The Impact of UCAVs on Future Air Warfare Reflections on the Azerbaijan- Armenia Conflict

Issue 106

Airplanes before WW1 were believed to be used only as surveillance equipment. Pilots who were trained in artillery tactics were sent out to locate targets on the ground, and on their return, they were tasked with helping to aim the artillery. But having an eye in the sky, quickly turned into a deadly weapon with machine guns and bomb carrying capabilities. And for the defending armies, antiaircraft tactics had to be developed. With a limited efficiency of ground antiaircraft fire, a flying unit had to be created to confront those attacking aircraft and avoid their airborne missions. Eventually, air to air war has become an essential element of all conflicts. Air elements supporting ground forces would significantly define the outcome. So, gaining air superiority became a must in order to win, though it might not always warrant the victory.

Just like manned aircraft, the very first unmanned systems were just flying cameras, even some without radio links. The CL-89 from the 1960’s for example (also within Turkish artillery inventory up until 1990’s), was an engine powered photo taking vehicle, whose pictures were developed in a dark room upon return. The system was made up of several trucks of different duties, which rendered the system hard to deploy with questionable efficiency. In order to utilize the time-critical information of these photos, the flying vehicle had to be fast and timely. So when launched from catapult it had to return in minutes with pictures, hopefully taken at the right spot and at the right time, so that the artillery commander would evaluate and react.  

With reliable command datalink and camera development, those systems were quickly replaced with longer endurance vehicles with real-time imagery. But UAVs were still considered a supportive unit for artillery even up until the beginning of 1990s.

Canadair CL-89

With the emergence of on-board laser designators, and laser guided mini weapons, armed UAVs have become a significant element of the war arena. Drone strikes, controlled from a few hundred kilometers to even cross continents via satellites, have been a part of urban and non-urban conflicts since the end of 1990’s. 

From the number of ground systems captured and destroyed by Azerbaijan, it initially looked like Armenia had been expecting and was well prepared for a ground conflict. For possible jet fighter attacks, radar systems and antiaircraft elements had already been deployed. Air units had also been strengthened with last minute Sukhoi purchases from Russia. However, as the conflict developed, tactics utilized by Azerbaijan, such as flying low speed, converted paratrooper aircraft into decoys, then hitting now turned-on antiaircraft radars with Harpy hovering weapons, and finally utilizing endurance UAVs with precision guided small munitions; proved highly effective against those conventional systems. Unmanned systems utilization was the determining factor for the outcome that led to a globally accepted term: ‘First battle victory of UAVs’. Of course, as always, ground conflicts were a part of the arena and eventually it was still the land forces that took control of the area.

Azerbaijan seemed to use all advantages of employing UAV systems:

Flying over hostile environment is dangerous. Staying aloft for hours and hovering makes it even more dangerous for manned platforms. UAVs can stay up there for hours without any risk to personnel. Losing a UAV is costly but acceptable.

To select a target, identify and eventually pick the right timing for a strike can be achieved effectively if unmanned eyes stay up in a watchful hover for long periods of time. 

Laser designator on board and laser guided mini weapons are sufficient to take out an armored land vehicle or a group of troops while avoiding collateral damage.

Although it may require a considerable initial investment, UAV systems eventually turn out to be a very cost effective and sustainable way to engage in airborne fighting.

And lastly, the psychological effects that may not be so apparent initially: knowing that they were being observed at all times by UAVs, and could get hit at any time, later surfaced as a factor that greatly and negatively affected the morale of Armenian troops.

Neuron UCAV (photo credit by Dassault Aviation - S. RANDÉ)

The history of war tells us that after every conflict, lessons learned always pave the way to new counter systems. It is certainly the right time now to examine how this conflict may affect the future of air war:

The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict over Karabagh was watched closely online across the globe, and it highlighted two main points that motivated defense executives worldwide. Many of them now wish to own such precision strike UAVs. But perhaps a wider group is also considering the benefits of counter UAV solutions once adversaries get possession of precision strike UAVs.   

While the path to own one may have many options such as buying or developing one, to create a counter solution requires more analysis, sophistication, and investigation.  

With the aid of Artificial Intelligence (AI) systems, it is quite apparent that upcoming unmanned systems will have more capability and extensive authority to fly and fight. Even air-to-air missions, perhaps the most challenging form of aerial combat from an AI point of view, seems not far away. Compared to surveillance UAVs, agile combat UAVs (UCAV) would find and destroy other flying elements in a 3-D world with expectedly minimal collateral damage. It is obvious that sensor to trigger time, already reduced into seconds, will operate within a matter of milliseconds. Increasing sensor fusion capabilities, thanks to high-speed processing capacities, promise a fully autonomous world of detecting, identifying, calculating, and shooting. And it should not be a surprise to see all of this being done in silent mode, where all bi-directional communication to ground systems (humans) can be kept off. 

Test trials of UCAVs with internal bay weapon or smaller UAV release have already been started.

Photo: The XQ-58A Valkyrie demonstrates the separation of the ALTIUS-600 small UAS in a test at the U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground test range, Arizona on March 26, 2021. This test was the first time the weapons bay doors have been opened in flight. (copyright AFRL)

At this point we must ask two crucial questions about the systems’ behavior: To what extent could, or should UCAVs perform without humans in the loop, and how much would someone be willing to allow UCAVs perform autonomously?

