Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Begun The Drone Wars Have

It appears that recently I've become the BAE Systems of the defence blogging community; promising much, only to deliver the end product late (though thankfully not over budget, on account of their not being one!). It's been a hectic few weeks and tomorrow sees me off on a round trip to Surrey, which I'm sure will be hilarious and not at all frustrating, what with all the Christmas Eve traffic. Only after that will I be able to relax for a while with family, which fundamentally is what Christmas is all about. 

I shall be away from any form of computer until after the 5th January, so I think it best to get my Merry Christmas's and Happy New Years in now before I get started. I'd just like to say thank you to everyone that has read the blog over the last year, especially those that have interacted through the comments. It's been a pleasure conversing with you all and I hope that in the past year the blog has lived up to the standard that you've come to expect from it. One of my resolutions for next year will be to exceed those expectations going forward.

I'd also like to give a special thank you to Think Defence and his fantastic website, in particular for the regular links back here which have helped to consistently grow the blogs traffic through 2014. My sincere hope is that the quality of the articles here has been sufficient to earn that attention.

And speaking of linking elsewhere, the December issue of Global Defence Technology is now available. Indeed, it's been available for a while now, it's just that some of us are a little behind the curve! You can find the latest issue here, including an interesting graphical timeline celebrating 100 years of the Royal Navy's submarine service.

But the main feature of this article is at almost the opposite end of the scale to submarines. Rather than dipping below the waves, we're going up, up and away. 

Sort of.

Because since the latter stages of the second word war the UK has operated almost exclusively in environments where control of the air was either uncontested by the enemy, or contested only briefly. The Falklands war is the obvious outlier, perhaps with Korea thrown in as well, but it very much remains the exception to the broad rule of UK operations post 1945. The significant aspect of that which I want to look at today has been the almost complete absence of aerial observation over UK forces in the field.

This has been especially true in recent years, with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though the UK armed forces are returning to more "conventional" training, it will doubtless be in the back of everyones mind that UK ground forces are likely - at least for the foreseeable future - to find themselves operating in a theatre where control of the air is held by UK and/or allied assets.

One wonders then (for One is now in posh mode, having started to read "Edgehill 1642", by Peter Young, having now cleared a 12 month backlog of reading material. Highly recommended so far) to what extent will UK forces (and indeed its allies) emphasise the need to protect positions against observation from the air? 

Even with the advantage of air superiority, UK ground forces have still had to remain conscious of the danger posed by enemy observers on high ground. But camouflage against overhead observers - particularly in rear areas - is something quite different. For example some of the accounts provided by German officers who fought in France during the mid-late 1944 period is illuminating, not least because of the tedious and often extreme lengths that they had to go to in order to avoid allied aerial observation.

The reason I ask is simple; drones.

Forget about the big ones like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk or the General Atomics Reaper for now. I'm talking little drones, up to about the size of the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle (wingspan approx. 10 ft). Because the one thing that has struck me the most watching the footage coming out of places like Ukraine, Syria and Iraq has been the proliferation of small drones, most of them commercial types available to the general public, and their potential for military observation.

Being small, made predominantly from non-metallic materials, and with no real major heat sources, these drones have so far proved incredibly difficult to detect, even when flown here in the UK close to commercial air traffic routes. And even when they can be seen, an army is likely to run out of surface to air missiles long before the enemy runs out of cheap drones, while machine gun and rifle fire has to date proven to be ineffective as a means of bringing these vehicles down. At the minute electronic jamming would seem the most promising first line of defence.

Carrying small cameras like the GoPro range, they thus offer a relatively cheap and difficult to counter method of acquiring overhead imagery of enemy positions. The quality of these images is already pretty good and is only likely to improve further still as the continuous drive to make better cameras for mobile phones pushes back the boundaries of what can be achieved in such a small package.

It doesn't take much imagination from there to realise the implications for UK forces going forward. A cheap drone, a cheap camera, and a cheap transmitter all couple together to provide potential enemies with the ability to peer not just over the frontline, but potentially quite a distance back into allied positions. For those wishing to avoid the unwanted attentions of a 155mm battery dropping rounds into a command post, it might in the future serve to become masters of protection against aerial observation. 

For those that are interested here are a few videos to illustrate the point. The first comes from the conflict in Ukraine, showing how even a drone flying at a relatively modest altitude can see for quite some distance in all directions;

You might have to open it out in a new browser or use the full screen function, as I can't adjust the embedded video player size.

The next video comes from Syria, featuring drone footage taken over Kobane. Once again it is clear just how far the camera can see even at this modest height. A manually adjusted focus function wouldn't be hard to install, and the image as it is already provides a remarkable amount of detail that could be analysed more closely at a later time;

And just in case you've ever wondered what it's like to be on the receiving end of a volley of 155mm rounds, wonder no more. Don't try this at home!;

Which is worse though; being shelled by heavy artillery or shot at by an AH-1 Cobra? Decide for yourself;

Merry Christmas everyone, and a Happy New Year too.

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