From The Editor | March 7, 2024

New Ways Of Fighting: How Unmanned Platforms Are Changing The Way We Wage War

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By John Oncea, Editor

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The military’s reliance on unmanned platforms – be it on the ground, at sea, or in the air – is becoming increasingly common. So much so that you’d be hard-pressed not to find one being used in any of the more than 100 armed conflicts currently taking place across the globe.

The Old North Church in Boston’s North End was established in 1723 and is Boston’s oldest surviving church building and most visited historical site, welcoming over 500,000 visitors yearly.

On April 18, 1775, church sexton Robert Newman and vestryman Captain John Pulling, Jr. climbed the Old North Church’s steeple and held high two lanterns as a signal for Paul Revere that the British were making their way to Lexington and Concord by sea across the Charles River.

Armed with the knowledge that British troops planned to row “by sea” across the Charles River to Cambridge, Revere and William Dawes set out to warn Revolutionary leaders John Hancock and Samuel Adams.

The two made it as far as Lexington and warned Hancock and Adams to flee. The ensuing fighting there – as well as the battle in Concord later the same day – proved pivotal to the American Revolution, transforming the political disputes between Britain and the colonists into an outright military struggle.

Revere and his ride were immortalized 85 years later by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the line “One, if by land, and two, if by sea” became one of, if not, the poem’s most famous lines.

If this series of events were to happen today, Longfellow’s future doppelganger would have a major revision to make to the poem to acknowledge the possibility of attack by air. Something like, “One, if by land, two, if by sea, and three, if by air.”

And even that might not be good enough. Are the British sending soldiers or some type of unmanned vehicle? Suddenly we’re up to “One, if by land, two, if by sea, three, if by air, four, if unmanned ground vehicle, five, if by unmanned water vehicle, and six, if by unmanned aerial vehicle.”

There’s a non-zero chance that the Old North Church might catch fire and burn if the British sent drones to Lexington and Concord today.

Modern Warfare

While the U.S. and the British aren’t waging Revolutionary War II, there are currently more than 110 active armed conflicts occurring worldwide, according to The Geneva Academy. The Middle East and North Africa are, in numbers, the most affected regions with more than 45 armed conflicts taking place including the Israel-Palestine conflict. There are seven armed conflicts, including the war in Ukraine, currently taking place in Europe.

Today’s conflicts aren’t being fought with muskets and bloody hand-to-hand combat where bayonets, swords, and axes are used. Instead, artillery, biological weaponry, chemical weaponry, combat weapons, explosives, bombs, missiles, rockets, nuclear weapons, and siege weapons are the weapons of choice.

As too are the unmanned platforms singled out in our revised poem: unmanned ground vehicles, unmanned water vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Let’s take a look at each of these tools of modern warfare, as well as an example of how each is being used.

UGVs: One If By Land

Militaries are making use of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) more and more because of their ability to perform a wide range of missions, including reconnaissance, surveillance, target acquisition, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), convoy support, logistics, and combat support. UGVs come in various forms, including wheeled, tracked, and legged designs with each offering distinct advantages depending on the terrain and mission requirements.

Wheeled UGVs provide high speed and efficiency on flat terrain, while tracked UGVs offer superior mobility in rough or uneven terrain. Legged UGVs, inspired by animal locomotion, can navigate complex environments inaccessible to wheeled or tracked vehicles. They can be equipped with various sensors, cameras, manipulator arms, and weapons payloads depending on their intended role.

UGVs offer several advantages over manned vehicles, including reduced risk to personnel in hazardous environments, extended endurance for long-duration missions, enhanced situational awareness through sensors and cameras, and the ability to operate autonomously or remotely controlled by human operators.

Many modern UGVs are equipped with varying levels of autonomy, ranging from teleoperation (remote control by a human operator) to fully autonomous navigation and decision-making capabilities. Autonomous UGVs can navigate predefined routes, avoid obstacles, and make real-time decisions based on sensor inputs. Some notable examples of military UGVs include:

  • The Talon UGV, developed by QinetiQ North America, is a versatile platform used for EOD, reconnaissance, and other missions. It is modular and can be equipped with different payloads depending on mission requirements.
  • The TALON IV, also developed by QinetiQ North America, is specifically designed for EOD missions and is capable of manipulating objects with its manipulator arm and disrupting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) safely.
  • The PackBot, developed by iRobot, is widely used by the U.S. military for EOD, reconnaissance, and hazardous materials handling. It is lightweight, highly maneuverable, and equipped with various sensors and cameras.
  • The Milrem Robotics THeMIS is a tracked UGV used for a variety of military applications, including reconnaissance, transport, and support missions. It can be equipped with different payloads, including remotely operated weapon stations.

