The NATO Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) has published a study on the vulnerability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, in the contested airspace of future operating theatres. It finds that although the use of UAVs “became critical in the global fight on terrorism”, current systems are not yet ready to survive in non-permissive or hostile air environments.
The study provides a detailed assessment of current UAV components’ limitations and vulnerabilities and addresses operational, technical and legal questions. It outlines a vision of possible future conflict scenarios and compares these predicted threats with current capabilities.
The study focuses on Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE), such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, and High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) drones. However, the authors argue that identified risks and threats, as well as the given recommendations, may apply to other classes of UAVs as well.
The study argues that, in contrast to manned aviation and ground operations, UAVs are currently only operated in permissive environments, where NATO forces do not anticipate a robust enemy air defence network. The highest risk to NATO drones "will come from enemy air defence systems and combat aircraft, as they are designed to detect and engage aircraft at long ranges,” the report states. “However, even rocket-propelled grenades or sniper rifles could cause catastrophic damage to the airframe and payload if an adversary were within range.”
The UAV system network and software is also vulnerable to cyber attacks, according to the report. Radio transmissions can reveal operators’ whereabouts, and ground control stations, satellites and satellite ground segments can be potential electronic warfare (EW) targets. “From the enemy’s perspective, the satellite’s receiving antenna and the RPA’s Global Positioning System antenna appear to be the most promising targets for EW engagements,” the study says.
The study also suggests that future asymmetric responses could see adversaries attacking operators rather than the drone itself: “Depending on the mission, RPAS personnel may be working at different locations,” the study says. “Within the area of operations, adversaries may engage RPAS personnel with any available weapons, for example combat aircraft, artillery or infantry.”
The study advises that there is sufficient information publicly available, for example, in the media, to enable enemies to identify personnel and carry out such attacks.
Although the study focuses on current systems it highlights some future designs that might prevail over existing vulnerabilities. These include: “deep penetration" drones that will provide full electromagnetic stealth and conduct reconnaissance and air strikes deep inside enemy territory; combat UAVs designed to conduct strikes in non-permissive and hostile air environments; swarms of UAVs operating in large numbers; and carrier-based UAVs designed to carry long-range, precision-guided air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions and project military power like naval aircraft carriers. “It is very unlikely there will be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution for RPAS operations in a contested environment,” the study concludes.
The 136-page report devotes just two pages to the legal and moral aspects of drone use and only then in the context as to whether adverse public perception might endanger deployment. It identifies three major concerns shaping public perception of drones: radicalization of the target population as a result of drone strikes; dissent about the legitimacy of certain types of drone operations; and concern about using private contractors for former military tasks within the remotely piloted system. On the radicalization issue, the study is non committal, citing evidence on both sides of the argument.
The legitimacy question, however, is airily dismissed in three paragraphs as a "non-sequitur": drones are seen as just another delivery system. Indeed, the study claims that "the probability of mistakes and unintended attacks is significantly reduced compared to engagements from manned aircraft". The study concludes that the public debate on drones "is often driven by emotion rather than fact" and that "an adversary may also leverage that debate by spreading disinformation and propaganda through global mass media and the internet to exploit public opinion for its own purposes".
With drone strikes becoming much more central to Western military strategy—over the weekend it was announced that a senior Taliban commander was killed in a NATO drone strike in Afghanistan—it is understandable that some within NATO are seeking to curtail a serious public debate on the use of armed drones. In the UK, for example, the MoD is facing a legal challenge over armed drone deployment outside of Afghanistan. Critics argue that any redeployment of UK Reaper drones to take part in military operations in Iraq or to long-term bases in Africa or the Gulf would involve clear risks to both British and global peace and security.
It is disappointing, therefore, that NATO centres like JAPCC do not seem to understand the benefits that would accrue from seeking to build an international consensus to regulate and limit the use of armed drones.