Regulations act as 'major constraint' on Nato drone development

Alliance needs to change aviation rules or face defeat in future wars, influential paper says

A Russian drone launches a missile during the Zapad-2021 war games. AP
Powered by automated translation

Nato faces being outsmarted by its adversaries in drone warfare because strict aircraft regulations are proving a “major constraint” on their development, an influential paper has stated.

The mass use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the Ukraine war has led to a dramatic change in Western military thinking to address both how to build and how to defend against the weapons.

But the Nato alliance will struggle in battles if it is unable to rapidly reform regulations that make it “almost impossible to adapt the necessary capabilities at the speed of relevance”, said a report by the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi).

Drone warfare is also set to become much more integrated with AI, allowing swarm and smart attacks. There are suggestions that the sons of the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh who were killed on Wednesday were targeted by Israel’s AI system, which The National reported on last year.

Ukraine has led the way in cost-effective drone development by purchasing cheap quadcopters and fitting them with a 5kg rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) warhead at a cost of about $2,500 each.

But these UAVs have limitations, with the think tank’s paper stating that only one in five hit their targets, mainly due to poor reliability and pilot skills and Russian electronic warfare.

The ability to create effective drone battalions is being examined by many Western armies but they have been handicapped by aviation rules.

“The critical conclusion is that regulation of UAVs is a major constraint upon their battlefield effectiveness,” said the paper’s authors, Prof Justin Bronk and Dr Jack Watling,

“The structures that exist in Nato countries today tend to increase cost and slow down development to such an extent as to prevent Nato states from employing UAVs effectively.”

The most notable regulation hindrance is that because UAVs are treated as aircraft they require re-certification every time they are modified.

Regulations now need to be scrutinised as they are “having an impact on operational requirements”, said the paper, titled Mass Precision Strike: Designing UAV Complexes for Land Forces.

The authors warned that a force with poor UAV provision “risks ceding the enemy an insurmountable advantage in situational awareness” and could suffer precision drone attacks “that will prove crippling”.

The use of AI, machine learning and miniaturisation for UAVs has driven widespread speculation that they can hit targets accurately “at a previously unattainable scale”.

“UAVs carrying small payloads, delivering munitions precisely at the most vulnerable points, across the front, have dominated visions of future war in both science fiction and military theory,” the authors wrote.

Ukraine has demonstrated that rather than “prestige systems”, such as the US-made $100 million RQ-4 Global Hawk, there are now low-cost UAVs that are “touted as rendering a wide range of established military systems obsolete”.

Ukraine’s military has also proven that cheap, mass produced drones could at least stall advancing Russian armour before allowing artillery or other more advanced drones to finish them off.

“If this can be achieved in a manner that is significantly more cost effective and efficient than massed artillery or attack aviation, then it is likely to represent a compelling investment case.”

The authors suggested that the ideal drone, with good navigation systems and software, would have a range of 30km, carry a 5kg warhead and cost less than $40,000.

With constant enemy countermeasures it was also necessary to update UAV software at least every six to 12 weeks, the report added.

The authors concluded that UAVs have the ability to revolutionise military warfare by delivering munitions at a low cast and large scale, which meant their designs “should be ruthlessly simplified and optimised for defined tasks”.

Updated: April 11, 2024, 4:20 PM