By James Eling
“Strategy sometimes matters a lot.” John Mearsheimer
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update (DSU), the most recent articulation of Australian military strategy, describes the objectives to shape, deter and respond as the centrepiece of the Australian defence strategy. The strategic situation has worsened since the DSU’s release with war in Ukraine, and increasing Chinese belligerence, increasing the requirement for a credible ability to shape, deter and respond.
This Land Power Forum Post will argue that Australia should look to develop a sovereign manufacturing capability for Unmanned Combat Aerial Systems (UCAS) – drones capable of delivering kinetic effects to provide a scalable, effective and agile capability for our soldiers. This sovereign UCAS capability will augment ADF combat power generation, increase the complexity of the modern battlefield for our enemy and, by using ‘Drone Diplomacy,’ provide strategic shaping capabilities for Australia throughout the Indo-Pacific region.
The evolution of the Unmanned Aerial System
Many US drones are complex, expensive and complicated to operate. They are not systems that can be ramped up quickly or economically to meet the requirements of conventional warfighting. They have been developed for the engagement of High-Value Targets, often individuals or small groups, not the conduct of the conventional war on the modern battlefield. Their complexity and expense creates a logistic burden that would be difficult to sustain in high tempo conflicts. The risk of a shortage of drones would be akin to the shell crisis of 1915, where operations were dramatically limited whilst manufacturing capability was developed to meet the unprecedented demands of combat.
The Turkish company, Bayraktur, diverged from the US way of UAS development. It developed the TB-2, an austere, but capable, low cost (low 7 figures) platform. It is battle-proven in Syrian, Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukrainian conflicts. The TB-2 is a medium-range, long-endurance (MALE) UAS. It cruises at 70 knots and has a range of 4,000 km. The service ceiling is 25,000 feet and its endurance is 27 hours. It is capable of carrying a range of ordnance including laser-guided rockets, a quad rack of GPS/INS guided 81 mm mortars and guided bombs. Given its simplicity, affordability and reliability, its success has seen it named the ‘Kalishnakov of the sky’.
Arguments that the TB-2 was too simple to be effective on the modern battlefield did not take into account dispersion across the battlefield. The openness of the modern battlefield enables UCAS to not only operate through the GBAD gaps but also avoid combat air patrols – there are simply not enough AD assets and fighters to deny all UCAS the ability to operate.
Tanks vs Drones
Recent conflicts have made it clear that the characteristics of modern war are changing, with armed forces attempting to anticipate how future combat will evolve. The discussion around UAS quickly devolves into a ‘tank vs drone’ argument. It is important to recognise that the nature of the modern battlefield is only partially a mystery. Part of the battle – our part – will be dictated by our doctrine, equipment and culture. The art is ensuring that the combat power these elements combine to generate provides the required capabilities to defeat the enemy.
Conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine enables the extrapolation of the kinds of tasks the ADF will be required to perform and the capabilities they will require. Strategic imagination should be used to consider issues like logistic supply, expected sortie rates and combat casualties replacements. The same imagination will also be needed to determine exactly how will CAS be provided to troops in contact. The 1,000-foot air battle has been described as an existential fight for ground formations, but UCAS are not a panacea for all of the ills of the modern battlefield. They still require integration, synchronisation and orchestration. Combined arms is not dead, it has just evolved. Reducing the UCAS question to tanks versus drones risks ignoring the lessons from recent conflict, just as the Russo-Japanese war was largely ignored, to the great detriment of all participants in WW1.
Turkey and the Baytraktur TB-2
The development of the Baykar family of drones is not just about effects on the battlefield. Turkey has developed a strong export market for drones, it has exercised strategic power through ‘drone aid’ and it has been able to achieve independence from weapons importation. Most importantly the TB-2 was developed to integrate with a Turkish strategic concept of war.
Australia, with an Australian made drone, would be able to cheaply augment the forces of many of our near allies. This drone diplomacy would provide capability to our partners along with making Australia a more attractive alliance partner. This would enable Australia to better shape our strategic environment and would also support partners as they look to deter aggression and transgression of the rules-based order.
