Strangely, although warfare took to the skies centuries after occurring on land, it turns out that the air is a simpler environment for automated weapons. But drone technology has developed sufficiently to enter the land environment, by capitalizing on civilian developments and leading its own research on military applications.
Drone technology on the rise
Like many inventions before, drone technology is developing both on civilian and military markets. Unmanned vehicles are opening marketing opportunities and technical possibilities which promise a leap forward in all human operations, including war. Applicable fields range from medical nanotechnology to home deliveries, and from technical inspections to self-driving cars. Drone tech promises to relieve operators from the most tedious, difficult or dangerous tasks and has led French military firm Nexter to partner up with civilian builder Volt Drone to capitalize on developments. Army Recognition writes: “The French Company DRONE VOLT has the expertise on development of new technologies based on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGV) used for civil applications since 2011. With its technical expertise and experience, DRONE VOLT, located in France and abroad (Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Switzerland, Italy and the USA), designs and manufactures innovative commercial service drones with applications for Agriculture, Audiovisual, Building & Civil Engineering Works and Security.” Indeed, Nexter believes this new technology will be a game-changer on the battlefield.
Breaking the asymmetric lever
In the case of warfare, drones promise more than simply yielding additional mobility and reconnaissance angles. The implications of this new technology go far deeper, as it depletes asymmetric strategies of their efficiency. Traditionally, small insurgent units will carry out hit and run attacks on large enemy military forces, and then vanish into thin air, leading to a long-term drop in morale. All in all, insurgency relies on superior mobility and agility, in the face large bulky armies whose power is useless against an invisible enemy. Drones afford large modern armies the situational awareness and nimbleness which they previously lacked.
In modern warfare, many battles have seen the superior force falling into ambush, with small combatant units making good use of urban complexity to outfox enemy reconnaissance capabilities. Land and aerial drones are bringing massive improvements to the awareness of a ground unit regarding its surroundings, and thus deprive guerilla units of their main advantage: the element of surprise. Army Technology writes: “NERVA LG is a mini, multi-purpose unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) designed and developed by Nexter Robotics, a subsidiary of Nexter Group, for use by armed forces. The UGV can be configured for multiple roles including CBRNe (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives) detection, reconnaissance, observation, surveillance, counter-IED (improvised explosive devices) for route clearance, smoke generator, fire-fighting, transportation, and other civil security missions.”
Nexter has heavily developed its drone technology applied to combat, which represented the most difficult application field for unmanned vehicles. While aerial unmanned combat vehicles (UCAVs) have been around for some times, transferring this technology to the ground has taken much longer. Technical requirements involve firing solutions, of course, but also accurate and reliable communications with the device, integration within the array of military equipment, and anti-hacking devices to avoid drones being turned against their own operators. Nexter is currently working on the retrofitting of existing vehicles with drone solutions to take part in combat operations, as reported by the Mönch Publishing group: “As part of other development activities, Mr Duckworth highlighted continuing trials of a standard Leclerc integrated with a tethered drone, a concept that will be fully unveiled at this year’s IDEX in Abu Dhabi. “The sensor on the drone can now designate targets,” he explained.”
IEDs have been a weapon of choice for insurgencies around the world, and many casualties are directly attributed to makeshift bombs. Nexter has therefore focused its development effort in addressing this threat, as reported by Defence Web: “The UAVs could work in pair with the Nerva land robot (also provided by Nexter) which aims to detect mines and IEDs laying on the tank’s path. These devices would then be operated by a single man inside the tank with the help of a tablet and a monitoring helmet, while personnel at the back could follow the process and react accordingly.” The omnipresence of artillery shells and the availability of cheap and untraceable cell phones has enabled terrorist units to achieve superior firepower, despite lacking the large military structures of their opponents. The major risk facing IEDs is the enemy’s capacity to detonate the device while its surroundings are being inspected. Nexter has therefore developed small remotely operated vehicles with video, scanning, manipulation and detonation capacities. Should the device detonate upon inspection, only the drone would need replacement, and the operator would remain out of harm’s way.
Augmented infantry, the scalable factor
Nexter has fitted its latest Infantry vehicle with land drones, directly fitted on the outside of the Titus shell, and operated from within. This enables the crew to exit the vehicle and leave protection only once the surroundings have been inspected and deemed secure. Additionally, the drones will be able to access places where the bulky IFV cannot go. Combined with the main vehicle and the troops’ capacity, the trio covers the entire range of firepower and mobility, in seamless flexibility.
For the past few decades, the loss of human life has been increasingly unacceptable for military leaders, for two main reasons. The scarcity of major conflicts means public opinion has grown unaccustomed to death and reacts to it more vividly. In addition, the amount of training which is invested into each soldier implies that the loss of an operator impacts a unit’s operational capability more seriously and durably. By increasing mobility, protection and situational awareness, Nexter is sure that drone technology will hand back armies the operational edge they need to fight modern wars.