Command Modern Operations : Droning on About Drones 1
Like the rest of the world I’ve been watching the terrible situation in Ukraine. Every day I’m incensed by the violence perpetrated by the Russians, and inspired by the courage of the Ukrainians defending their country. It is surreal to watch, almost in real time, as a modern war unfolds. Today we’re going to look at the use of civilian grade drones in CMO.
Drone footage, especially from the Bayraktar TB-2, has been all over the news. Not only are they operating with near impunity over hostile convoys but they are knocking out BUK’s and TOR SAM systems. To even see a drone survive at all is fairly well amazing, not to think it would even be tactically viable.
What really caught my eye was the mass donations of civilian drones. Now this isn’t new, civilian drones have been “modified” in Syria to carry mortar munitions that would be dropped from altitude. As loud as a civilian drone is, it would be completely muffled by a diesel engine or armored vehicle.
So are these strictly reconnaissance uses? War drives innovation and I think we’ll see a huge jump in drone usage to maximize the effectiveness of Ukrainian (and Russian) forces.
So what can a DJI pocket drone do? It is too small to carry any munitions. The range is limited. The camera is decent, but we’re not talking Gorgon Stare here. If you are stalking infantry or tanks it would be useful, but may give your position away.
Then I saw that video. It is of a Russian HIND being hit, head on, at very short range by a MANPAD. It’s difficult to judge the overall terrain, but low flying aircraft or helicopters would make a very brief appearance before being suddenly gone. A Coast Guard helicopter flew over my house yesterday and I had a good view of it for maybe 5 seconds before it was through the tree line.
So in that 5 seconds you need to grab your Igla or Stinger, prep it, find a target, and fire. There’s the OODA loop in CMO, if a target moves in-and-out of your view inside of the OODA loop your unit will not fire. For those not familiar with the term it is :
- Observe – You need to see the target
- Orient – You need to maneuver into position to engage
- Decide – You need to decide if the target is a threat or even if it’s engageable
- Act – You fire, or don’t fire upon it
The above shot makes our Ukrainian operator need to be in a perfect position, observing for a target, and prepared to act on a moments notice. Of further note is a potential for a delay while waiting for the coolant to flood the IR seeker. Without knowing which MANPAD this is, or what variant, this one is hard to quantify.
Commercial Drone as Recon
I’ve got a basic scenario with one Ukrainian Army unit with some IGLA-1. Someone will stumble in and point out I’m using the wrong variant or some such, but so be it. We’ll start here.
First thing, if it wasn’t for the drone footage I’d think someone stalked out a flight path and assumed that a hostile rotary unit would take the same path back. It doesn’t take rocket science to watch as HIND’s transit into target areas and back again. In a perfect world they’d take a different flight path back, but human nature and laziness and fuel efficiency (or lack thereof) combine for stupid decisions.
Next up is the issue of LOS. In CMO air units have a detection chance depending what type of terrain the ground unit is in. Which is great, a unit in an urban environment or heavy forest will be harder to detect than one in a farm field. Unfortunately this doesn’t go the other way and ground units have LOS only broken by terrain and not by buildings or trees.
A ground unit has LOS, regardless of the terrain it is, out to about 8 nautical miles for a target 20 ft above ground level. Technically I think this is a tough calculation for the game to make, though a modifier of some sort would be interesting, the denser the cover the more difficult it is to detect targets outside of it.
Which brings us back to our drone. If your MANPAD only has a limited range next to terrain or urban environments, how do you shorten your OODA loop time? Easy, put up a drone that can remain aloft for a bit and only looks for something moving against a bright sky. The contrast of the target would be stark as it flew over the treetops. It’s the perfect match for a camera with low(er) resolution.
I’ve moved our IGLA to Ukraine and stuck it in terrain that gives it a more reasonable LOS. Our target HIND will transit from the north to south. First test will be no drone, second test will be with a civilian grade drone.
At 1.4nm our target rotary is detected by the ground unit’s naked eye followed by classification a few seconds later by the IGLA’s IR suite.
Now if we put up a commercial grade drone, at a hover, and point it towards the likely direction of travel we get an average detection range of 3.5 nm. Our IGLA gets confirmation at 2.6nm out.
Now our IGLA is firing at a closing target and not one that is directly overhead or moving away.
Our Russian HIND evades a few of the IGLA’s but succumbs to them eventually.
That cheap commercial drone doubled the detection range of a ground unit.
Beyond just the incredible dysfunction that is finding a $20 mil air defense system in the woods… how can Igor put this to use?
First off is the basics. We’ve got a 70’s era search radar with a slightly more modern fire control radar. Max range is 12nm on the fire control radar. Our OODA loop (remember above) is 15 seconds, followed by targeting time depending on unit proficiency. These aren’t great, and struggle to detect drones.
The missile itself can engage targets from 30 ft above ground all the way to 20,000 ft above ground. Engagement range is out to 9 nm for a probability of hit of 80%.
One interesting point, the above is from the Bayraktar UAV, note the maximum altitude, 22,500 ft, above the engagement profile of the Tor.
Back to the Tor, it has to paint the target with a radar beam to guide in the missile. That’s the “Illuminate at Launch” bit. All aspect means it’s going to hit anything in the air at any angle, approaching or not. Finally, it can hit sea-skimming missile.
The warhead is 15 kilograms of fragmentation explosive. It may not vaporize a target, but it will likely mission kill. For targets it can engage anything in the air it can see short of ballistic missiles.
But back to Igor. Ukraine had 6 Tor systems, now they have 7. Whether they can procure spare parts for what looks like a broken fire control radar remains to be seen. Whether Russia can procure spare parts also remains to be seen. After suffering 30 years of brain drain and outsourcing of manufacturing I would be very surprised if the supply chain for sophisticated systems will last very long.
If Igor tows it to Kyiv it can cover a relatively small area and will be within range of Russian artillery and ballistic missiles. But if Igor has enough fuel for his tractor and can get it to Western Ukraine then it could protect critical infrastructure from Russian cruise missile attacks.
If all else it denies the Russians the ability to act with impunity. They do not have air supremacy and seem incapable or unable to SEAD targets. Every time a Russian pilot launches he’s going to have Igors’ Tor in the back of his mind. Given the lack of PGM’s the Russians need to fly low in order to hit the targets they want, but now they have Igor and his Tor to worry about.
More of these, or other SAM systems, are far more dangerous than Polish MIG’s which have to operate at low altitude to avoid the dense long range Russian SAM systems. A Tor battery can be a threat much longer than a short sortied MIG-29. A great read on this subject can be found here :
I’m not going to comment on the situation on the ground and in the air as others are far more qualified. It’s also really early in this war and we see a great deal of OSINT on one side and propaganda from the other. At this point it’s really difficult to see where it’ll end up in a week. If 3 weeks ago I said Russia would be incapable of hosting offensive operations 40km from the border you’d call me nuts. If I said they’d abandon equipment, flee, and suffer terrible losses, you’d call me nuts. If I said the RuAF was incapable of locking down a minor country’s airspace and unable to SEAD, you’d call me nuts.
So I’m not going down that road. For now I’ll cheer on the Ukrainians.