The rapid expansion of commercially available small unmanned aircraft systems enables many countries to easily collect information in support of offensive and defensive operations. Small unmanned aircraft system employment is significant to modern operations due to its ability to provide collection for reconnaissance, target acquisition, and battle damage assessments. At the Joint Multinational Readiness Center, the 1-4th Infantry Battalion (Warriors) opposition force, replicates real-world threat tactics, techniques, and procedures to engage and challenge rotational training units. The Warriors’ utilization of small unmanned aircraft systems is crucial to their success and provides lessons for the larger Army in terms of practical considerations as well as tactical employment.
This paper is a broad assessment focusing on the small unmanned aircraft systems threat posed to rotational training units. It briefly compares the relative combat power of the Warrior battalion to rotational training units and discusses the factors causing a lack of small unmanned aircraft systems utilization by rotational training units. The paper will also describe best practices and preferred small unmanned aircraft systems employment techniques from the perspective of 1-4th infantry battalion and, finally, offers recommendations for future rotational training units to effectively employ small unmanned aircraft systems as part of the combined arms effort.
Over the last three decades, technological advancements have revolutionized the modern battlefield. Commanders are able to gather more information about a battlefield today than at any point in history. One of the most important links in this transformation is the proliferation of small unmanned aircraft systems in increasing quantities and capabilities. These assets are capable of providing a real-time stream of information which assists the commander’s decisionmaking process and the accurate targeting of enemy assets. Despite this significant impact, Joint Multinational Readiness Center rotational training units lack an appreciation for the lethality tied to information collected from small unmanned aircraft systems.
A clear example of this lack of appreciation is repeatedly observed at Joint Multinational Readiness Center where units often ignore small unmanned aircraft systems completely or assume that a 1-4th infantry battalion Raven is friendly.1 Incoming units receive briefings on the presence of enemy small unmanned aircraft systems; however, the activity is routinely not reported or countered. Units allow their battle positions, seams, attack positions, and scheme of maneuver to be reconnoitered. This unimpeded collection assists the opposition force answer priority information requirements to exploit the rotational training unit’s vulnerabilities.
The 1-4th infantry battalion’s small unmanned aircraft systems assets effectively acquire and pass-on time sensitive targeting information, which queues the targeting cell, generally resulting in rotational training unit losses. This largely unanswered reconnaissance and fires on rotational training unit positions enables the opposition force to effectively neutralize a rotational training unit course of action, both offensively and defensively. When all aspects of these collection opportunities are combined, a smaller unit is capable of rapidly neutralizing or defeating a much larger force. A real-world example occurred in Eastern Ukraine where small unmanned aircraft systems reconnaissance and target acquisition ability combined with mass fires resulted in the destruction of two Ukrainian mechanized battalions in a matter of minutes by rebel forces (Fire Strike at Zelenopilly).2
When the rotational training unit does use their small unmanned aircraft systems assets, poor rotational training unit password protection or operations security procedures enables open viewing of their small unmanned aircraft systems feed and allows the opposition force to better assess the current rotational training unit common operating picture of its elements. The Joint Multinational Readiness Center has observed this operations security vulnerability across much of the rotational training unit digital infrastructure. Despite the various threats outlined above, rotational training units have the capacity to disproportionately exploit these same capabilities based on their superior relative combat power to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center’s 1-4th infantry battalion.
Relative Combat Power and Results
Rotational units have at least a two-to-one advantage in small unmanned aircraft systems collection capacity compared to the Joint Multinational Readiness Center’s opposition force. In an infantry brigade combat team, this collection capacity typically consists of 15 RQ-11B Digital Data Link (Raven) systems, each composed of three Raven aircraft. A typical allocation is: three per reconnaissance squadron, four per maneuver battalion, two per artillery battalion, one per support battalion, and one system in the special troops battalion. An infantry brigade combat team also has four Shadow RQ-7BV2 UAS in a tactical unmanned aerial vehicle platoon.3 In total, this gives an infantry brigade combat team 49 airframes for employment across its area of operations.
In comparison, the 1-4th infantry battalion currently has three Raven systems, three Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance Systems, and one Puma system which gives the unit a total of 13 airframes to employ in its role as the Joint Multinational Readiness Center opposition force. To more accurately replicate a near-peer capability, the 1-4th infantry battalion also employs a virtual UAS capable of two flights a day. Despite their advantage in small unmanned aircraft systems capacity, rotational training units are routinely out matched by 1-4th in the employment of their systems.
