14 May

Armed drones – future solution on a low-density battlefield or a temporary fad?

Today, smaller military units are tasked with protecting vast geographical areas, once defended by many more boots on the ground. As a result, the challenges posed by the so-called low-density battlefield, has re-emerged into military thought. Simultaneously, drones are being developed and used for various military purposes. Could drones help solve the challenges posed by a low-density battlefield and, if so, what features and development would be required?

In the report Rare birds – A look at the low-density battlefield and armed drones, FOI researcher Andreas Hörnedal, uses four example vignettes to illustrate the challenges posed by a low-density battlefield and discusses possible uses for armed drones in these situations.

Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned aerial vehicle gliding through the clouds. Bayraktar TB2 combat drone in flight over the clouds.

A Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drone in flight over the clouds. Photo: Shutterstock

In Western countries, the trend over the past several decades has been to reduce army sizes in favour of a small but well trained and equipped military, while the geographical areas in which they operate have stayed the same or even increased as both Nato and the European Union have added more member states.

At the same time Unmanned Aerial Vehicles also known as UAV:s or drones, used with some success in Russia’s war against Ukraine and other conflicts, have been hailed as an affordable solution to many military problems.

However, it is necessary to study specific military problems and also to specify solutions to see what can be reasonably expected of drones in the future, says Andreas Hörnedal, deputy research director at FOI

— Studying these different situations could help to assess what drone features will be most needed in different scenarios, he says.

In his report, Hörnedal has focused specifically on the use of armed drones in low-density situations. The study draws up four hypothetical but plausible situations: a ground invasion in Finnish Lapland; escorting a road transport across Sweden; containing a surprise air landing; and defending the Lithuanian border to Russia and Belarus.

— Each one of these scenarios pose different challenges to both the defending and attacking forces, which creates interesting discussions about how drones could be used to solve some of these problems, Hörnedal says.

Different models, different abilities

Given the number of drones on the market, Hörnedal has also focused on three different models already in use today. These are the Bayraktar TB2 drone from Turkey as well as the MQ-1C Grey Eagle and the MQ-9 Reaper models produced by the US.

“These drones represent a broader class of contemporary medium-altitude, long endurance weapon carrying drones, which are already used by many European and other countries. They represent a rather new kind of low budget air power,” Hörnedal says.

The conclusion is that while armed drones could be used to solve issues specific to the low-density battlefield, there already severe drawbacks and challenges, but also development potential for the future, Hörnedal says.

— One of the main issues is the dilemma of choosing between survivability and firepower on one side, versus endurance and simplicity, he explains. Today’s armed drones need to be improved to remain relevant, both in technology and conceptually. For example, integration and interoperability with other capabilities is a major issue and will increasingly be so.