Soaring high above the clouds, a lone aircraft scans the ground for movement. With its mechanical eye, it spots a column of tanks and mobile artillery moving into position for an offensive. The pilotless plane relays everything it sees to a ground controller in real time. In a matter of moments, a swarm of smaller drones appears over the armoured column. Each of them seeks out an individual target before launching into a decimating kamikaze attack.
It has been nearly two decades since armed drones first captured our collective imagination. In that time, they have seen action in theatres ranging from Pakistan and Afghanistan, to Syria, Yemen and Africa. Still, many may yet think the aforementioned scenario is straight out of science fiction.
There are at present as many as 21,000 confirmed unmanned aircraft in service with militaries around the world, according to the Centre for the Study of the Drone at Bard College. The actual number is likely to be upwards of 30,000. From 60 countries in 2010, the militaries of 95 are now believed to have active inventories of drones.
Until last year, the current generation of armed drones were still primarily seen as suited to low-intensity conflict. Enter 2020’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Although both sides had drones at their disposal, the former used the technology on a scale never before seen to nullify Armenia’s conventional might.
Needless to say, the world has started taking notice. A study by the defence market analysis firm Teal Group projects production of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will increase from $5.6 billion annually in 2020 to $14 billion in 2029, totalling $95.5 billion over the course of this decade. Spending on military UAV research would add another $64.5 billion that amount.
Baptism of fire
In the 1990 Gulf War, the United States, through the use of its airpower, demonstrated its ‘Third Offset Strategy’ to devastating effect. Formulated in response to the Soviet Union’s perceived superiority in numbers, the strategy sought to outmanoeuvre adversaries through technological superiority.
Consequently, the US led the way in perfecting a range of military capabilities that have taken centre-stage in military planning, such as precision strike and stealth. As other powers kicked off a Third Offset arms race while trying to catch up, military hardware became increasingly complex and prohibitively expensive.
Take airpower, for instance. Rising procurement and operation costs, and the strings attached to sensitive military technology have made maintaining a large and effective air force a luxury for many medium and small military powers. The proliferation of sophisticated air defence systems has also increased the risks to using airpower in peer-on-peer conflicts.
Both Azerbaijan and Armenia by and large have similar conventional military capabilities. But even though both sides employed military UAVs in Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan was able to exploit gaps in Armenian defences much more effectively. With a fleet of Israeli and Turkish drones, Azeri forces destroyed up to 100 Armenian tanks and armoured vehicles, another 100 artillery pieces, 150 vehicles and 60 air defence assets. In contrast, Azerbaijan’s own equipment losses were estimated to be in the dozens.
The future of warfare
The startling disparity in equipment losses, in some ways evoking the disparity between US and Iraqi losses in 1990 and 1991, has shifted the way armed drones are now being seen in defence circles. In its analysis of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, The Washington Post wrote, “the expanding array of relatively low-cost drones can offer countries air power at a fraction of the cost of maintaining a traditional air force.”
Speaking to The Express Tribune, defence analysts from around the world agreed that Azerbaijan’s use of military UAVs had opened up a new chapter in the history of warfare.
“We are at a clear transition point in the history of war and how it is fought,” noted American political scientist and specialist on 21st century warfare Dr Peter W Singer. “We are now in what many understand to be the second drone age,” said war historian and presenter of the Untold History TV series Dr James Rogers.
Dr Singer compared the use of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh to the inter-war decades of the last century. “One thing that was notable about that war was not just the use of drones, but the effect. Armenia saw just massive losses, almost half its combat vehicles and over 90% of its artillery was destroyed or damaged.”
“I think of the current period as akin to the 1920s and 30s,” he said. “While too many are still in denial as to the changes brought by new game-changing technologies, the real question is no longer whether nations and armed groups are going to use this new tech or not? Instead, it is the harder questions of how,”
“It is now about acquisitions, training, doctrine, etc. What types are best to buy, how many, and, most importantly, how best to use them,” Dr Singer added. “So, the wars in places like Ukraine, Syria, and now Nagorno-Karabakh have been akin to the 1930s Spanish Civil War, where the evidence is starting to become more clear and so other nations are watching and learning too.”
Dr Rogers also pointed to the Second Civil War in Libya to highlight another interesting pattern emerging with drone warfare. “We are in essence seeing drone versus drone proxy action in Libya,” he said. “On one side you have the GNA supported by Turkey. Turkey has its own domestic drone programme that was prompted by US refusal to provide the technology. On the other side, you have the Libyan National Army, which is supported by the Emirati alliance.”
According to Dr Rogers, the UAE, like Turkey, could not get US drones. “So they turned to China, which has done incredibly well to fill the void left by the US in the arms market.”
