The distant conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh has already provided a sharp lesson on how future battles might be fought.
The war has been most visibly characterised by ‘kill cam’ footage of drones attacking armoured fighting vehicles, including main battle tanks, as well as unprotected infantry, with devastating effect.
It’s not widely understood in the West, but this conflict has the potential to escalate into a wider regional war, dragging Turkey and potentially Russia more overtly into the fighting.
The use of armed drones isn’t new, of course. Predator and Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) armed with Hellfire missiles were used extensively in Afghanistan and elsewhere. Australia is acquiring the armed MQ-9B Sky Guardian.
What’s different in the current conflict in the Caucasus is the use of low-cost ‘loitering munition’ systems bought from allies. Each drone costs far less than a crewed platform or a fully reusable UAV. In the future, rapid manufacturing technologies will allow them to be acquired at low cost and used in large swarms. That’s a potential game-changer for land warfare.
This has generated debate on whether expensive and technologically sophisticated armored vehicles can survive in future battles against masses of cheap ‘suicide drones’. Is the tank, which first emerged on the battlefields of the Western Front in 1917, now approaching the twilight years of its military utility?
With Australia’s purchase of new armoured vehicles under the LAND 400 program underway, the likelihood of large numbers of low-cost drones operating over the future battlespace should be a concern for defence planners.
In Phase 2 of LAND 400, the Defence Department is acquiring 211 Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicles to replace the army’s light armoured vehicles (the ASLAVs). In Phase 3, it will buy 450 infantry fighting vehicles and up to 17 manoeuvre support vehicles to replace the obsolete M113 armoured personnel carriers.
South Korea’s Hanwha Defense Australia’s AS-21 ‘Redback’ and Rheinmetall Defence Australia’s ‘Lynx’ are competing in Phase 3. A decision is due by 2022. The budget range is now $18.1 billion to $27.1 billion for 450 vehicles, or about $50 million each.
These big contracts are important for the future capability of the Australian Defence Force, and it would be premature to write off these vehicles. But the drones can’t be ignored either. Decisions need to ensure capability is effective even in the face of rapid technological shifts.
The suicide drone isn’t going to disappear from the battlespace and, given the sophistication of the systems now being used by both sides in the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, it’s prudent to consider the capabilities that might be employed by a major power in the Indo-Pacific region. An assessment of whether our future combat systems can survive is vital to the capability development process. The ADF cannot assume that it will operate only against an opponent that doesn’t have a credible anti-armour capability.
The first step in responding to this challenge must be to pursue a fast, resilient and survivable very low altitude air-defence capability that is highly mobile. It needs to be able to directly support vehicles carrying infantry and protect systems such as self-propelled artillery, while defending itself. The evidence from Nagorno-Karabakh suggests that drones attack battlefield air defence first to gain and maintain control of the low-altitude airspace before attacking ground combat systems.
The Australian government’s 2020 force structure plan suggests that development of directed-energy weapons will go ahead. EOS Australia is developing this technology. Defence’s LAND 19 Phase 7B project is intended to deliver a national advanced surface-to-air missile system (NASAMS) within the AIR 6500 joint battle management system, a partnership between Raytheon Australia and Kongsberg.
NASAMS is a next step beyond the RBS-70 man-portable surface-to-air missile and will be based on the AIM-120 AMRAAM-ER (advanced medium-range air-to-air missile—extended range). It will enhance the army’s ability to counter crewed aircraft and some high-altitude drones.
Relying on traditional ground-based systems such as NASAMS to counter large numbers of small, cheap lethal drones will quickly exhaust these expensive missiles—and there will always be more drones on the way. With cheaper drones likely to cost around $100,000 each versus a $50 million armoured vehicle, the drone wins the value-for-money test.
The force structure plan has the right answer with directed-energy weapons and greater investment in counter-drone systems using electronic warfare technology, and ultimately compact solid-state laser weapons. These initiatives must be fast-tracked.
The roles of these weapons and systems should be expanded beyond defence of individual vehicles. Speed and sustained effect are crucial against large swarms of cheap, lethal UAVs. It doesn’t make sense to try to hit a $100,000 drone with a million-dollar missile.
It’s also important to recognize that, unlike Australia and other liberal democracies, our adversaries may have no ethical or legal concerns about using autonomous weapons. They will use these new technologies without constraint on and over the battlespace.
If we have to fight a major power, we will need to be able to attack with our own swarms—or we’ll go into battle with one hand tied behind our back.
Malcolm Davis is a senior analyst at ASPI.
This article first appeared in The Strategist, a publication of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.