range • Vulnerable to electronic countermeasures, including GPS-jamming • Vulnerable to small-arms fire 

• Unencrypted data links and video feeds vulnerable to intercept 

• No ability to release missiles or bombs 

 

Class-II 

UA are typically defined as systems with a maximum take-off weight of between 150 kg and 600 kg. Class II aircraft are referred to as “tactical UA”. Most of them in this weight class are operated only by militaries, mainly for use in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles. A typical Class-II UA has an endurance of 10 hours, a maximum range of between 100 and 200 kilometers, a payload capacity of up to 70 kilograms, and a top speed of 200 kilometers per hour. Class-II UA can be equipped with multiple payloads, such as electro-optical and infrared sensors, laser designators, or illuminators for targeting. Some models can be equipped with lightweight ordnance and small air-to-ground guided missiles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLASS-II

TACTICAL UAS

CAPABILITIES
• Deliver payloads of up to a couple hundred kilograms at ranges of up to a couple hundred kilometers• Capture high-definition images and videos at ranges of up to a couple hundred kilometers; real-time transmission at ranges of up to around 30 kilometers• Persist for moderate periods (between 60 minutes and a few hours)

• Operate in communications-denied environments using fully autonomous GPS and waypoint navigation

• All-weather terrain mapping and target tracking via advanced radar

• Identify and designate targets via laser range finders and illuminators

• Transmit data via encrypted, high-bandwidth data links

• Limited jamming and electronic intelligence-gathering

• Communications relay function

• Ability to perform a kamikaze mission using an explosive payload

LIMITATIONS
• Vulnerable to countermeasures, including GPS-jamming and spoofing, small-arms fire (at lower altitudes), and man-portable air-defense systems • Not survivable in contested or denied airspace• Line-of-sight communications

• Data links vulnerable to interception

• No current ability to release missiles or bombs

Class-III 

UA are capable of carrying large and sophisticated sensor payloads and/or existing types of air-to-surface rockets that are large systems with a maximum take-off weight in excess of 600 kg. Class III UAS in this weight class are currently in operation only by the armed forces, where they are generally used in highly specialized missions, including long-term ISR and targeted strikes. They can operate at long ranges, beyond radio line-of-sight, via the use of satellites and other forms of data links, such as ground-, sea-, or air-based relays. Altitude and endurance are commonly used to differentiate between categories of large systems. The NATO definition of Class III includes three sub-categories: MALE, HALE, and Strike/Combat.

  • The category of medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS is still frequently used, referring to systems that normally fly up to 45,000 feet above sea level and have an endurance of up to 24 hours or more. Most known armed UAS currently in operation or under development fall into this subcategory and include systems such as the ASN-209 (Xian Aisheng), the MQ-1 Predator (General Atomics), the MQ-5 Hunter (Northrup Grumman), the MQ-9 Reaper (General Atomics), the TB2 Bayraktar (Baykar) and the Hermes 900 (Elbit Systems).
  • High altitude long endurance (HALE) UA refer to systems that can fly up to 65,000 feet. Systems of this class currently in operation are used for ISR missions, carry large and sophisticated sensor payloads, and include systems such as the RQ-4 Global Hawk (Northrup Grumman) and the BZK-009 (Guizhou Aviation).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLASS-III

MALE/HALE UAS

CAPABILITIES
• Deliver payloads of over 1,000 kilograms at ranges of several hundred to a few thousand kilometers• Real-time transmission of high-definition images and video at global ranges• Persist for lengthier periods (up to 24 hours or more)

• Operate in communications-denied environments using fully autonomous GPS and waypoint navigation

• Identify and designate targets via laser range finders and illuminators

• All-weather terrain mapping and target tracking via low-probability-of-intercept radar

• Transmit data via encrypted, high-bandwidth data links

• Enhanced jamming and electronic intelligence-gathering

• Higher resistance to adversary jamming

• Wide-band, beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications

• Releasable missiles or bombs

• Communications relay to enable extended-range (300 to 800 kilometers) operations without relying on SATCOM