The development of UGVs is ongoing, with an emphasis on improving autonomy, mobility, endurance, and versatility. Future UGVs may incorporate advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, advanced sensors, and swarming capabilities to enhance their effectiveness on the battlefield.

UGVs In Action

In a move that could save the lives of fighters, Ukraine has deployed Ironclad, an experimental ground robot equipped with machine guns on the front lines against Russian forces, according to Newsweek. “It is equipped with a machine gun, or robotic combat turret, and is designed to help assault enemy positions, conduct reconnaissance missions, and provide fire support,” Ukraine’s drone tsar and digital transformation minister, Mykhailo Fedorov said. It can reportedly travel at a speed of up to 12 miles per hour.”

Remotely controlled, Ironclad and UGVs like it are rudimentary, cheap, and on the smaller side to minimize the chances of being discovered by drones. “The overall goal is to perform simple missions like advancing on the adversary position, forcing the enemy to shoot it and therefore reveal his position for subsequent strikes by ground or aerial systems,” said Samuel Bendett, of the Center for Naval Analyses.

Newsweek is also reporting on a Ukrainian UGV that was used to drag away “what appears to be a Russian Orlan-30 reconnaissance ground vehicle at an unspecified point along the front line.”

USVs: Two If By Sea

Unmanned water vehicles, also known as unmanned maritime vehicles (UMVs) or unmanned surface vehicles (USVs), are increasingly being used by militaries around the world for various purposes including surveillance, reconnaissance, mine detection, intelligence gathering, and even offensive operations. Here are some common types and applications:

  • Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs): These are unmanned boats or ships that operate on the water surface without direct human control. They can be equipped with sensors, cameras, communication systems, and sometimes even weapons. ASVs are used for tasks such as patrolling, coastal defense, and intelligence gathering.
  • Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs): These are unmanned vehicles designed to operate underwater. UUVs come in various forms including autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and remotely operated underwater vehicles (ROVs). They are used for tasks such as underwater surveys, mine detection, oceanographic research, and underwater inspections of ships and infrastructure.
  • Unmanned Mine Countermeasures (UMCM) Systems: These are specialized unmanned vehicles designed to detect, identify, and neutralize underwater mines. UMCM systems often consist of both UUVs and USVs working together in coordinated operations to clear mines from shipping lanes and other strategic areas.
  • Unmanned Cargo Vessels: Some militaries are exploring the use of unmanned cargo vessels to transport supplies, equipment, and ammunition between ports or remote locations. These vessels can be operated autonomously or remotely controlled by personnel located onshore.
  • Unmanned Surface Combatants: There is ongoing research and development into the use of unmanned surface combatants, which are unmanned vessels equipped with offensive capabilities such as missiles, guns, and electronic warfare systems. These vessels could be used for tasks such as coastal defense, anti-submarine warfare, and long-range strike missions.
  • Unmanned Coastal Monitoring Systems: These systems consist of a network of unmanned water vehicles equipped with various sensors to monitor coastal areas for threats such as smuggling, piracy, and illegal fishing. They also can be used for environmental monitoring and disaster response.

Overall, unmanned water vehicles offer several advantages to militaries including reduced risk to personnel, increased operational endurance, and the ability to operate in dangerous or inaccessible environments. As technology continues to advance, we can expect to see further integration of unmanned systems into naval operations.

UWVs In Action

Ships navigating the Red Sea are facing a new threat in the form of Iranian-made uncrewed underwater vessels (UUVs) – basically, drone torpedoes – writes Straight Arrow News (SAN). These UUVs have been used in the Gulf over the last few years and are now being used by the Houthis off the coast of Yemen.

“U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. military operations in the region, said U.S. naval forces took out the submersible threat, along with three cruise missiles and a suicide drone on Feb. 17,” writes SAN. “Downing cruise missiles and one-way drones is standard fare for U.S. and U.K. sailors in the Red Sea nowadays. However, according to CENTCOM, this is the first time the Houthis have used an underwater drone.”