He also stressed that a drone is an entire TV studio in a weapon system. “It is not just a lethal machine. It is a lethal propaganda machine. As we saw with Azerbaijani Twitter during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, footage from drones will be used to push a war narrative,” he said. “I would say beware the lies of the drone… [But] this is what the future of warfare is starting to look like.”
So, are expensive fighter jets and state-of-the-art battle tanks suddenly obsolete? According to experts, not yet, at least.
“I think you are correct in highlighting the significance of drones and the potential implications for the future,” said senior analyst for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute Dr Malcolm Davis. “The application of advanced drones – yet systems which are cheap in comparison to advanced multirole crewed combat aircraft – I think is highly significant.”
Dr Davis admitted that use of armed drones in conventional scenarios could significantly disrupt traditional notions of conflict. “Azerbaijan used drones to attack Armenian air defence systems, before attacking their armour and exposed infantry. These technologies open up all sorts of innovative ways for states lacking the means for traditional air forces to use airpower,” he pointed out.
He added that the use of swarming in applying drones is another aspect that needs further thought. “If low-cost drones are cheap enough, then large numbers launched in an attack can take out an adversary’s key military systems in a very cost-effective manner, and evade or neutralise the other side’s ability to defend against such attacks. It may be cheaper to use swarms of low-cost loitering munitions than traditional military technologies,” he told The Express Tribune.
That said, Dr Davis noted that it is likely more states will invest in their own combat UAVs and ‘loitering munitions’ – armed drones that carry out kamikaze attacks upon identifying a target. “This includes fully autonomous systems, which means there would be no human on the loop.”
Dr Rogers, meanwhile, highlighted that there was more than meets the eye to the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. “I would hesitate to say the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and how drones were used in it spell the end of armour,” he said. “Based on interviews with tank crews, it appears the Armenians were poorly trained and made some elementary mistakes,” he told The Express Tribune.
According to Dr Rogers, modern tanks also come equipped with an array of air defence suites. “The Americans, for instance, have equipped their tanks with laser systems to intercept such threats.”
He also pointed out that Armenia’s air defence, in fact, was poor in general and there was some disparity between the drones it used and the ones Azerbaijan employed. “Armenia relied on locally made drones with significantly limited capability. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, received considerably more advance drones from Turkey and Israel.”
Dr Singer agreed that it was too early to say if any military technologies in use today were suddenly out-dated. “It is notable that no one is questioning the drone any more… [but] I don't think you can say the tank is now obsolete in war,” he said. “There are ways tanks are [still] useful, and the Armenians made some major mistakes.”
Asked if drones, especially ones that can be potentially used for significantly low cost, could level the playing field, Dr Singer took a cautious view. “I don't know if we can yet say ‘equaliser’, but the technology definitely has a lower barrier to entry,” he said. “Everything from the cost to the training time is far greater for past approaches to air power. Now, as Azerbaijan did, you can rapidly gain fairly sophisticated capabilities in a matter of years. So we'll see lots of other states looking at copying that.”
For Dr Rogers, how drones will shape the future of air power is a complex question. “Ultimately, it will depend on what you need them for.
If you are fighting insurgents with no meaningful air power beyond rudimentary drones, then why use manned air power,” he said. “In addition to the cost of keeping a modern aircraft airborne, pilots themselves are expensive. They need training, salaries, benefits and pensions, and then there is a risk of them being shot down.”
Dr Rogers added that we might see some peer-on-peer conflicts move along the drone route. “But any medium power that wants to protect its borders and carry out far more sophisticated missions will need a mix of air power capabilities.”
He also noted that not all drones are cheap. “Something like the Global Hawk used by the US is still quite costly to operate,” he said.
According to industry experts, a Global Hawk drone, which is used for intelligence-gathering over water and coastal areas, is estimated to cost around $130 million. That is more than the latest version of the F-16 fighter jet, which costs around $121.8 million per unit.
A better way to look at drones, according to Dr Rogers, is as force multipliers. “The transition to unmanned air power may see some hybrid relationships emerge. The next generation of US drones, for instance, will incorporate ‘loyal wingman’ UAVs linked to fighters like the F-35,” he said. “Such drones could either be controlled by the pilot of the manned fighter or they could mimic his or her actions. Some of these could be fired and forgot.”
Others could be suicide drones with an explosive payload, blurring the line between drone and cruise missile, he added. “The difference already is a murky one – in my opinion, loitering capability is what sets drones apart from cruise missiles, which must hit their target fast before being shot down. In any case, drones in future conflict will be used to overwhelm the opponent’s defence systems.”
Drones in South Asia
While it may not have attracted as much attention as some of their other defence-related developments, both Pakistan and India have been slowly building up their own armed drone capabilities for the better part of the past decade.
