As Small Drones Shape How We Fight, is the British Army Ready to Face Them?

Formidable opponents: Bayraktar TB2 drones on a runway. Image: İsengrim angler faelan / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

The available evidence indicates that small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) play a significant role in shaping a battlespace, but the British Army is not prepared to deal with the threat.

A Bird’s Eye View

It typically starts with a collection of vehicles and soldiers in the centre of a screen, a form of crosshair focused on them. Slowly the camera will begin to pan out and orbit the object of the footage, indicating that the video feed is coming from an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). The observed are unlikely to know that they are being watched: even a mid-sized UAV such as the Orlan-10 is hard to see at an altitude of a few kilometres, and its small engine provides only a faint indication that it is there. What happens next depends on the type of UAV; in some instances, the observed soldiers and vehicles are subjected to a massive bombardment of rockets carrying cluster munitions as well as conventional artillery rounds. Some have time to run for cover; others are less fortunate. In other instances, a single precise explosion is observed – either a guided artillery round or a missile – which typically destroys the object of the video. One further scenario that is increasingly common is the release of a modified grenade or mortar from the bottom of the observing UAV, which tumbles towards the targets and detonates among them.

Often the footage has been edited to shorten its length, but the brevity of these scenes is indicative of the speed with which such events can happen. The omnipresence of UAVs in Ukraine has enabled Russian artillery to complete a targeting cycle (defined as the location of a target, transmission of its coordinates and subsequent engagement with an artillery system, followed by a damage assessment) in as little as three or four minutes. This is rarely sufficient time for the engaged personnel to escape; their fate ultimately rests with the accuracy of the weapon that they are targeted with. Ukraine captures most imaginations, and the war is often viewed through the lens of a UAV; however, it is not the first war to show that the proliferation of small UAVs can shape a battlefield. The 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war crystallised the role of the small to medium-sized UAV: they were omnipresent and often appeared impossible for the Armenian forces to defend against. UAVs were of course used extensively in Syria, including in the infamous 2018 swarm attacks against the Russian Hmeimim airbase, and in a 2021 attack against a US base in the same country. UAVs of various sizes have been used extensively in Libya; many of the Houthi attacks against Saudi Arabia have employed UAVs; and Islamic State is understood to have used them extensively to coordinate combined arms operations in Iraq and to conduct reconnaissance.

Threat Assessment

It is apparent from a brief overview of recent conflicts that small UAVs are here to stay and that they can inflict considerable harm. Non-state forces can use them to inflict losses upon a technologically superior opponent and coordinate their actions to frustrate campaign goals. Peer opponents can use them to enrich their situational awareness at the tactical, operational and strategic level. ‘Hobby drones’ such as the eponymous DJI series can be procured for less than £1,000 and provide a frontline force with stabilised high-definition imagery while imposing a minimal training burden. This means that these UAVs are now supplementing the layered military-standard UAVs in service with Russia and China, among others. It also means that wherever British forces deploy next, they can expect to face a threat from hobby drones and medium-sized military UAVs such as the Orlan-10 and Orlan-30; they might even face strike UAVs such as the Bayraktar TB2 or China’s Wing Loong family.

However, the British Army is not adequately equipped to counter these threats. At a technical level, three types of system are required: radars and electro-optical systems to detect and track UAVs; kinetic hard kill effects for the medium-sized targets; and electronic soft kill effects for hobby drones. To be clear, the British Army is not without air defence capabilities: it operates the STARStreak short-range air defence missile that is available as a shoulder-fired weapon and mounted on the Stormer tracked armoured vehicle. It also operates the Lightweight Multirole Missile (LMM) system, which is optimised for slow targets such as UAVs, according to Thales. Medium-range air defence is provided by a limited quantity of Sky Sabre systems. Air situational awareness is provided by the Land Environment Air Picture Provision capability, which is being upgraded to enable multiple effectors and sensors to be integrated into a single command and control (C2) network.