LIMITATIONS
• Vulnerable to countermeasures, including GPS-jamming and spoofing• Not survivable in contested or denied airspace with advanced air defenses• Vulnerable to enemy fighter aircraft

 

  • Several countries are, however, planning or developing long-range Strike/Combat UA that could incorporate stealth technology and fly at supersonic speeds, thereby enabling them to fulfill roles currently performed by manned combat aircraft and strategic bombers, including the employment of nuclear weapons. Current planned and experimental systems of this type include the X-47B (Northrop Grumman), the Neuron (Dassault), the RQ-170 (Lockheed Martin), and the Taranis (BAE Systems).
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CLASS-III[4]

STEALTH COMBAT UAS

CAPABILITIES
• Real-time transmission of high-definition images and video at global ranges• Persist for lengthier periods (between 5 hours and 24 hours, depending on size)• Operate in communications-denied environments using fully autonomous GPS and waypoint navigation

• Operate in contested and denied airspace with advanced enemy integrated air defense systems as a result of low-observable features

• All-weather terrain mapping and target tracking via low-probability-of-intercept radar

• Enhanced jamming and electronic intelligence-gathering

• Higher resistance to adversary jamming

• Wide-band, beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications

• Transmit data via low-probability-of-intercept/-of-detection data links

• Releasable missiles and/or bombs

LIMITATIONS
• Some vulnerability to countermeasures, including GPS-jamming and spoofing

UAS Missions

Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) Mission

ISR has been and continues to be the primary mission of UAS. It enables decision-makers to have a near-real-time capability of a developing situation during the operation. It also provides an immediate assessment post-action (e.g., Battle Damage Assessment-BDA). Recent advancements in information technology and reductions in cost have greatly increased the utility of UAS for ISR and other missions and have presented new opportunities to deploy UAS for missions that were not previously feasible. 

However, with the increased use of UASs have also come new threats and challenges driven by the growing reliance on such systems to collect mission-critical information and the increased use of UASs by both friendly forces and enemies.[6] The challenges presented by the increased use of UASs are both technical and strategic. Technical challenges include the ability to counter cyber threats and the challenge of processing the enormous amount of data produced by UAS; strategic challenges include the question of how best to use UAS in dynamic and contested environments.

UAS are particularly useful as part of ongoing counterterrorism operations in which they are used to monitor large geographic areas for suspected terrorists, insurgents, and militants. UAS are used to collect current data on enemy terrain, organization, and infrastructure and also to support adaptive, real-time planning, including monitoring enemy centers of gravity, capabilities, and offensive and defensive positions, as well as assessing battle damage.

Strike Mission

Ongoing innovation is enabling the use of unmanned systems and is bringing immediately actionable information closer to the fighter aircraft. In addition, the use of artificial intelligence is allowing ISR analysts to more quickly identify and act upon the most important data. An unarmed UA can use a laser designator to assist in precision strikes by third parties. 

Strike and armed reconnaissance missions may be against heavily or lightly defended targets. UA armed with a variety of weapons can be deployed against targets in any location. These targets can be either time-sensitive or pre-planned. These engagements are usually conducted by the armed UA on an ISR sortie. Armed UA can be used to great effect in classic air warfare missions such as Close Air Support and Suppression of Enemy Air Defense.

Over the last two decades, many countries, especially the United States, have proven the effectiveness of UASs and how significantly these systems contribute to linking sensors and shooters. UASs become an essential component of the sequence of find, track, target, engage, and assess, also known as the “Kill Chain.”

