Drone Warfare from a grunt’s perspective

Folks love to say that the new and shiny thing “is the future”. Air power was the future and would replace ground warfare, tanks and mechanized forces were the future that would replace the infantry, and now we have “drones are the future and will replace (x)”. While it would be convenient and a lot less messy to let a few dozen to a few thousand drones battle it out to see who wins, the effectiveness of drones ensures there will be a vibrant role for infantry in the future of warfare.

Drones have demonstrated their lethality, ease of use and effectiveness in Syria, Afghanistan and the most recent Armenia/Azerbaijan conflict. Low cost, and not heavily resource intensive, drones also provide a low risk option for commanders and war fighters. They can provide an effective set of eyes, and outfitted with missiles, bombs or other kinetic options, they can also provide needed lethal force. The most differentiating factor about drones though, is their flexibility and small footprint.

Perspectives | Armenia's military position in Nagorno-Karabakh grows  precarious | Eurasianet
Camouflaged, dug in and ready to fight, maybe even with anti-air defenses… but vulnerable to drones

Traditional platforms provide excellent firepower and surveillance capabilities and probably excel more in their roles than any drones does (having a PTIDS is usually a better option than ScanEagle, having an A10 is more comforting than having a predator drone). There are also plenty of counter measures for traditional platforms (Stinger Missile, Carl Gustav), and the large footprint means the enemy will most likely react to the A10 circling on station. Drones, while not as effective in a traditional sense, are extremely difficult to counter, highly lethal, mobile and easily replaceable. Plus, a teenager can’t rig up a few air craft carriers in an afternoon like they can with a drone.

We have helicopters, fighters and bombers that can launch hellfire missiles, conduct a gun run and provide CAS. Naval platforms launch tomahawk missiles, and artillery and tanks can dominate a battlefield. All of these platforms though, use up quite a bit of resources- manpower, fuel, electricity- to just name a few. They are also large and inflexible: the Russians didn’t have a good time with their tanks in Chechnya and US Forces have learned time and again (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea) that projecting power through naval platforms and airpower does not solely win a war.

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Drones will be able to penetrate an enemy’s lines and knock out their artillery. They can disable, destroy or harass tanks. Outfitted and programmed correctly, a drone can zero in on heat signatures, different spectrums on the electromagnetic wavelength, or a number of other targets. Is it difficult to foresee a future when a drone, zeroed in on the EM wavelength, is able to target Command and Control centers successfully? This is already happening. How will an artillery battery counter a drone swarm? How will tanks counter a drone kamikaze attack? These questions are not easily answered, because there are no readily available counter measures to defeating a drone swarm.

This leaves a clear role for the infantry in the place of future wars. Commanders will continue to aggrandize their roles and depict “push button” warfare, but push buttons work both ways, and an American headquarters platoon lights up like a Christmas tree on most sensors. Remember, the “bad guys” can send their drone over and push a button as well. What we will be left with is artillery batteries, armored columns and command/control centers that can be targeted and destroyed effectively with the strategic and operational use of drones.

Being able to neutralize tanks, artillery and Command/Control elements at the smallest level of war presents another problem as well: a drone can be effectively used at the smallest levels of warfare. Previously, to successfully attack even a company level headquarters, or an artillery battery required a massive amount of manpower and resources. Drones can cut through the usual defensive barriers, and if not successful, their loss is much more palatable than losing an anti-tank platoon, or a counter battery.

The infantry though, will continue to eke out a living in the mud and dirt. While an artillery battery, or an armored column is an easy target for a drone swarm, how can a drone swarm effectively target a dispersed company of light infantry fighters, holed up and ready to fight throughout a valley? Sure, drones will be able to target and destroy a squad in the open, or take out hardened fighting positions, maybe even track and destroy a few well hidden and camouflaged units, but it will not be easy to effectively target the infantry.

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