Aerial access into enemy territory is a decisive component in all military operations. From reconnaissance to super-high resolution satellite imagery, many aspects of operational planning are dependent on the level of situational awareness and information gathering.
Unsurprisingly, the use of drones (unmanned aerial vehicles) has increasingly become an elementary asset in conflicts over the last two decades for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), as well as targeting.
Drones reshape tactics and strategies used by armed forces and can change the way we fight wars. These ‘eyes in the sky’ enable the lethal force to be applied to targets far beyond the frontlines, particularly by non-state actors, posing significant security challenges.
The military advantage to have drones for tactical and strategic means has resulted in a rapid increase of acquisition and use by armed forces worldwide. This includes lethal applications with various types of larger and smaller drones. They would likely not carry out with crewed aircraft due to physical and political risks involved for operations.
This post will explore the ways how drones are shaping the future of drone warfare.
Situational awareness and targeting support
Both state and non-state armed groups benefit significantly from improved information on troop movements, enemy positions, and general awareness of the environment they operate in. Increased data collection and real-time tracking can be a decisive element in the battle, and to some extent, leveled the playing field in conflicts. As it is stated: “He who sees the enemy first wins” because logically all armed groups try to act invisibly, for instance, by operating “off the air” as much as possible or hiding among civilians.
Payload and precision
The use of armed drones provides the means to carry out strikes against individuals or targets with limited collateral damage. In the past, armed groups have taken the opportunity to acquire and develop such systems to carry out strikes against sensitive economic and military targets, both inside and outside the conflict areas.
Smaller drones, in particular, have proved able to avoid radar detection and air defenses due to their size or quantity. The ability to precisely deliver lethal payloads with (semi) remote-controlled platforms at both short and long distances dramatically increases the number of potential targets. Commercially available parts and components, together with blueprints of military drone platforms that can be reproduced domestically, enhance the proliferation and increased use of drones against a wider array of targets.
All actors currently deploying drones in combat have made use of the ability for persistent surveillance or striking targets. They are keen to showcase their drone capabilities during parades and press events. Initially, drone footage for propaganda purposes was shared with the media to show modern warfare precision. The events took another turn when IS started to use drone footage to boast about their military strength in propaganda videos. This gives a clear message: “even though the physical damage of drone strikes might be limited, albeit, with far-ranging geopolitical consequences, we can target you where we want.”