In the world of conflicts, even with humans in the loop, fatal errors are still possible with advanced weapon systems. Hitting an overflying airliner by an intelligent antiaircraft system or a capable air-to-air missile or hitting a wedding ceremony in lieu of terrorist group by a multi-sensor UAV controlled over satellites are such examples. From a distance it may appear that these could have easily been avoided. But in reality, with perhaps just a single missing piece of intelligence information, a human can pull the trigger that may unfortunately end up with many undesirable consequences for anybody involved. No matter how new systems and techniques are to be introduced to avoid such situations, one obvious outcome is still to keep humans in the loop at the trigger, with perhaps a much more comprehensive firing approval process. 

Under these circumstances, with the highest level of autonomy, even with advanced sensors and AI, would anybody allow these UCAVs to take-off, fly out, detect the target, and pull the trigger without human intervention? 

I believe, No, at least for the next 20 years or so. It is not because of any missing capability, but purely because of liability. 

A human decision maker (trigger) in the loop whether on the ground or in another airplane near the area where an intelligent UCAV is flying, therefore necessitates a highly reliable link. This link should provide adequate information for a human to decide and fire. Accordingly, one should expect high bandwidth bi-directional communication if graphical content is to be transmitted as well. Therefore at least for aerial combat involving UCAVs, the evolution of links will predominantly dictate the outcome. 

ANKA-S with SATCOM on the top, Airborne Link under the engine (photo credit by TUSAŞ)

RF technologies have always been the backbone of all airborne communication. Among maneuvering manned aircraft and ground/airborne radars, VHF/UHF non-directional communication with different anti-jamming capabilities has been the decades long standard. Airborne links, like Link-16 working at similar frequencies are good with low data-rate, multi node information. But it is not designed for real-time transmission of graphical imagery and control.

Current UAVs on the other hand rely on directional datalink terminals at bands like C or Ku for high bandwidth data transmission.

A directional antenna under the dome of UAV communicating thru satellite can be good with high bandwidth data (SATCOM: Satellite Communication), harder to detect and jam, and may be preferred if latency both at downlinked signals and uplink commands are acceptable. In all of these cases, these vehicles need to fly steady and possibly with very dull flight maneuvers to avoid link losses. 

When it comes to agile maneuvering, a very typical demand for air-to-air combat, these external protrusions used to host a dish antenna, and consequently a healthier high bandwidth communication may become a real challenge, if not impossible. None of the UCAVS are visibly seen as carrying such datalink systems. 

Currently, laser links are being tested as an alternate method of communication.

Exploring these types of options leads us to wonder about the use of fiber optic cables.  Could airplanes be fitted with light emitters and sensors and what are the pros and cons of this type of system? 

It has been demonstrated that a healthy laser link currently requires a pretty high electrical power source. In addition, when obscured by weather, communicating distance between two nodes diminishes rapidly. Electrical power demand for laser communication via satellite may even go beyond small UCAVs capabilities. 

However, being less prone to detection and jamming, laser talk looks promising for data exchange within a tactical formation.  When UCAVs are fitted with high bandwidth communication, I believe hybrid air formations made up of similarly performing manned/unmanned vehicles will form a solution containing the best of both worlds. 

In this case, human, the decision maker can be the leader, and thru those various available channels the flying commander can have access to the sensors of unmanned systems, get the whole picture, and decide accordingly. 

One UCAV, for example, tasked to jam air defenses can fly closer to the border, conduct RF jamming and still provide data back to the manned element. Another UCAV that can carry a precision strike munition can go into a hostile environment and perform its mission and optionally return. This would keep the leader safe away from danger, keep ownship aircraft silent with no radar transmission, but online with UCAV and possible other assets.


What are the Implications of This Hybrid Group Over a Manned Platform, Apart from Laser Communication Capabilities? 

Of course, with the help of automation and AI, UAVs can take-off, fly autonomously, perform many tasks and land. They don’t need to be flown manually. But still there could be times where a leader/fighter pilot may need to intervene. If there is more than one UCAV to command, conditions in the cockpit may become even more complicated.  Keeping one’s own aircraft safe while flying or commanding multiple UCAVs may possibly exceed the workload capacity for a single human. This area is to be studied in detail. Perhaps, just like the F-4E Phantom design era, where increased complexity of new technology radars and weapons dictated a second seat for a Weapon Systems Officer, a second seat should be accommodated on a manned leader platform, just to manage UCAVs while the other pilot executes the flight of the aircraft and fighting operations. 

At the onset of fifth generation fighters like the F-35, T-50 designers believed that with the support of automation capabilities and a Helmet Mounted Display System (HMDS), a single pilot’s workload would not be saturated while flying and fighting. The only other reason for a second seat would have been for instructors. Thanks to advanced simulator techniques, it has been deemed sufficient for a single pilot to safely fly and operate multiple functions simultaneously. Consequently, avoiding two types (single and two-seater versions) would make all weapon systems simpler to build, fly and maintain. However, it is not apparently clear as to what extent managing UCAVs was considered as a design point during the design process.  

Now with the emerging sixth generation fighters and capable UCAVs, it is still unclear how designers envisaged hybrid operations as early pictures of these fighters show them as single seaters. I believe, at the verge of fighter-UCAV joint operations, sixth generation fighters may need to accommodate a second seat for a UCAV Systems Officer with dedicated instruments and helmets to manage UCAVs nearby. A squad of manned and unmanned combat vehicles may prove extremely dangerous, as seen today.