Footage from TB-2 strikes have formed an integral role in Information Operations. Armenian drivers in Nagorno-Karabakh were handcuffed to their vehicles to overcome their fears of drone strike. Azeri drone footage reinforced the dominant narrative of Azeri superiority and undermined Armenian morale. Ukraine has reinforced international perception of its capability and strike footage has amplified the effect on Russian troop morale.
Australian Way of War
The current strategic environment sees the possibility of the ADF operating in multiple AOs simultaneously. This will place significant demand on ISR and CAS assets. It will demand the development of low cost, scalable solutions and doctrine to provide greater flexibility on the battlefield.
As Napoleon said, ‘Quantity has a quality all of its own.’ The reliance on premium capabilities has created a wide range of capabilities with little depth. This lack of depth minimises ADF resilience in the face of persistent high tempo operations. It is unlikely that some platforms will be able to manage the maintenance requirements for high tempo warfare for longer than 90 days, let alone replace losses from combat and accidents. As all nations involved persist, the average quality and capability of systems employed will decline, shifting the balance to those with larger numbers with less logistics overhead.
The Ukrainian Army has looked to UAS to bolster a range of capabilities using non-traditional methods. In April 2022, it requested volunteers from the population with experience flying consumer-quality drones to augment ISR capabilities. It has also resorted to using COTS UAS to drop grenades in plastic cups on Russian troops. It would be unthinkable to consider the Australian Army employing these methods. However, strategic imagination could envisage multiple scenarios in which the ADF would be found wanting in UAS capabilities. Bolstering UCAS capabilities now provides a robust solution when it is required, rather than cobbling together less than satisfactory solutions after operations have commenced.
The 90-day challenge – Agile manufacturing
SpaceX has fundamentally changed the space domain, decreasing payload lift costs from USD 30,895 to just 2,720. This is a 90% fall in cost. Baykar is running a similar agile methodology for UCAS development.
Agile manufacturing processes could rapidly develop prototype UCAS. This would encourage local economic activity and support sovereign manufacturing and IP development. This could be started with a 90-day challenge.
The concept of a 90-day challenge is not without precedent. In WW2, the RAAF struggled to source fighters and so Australia resorted to the development of a sovereign manufacturing capability to quickly deliver aircraft. This was achieved through the development of a fighter plane design process which leveraged existing capability and local manufacturing skills. The process started on 21 December 1941, and the first Boomerang fighter flew on the 29th of May, 1942, just 5 months later. Ultimately, Australia would produce 250 of these planes, which found a niche as CAS aircraft. The Boomerang was developed as all fighter manufacturers ceased exporting due to operational requirements of home Air Forces. This scenario may have parallels in the future.
The benefit of a 90-day challenge today is that design can evolve through multiple 90-day sprints and that the ADF and Australian industry have the strategic time available to devote to this endeavour. In the future, if decisively engaged, the ADF would not have the time nor the resources to develop as quickly a sovereign drone capability.
Sovereign manufacturing capabilities should also look towards software development, a key component of UCAS capability. Future battlefields could see GPS and communications degraded environments. Software with machine learning and artificial intelligence will mitigate these risks, and enable UAS missions to continue. Swarming capabilities, which RAND wargames have shown to be decisive in Taiwan Straits conflicts, is another area of software that should be developed.
Technological development has changed war. Turkey has reaped the benefits of these changes by developing the TB-2 UCAS. They have produced an extremely cost-effective platform, with a wide range of capabilities across anti-armour, SEAD, maritime strike, ISR and deception operations. This capability has benefited their strategic power projection through drone diplomacy.
Given the rapidly deteriorating strategic situation that Australia faces, the nation would benefit immensely from a rapid design process to create a sovereign manufacturing capability for UCAS. Not only would this augment Australia’s warfighting capability, but it would also assist in shaping and deterring foreign aggression. ‘Drone diplomacy’ could assist in developing mature and resilient relationships with our near neighbours and help deny foreign influence developing further within the Indo-Pacific region.
This article is an entry in the 2022 AARC Short Writing Competition, ‘Transforming Land Power‘.
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The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.