A world of proliferated drones

CNAS A world of proliferated dronesA new report from Kelley Sayler at the Center for a New American Security, A world of proliferated drones, starts to map what she calls ‘the likely contours of a drone-saturated world’.  The report emphasises that the United States does not have a monopoly on drones  – more than 90 states and non-state actors have them – but unusually the report pays close attention to the repurposing of small, commercial off-the-shelf drones.  It begins by summarising their capability for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance:

‘Current commercial drone technologies – available for purchase in either pre-assembled or customizable, component form – enable a number of high-end capabilities that were formerly the monopoly of major military powers.

Many commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drones – including the best-selling model, the DJI Phantom – are now equipped with GPS and waypoint navigation systems. These systems enable the drone to accurately determine and hold its position, in turn removing the need for line-of-sight communications and allowing for autonomous flight… Operators of pre-assembled systems can also take advantage of smartphone-based control systems, dramatically improving ease of use. Such systems enable the user to navigate the drone simply by selecting a destination on a map or even by merely tilting the user’s phone…

High-definition video cameras are also widely available on COTS drones and, when combined with video downlinks, can provide real-time intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to multilocation receivers, though these capabilities are often limited by range and battery life.’

The report emphasises the potential weaponisation of these small drones for what it calls ‘overmatch’, in effect reversing the terms of asymmetric warfare, through (for example) the development of ‘flying IEDs‘:

‘While such systems may not appear sophisticated in a traditional military sense, ground-emplaced IEDs have caused thousands of American deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and proved profoundly hard to defeat. Drones will enable airborne IEDs that can actively seek out U.S. forces, rather than passively lying in wait. Indeed, low-cost drones may lead to a paradigm shift in ground warfare for the United States, ending more than a half- century of air dominance in which U.S. ground forces have not had to fear attacks from the air.  Airborne IEDs could similarly be used in a terrorist attack against civilians or in precision strikes against high-profile individuals or landmarks.’

But the report also makes much of the US’s continued military-industrial investment in high-end drones.  Here various forms of stealth technology make much of the running, or at least issue most of the promissory notes, since today’s Predators and Reapers can only operate in more or less undefended air space – which is another way of saying they can only be used against the weak and/or with the complicity of other states (as in Pakistan and Yemen) – and face immense difficulties in what the US Air Force calls A2/AD [anti-access/area-denial] environments (see here and here). But I’m particularly interested in what the report has to say about the use of large military drones to act as communications relays.  Here the emphasis is on the ability of these remote relays to integrate what is otherwise often remarkably un-networked warfare and to extend the range of operational control and transmissable data.

Drones as communication relays (CNAS)

‘Large military-specific systems offer a number of additional improvements in communications capabilities. Many include wide-band satellite communications (SATCOM) that expand the amount and extend the range of transmittable data, providing distant ground stations with real-time ISR. Like some baseline systems, high-end systems are generally capable of line-of-sight communi- cations with other platforms operating in their area and, for this reason, are often employed as communications relays. Perhaps the most vivid example of the force-multiplying effects of such capabilities is the EQ-4 – what is essentially an RQ-4 Global Hawk outfitted with the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN). BACN serves as a universal translator for a diverse set of U.S. aircraft that are not otherwise capable of communicating with each other due to incompatible data links – providing a vital connection between, for example, fourth-generation F-16 fighter jets, B-1 bombers, and stealthy, fifth-generation F-22s [BACN is also used on conventional platforms: see here for its role in co-ordinating an air strike in Afghanistan]. Communications relay capabilities will also allow states to operate drones at extended ranges (300 to 800 kilometers) without satellite communications, allowing significant penetration into neighboring countries or contested areas’ (my emphasis).

Steve Graham and I are presently working on an essay on drones and satellite communications: so much of the discussion of geospatial intelligence has focused on satellite imagery, but the geographies of satellite communications (and, crucially, bandwidth) play a major role in the deployment of drones and in the highly variable quality of the imagery they transmit to users across the network.

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