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Suppressing air defenses by collective operations of attack UAVs

Robotizing of weapon systems is an outstanding trend in modern military hardware development. The massive introduction of robotic complexes for military purposes and relevant technologies since the mid-21st century brought about revolutionary changes in military theory and practice, the "Military-Industrial Courier" writes.

Suppressing air defenses by collective operations of attack UAVs
UAV swarms used on a battlefield (Illustration: BuzzFeed)

In terms of complexity and amount of missions to be performed, the leading positions belong to military aerospace robotic complexes (MARC). While 37 countries are engaged in development and manufacture of on-land MARC, the air- and space-borne types are, respectively, the domain of 45 and 11 countries. In the next decade, or sooner as per other estimates, the intensive use of UAVs will be standard practice in military operations. This is confirmed by numerous facts of using unmanned aerial vehicles in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yugoslavia, Libya, and Syria.

A contributing factor to development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), especially small ones, is their relatively low production and operating costs. The production cost of UAVs is 25-40% lower than that of manned vehicles while their operating cost is nearly 80% lower. In addition to these advantages there also are mobility, a possibility of rapid deployment of combat UAVs to the theater of operations, stealthy use, no personnel loss, simple operator training, plus a possibility of integrating UAVs in a single information space of the theater. Another contributing factor is progress in creation of new construction materials, light and economical engines, high technology information communication platforms and navigation systems.

Today, UAVs are classified as per their designed purpose (combat, special purpose, supporting, multi-role); control method (remotely controlled, autonomous, combined), type of aerodynamic arrangement (aircraft, helicopter, combined), source of power and other parameters. Used most often as the chief parameters are the takeoff weight and operating range (radius). The first of them divides all the vehicles in mini (up to 1 kg), small (1-30 kg), light (30-200 kg), medium (200-500 kg), and heavy (over 500 kg) class. The second does in close-in range (up to 25 km), short range (up to 100 km), medium range (up to 500 km) and long range (over 500 km).

The tasks assigned to UAV vary depending on their technical capabilities and classification. Their most important missions are aerial reconnaissance, neutralization of air defense and electronic countermeasures, radio signal communication and relay, target designation, fire correction, and assessment of damage done to enemy. In addition, UAVs can be used for search and rescue operations, minefield detection, fighting against manned and unmanned aerial vehicles, antisubmarine defense, cargo delivery, border and territory protection, and putting small spacecraft into low Earth orbit. The list of missions is determined by the vehicles’ capabilities and can be additionally specified.

The comprehensive improvement of effectiveness is the general trend in creating and using UAVs. Here, the foreign states have made an outstanding progress. In order to extend the operating range, various means have been tested for refueling UAVs with liquid fuel and even for in-flight recharging of onboard batteries by a laser beam. New technologies are being introduced for positioning and using UAVs in civil air traffic corridors. Actively developed are micro-miniaturization (to reduce power consumption) and unconventional power sources which indisputably will increase UAV production and expand their application.

Worth of special attention are dedicated uses of UAVs in space. Increased interest has been registered in assembly (self-assembly with the aid of 3D print) and refueling (since 2013 at international space station) of spaceships in orbit, and the landing of UAVs on comets and asteroids. Currently under study are "hardware" prototypes of 10-gram satellites put into orbit by a carrier weighing no more than a kilo, as well as miniature systems for reconnaissance like Smart Dust.

The US studies a possibility of creating bio-reconnaissance systems by implanting control nanochips, sensors, cameras and wireless transmitters in insects. To cut down the cost and replace the loss now under development are UAV manufacturing technologies that use 3D method in field conditions.

Worth of special note is the fact that positive results in improving UAVs abroad are considered as a basis for realizing the principle of UAV collective actions (principle of a swarm and a herd). As early as the 1960s the collective actions of UAVs in a massive airborne missile strike were regarded as an important element in measures aimed at neutralizing the enemy air defense. UAVs mission was to initiate the reconnaissance and air defense systems’ fire for waste of munition in engaging no value targets. In addition, the UAV missions also included jamming and destruction of electronic systems. Such actions, as per design, were supposed to neutralize the basic elements of the enemy air defense and create favorable conditions for manned aviation.

