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This is an abbreviated version of a more detailed article to appear in MilTech 11-12/2020 in November, by MilTech Editor at Large, Ezio Bonsignore.

Regional conflicts can demonstrate the deadly effectiveness of certain weapons systems, thus underlining the need for appropriate countermeasures – as was the case with missile combat in the Arab-Israeli conflicts in 1967 and 1973. Today we are seeing a similar process, as the clashes in Nagorno-Karabakh highlight the key role of UCAVs in modern warfare.

UCAVs have been successfully used for years – until recently primarily in framework of asymmetrical conflict. The evidence from Nagorno-Karabakh shows that UCAVs are supremely efficient, even in conventional scenarios involving armoured or mechanized forces and ground-based air defence (GBAD) assets. In recent weeks, the Azeris have used UCAVs to initially incapacitate Armenian GBAD, then pick off land targets at leisure. The targets have been unable to mount any meaningful defence.

One might disparage the technological and operational effectiveness of the Soviet-era GBAD available to the rebels, but the USSR had the world’s best integrated GBAD network for battlefield protection: what the individual systems have since lost in terms of overall capabilities is due to advances in Western ECM, not to any shortcomings. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War most NATO countries have retired their previous GBAD assets. Also, Azeri operations have been conducted with commercially-available UCAVs – not exactly at the top of the effects ladder.

This creates a major problem for most of the rest of the world, at the root of which lies the fact that UCAVs are elusive targets. Though lacking stealth, their light plastic/fiber fuselage and small rotary engines offer sharply reduced visual and thermal signatures, making it very difficult to detect and track them – even for dedicated GBAD sensors. This implies that what would appear to be the logical countermove – significant enhancement of mobile GBAD systems – remains entirely dependent on the availability of new-generation sensors capable of reliable detection, identification and tracking of UCAVs at ranges exceeding the latter’s weapons. Scanning the entire UCAV kill chain, however, it appears their weak spot lies in the C2 link. It seems highly advisable to concentrate efforts on interfering with this link, depriving UCAVs of guidance and thus making them far less dangerous.

 

An Armenian S-300 SAM battery seconds before a UCAV strike. Despite a solid reputation, the S-300 was apparently unable to defend itself – or even to detect an imminent attack. (Photos: Azeri MoD)

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