Emerging lessons from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan are pointing to a need for UAV systems focused on support for operations at the lowest tactical level and potentially capable of supporting non-kinetic and less than lethal effects, according to the head of the US Joint Forces Command and supreme commander Allied Command Transformation, Gen Lance Smith, US Air Force.
Speaking on 18 October at the NATO Joint Air Power Competency Centre’s annual air power conference in Kleve, Germany, Smith warned that the air forces must learn to perform low-level tactical operations in different ways to match the realities of the two conflicts. Similar lessons are emerging from Israel’s four-week conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon, he says. “It is clear, and we have dealt with the Israelis on this, the importance of being able to operate at lower and lower levels with more and more information.”
Smith told the conference that “the enemy fights on his own turf and can vanish into society. What that has driven us to, and what we are seeing in southern Afghanistan as well as Iraq, does not necessarily mean up into the hills; it is more and more into the cities where we end up having to conduct urban warfare, which is something that airmen have traditionally shied away from and said leave it to the guys on the ground to fight that war. If we do that - and we continue to - we continue to marginalise ourselves.”
Air power needs to find a way to enter into the enemies planning processes, often at short order. “The real strength of the insurgent is that because they live and die by their tactics, techniques and procedures, they have to have the ability to change what they do overnight. If we can’t turn that, and think about it and find them, we will never be able to get inside their decision cycle, and that is critical to getting inside this kind of fight. UAVs can help”.
Emerging UAV capabilities critical to achieving the role include “not just to be able to observe what is going on outside a building, but be able to se through the roofs of buildings, around corners and indeed underground, and we have to be able to do that from stand-off. The technology is out there to be able to do this. It is not well defined, it is difficult and it needs to grow.”
Israeli operations in Lebanon were required to adapt to “the ability of Hezbollah to move underground, between buildings, operate underground. We have to continue to develop the ground-penetrating radars and the other things that will allow you to see underground.”
Stand-off capabilities are required to ensure UAVs involved in tactical missions are themselves not detected: “In Afghanistan what we found was that the lawnmower engine on the back of Predator and other UAVs, as they had to operate and higher and higher altitudes, had to work harder. You get a lawn mower engine going at 20,000ft [6,100m] or 14,000ft in a very quiet mountain pass and all the enemy has to do is sit there and listen.
“We found out after using these vehicles after quite some time that they knew that they were up there and they acted accordingly, so silence is important. Just because you have got a UAV and you can’t hear it doesn’t mean they can’t, so tactics are important, with the ability to do this from a stand-off position is even more important”.
The preference of enemy forces in Iraq and Afghanistan to pursue “soft” targets rather than military hard points is posing new challenges for air power operations as a whole Smith said, with wider roles emerging for less than lethal and non-kinetic effects delivered by both manned and unmanned platforms. “Clearly we are moving in a direction where non-kinetic is more important than kinetic, or at least it is the choice. We just haven’t developed the non-kinetic weapons to take advantage of the information we receive from UAVs and the like.”
He described low-level tactical operations as confronting air power with “an environment that we are uncomfortable in. Airmen with fast jets and wonderful avionics like to think about going long and deep and taking out important targets and winning wars. This isn’t that kind of war.”
Operations in urban environments and in and around key infrastructure are already an essential part of the conflicts in both Afghanistan and Iraq. Smith asked: “Why aren’t we leaning forward to figure out how you do close air support or interdiction against people around an oil line?
“Why don’t we have rubber bullets for A10s or something that isn’t going to go and destroy the pipeline if you go and throw them in front of somebody that is going to get too close? Why don’t we have a system of close air control to protect that kind of environment?
“It is very difficult, but we have to figure out how to use air power in this environment instead of trying to justify air power by something that is at least not nearly as probable as the kind of war we are fighting.”
He said that UAVs can play an important role in the psychological element of the war, impacting “on the enemy’s morale, willingness to fight, and ability to fight if used properly.”
This was frequently illustrated during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2002, where enemy forces felt “they couldn’t go outside and have a cigarette because they thought we could see everything, day and night, and it restricted their ability to do business. Now they know better than that now, and they are much more sophisticated and they understand the limitations of UAVs.
“UAVs in the psychological warfare business is just something that young folks [in Western military forces] are going to have to figure out how to use better and better and take advantage of the unknown as that is what scares the enemy more than anything else is what he or she doesn’t know.”
He also said that it was likely that UAVs will play an increasing role in military non-combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan: “It is absolutely clear that we are not going to win these things by military means alone and the role that UAVs are going to play in those other things is really to try and be able to help us as we try to provide security for those other elements of national power.
“That is going to be another challenge as we go out there. For instance the Australians are putting in ground crews and road crews to help rebuild the road from Kandahar to Herat. There is a security issue there that is only going to be resolved by some level of overhead photography or some overhead security along those lines. We have to be able to provide the security for them to be able to operate. So you are now going to have another demand away from the traditional battlefield on these very needed and short assets. This will be an important thing to consider. I am not sure that we will ever be able to build enough UAVs to meet the demand that is growing worldwide."

Source: FlightGlobal.com