Based on the reporting of small unmanned aircraft systems use in ongoing conflicts, Joint Multinational Readiness Center’s opposition force has made a deliberate effort to accurately replicate an active small unmanned aircraft systems environment. During the 14 training days of exercise 16-04, the 1-4th infantry battalion flew 69 hours of small unmanned aircraft systems coverage compared to two small unmanned aircraft systems hours flown by the rotational training unit. See the Saber Junction 2016 graphical UAS rollup in Figure 2. During the 13 training days of exercise 16-06, the 1-4th infantry battalion had aerial collection assets on station in the battle and disruption zones even longer flying over 100 hours compared to the rotational training unit’s four hours. See Swift Response 2016 graphical UAS rollup in Figure 3.
As a result of the Joint Multinational Readiness Center opposition force’s extensive use of their small unmanned aircraft systems assets, their combat power is significantly enhanced due to the disproportionate advantage in information collection. The 69 hours or more of uncontested small unmanned aircraft systems coverage during Saber Junction 2016 enabled unfettered target acquisition, accurate identification of emplaced rotational training unit obstacles, and exploitation of the rotational training unit’s coordination seams. This resulted in sustained and accurate fires, bypassing emplaced obstacles, and massing forces at decisive points. As the capability to employ small unmanned aircraft systems expands within Joint Multinational Readiness Center’s opposition force, the battalion’s combat power will grow.
Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Employment Limitations
One of the critical limiting factors to small unmanned aircraft systems employment is the rotational training unit’s mindset toward small unmanned aircraft systems. Almost all small unmanned aircraft systems employment experience stems from a largely permissive counter-insurgency battlespace. Many training units ineffectively transition their planning and training for operations in a competitive small unmanned aircraft systems environment. Effective development and execution of vital tactical integration techniques and well-trained counter small unmanned aircraft systems procedures is lacking. The result is ineffective or non-existent communication within the rotational training unit about friendly or enemy small unmanned aircraft systems operations.4
A lack of prioritization of small unmanned aircraft systems employment during a rotational training unit’s training cycle at home-station results in untrained operators and undeveloped operating procedures. The effective employment of a rotational training unit’s small unmanned aircraft systems capabilities must begin and be maintained at the unit’s home-station. Command-level emphasis, and command-level emphasis only, will ensure certification and training currency of small unmanned aircraft systems operators, otherwise small unmanned aircraft systems will not reach its true capability as a force-multiplier for a unit’s operations. Command-level emphasis ought to result in a standard operating procedure which establishes the roles and responsibilities for master trainers, operators, and the chain of command through battalion and brigade.
An additional limitation to small unmanned aircraft systems employment occurs during the process of deconflicting airspace and when synchronizing restricted operating zones. Again, these are processes and procedures that must be coordinated and practiced in order to gain proficiency. A final limiting factor is risk aversion. Many rotational training units maintain their small unmanned aircraft systems capabilities securely in their battle zone, limiting their range and collection potential. In comparison, the 1-4th infantry battalion accepts tactical risk by placing some of it small unmanned aircraft systems operators forward with scout elements in the disruption zone or deeper to fully employ their capabilities. They consider the risks associated with losing contact with a friendly company or the payoff of reconnoitering and targeting enemy positions significantly outweigh the risks faced by forward small unmanned aircraft systems teams. To stay competitive, rotational training units must adapt tactics that support the targeting and survivability of the brigade as a whole.
Best Practices & Preferred methods of the Warrior Battalion
As discussed earlier, 1-4th infantry has three primary small unmanned aircraft systems platforms, each system is used based on its respective capabilities. The rapid launch and return of a Raven provides a company commander with quick target identification and the flexibility to rapidly maneuver Raven control station sites. The Puma system has a longer range and flight time allowing for deeper operational views and support to fires as enemy elements enter the 1-4th infantry battalion’s kill zones. Both systems have an infrared camera and laser target designation capabilities. Depending on environmental factors such as wind, the small unmanned aircraft systems operators prefer to use Ravens in the offense and the Puma system in the defense, although, pairing the systems to queue their capabilities has provided significant advantages if a Raven is engaged. The newly implemented Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance Systems, which replicates a non-conventional UAS capability, has a high definition camera, but limited range and target support capabilities. The opposition force UAS operators prefer to use this system in a reconnaissance capacity while in towns or along tree lines in order to fully exploit its capabilities and minimize risks associated with detection.
In order to use these platforms, the Warrior Battalion’s UAS Master Trainer maintains standardsby monitoring currency and proficiency tasks and coordinates Class IX support for 32 small unmanned aircraft systems operators and 13 airframes. The master trainer plays a crucial role in planning and employing the battalion’s small unmanned aircraft systems capabilities. In conjunction with the reconnaissance company commander and intelligence section, he develops a small unmanned aircraft systems scheme of maneuver and named area of interest overlay/observation plan. Simultaneously, he coordinates with the installation tower chief to operate multiple small unmanned aircraft systems systems while deconflicting live aircraft and fires throughout the training area. While all of these tasks are important, the master trainer’s most important role is instructing and certifying operators.
