Repeated Downing of US Drones over Yemen:

Sub Title : Are the UAS safe in a contested environment?.

Issues Details : Vol 18 Issue 2 May – Jun 2024

Author : Defstrat Editorial Team

Page No. : 54

Category : Military Technology

: June 5, 2024

The cover story in our previous issue titled “Evolution or Obsolescence..” focussed on tactical relevance and survivability of certain military platforms which have dominated the tactical battlefield (TBA) so far, especially large UAS are now under scrutiny due to escalating threats that challenge their effectiveness in modern combat scenarios. Notably, the recent downing of the sixth MQ-9 Reaper drone by Houthi rebels on May 29, 2024, underscores these concerns. This incident has reignited debate among industry supporters and military analysts who had initially criticized our assessment. In light of these developments, we are republishing the original article to reemphasize the critical issues highlighted by this recent event, as reported by various media outlets.

Large UAVs in Contested Airspace

The survivability of slow-moving, large UAVs like the General Atomics Predator/Reaper in a contested battlespace is a nuanced topic, deeply influenced by the specific context of the battlespace, the capabilities of potential adversaries, and the tactical employment of the UAV itself.

It’s crucial to understand that Large UAVs

(MALE/HALE Category) are designed with a specific set of missions in mind, primarily intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and precision strikes. These missions often require operations in environments where air superiority is assumed or can be established. However, in highly contested battlespaces or denied environments, the survivability of these UAVs significantly decreases due to several factors as follows:-

  • Radar Cross-Section: While not as large as manned aircraft, UAVs like the Predator still present a sizable radar cross-section, making them detectable by advanced enemy air defences.
  • Speed and Manoeuvrability: Being slower and less manoeuvrable than manned fighter aircraft, these UAVs can be more easily targeted by anti-aircraft systems and interceptors.
  • Electronic Warfare: In contested areas, adversaries are likely to employ sophisticated electronic warfare (EW) tactics to disrupt UAV communications and control, potentially leading to loss of assets.
  • Stealth and Countermeasures: Although some UAVs are equipped with stealth features and countermeasures, these are typically less advanced than those on the latest manned aircraft.

There are strategies and technologies being developed to enhance the survivability of large UAVs in contested spaces. These are:-

  • Electronic Warfare and Cyber Capabilities: Improving EW and cyber defence capabilities of UAVs can help counteract enemy EW efforts and protect communication links.
  • Autonomy: Increasing autonomy in UAVs could reduce their vulnerability to communication link attacks, allowing them to complete missions even when cut off from their operators.
  • Tactics: Employing guerrilla-like tactics, such as operating from dispersed locations and utilising hit-and-run attack strategies, can enhance survivability by reducing predictability.
  • Integrated Air Defence Systems (IADS): Operating UAVs within the umbrella of friendly IADS can provide them with a layer of protection against enemy aircraft and missiles.

In conclusion, while the survivability of slow-moving, large UAVs in contested spaces is challenging, it is not insurmountable. It is essential to recognise that the role of such UAVs may be inherently limited in highly contested environments. Instead, their value may be maximised in scenarios where air superiority can be established or in roles where direct engagement with enemy air defences is unlikely.

Reconnaissance and Surveillance missions over large tracts of land or over the oceans using larger platforms is justifiable.

In the overall analysis, over a TBA, indigenous, low cost UAVs may be the answer, in place of expensive systems which are vulnerable to hostile action.

In Conclusion

The downing of the MQ-9 Reaper by Houthi rebels not only highlights the ongoing challenges faced by military drones in hostile environments but also serves as a prompt for advancing countermeasure technologies and re-evaluating operational strategies to safeguard these critical assets in future conflicts.