Armed UA have acquired a critical role in armed conflict and counter-terrorism operations and are used to carry out a range of missions, including “targeted killings”. This can serve to improve military commanders’ situational awareness and target identification, allow for a more robust assessment of potential collateral damage. The numbers of Time Sensitive Targeting (TST) and Dynamic Targeting (DT) missions are increasing and this may cause the wrong engagements and collateral damages. UASs have very bad public perceptions from Iraq and Afghanistan Operations due to wrong targeting leading to collateral damages, unnecessary civilian causalities and loss of properties.[7]

UAS operations are becoming more frequent. The trend of the use of armed UA by the armed forces has increased and is likely to intensify for several reasons. The main reason is the increasing urbanization of warfare. More and more military targets are settling in densely populated areas, making it dangerous and difficult for state forces to maneuver. For those with UAS, these systems can provide an alternative way to strike targets in urban areas that is less hazardous to their forces. On the other hand, the use of armed UA against non-state armed groups has increased, especially in remote and hard-to-reach areas. 

UASs commonly used for armed strikes are marketed as multirole systems, such as the MQ-1 Predator, MQ-9 Reaper (General Atomics), TB2 (Bayraktar) and the ASN-209 (Xian Aisheng). Armed MALE UA are used for tactical and battlefield support operations. Due to their unique characteristics, they perform missions that might not normally be assigned to manned aircraft. In comparison to manned aircraft, these systems are slower, often loiter for hours above potential targets, and lack the means to counter sophisticated air defenses or operate in contested airspace. An expendable UA attacking a fixed objective does not need sophisticated target-finding technology or a long-range satellite link. A number of technological factors suggest that armed UA will be important in future military operations. 

The roles of UAS can vary widely based on the difficulty of the military operation that is to be conducted. UA may be able to perform the most dangerous military missions, including attacking critical facilities, fixed and mobile targets. The simplest military operations involve attacks on fixed ground targets, while the most challenging operations involve attacks on mobile ground targets. The concept of attacking mobile targets with UA is quite popular and involves using sensors on high-altitude, long-endurance UA. The fundamental problem with using UA is the difficulties of detecting and identifying targets in complex combat operations. For now, the problems of finding and destroying the right targets in intensive military operations mitigate against using UA for attacking mobile targets. The problem becomes even more complex in operations when friendly, enemy, and civilians are scattered throughout the battle area.

Other Missions 

Communications Relay, Electronic Warfare, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR), Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosive Events (CBRNE) Detection, and Logistic Supply.

Four Features of Armed UASs

  • Due to their remotely-piloted nature, armed UA deployments pose little to no direct risk of harm to operators. 
  • Armed UA are able to loiter over a target or battlefield, providing real-time and persistent surveillance. 
  • When armed UA can reduce the time between target identification and a strike decision. Unlike other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities, there is no need to deploy additional capabilities to deploy lethal force, depending on the command and control processes of the operator. 
  • Current-generation armed UA are highly susceptible to air defense systems and are relatively easy to identify, destroy or disrupt. New UAS are being developed to overcome these challenges. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of Manned and Unmanned Aircraft 

A principal reason for the interest in UAS is the desire to reduce the risk to humans in combat. It is also to perform military missions in a more efficient and less costly fashion than has historically been the case with manned vehicles. Freeing aircraft from the limitations imposed by humans would increase their performance.

In military terminology, aircraft and UA are reusable, while weapons are expendable. In addition, UA have shorter life spans than manned aircraft and can suffer attrition in military operations, which means that they will survive for a relatively small number of sorties until failures, accidents, or hostile action destroy them. The loss rate for aircraft and UA is an important concept that influences the cost-effectiveness of UA and aircraft.

The main question is the reason for using UA for employing lethal force, and in particular, which air power missions are best accomplished by fighters or UA. Piloted and remotely piloted aircraft have advantages and disadvantages in military operations, and these vary in strategic significance for different levels of conflict and operational area conditions.

The critical factor that distinguishes between aircraft and UA is the amount of information that is available to the operator flying a UA. The concept of the information that is provided to a remote operator has significant implications for UA, principally because it directly increases the combat effectiveness, cost, and complexity of these UA. Top producers have invested considerable resources in using visual and data displays to provide information to the operator about conditions in and around the UA.