Pakistan first acknowledged it had the capability in March 2015, when it shared a video of the indigenously developed Burraq UAV successfully launching another locally made weapon, the Barq laser-guided air-to-ground missile. That same month, security officials who spoke to The Express Tribune credited the Burraq-Barq combo with turning the tide in the battle for the strategic Tirah Valley.
Pakistan’s military is also believed to developing an indigenous medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV, with reports suggesting collaboration with both Turkey and China towards this goal. More recently, the open-source intelligence provider Janes reported that Pakistan received five Cai Hong 4 MALE drones from China, a type that Saudi Arabia has been employing in the conflict with Houthi rebels in Yemen.
India, likewise, has made its own strides in both procuring and indigenously developing sophisticated UAV technology. Two weeks into this year, the Indian military demonstrated a combat drone swarm system using 75 suicide UAVs that autonomously identified and took down targets.
The Indian military has also expanded its fleet of Israeli HAROP suicide drones and is believed to operate at least 164 of them. It has also inducted two naval surveillance versions of the iconic American Predator drones, which experts suggest could be a prelude to procuring between 18 and 40 weaponised ones from the US.
With these developments in mind, The Express Tribune asked drone experts what a potential military clash between the two neighbouring rivals could look like. Would precision drone strikes replace artillery exchanges along the Line of Control by providing a ‘cleaner’ alternative? Or would they instead raise the risks of conflagration between the two nuclear rivals, as India’s botched 2019 Balakot air strike did?
Speaking on the topic, ASPI’s Dr Davis said low-cost attack drones or loitering munitions are going to blur the boundary between artillery and airpower. “In that sense, with regard to India-Pakistani tensions, it is a capability that is likely to emerge in the armed forces of both sides, and its use does potentially raise risks,” he noted.
According to him, drones could be used to target artillery more accurately as the Russians have done in Ukraine. “But if they can deliver the lethal strikes themselves as well, they could be launched from well outside the range of defenses along the LoC,” he said. “That would demand a response in kind, or the potential for deeper-strike capability being acquired to identify and target drone systems. So that could escalate tensions as well.”
“You are correct to highlight the perception that drones might be seen to lower the political risk of using force, but I think the escalatory dynamics of any military conflict along the LoC are such that any use of significant force could quickly spiral out of control,” Dr Davis added.
Renowned Pakistani security analyst Imtiaz Gul suggested that planners and decision makers in both Pakistan and India were already aware of risks emanating from emerging drone technologies. “While this is indeed the next phase of warfare – we are moving towards increasing reliance on drones that reduce the risk of collateral damage – their deployment will be determined by capability,” he said. “I think both Pakistan and India will be extremely cautious in deploying them against each other, particularly along the LoC, given how serious the risks of any miscalculation always are.”
The myth of precision
Dr Rogers, on the other hand, provided another perspective by highlighting how drones had been used by various militaries. “To a certain extent, drones have already been normalised,” he said. “We have seen it between many states already – both sides send drones and both sides shoot down each other’s drones. It doesn’t cause escalation, until one side wants to.”
He stressed that there was no reason to try and predict the future to understand how the use of drones can escalate a conflict. “We have seen it already. Donald Trump ordered the drone strike that killed Soleimani and Iran saw it as a step too far. In response Iran targets Ain-al-Assad, which was not only a big coalition base but also a ground control station for US drones,” he recalled. “And then you see things starting to go really wrong. Iran puts itself on war footing and Trump threatens to destroy Iranian cultural strikes, fuelling the escalation. You have the tragic mistake by Iranian forces when they shoot down the Ukrainian airliner.”
“We can blame it on the incompetence of the crew manning the missile system, but in the fog of war, such mistakes can happen. All of this tied to one drone strike. And we still have the what-ifs. What if it was an American airliner that was shot down? How would Trump have responded,” he explained.
Dr Rogers stressed that drones are just like any other weapon system when it comes down to it. “There is this idea that drones, because they are low cost, can be used with pinpoint accuracy and have a light footprint, can allow essentially ‘perfect warfare’. That is to say, they can reduce the risk of conflict escalating into an active, more vicious one,” he said. “But when you begin to examine conflicts like the one in Nagorno-Karabakh or the way US has employed drones over Iran and Pakistan, you can see how problematic it has already become.”
According to Dr Rogers, drones have created this sense that there is lower risk in carrying out an incursion into another sovereign territory. “The drone strike on Gen Soleimani was conducted within the territory of an allied state, Iraq, without the permission of its government and on a third actor. We can see the blatant disregard for sovereign territory,” he pointed out. “I would advise all states not to get enthralled by the myths of precision and surgical strikes. Mistakes will happen.”