At present, in order to implement the "swarm principle" (attack performed by a swarm of drones, very hard to totally intercept), the Western experts are taking concrete steps. Contributing to this are achievements in microelectronics and new technologies. In January 2015, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency () of the US declared the creation of a mechanism for operation of a group of self-contained UAVs controlled by an operator (CODE project). The follow-on development was building, based on the S-130, an aircraft for carrying low-cost, small size UAVs.

It is known that, in 2018, it was planned to demonstrate large, high-speed unmanned flying carrier platforms for delivering small disposable strike and reconnaissance UAVs to any part of the globe. Tests are underway to develop a vertical takeoff (autonomous landing) method for fixed- and rotary-wing UAVs that are to be placed on deck of a moving ship or land surface. Also, a method is being evolved for launching UAVs from a submerged nuclear submarine.

Information is available about development of mini-satellites for operations as "a cloud" measuring 10 to 1,000 meters. A package of their receiving and transmitting devices will ease reconnaissance, communication, navigation, and solution of other problems. For deploying an orbital group of small military satellites, it is planned to use the X-37V spacecraft, a new type of a space combat vehicle capable of carrying various weapons onboard.

Worth of special note is a relatively inexpensive subsonic tactical modular cruise missile due to be created before 2022 under the Gray Wolf Program. This missile is regarded as one of the most likely contenders for realizing the concept of collective employment of UAVs based on network technologies. Its main targets are supposed to be air and missile defense systems, airdromes, command posts and other essential protected facilities.

The operating principle envisions launching of several such cruise missiles to the assigned area, their independent assessment of the situation, determination of targets and their prioritization, distribution, and striking at chosen assets. Obviously, the Gray Wolf cruise missile will be standardized with reconnaissance systems and fitted with seeking warheads of various effect. Maintaining the low cost of the new missile the Pentagon may reconsider the program to purchase around 5,000 long-range JASSM-ER missiles in favor of Gray Wolf. This will reduce the deterring threshold of their application since the missiles that reach and destroy assigned targets will defray the expenses.

One can assume with a high degree of certainty that Gray Wolf cruise missiles and their carriers are placed in Scandinavia, Poland, and Baltic states. The latter is worth of special attention since its territory is particularly convenient for very quick strikes against Russia. The distance from the Estonian town of Emori, that is being turned into one of the NATO’s chief airbases, to Petersburg and Moscow is, respectively, 300 and 600 km.

The results achieved in the sphere of unmanned aerial vehicles, the subsequent enhancement of their capabilities and operating principles make up the material basis for implementing the concept of a contact-free warfare. UAV ability to perform collective operations as part of "a swarm" (a flock) will significantly increase their general efficiency. The further progress of this concept will create and develop network high-level man-machines and cyber-physical systems.

In the next five to ten years, the quantity of tasks assigned to UAV will dramatically increase. The priorities among them will be reconnaissance and attack missions, electronic countermeasures, mining (demining), control and communication, guarding, logistic support and rescue operations. All of them envision a high degree of UAV endurance in estimating the situation, close interaction between themselves and command posts, and round the clock collective operation in adverse conditions created by the enemy. Realization of the "flock" concept will boost the use of UAVs and expand their application in addressing the entire spectrum of tactical, operational, and task missions. Attacks of small UAVs are a serious threat to military and civil assets.

At the operational and strategic levels, the priorities will still remain penetration of the enemy air defense and destruction of its essential military and state assets. The deployment of Gray Wolf cruise missiles on the territory of Poland and Baltic states creates a basis for striking at assets in Russia. Cruise missiles can operate independently and jointly in association with supporting small-size UAVs.

The intense use of existing and future UAVs in an automatic mode under operators’ supervision will give military operations a specific feature of fighting against UAVs. At the same time, the collective employment of such craft will make countering them extremely difficult. This should be regarded as one of the top priority threats. Whereas only recently it was still a matter of pondering and conjecture, now it has become a pressing issue that calls for concrete measures and a fast solution, the "Military-Industrial Courier" writes.


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