The most significant advantage of piloted aircraft is their ability to use humans to sense events within and outside the vehicle, which is known in military jargon as “situational awareness.” The second advantage of human pilots is that they are able to adapt to new and different circumstances, make decisions on the basis of incomplete or ambiguous information, and deal with unexpected situations, such as damage or malfunction.

The principal disadvantage with piloted aircraft is that human physiology imposes fundamental limits on the performance of the aircraft. Second, the presence of humans in aircraft increases their complexity and cost, and piloted vehicles are more vulnerable because they are larger than most UA and hence more susceptible to attack than the smaller UA. The last disadvantage is that piloted aircraft are more expensive than UA.

The main advantage of the UA is their ability to reduce human risk and thus provide cost-effective military options. They can be used when political or environmental conditions are too dangerous for the use of manned systems. UA are the ability to free the aircraft from humans’ inability to withstand acceleration, g forces, and fatigue, and to eliminate the myriad systems that sustain human life in the cockpit and that increase the weight, complexity, and cost of piloted aircraft. For that reason, UA can be more maneuverable, enjoy longer endurance or loiter times, and be less observable than their piloted counterparts. The principal operational advantage of the UA is their ability to attack highly defended targets without human loss. UA are less detectable than aircraft because of their smaller size, which makes them less observable.

The primary disadvantages of UA are their high bandwidth communication requirements, vulnerability to jamming, and low survivability in military operations. While UA are relatively inexpensive in comparison with manned aircraft, the current generation of large UA is relatively expensive to develop and build. An important concern is that the losses of UA could be prohibitively expensive if large numbers were lost in military operations. The most notable is that UA are not technologically sophisticated enough to warn the operator that the vehicle is under attack. The UA operator often does not have the same degree of situational awareness as the pilots of manned aircraft. The operator must have to access to timely information about threats to the vehicle, be able to identify that an attack is contemplated or in progress and take measures to protect the vehicle. 

If armed UA are to achieve most of their initial cost and stealth advantages by being smaller than their manned counterparts, they will logically have smaller weapons bays and therefore need smaller weapons. Smaller and fewer weapons carried per mission means lethality must be increased to achieve equal or greater mission effectiveness. Achieving lethality with small weapons requires precision guidance and more lethal warheads.[8]

UASs cannot operate in adverse weather and have a low level of reliability, which reduces the role of UA in military operations. UA are susceptible to the loss of the electronic link with the human operator, which has catastrophic implications for the failure of the mission or the loss of the vehicle. UA share many of the limitations of manned aircraft. The limitations that most frequently affect UA are reliance on data links and adverse atmospheric conditions such as wind, turbulence, and icing conditions.

UASs have also raised new challenges in the application and interpretation of international law. International humanitarian law, which applies only in armed conflict, requires that parties distinguish between civilians and civilian objects on the one hand, and combatants and military objectives on the other, and that they direct their operations only against combatants and military objectives. Civilians are entitled to protection against direct attack unless and for such time as they directly participate in hostilities. While civilian people and objects may be incidentally harmed in an attack, the rule of proportionality dictates that “incidental loss” of civilian life or property must not be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from an attack against a military objective.

Finally, the military forces must understand that there will always be cases in which armed UA cannot fulfill the missions performed by manned aircraft. In military operations, UA has limited ability to deal with ambiguity.

A Brief History of the Use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Military Operations

In the 1991 Gulf War, UASs produced more intelligence than could be acted upon. Although the number of unmanned aircraft deployed in-theatre was miniscule, they still identified more targets than the entire resources of the U.S. could hit.[9]

UA played an even more crucial role in Kosovo, flying low to identify targets which could then be attacked by manned aircraft operating above 15,000 feet. Through this division of tasks, pilots remained outside the range of most surface-to-air missiles while UA, being easily replaceable, faced the risk of enemy fire. UA began to assume an attack role, being fitted with laser designators to point to potential targets, which could then be destroyed by manned aircraft. 

