CAVAN HOGUE. What is new about drones?

Sep 30, 2019

The attack on Saudi oil wells has given rise to a debate about the effectiveness of drones in warfare. Some have argued that this heralds a whole new world in warfare while others see it as just another example of the age old leap frogging between new attack weapons and the development of new defence against them. A similar debate exists in the case of cyber warfare.

It is clear that the Saudi defence was inadequate but does this mean that defence against drones is not possible or is it just a matter of developing one? The issue is not a simple one. What are the factors involved?

Drones are cheap. You can produce an awful lot of drones for the price of one attack aircraft. This means that all kinds of groups can afford one or more drones. Perhaps more importantly, nations can produce hundreds or even perhaps thousands of drones. So, for example, how would we defend Pine Gap or Darwin against a massed attack of a fifty or a hundred drones, especially if it were a simultaneous one? Can we develop defence drones or some other form of defence to ensure that none of the attackers get through? If we spend all our money on drones, do we lay ourselves open to attacks from conventional aircraft? Or a combined attack from both?

Drones are expendable. Ideological fanatics aside, nations do not favour sending highly trained pilots in expensive aircraft on suicide missions. But who would miss a few drones? So you could have a massed attack of suicide drones on the assumption that many would not get through but enough would. Casualties would not be a big problem. Drones can be replaced much faster than more complicated machines. As we saw in the Pacific and on the European Eastern Front in WW2 and later in Korea, massed infantry attacks with high casualty rates have been used. But in rich countries like Australia and the US today these are not as acceptable as a similar loss of drones would be.

Drones can hover much longer over or near a target than conventional attack aircraft. They can also come in under the radar and being smaller are harder to pick up. They are highly manoeuvrable.

The Saudi experience suggests that we do not have an effective defence against drone attacks despite expensive defensive equipment. This doesn’t mean it is impossible to develop one but it doesn’t look easy. Can we detect them and then destroy them before they reach the target? If they are travelling long distances, this may be easier than for short distance attacks. But how do we do it? Can we develop defensive drones to bring down the incoming ones? Is there some way we can use cyber attacks on the control of the drone? The Saudi attack was a small number of drones on one target but we need also to contemplate a large number of drones attacking a number of targets. The immediate threat comes from small scale terrorist attacks, but potentially also from larger military ones should we get involved in another American adventure – for example in the Persian Gulf.

All this suggests that we need to look very carefully at the new weapon and its implications both for attack and defence. We may be subject to attacks from drones but any future enemy will be equally open to attack from us. We should not assume they are now irrelevant and throw traditional concepts of warfare willy nilly out the window, but nor should we assume that there are eternal verities that cannot be questioned. As Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have shown there are limits to how effective heavily equipped troops can be against motivated lightly equipped forces. At the same time, Hiroshima and Nagasaki have shown how a war can be ended by technology. To occupy territory you need boots on the ground but equipment can cause surrender before occupation of territory. In short, a whole new sword has appeared so we need to look for a more effective shield.

Cavan Hogue is a former Australian diplomat and a graduate of the Australian Joint Services Staff college.

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