As the Army makes decisions around Future Soldier 2030, it should give consideration to the ‘counter-drone fight’, which is likely to be one of the most important in shaping the battlefield

However, all these systems are deployed by the 7th Air Defence Group, consisting of two Royal Artillery full-time regiments and one reserve regiment. This means that they are centralised and required to provide protection to all of the British Army’s critical nodes – from C2 positions to manoeuvring armour and logistics depots. Furthermore, they only really address the threat from medium-sized craft such as the Orlan-10 and Orlan-30, and would struggle to reach the maximum altitude of UAVs such as the Bayraktar TB2, which can fly at 7,620 m. A limited capability exists to engage hobby drones in the form of Drone Dome, a system procured from Rafael Advanced Defence Systems in 2018 and since deployed to Syria and Gatwick Airport. Only six sets of Drone Dome were procured; it is a stationary system requiring masts and tripods to be set up, which limits its ability to support mobile operations, and the small quantity procured again means that it is unlikely to be capable of covering the entire battlespace occupied by British forces. Another contract for counter-UAV (C-UAV) systems was cancelled by the Ministry of Defence in April 2022, and it is not clear when or if it will be taken up again. This indicates that the Army-s C-UAV capacity should not be expected to increase in the short term.

Overall, this admittedly simplistic comparison of system characteristics indicates that the British Army might struggle to defend its forces – especially when deployed at scale – from the impacts of hobby drones and small UAVs of the kind observed in Ukraine, Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.

As the British Army decides how its reformed units under Future Soldier 2030 will fight, it should give consideration to how it will conduct the ‘counter-drone fight’, which is likely to be one of the most important in shaping the battlefield. A lot of focus has rightly been placed on ‘fighting deep’, which essentially means creating attrition in areas such as C2 and logistics to hamper an enemy’s ability to fight in the close. But the proliferation of UAVs and the likelihood of a fragmented and fluid frontline mean that the assets used to conduct the deep fight – the Multiple Launch Rocket System and AH-64 Apache – may well be located by UAVs of all sizes and targeted by an enemy’s deep strike capabilities, as will anything else considered important by an opponent. It should be further understood that these capabilities are not the sole preserve of peer opponents like Russia. US officers observed Islamic State targeting Iraqi command posts in Mosul using UAVs, artillery and vehicle-borne IEDs. The threat is real, and one that cannot be ignored.

What Can be Done?

Fortunately, most UAVs at present are relatively fragile and rely upon radio frequency command links and GPS for navigation – both of which can be jammed with the right system. The expansion of the British Army’s electronic warfare (EW) assets to two regiments – 14 and 21 Signals – announced under Future Soldier could introduce the kind of soft kill capabilities that complicate the use of all UAVs, regardless of size. However, difficult decisions would still have to be made around how the expanded EW forces fight. For instance, is it better for them to be focused on the Deep Recce Strike Brigade Combat Team in support of the deep fight, or should they be distributed across the force, diluting their reach and capabilities? Additional procurement of handheld C-UAV jammers and LMM and their distribution throughout the force, in a similar fashion to the General-Purpose Machine Gun, could be another – albeit costly – solution. There is arguably a lot that can be learnt from the Ukrainian Armed Forces in this regard, as they have enjoyed considerable success in downing Russian UAVs. However, it is clear that a dual approach of kinetic and soft kill effects is required at all levels.

As far as defeating them is concerned, it is better to destroy a UAV and its crew on the ground than to wait for it to be airborne

Alongside an increase in the technical ability to counter UAVs, there is also a need for a theoretical understanding of how their efficacy can be mitigated. For example, as far as defeating them is concerned, it is better to destroy a UAV and its crew on the ground than to wait for it to be airborne. EW can assist here by helping to identify likely UAV teams from their radio transmissions; there are even commercial solutions such as the DJI Aeroscope that have been employed by Russia to locate civilian hobby UAVs. If this approach were coupled with the aggressive use of the Army’s own UAVs, it could be possible to locate and engage enemy UAVs before they are launched. However, this would sacrifice intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capacity from other missions and require some dedication from a considerable portion of the force.

Finally, the British Army could develop its concepts of camouflage and concealment alongside its emissions control procedures. Russian forces are known to task UAVs according to detected radio frequency transmissions and conduct reconnaissance and strikes on that basis. It follows that practicing manoeuvre warfare with a minimal radio frequency footprint is a logical step to reducing an opponent’s ISR windows. Finally, traditional camouflage for vehicles, defensive positions, and command posts must be employed and practiced against UAVs regularly. It may not prevent a UAV from identifying a position, but it can introduce doubt and delay into a targeting cycle.

At the very least, it would be prudent for all elements of the British Army to think about how they can assist in the C-UAV fight when deployed. It is not enough to hope that the 7th Air Defence Group and RAF will take care of the threat posed by UAVs. In a peer environment they will likely be busy fighting against fast air and helicopters, and they may not be present in a sub-peer fight. In any case, their numbers and reach are limited. Thinking about the threat is a start, and should be used to inform inter-service assessments of how UAVs can be effectively countered.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Sam Cranny-Evans

Associate Fellow

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