In November 2002, an Al Qaeda terrorist in Yemen was killed by a drone-launched missile – the first of many such strikes. With the introduction of attack drones into counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the time between detection and destruction of hostile forces was shortened to just five minutes. During the 1991 Gulf War, the same process took three days.[10] Armed UA became a preferred method of assassinating Taliban leaders in Afghanistan.

UAS operations are becoming more frequent last decade. The trend of the use of armed UAS by the military forces has increased and is likely to intensify for several reasons. The main reason is the increasing urbanization of warfare. More and more military targets are settling in densely populated areas, making it dangerous and difficult for state forces to maneuver. For those with UAS, these systems can provide an alternative way to strike targets in urban areas that is less hazardous to their forces. On the other hand, the use of armed UAS against non-state armed groups has increased, especially in remote and hard-to-reach areas.

As armed UAS have proliferated, an emergent practice has been their deployment for targeted strikes within a state’s domestic airspace. Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey, and Ukraine have all conducted strikes within their own airspace.

Several parties to the conflict in Yemen have deployed and used armed UA. In Libya, the United States has significantly used its armed UA operations against Al-Qaida and Daesh in the north of the country. It is in the conflict in Syria, however, that the proliferation of armed UA has perhaps been most apparent. In addition to the increasing use of weaponized commercial UA by Daesh and other non-state armed groups, Iran, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Turkey have all deployed and used armed UA during the conflict.

Predator and Reaper UA have since been deployed by the U.S. in Afghanistan and the northern, tribal areas of Pakistan in various iterations of the “war on terror”, as well as in Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. British statistics give some idea of the frequency of contemporary armed UA strikes (the U.S. does not release equivalent data). In four years of war against Isis in Iraq and Syria from 2014-2018, Reaper UA were deployed on more than 2,400 missions – almost two a day.[11]

Several non-state actors have incorporated UA into their operations. While rebel groups from South America to the Middle East have used commercially available rotary-winged drones to surveil enemy positions, some groups such as ISIS have armed these over-the-counter drones and used them in combat.

Unmanned systems are typically cheaper than manned aircraft, especially if consumer and commercial products are taken into account. This price advantage creates the opportunity to acquire multiple times more UAS than manned combat aircraft. Grouping together multiple UA creates a so-called “swarm,” and depending on their numbers, they are expected to cause significant challenges for current air defense systems. 

For example, in January 2018, an improvised swarm of ten drones rigged with explosives was employed in a coordinated assault against Russia’s Hmeimim airbase in western Syria. The drones appeared to have been assembled from a small engine, cheap plywood, and a number of small mortar shells and were allegedly launched from a site more than 50 km away. Although all of the drones were eliminated or forced to land, this incident has proven that the concept of swarming is a viable threat, even when using improvised devices.

The Rapid Spread of the Armed UASs

The United States is a global leader in the production of armed UASs and exports them around the world. While the U.S. and Israel monopolized the field for more than a decade, an increasing number of countries, including China and Turkey, now manufacture and export a startling array of military remote-controlled armed UAS. However, other countries have growing UAS production capabilities and are increasing their market share globally. 23 countries are developing armed UASs (China, France, Germany, Greece, India, Iran, Israel, Italy, Lebanon, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States, and United Kingdom). 

Stealth combat UA include those that contain highly sophisticated technologies, such as low-observable features, and are not accessible to non-indigenous producers. While several countries – including Russia, Israel, China, India, France, Italy, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom – are in the process of developing stealth combat UA, the United States is the only known operator of such systems at this time.[12]

China, meanwhile, has begun supplying a range of countries with its Wing Loong and CH series drones, including the UAE (where they have been used in a string of deadly strikes in Libya) as well as Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, although not every country has been able to deploy what it has bought. Proliferation is expected to continue, not least because Iran, Russia, and India are running behind.

