Military technology is an ever-changing landscape. New developments pose previously unseen threats to militaries all over the world, forcing decision-makers to improvise. Mainstays of today’s military forces may fall out of favour, much like the dreadnaughts from the early 20th century. Many militaries haven’t evolved significantly since the Cold War. Though technology has come a long way, a momentous leap hasn’t happened. However, recent events suggest the next major evolution in warfare is already beginning. As a result, any serious regional or global power must plan their procurements masterfully; not doing so will be akin to pouring billions down the drain, arming up with weapons fit for a bygone era.
Drones saw action in reconnaissance missions for many decades. The first time a drone targeted combatants was in the early 2000s when the USA deployed MQ-1 Predator drones in Afghanistan and Yemen. Since then, drones have been relegated to low-intensity, counterinsurgency conflicts, as they were deemed too vulnerable to be used effectively in conventional warfare. However, in 2020 everything changed.
Turkey’s use of Anka and TB2 UCAVs to target PKK paid off. The experience gained from these missions carved a new doctrine. Unleashed upon Assad’s military in early 2020, this new way of war was unprecedently effective. Soon after in Libya, they turned the tide against Haftar’s advance. The most notable use of drones, however, was in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. For the first time in history, drones decimated a myriad of assets. Such as tanks, trucks, AFVs, SPGs, MLRS and even anti-air systems, not to mention thousands of troops. A decades-old stalemate came to an end. But more importantly, a new era dawned.
2020’s events didn’t just prove the effectiveness of drones and the importance of having countermeasures against them. The implications are much broader. The drone onslaught was a small glimpse of the future, where unmanned systems will reign supreme.
All problems have a solution. Military vehicles have come a long way in the past 100 years. With each decade, survivability, fire-power and target acquisition capabilities have steadily increased. Traditionally, when weaknesses were found, improvements were swiftly introduced. However, we have come to a point where protection and countermeasures are losing the battle against weapons. The solution in modern warfare is to go unmanned.
The following are three types of vehicles that are facing a troubled future. Costs, vulnerability and loss of valuable crew such as pilots, are among the biggest issues. If protection and countermeasures can’t outperform the weapons they face, the best solution is to allow the vehicle to operate remotely or autonomously; eliminating the need to overspend on armour, countermeasures, augmented reality helmets, etc.
No, contrary to what some military analysts say, tanks are not on their way out. They are simply in a tough spot. ATGMs and drone-launched laser-guided munitions punch through tanks with ease. ERA and APS can provide some protection, but they are far from perfect solutions. Unless revolutionary advances in armour technology occur, tanks will be less of a priority for militaries due to their high cost and newfound vulnerabilities. The firepower they possess is effective and cheap, but their armour is neither.
Unmanned tanks and UCGVs
Less expensive and also sacrificable, any direct fire AFV which isn’t designed to carry troops is better off being unmanned. Whether converted from existing tanks or IFVs, or brand new platforms, they are a cost-effective solution. Less armour and crew protection features not only saves money, but it also means range and round capacity can be much higher. The biggest reason for hesitance facing the proliferation of UGVs has been the fear of jamming and losing contact. A combination of good AI (for autonomous function[extremely important]), satellite control and anti-jamming, can alleviate these concerns.
- Shturm (Project Storm[converted T-72])
- FNSS Shadow Rider (converted M113)
Attack helicopters do a great job at providing close air support. But they are incredibly vulnerable in conventional warfare. To make matters worse, the prevalence of MANPADS means that any group of soldiers or insurgents can be a threat to helicopters. Helicopters often use terrain to stay hidden from radar. This is one of their greatest advantages. However, it also illustrates why they’re so easily shot down. Even the most well-armoured attack helicopters can be taken down with well-placed machinegun fire. The low flight altitude also makes them susceptible to wire-guided missile attacks. Attack helicopter shootdowns are almost always fatal, as pilots cannot eject.
Unmanned VTOL combat aircraft
These could be large armed quadcopters or simply crewless attack helicopters. Regardless, they would prove to be excellent CAS aircraft. Yes, they would be just as vulnerable as traditional attack helicopters, but they are also significantly more expendable. The lack of pilots incentivizes using them in dangerous airspace. One of the greatest advantages of rotary-wing aircraft is their ability to hover in one place. For this reason, helicopters are preferred when clearing an area of all remaining enemies is the objective. If unmanned, they can essentially operate with impunity. Consequently, the percentage of successful missions will be superior to that of their manned counterparts.
- T629 unmanned
Conventional naval surface vessels
Surface fleets of large displacement vessels will be around for a long time; Modern warships equipped with advanced sensors and missiles are much more potent than their predecessors. Capable of monitoring and protecting large radiuses of open water, destroyers, frigates and other large vessel types are indispensable. However, there is a big problem. Anti-ship missiles are becoming more and more common, yet also more capable. A single strike could spell disaster for any ship. CIWS and other countermeasures don’t provide guaranteed insurance against modern anti-ship missiles. Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars worth of hardware can sink to the depths of the ocean in the blink of an eye.
Unmanned VTOL combat aircraft
As the costs and vulnerability of large warships rise, some navies are already supplementing their fleet with smaller combat vessels. Missile boats have been around for quite some time. Problem? Traditional missile boats are best suited for coastal defence. However, change may be on the horizon. Small (7-20 meter) armed unmanned surface vessels capable of sinking ships will not only be a common sight in future navies but will also likely spur the arrival of large vessels purpose-built to carry and command them. Meaning the open ocean isn’t out of bounds. Sophisticated networks linking naval, air and space assets are a top priority for today’s militaries, allowing AUSVs to fire missiles or torpedoes at targets identified and tracked by other assets. Cheap, difficult to detect and hit, heavily armed and crewless. It’s easy to see why AUSVs are the way forward. They are the perfect naval force multiplier.
- RD09 anti-surface
- NB57 anti-submarine
The real game-changer: Autonomous combat vehicles; Rise of the machines?
The average person doesn’t think much about drone software. But just like a human’s brain, a drone’s software is crucial to its function. Many UAVs can fly autonomously and even return by themselves if the connection is lost. But what about full autonomy? The capability to find, track and neutralize targets without human intervention? Far fetched? Think again. A UN report claims that the first autonomous attack on a combatant occurred in Libya last year. A Kargu-2 attack drone autonomously identified and attacked a high-value target. Many have labelled it the “first robot-on-human kill”, which is technically correct. However, this shouldn’t cause concern, as it did what it was programmed to do. We are far away from seeing Skynet become a reality. Once AI is good enough, land, air and sea drones will essentially operate as autonomous killer robots (which again, only does what its programming permits). Sophisticated artificial intelligence can make them superior machines which outclass humans in all aspects. Eliminating the need for pilots, drivers, and gunners.
Activists have called for the ban of autonomous combat vehicles. But no military is ignorant enough to handicap themselves. Failing to invest in this sector will have major repercussions in a few decades. The outcome of future wars could be decided by who’s drones are smarter.