The master trainer is the only Soldier in the 1-4th infantry battalion authorized to instruct and certify new operators and ensuring all Puma, Raven, and Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance Systems operators are current with their airframe. Each company must maintain a total of six Puma/Raven operators and five Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance Systems operators requiring the master trainer conduct a 10 day small unmanned aircraft systems Initial Qualification Course to replenish each company between rotations as Soldiers leave the unit. Once Soldiers have completed this course, they participate in additional training that may take as many as 60 days to progress from mission preparation to mission qualified where the small unmanned aircraft systems newest operators will eventually fly unassisted. After these formal training gates are completed, the experienced operators practice additional tactics, techniques, and procedures identified during previous rotations. When not participating in a unit rotation, the master trainer designates evaluation days where operators are tested on basic knowledge skills and emergency procedures.
Prior to a rotation, the master trainer consolidates certified personnel into a small unmanned aircraft systems squad sized element that include the Puma, Raven, and Rapidly Deployable Aerial Surveillance Systems systems. The squad is further divided into two-man small unmanned aircraft systems assault teams who operate a specific airframe. These teams may be in uniform or dressed as civilians to penetrate deep into enemy territory. Most importantly, these teams are either accompanied by a forward observer or personally capable of coordinating fire support and dramatically shortening the sensor to shooter timeline.
Before each mission, the master trainer and his team conduct rehearsals, layouts, and final reconnaissance planning for their initial collection areas. Once the rotation begins, the master trainer takes the new operators into the fight so they can receive on the job training. Here the operators construct a restricted operating zones, plan routes, and review rules of engagement with the oversight of the master trainer. Once the plan is developed, they brief the master trainer and are subsequently mentored throughout the rotation. In addition, the master trainer also conducts a linkup with each team throughout the rotation, to conduct a rolling after action review and to ensure they are maximizing their small unmanned aircraft systems capabilities.
Once a team is in position, the senior team member places the team for optimum security and over-watch. Each small unmanned aircraft systems operator can fly in different types of environments and terrain. They launch, drive, and recover while mobile; work from roof tops in cities and camouflage themselves to blend in with terrain; or operate in the tops of trees while working beyond the forward line of protection. At every location, the small unmanned aircraft systems teams conduct a short reconnaissance and fortify their positions to give them time to evade if discovered.
At the end of every rotation, the master trainer conducts a 100% inventory to annotate small unmanned aircraft systems shortages and damages. He coordinates replacement parts and shipping with Redstone Arsenal and the Movement Branch Control Team and ensures the components are delivered to the appropriate company. Additionally, the master trainer builds an in-depth after action review small unmanned aircraft systems tracker detailing every flight, location, and battle damage assessment reported during the rotation. This report is submitted to the battalion commander for the final rotational training unit after action review. The following week the master trainer resumes the coordination of flights to qualify and progress operators.
The brigade combat team must embrace and prepare for the small unmanned aircraft systems fight through aggressive training, planning, and employment of UAS assets. Below is a concise list of recommendations for rotational training units to implement.
- Change the mindset. Understand that any future conflict will be conducted in an intensely competitive UAS environment.
- Implement and train counter-UAS drills, including the consistent employment of cover, concealment, camouflage, deception, and reporting.
- Ensure operations security is closely adhered to and information technology systems are secure and protected.
- Commanders must emphasize and prioritize the certification and currency of small unmanned aircraft systems operators.
- Master trainers are not limited by the unit table of organization and equipment. Train at least two per brigade and two per battalion. Empower them to lead and coordinate their element.
- Commanders must enforce the development and implementation of small unmanned aircraft systems standard operating procedures.
- The synchronization of UAS, fires, and maneuver elements must be incorporated and practiced at home-station training events.
- Leaders must aggressively employ small unmanned aircraft systems and exploit the collected information.
The Joint Multinational Readiness Center opposition force Warrior Battalion’s mission is to provide the toughest, most realistic threat to train U.S. and multinational partners. During mission execution, the Warriors are constantly learning and refining their skills in the critical areas of a maneuver battlefield while gathering and sharing lessons valuable to the U.S. Army and our partner nations. The deficiencies noted here are not unique to one unit. Following the lessons learned gleaned from multiple rotations at the Joint Multinational Readiness Center will allow units to leverage the small unmanned aircraft systems to support maneuver as well as provide some helpful tactics, techniques, and procedures for maximizing their effectiveness