Armed UAS are not cheap: experts say the starting price for the technology is about $15 million per unit, with more for add-ons, on top of the training and the crews needed to pilot them. The Chinese and Turkish systems are less expensive to purchase than their American counterparts. Chinese systems have been exported under less restrictive export controls.

The first phase of armed UA warfare was dominated by three countries: the U.S., the U.K., and Israel. The U.S. and U.K. rely on Predator and, latterly, Reaper drones made by General Atomics. Israel develops its own technology. Armed UA rapidly proliferated in a second wave over the past five years, with China, Pakistan, and Turkey developing their own programs. The most popular armed unmanned aircraft in Turkey is the Bayraktar TB2 of Baykar Defense. Since 2016, Turkey has used drones heavily against the separatist Kurdish PKK in its own country, in northern Iraq, and more recently against Kurdish groups in Syria.

Turkey has sold its domestically produced UAS to many of its international allies. Qatar, Ukraine, Libya, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan are actively using Bayraktar TB2s, while Poland and Kyrgyzstan have both put in orders for the UA. Bayraktar says that it exports its drones to 13 countries, but did not specify which ones. Albania, Latvia, Morocco, Hungary, Chad, Serbia, and Iraq have also allegedly put in requests to purchase TB2s.[13]

This growing interest in Turkish UAS comes after their successes in combat in the active war zones in 2020. The revolution in UA warfare is spreading across the Middle East and beyond, from Syria to Libya and from Azerbaijan to Ukraine. During the six-week conflict, Azerbaijan deployed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones and loitering munitions, many of them Israeli-made, to shrink the battlefield and chip away at Armenia’s armored forces as well as the logistical tail that hadn’t even reached the front lines. It’s also still not clear to experts that UA and drones definitively tilt the balance toward attackers or defenders.[14]

Existing armed UA are of limited tactical utility in inter-state conflict due to their vulnerability to air defense systems. The TB2 UA have a much shorter operating range of up to 150km, but are able to loiter in the air for up to 24 hours. Because they are cheaper, military forces can afford to lose some in action. The Syrian and Russian air defense destroyed approximately 20 Turkish UA with the help of Buk-M2E (SA-17 Grizzly) systems during the conflict in Idlib.[15] The Russian military has reportedly shot down 9 Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh.[16]

While TB2s suffered losses in all these war zones, their operators could afford significant rates of attrition given the relatively cheap cost of the UA compared to others on the market. However, in the competition between the Turkish UA and the Russian Pantsir system in Syria, the measure of success is not simply counted in the number of kills but in replacement costs. The price of a Bayraktar TB2 UA is roughly 2.5 million USD, whereas a Russian Pantsir costs about 14 million USD. Turkey lost 19 TB2, which would cost about 47.5 million USD to replace. However, Russia lost eight Pantsir systems, which would cost Moscow a whopping 112 million USD to replace. Adding in the other targets destroyed in the drone attacks, including tanks and troops, the cost ratio becomes even more significant.[17]

Armed UA are only effective in attack roles when operating against targets with no air defense capabilities. UA operators cannot detect threats to the safety of their aircraft. Surface-to-air missiles therefore pose a much greater threat to UA than to other forms of military aviation. The vulnerability of UA to ground fire could result in greater casualties. Heavy losses to enemy fire would drive the overall cost of UA operations beyond sustainable levels.

Conclusion

UASs have been deployed around the world in a variety of operations, including counterterrorism and counterinsurgency missions, peacekeeping, border security, counter-piracy, counter-narcotics, counter-smuggling. User countries see the procurement of UASs as less costly than the use of manned systems.

Many countries are developing and acquiring UASs. The increasing procurement of tactical armed UASs by armies is driving up sales of tactical armed UA. Moreover, they provide competitive advantages on the battlefield. At least 11 countries — Azerbaijan, Israel, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Turkey, UAE, U.K., Ukraine, and U.S. — are believed to have used UASs to conduct aerial strikes. Another 30 countries are believed to have acquired or are in the process of acquiring tactical UASs that are capable of conducting strikes, though many UA that can carry weapons are predominantly used for surveillance or for spotting targets for manned aircraft.

