The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) has been examining the use of armed unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) as an alternative to missiles in land strike operations and for use against fast attack vessels.

The RAN is also concerned about the potential for proliferation of unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAVs) and their threat to ships.

According to a classified study by the RAN between late 1999 and early this year, the service must consider the impact of a range of UAV capabilities being exploited by opponents, and the possibility of RAN ships being "confronted with waves of combat UAVs or drones, each with a lethal warhead, possibly operating as a mixed strike package alongside manned strike aircraft".

The classified report was a major influence on the recently released Plan Blue long-term capability strategy including a 2015 service entry of surveillance UAVs and the possible use of unmanned combat air vehicles.

The study suggests armed UAVs "might be a more affordable option [for the RAN] than land attack missiles" and will have "the advantage of endurance. This ability to loiter could significantly reduce reaction times against 'pop-up' threats. Land strike UAVs could be used by warships to enable ingress to an area by Australian Defence Force or allied strike aircraft".

"One possible application of maritime strike UAVs is against small, fast attack craft such as 'ram-raid' speedboats. A single UAV could be used to track and attack such craft before they can threaten RAN or allied shipping. A UAV's small size and greater manoeuvrability compared with manned helicopters would provide a tactical advantage. The UAV's warhead need only be relatively small to neutralise any small craft threat".

UAVs offer "valuable reconnaissance and surveillance capabilities to RAN ships that do not have direct access to organic air assets or to augment aircraft operations from aviation capable ships", it says

Key UAV roles would include near real-time battle damage assessment, especially in support of missile strikes, and possibly to locate and identify enemy warships or shore facilities by their electronic emissions or as airborne jammers.

Source: Flight International