The vulnerability of unmanned aerial vehicles

Ian Davis of NATO Watch reports that the NATO Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) has published a study on the vulnerability of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), commonly referred to as drones, in the contested airspace.

JAPCC header

Beth Stevenson reports in Flight Global that the paper – Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in Contested Environments: A Vulnerability Analysis – issued in September – claims that although the use of UAVs “became critical in the global fight on terrorism”, the systems have their limitations.

UAVs are currently only operated in permissive environments, where NATO forces do not anticipate a robust enemy air defence network the paper claims.

The highest direct physical risks to NATO drones in ‘contested environments’ could come from:

  • enemy air defence systems
  • combat aircraft, designed to detect and engage aircraft at long ranges
  • rocket-propelled grenades or sniper rifles which could cause catastrophic damage to the airframe and payload if an adversary were within range.”

Potential electronic warfare targets

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Radio transmissions can reveal the location of operators, ground control stations, satellites’ receiving antenna and remotely piloted aircrafts’ Global Positioning System antenna. Underscoring the ongoing security risks in what has become the U.S. military’s most important weapons system, Wired reported the 2011 computer virus which infected the cockpits of America’s Predator and Reaper drones, logging pilots’ every keystroke as they remotely flew missions over Afghanistan and other warzones, resisting multiple efforts to remove it from computers at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada.

Challenges to armed drone deployment

As noted earlier on this website, challenges to armed drone deployment are being mounted at national and international level. Britain’s Ministry of Defence is facing a legal challenge to armed drone deployment outside Afghanistan and, in the United Nations Human Rights Council, representatives from 21 countries joined to voice opposition to US drone strikes around the world. The US, UK and France were the only countries to withhold condemnation.

Davis notes that drone strikes are becoming more central to Western military strategy—a senior Taliban commander was killed in a NATO drone strike recently in Afghanistan— and that some within NATO are seeking to curtail a serious public debate on the use of armed drones.

A message for the new NATO Secretary General?

However, he observes that NATO centres like JAPCC do not seem to understand the benefits that would accrue from seeking to build an international consensus to regulate and limit the use of armed drones. As he pointed out almost five years ago, there is no guidance or discussion about how such systems could impact on the ways in which wars are fought, the legality of their use or what the likely effect will be on civilian populations.

At the time Davis concluded that this was a huge oversight and that the NATO Secretary General should be leading the call for a comprehensive review of the military and security roles of UAVs within the Alliance – examining the feasibility of developing an international code of conduct or agreement to regulate and limit the use of drones.

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