Reusable armed UA are effective in a role often referred to as “hunter-killer,” in which they fly and search for targets. When targets are found, they can engage them directly or pass cues to other systems that can then continue the surveillance or engage them.

As currently designed and used, armed UASs offer numerous technical advantages that make them attractive to many countries. The most obvious thing is that they are unmanned. UASs are also cheap compared to manned aircraft. Some UASs can also loiter for long periods, enabling them to conduct persistent and real-time surveillance that can increase the chance of identifying the right target and avoiding collateral damage.

All of the technology that is so important to the successful operation of long-range UA can be employed with manned aircraft. For many missions, UAS are nevertheless preferred for one overwhelming reason: they can be made smaller and therefore cost less. This advantage is only meaningful when the mission equipment is significantly lighter than the crew accommodation on a manned vehicle, as is the case with UASs the size of the MQ-1 Predator and smaller vehicles. The upshot is that only limited interest is likely in UASs much larger than the MQ-9 Reaper in the near future. If an aircraft is large, the advantages of having it unmanned are diminished, and in cases where they require a data link to perform their mission, it may even be less desirable if the security and protection of the link cannot be assured.[18]

Armed UA are unlikely to achieve the strategic objectives of counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism campaigns. Yet, as an increasing number of states acquire armed UA, it is likely that the relatively low costs associated with their use will continue to encourage states to utilize their unique characteristics for targeted strikes against non-state armed groups in situations where manned aircraft would be deemed too risky. As the scope and intensity of these operations continue to expand, they are increasingly likely to interact with inter-state dynamics and risk contributing to conflict escalation.

In recent years, there has been growing interest in the increasing use of armed UA to conduct targeted strikes, especially in areas of active hostilities. Their rapid proliferation can be helped by UA low costs and small size. A further relevant system is the increasing development, production, and export of remotely piloted loitering munitions such as the Israeli Heron systems. UA could become increasingly available to some countries, providing them with inexpensive options to conduct attacks on non-state actors. Armed forces or non-state actors can use them secretly and without appropriate transparency, oversight, and accountability. 

In the brief analysis, UA are popular because they present a low-cost option for locating and destroying low-tech adversaries. If they were to be upgraded to penetrate sophisticated air defense systems, their advantages vis-à-vis manned aircraft would fall away. Furthermore, UA have higher operating costs than manned aircraft, which in the long run, militates against greatly enhancing their use in warfare. They are also ten times more prone to crashing than fighter jets – a problem that can only be overcome through expensive technical upgrades.[19]

Armed UA are only effective in attack roles when operating against targets with no air defense capabilities. UA operators cannot detect threats to the safety of their aircraft. Surface-to-air missiles, therefore, pose a much greater threat to UA than to other forms of military aviation. The vulnerability of UA to ground fire could result in greater casualties. Heavy losses to enemy fire would drive the overall cost of UA operations beyond sustainable levels. 

The vulnerability of the UA to ground fire could become a debilitating factor if greater dependence is placed on the UA in warfighting. One of the biggest advantages of unmanned aircraft is their low acquisition cost, relative to manned aircraft. However, heavy losses to enemy fire would drive the overall cost of UA operations beyond sustainable levels. Conversely, should efforts be made to enhance the operational sophistication of UAS, per-unit costs will raise, making the loss of a UA a serious concern for military forces.

Over the past two decades, the use of UAS of all types and sizes has dramatically increased, and unmanned systems have become an indispensable component of military operations. With a developing variety of new platforms, sensors, and information technology systems, it is likely that the weapons capabilities of UAS will continue to grow. Ongoing innovations are enabling the use of unmanned systems and are bringing immediately actionable weapons capability closer to the fighter. In addition, the use of artificial intelligence allows operators to identify and attack targets more quickly.

