Drone warfare: the cost of progress

Western military planners see armed drones as the route to battlefield ascendancy. But rapid technological advance is shredding their dream.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
12 May 2016
Predator drone. Wikimedia Commons / US Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt. Public domain.

Predator drone. Wikimedia Commons / US Air Force photo/Lt Col Leslie Pratt. Public domain.Two recent columns in this series examined the status of ISIS, contrasting the many press reports saying the movement was in retreat with some more independent analysis (see "America vs ISIS, the prospect" [15 April 2016] and "ISIS in action: Tel Askuf decoded" [6 May 2016]). In the past week there have been further indications that ISIS is proving more resilient than expected, especially as the tempo for the Iraqi army assault on Mosul, with powerful help from the United States military, falters (see Liz Sly, “The War against Islamic State hits hurdles just as the U.S. military gears up”, Washington Post, 8 May 2016).

What is clear is the determination of the United States and its coalition partners to avoid committing large ground forces to the war. The deep failures in Afghanistan and Iraq inflicted harsh lessons which have been learned, at least in respect of the need to avoid deploying tens of thousands of "boots on the ground". There may by contrast be plenty of special forces, airstrikes and armed drones; these represent the changing nature of the wars now being fought by the west.

As this kind of war intensifies, though – and with every prospect of major operations against ISIS in Libya – there are clear indications that the move to remote warfare carries unexpected consequences (see "The drone-war blowback", 29 September 2011). Nowhere is this more clear than with the proliferation of armed drones, which are still seen as weapons of choice in Washington, Paris, London and Tel Aviv.

Five years ago, just two countries produced and sold armed drones for export: the United States and Israel. Recipients were limited to a handful of allies, including Britain. Since then the rate of proliferation has been quite staggering, even faster than the warnings given by groups such as the Remote Control Project and the work undertaken for it by Open Briefing in 2014.

More recent work by the Remote Control Project informs an article by James Bamford in the journal Foreign Policy. This estimates that 86 countries now have drones. While the great majority are for surveillance and reconnaissance, and many have useful civil functions, Bamford also reckons that as many as 19 countries have armed drones (see "Terrorists have drones now. Thanks Obama", Foreign Policy, 28 April 2016).

This casts an ironic light on comments from within the US airforce in 2012 expressing uncertainty about the future of its surplus Predators and Reapers as the war in Afghanistan wound down. It should not have worried: enter ISIS and expanding wars in Iraq, Syria and Libya, and work for all its drones – and much more – was assured.

In fact the current problem for the USAF is that a rapid expansion in the drone-force is now happening, but without enough pilots to fly them. Many are seeking to leave the service or at least redeploy away from the drone-force. A recent report in Aviation Week quotes a USAF source saying that around 250 pilots are leaving annually, while the current training programmes are only producing 150 recruits (see Caitlin Lee, “Pilots Needed”, Aviation Week, 25 April – 8 May 2016).

The plan now is to expand the entire force in dramatic fashion, the aim being to train 400 pilots a year by 2019. It is a programme that may prove urgently necessary for some very new reasons, which centre on the manner in which armed-drones at all levels of size and power are proliferating. This is an aspect illuminated with subtle power in another Aviation Week piece by David Hambling, author of the hugely informative book, Swarm Troopers (see "Loitering Munition Availability Expanding Internationally", Aviation Week, 14 April 2016).

Hambling argues that although most people think of armed-drones as being large pilotless aircraft such as the Reaper and Predator, their development is being paralleled by much smaller devices such as the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS). The latter is suitable for use by individual soldiers, each of whom would carry small but lethal explosives with a range of several miles.

The fix that wasn't

It is here, though, that the proliferation problem is becoming unexpectedly worrying, not so much for the military as for western counter-terror organisations. Two examples of current developments give an idea of the problem. The first is a small armed-drone called the Warmate produced by a Polish company, WB Electronics. The Warmate weighs less than 4.8 kilograms, and has a 30-minute flight-time endurance and a range of 10 kilometres; the company recently announced that it is working with a major Asian state as a potential customer.

Hambling says: “Warmate has electro-optical and infrared (IR) sensors and two warhead options, one for use against light armoured vehicles, the other a fragmentation device.” This may all be entirely legitimate, given the absence of any arms-control agreements for armed-drones; but once commercial sales add to proliferation it is wise to assume that the grey and black markets will quickly get in on the act.

Moreover, most of the components of systems such as Warmate – including propulsion, sensors and even warheads – are likely to be readily available on the open commercial market. WB Electronics is, as the name implies, mainly a defence-electronics company now expanding into this sector.

The company is not large, employing around 800 staff. But an even more significant indicator of trends is the Turkish company Kartal Savunma Teknolojileri (KST), founded only in 2013, initially with a staff of four. Two months ago KST flew a new loitering munition, the XQ-06 Fi, which has been designed from the start for ease of use. KST’s CEO said recently: “We wanted to make everything operator-friendly with very simple interfaces, few buttons and minimal data to interpret.” The Fi is also designed to be used in swarms of dozens of individual drones all working together with limited human involvement (see "Remote control: a new way of war", 18 October 2012).

Warmate, Fi and many other systems will be produced commercially and exported in large numbers in the coming years, the know-how will also spread and most of the components will be available off-the-shelf – which will open up a whole feast of opportunities for the paramilitary of tomorrow.  

It is barely three years ago, even as western militaries saw drones as the uncomplicated way forward, that the Remote Control Project first started warning of their dangers. Today, the true implications of what has been unleashed are becoming clear. The phrase “be careful of what you wish for” comes to mind, but it is perhaps a little late for that.

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