Vice Admiral Cooper, the U.S. Fifth Fleet commander based in Bahrain, “This was a one-way attack, an unmanned surface vessel that had launched from Houthi-controlled territory, had transited out to international shipping lanes, clearly with the intent to do harm,” writes Telegraph. “Fortunately, it detonated. It’s unclear who the target vessel was.”

UAVs: Three If By Air

Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), more commonly known as drones, have become an integral part of military operations worldwide due to their versatility, cost-effectiveness, and ability to perform various missions without risking human lives. UAVs can be classified into several categories based on their size, range, and intended use. These categories typically include:

  • Micro UAVs: Small drones weighing less than 5 pounds, often used for reconnaissance and surveillance in urban environments.
  • Small UAVs: Weighing between 20 to 55 pounds, these UAVs are used for short-range reconnaissance and surveillance missions.
  • Medium UAVs: Weighing between 55 to 1,320 pounds, these UAVs can carry heavier payloads and have longer endurance, suitable for intelligence gathering and strike missions.
  • Large UAVs: These drones can weigh over 1,320 pounds and are capable of carrying significant payloads over long distances, often used for long-endurance surveillance, reconnaissance, and strike missions.

UAVs are equipped with various sensors such as cameras, radar, and signals intelligence (SIGINT) equipment to gather real-time intelligence on enemy positions, movements, and activities. They also can identify and track enemy targets, providing valuable information for targeting and engagement by other military assets.

Some UAVs are armed with missiles or precision-guided munitions, allowing them to conduct airstrikes against enemy targets with minimal collateral damage. In addition, they can be equipped with electronic warfare systems to disrupt enemy communications, radar, and other electronic systems.

UAVs come in various shapes, sizes, and configurations, each designed to fulfill specific mission requirements. Common types of military UAVs include:

  • Fixed-Wing UAVs: These drones resemble traditional airplanes and offer long-endurance and high-speed capabilities, making them suitable for long-range reconnaissance and strike missions.
  • Rotary-Wing UAVs: Also known as unmanned helicopters or rotorcraft, these drones are capable of vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) and are well-suited for close-range surveillance and urban operations.
  • Hybrid UAVs: Combining features of both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, hybrid UAVs offer the versatility of VTOL operations along with the endurance of fixed-wing aircraft.
  • High-Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) UAVs: These UAVs operate at high altitudes for extended periods, providing persistent surveillance and communication relay capabilities over large areas.

UAVs offer several advantages over manned aircraft, including reducing risk to personnel by removing the need for onboard pilots, UAVs eliminate the risk to human operators during dangerous missions.

Cheaper to operate than manned aircraft, UAVs are an attractive option for various military applications in part because they can loiter over a target area for extended periods, providing continuous surveillance and support to ground forces.

Despite their advantages, UAVs also present challenges including limited payload capacity that restricts their ability to carry advanced sensors or weapons. They are also vulnerable to enemy air defenses, jamming, and cyberattacks, necessitating robust countermeasures and defensive systems.

UAVs In Action

“As the conflict between Ukraine and Russia continues,” writes DroneXL, “Ukrainian forces have turned to innovative technology and tactics to counter the superior firepower of Russian forces. In a frontline drone laboratory, Ukrainian soldiers are utilizing 3D-printed explosive casings to build ‘bomber’ drones capable of taking out artillery, armored vehicles, and tanks.”

In Ukraine, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has become an important way to adapt and develop technology, without relying on assistance from the West. As the conflict has developed into a stalemate along most of the 600-mile front, the focus has increasingly shifted to the skies, with missiles, drones, air-defense systems, and planes being used to attack and cause destruction from above.

“In the drone laboratory, soldiers use 3D printers to create plastic casings for different types of bombs,” DroneXL writes. “According to a soldier using the war name ‘Kucheryaviy,’ one casing can be printed every 24 hours.”

3D-printed bombs have a lighter casing compared to metal ones, which allows them to carry more explosives. These bombs can either be released by expensive bomber drones, which can return safely after completing their mission, or be strapped to suicide or kamikaze drones, which are destroyed upon impact with their targets.

UGVs, USVs, and UAVs bring with them regulatory and ethical considerations regarding civilian casualties, privacy concerns, and adherence to international law. But, overall, they are playing a crucial role in modern warfare, offering enhanced capabilities for intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, surveillance, and precision targeting while reducing the risk to military personnel. Continued advancements in technology are likely to further enhance their capabilities and effectiveness, increasing the military’s reliance on them in the future.