UA share basically the same vulnerabilities as manned aircraft. However, it is not only the UA that can be subject to countermeasures. Each component of an UAS has its own set of vulnerabilities that could be exploited to counter the UAS threat. On the other hand, as air defense systems are antidotes to attacking weapons, defensive technology should not be ignored. In the future, UAS will have more sophisticated technology that will screen threats around them, but since anti-UA defense systems are used by humans, an unmanned vehicle will rarely be able to escape from shots.

Armed UASs have assumed a leading role in counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in recent years. They are projected to be of growing importance in future military operations. Their low cost makes them expendable and ideal for highly dangerous or politically sensitive missions. However, technical limitations as well as likely improvements in competing technologies, notably air defense systems, will circumscribe their military role. If air defense technology improves at a faster pace than UA technology, dependence on armed UA could prove ruinously expensive for most countries. 

UA share basically the same vulnerabilities as manned aircraft. However, it is not only the UA that can be subject to countermeasures. Each individual component of a UAS has unique vulnerabilities and could be targeted to counter the UAS threat. UAS sensors are the only direct source of information to build situational awareness. Additionally, UAS sensors are generally not designed for threat detection. In conjunction with the overall limited situational awareness, this is a fundamental vulnerability.

However, armed UA fulfill only some limited functions of fighters, and there is still time to replace manned aircraft. They are not literally game-changers, but good players in the war game. Their efficiency will increase not when used independently but when used in coordination and together with other vehicles. Although an integral part of future warfare, armed UA are unlikely to fully replace manned aircraft and will instead complement them.

  

[1] The Official NATO Terminology Database, https://nso.nato.int/natoterm/web.mvc.

[2] A Comprehensive Approach to Countering Unmanned Aircraft Systems, Joint Air Power Competence Centre, 2020.

[3] Strategic Concept of Employment for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in NATO, Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC), January 2010.

[4] A World of Proliferated Drones: A Technology Primer, Kelley Sayler, Paul Scharre and Ben FitzGer, Center for a New American Security (CNAS), June 2015.

[5] NATO UAS Classification Guide, September 2009, JCGUAV meeting

[6] Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Matthew Harbaugh Contract Number: FA8075-14-D-0001, Published By: DSIAC

[7] https://savunmaanaliz.com/unmanned-aircraft-systems/

[8] Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2005-2030, Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2005

[9] The Military Utility of Drones, CSS Analysis in Security Policy, No. 78 July 2010

[10] The Military Utility of Drones, CSS Analysis in Security Policy, No. 78 July 2010

[11]  https://www.theguardian.com/news/2019/nov/18/killer-drones-how-many-uav-predator-reaper

[12] A World of Proliferated Drones: A Technology Primer, Kelley Sayler, Paul Scharre and Ben FitzGer, Center for a New American Security (CNAS), June 2015.

[13] https://www.duvarenglish.com/turkeys-drone-program-explained-in-10-questions-gallery-59641?p=6

[14] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/30/army-pentagon-nagorno-karabakh-drones/

[15] “Siriyskiye “Buki” sbili 20 turetskikh bespilotnikov,” (Russian), Rossiyskay Gazeta- Voennoe Oruzye, 9 March 2020, https://rg.ru/.

[16] https://eurasiantimes.com/russia-shot-down-a-total-of-nine-turkish-bayraktar-drones-near-its-armenia-military-base-russian-media-reports/

[17] The Revolution in Drone Warfare, EUROPEAN, MIDDLE EASTERN, & AFRICAN AFFAIRS, Fall 2020.

[18] Armed and Dangerous, Lynn E. Davis, Michael J. McNerney, James Chow, Thomas Hamilton, Sarah Harting, and Daniel Byman, The RAND Corporation, 2014.

[19] The Military Utility of Drones, CSS Analysis in Security Policy, No. 78 July 2010

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