Western defence forces need to do more to counter the emerging threat of COTS drones

US Army cyber command tests a COTS drone

A COTS drone being tested by the US Army Cyber Command

In October last year two French soldiers were wounded and two Kurdish fighters were killed in Iraq by a weaponised commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) drone. This event sent shock waves through Western defence forces, with many looking for an innovative means with which to provide a solution to the emerging threat of weaponised drones.

A number of articles and solutions have recently been published on this issue but perhaps it is worth stepping back and taking a better look at the problem as a whole.

There is no doubt that drones pose a serious threat to Western militaries. For some decades Western forces have focused on counter-insurgency warfare, fighting against forces that couldn’t come close to their technological advantage. In this environment other nations and the private sector have started to catch up in regards to the development and use of drones.

Currently there are two main threats to Western forces from drones. The first is insurgent forces using COTS drones for surveillance and attack. The second, often forgotten, threat is the use of drones by near-peer militaries, as demonstrated by Russia in Ukraine. With the current fight against ISIS in Iraq-Syria the focus is heavily on the insurgent COTS threat.

So what do we do?

The obvious answer should be to develop a counter-drone system that will prevent the enemy using COTS drones to target our personnel on operations. Unfortunately it’s not going to be that simple. While there is undoubtedly a technical solution that will mitigate some of the threat, what is really needed is an adjustment to the way we fight.

When we look for technical solutions we are hoping that we will not have to go through the long process of changing other behaviours. To place this in an historical context, it is like the emergence of the machine gun. Armies could not just look for a counter-machine gun system and hope that their training, practices and tactics could remain unchanged. The entire way armies fought had to change. While the COTS drone is not as disruptive a force as the emergence of the machine gun, it too will change how we fight.

But how do we change the way we fight?

This is not a problem that can simply be “arm-chaired”, we cannot put a collection of clever people in a room and have them come up with the solution. We need to get out into the field. We need to start providing our opposing forces on exercises with COTS drones to use for surveillance. It would be interesting to see how young platoon commanders responded to having their platoons buzzed by hostile drones.

Out of these lessons we can start changing how we fight. We may have to improve how we camouflage vehicles and positions (a skill that has become less practised in recent years). We may find that platoons have to patrol differently, or that our own drones become more important in regards to controlling the airspace. Do we need to protect forward operating bases from drones or is it more important to protect patrols? The key thing is that the only way we can learn these lessons is through trial and error. We need brave leadership willing to risk failure on exercise to ensure victory on operations.

The near-peer threat offers a whole host of challenges. Russia is currently using 16 different types of drones of varying sizes in Ukraine. Russia has used Ukraine as a laboratory of sorts in which to experiment with new ways of using drones. One of the most concerning tactics is the use of drones working in pairs: one drone flies low in order to attract enemy ground fire, and the information is then passed on to another drone flying at a higher altitude, which then feeds the information back to artillery.

Ukrainian forces are keenly aware that the appearance of drones often will precede massive artillery strikes. One such a strike destroyed two armoured Ukrainian battalions in less than three minutes. This is something the West needs to pay attention to. We need to ensure that we do not solely focus on the issue of COTS drones being used by insurgents, but also look at what role drones will play in conventional conflicts against a near-peer aggressor.

Instead of regarding drones as something new we need to see them for what they are, namely, surveillance systems. Drones are in essence no different to forward observers or helicopters; they have simply removed the user to a ‘safe’ distance. We need to focus on defeating the system behind the drones rather than becoming too focused on the drones themselves. Even in regards to the use of drones as offensive weapons, they are essentially ‘smart’ weapons. If we can attack the systems behind them then they will revert back to being ‘dumb’ weapons and the threat they pose will be reduced.

There is no easy answer to the emerging drone threat but there is a road map to mitigating the problem.

We need to start integrating COTS drones into our exercises, and commanders need to become used to their troops being harassed by drones. From this, counter-tactics will be developed. There is no doubt that science and technology will find some way to reduce the threat of drones, but invariably the enemy will find a way to adapt. Putting all of our faith in a technological solution is a strategically precarious option and will result in needless casualties.

We need to step up and show our willingness to engage in innovation and experimentation in the tactics space, not just in technological areas. This is how we can use innovation to stay ahead of the enemy and ensure we are not left behind by this new technology.

Tim Jones is the New Zealand Army’s Innovation, Business Improvement and Efficiency Manager. This post first appeared on the website “Grounded Curiosity” on 27 November 2016.