Air Superiority Under 2000 Feet: Lessons from Waging Drone Warfare Against ISIL
During my time in Mosul as a member of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team of the 82nd Airborne Division, a remarkably accessible and affordable device arrived on the battlefield. As my battalion helped Iraqi forces retake the city, we encountered some of the first small drones employed in modern conflict. Despite its clear military and technological superiority, the coalition to defeat ISIL in Iraq faltered in the face of devices that a 20-year-old with no formal military experience could easily obtain on Amazon. These cheap and easy-to-use devices, previously little more than toys, herald a democratization of technology on the battlefield that will change the way nations contend with adversaries.
Iraqi officers had previously reported observing drones, or unmanned aerial systems, overhead, but there was no apparent purpose for the aircrafts’ flights, and the Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service didn’t feel urgency to address the potential threat. Two events abruptly altered the way Iraq’s most elite ground unit perceived these devices. The first was after the Counter-Terrorism Service escorted advisors from the 82nd Airborne Division to a meeting with an Iraqi Army unit in Mosul proper. During the return to their outpost, the convoy spotted an unidentified quad-copter overhead. Soon after, they faced inaccurate mortar fire from the city. Though the attack was ineffective, ISIL’s intentions were clear: to use small drones to supplement and coordinate its attacks.
The second event was more jarring. A few days after the attack on the convoy, Counter-Terrorism Service soldiers reported three rotary-wing drones hovering over a command vehicle. As the staff reported the initial information, the drones dropped munitions from altitude, killing and injuring several Iraqis. No longer could the Counter-Terrorism Service or its advisors ignore the threat posed by unmanned aerial systems.
Offering a mix between the methods of traditional insurgencies and the developments of the 21st century, drones will soon be ubiquitous in the world’s conflict zones, and they will not be solely in the hands of nation-states. The value of these devices, repurposed into weapons of war, far outweighs the price paid by the insurgent and extremist organizations that wage war against state governments. The fight to liberate Mosul from ISIL presented several illustrations of drones’ proliferation on the battlefield. Previously irrelevant to conventional air superiority paradigms, the strip of sky between ground forces and high-end air assets has become highly coveted terrain. Conventional air supremacy does little good against the capabilities of modified off-the-shelf drones, which now contest airspace under 2,000 feet. My unit’s success in Mosul offers lessons for the still-nascent counter-drone fight. As the U.S. military continues to develop several methods to control that airspace, ground combat units – increasingly the target of this technology – must incorporate counter-drone measures into their targeting methodology and small unit tactics. These units must also employ small drones as effective and efficient battlefield tools.
Despite the earlier drone engagements in east Mosul and several weeks of planning before the west Mosul assault, neither Iraqi nor coalition planners anticipated a significant threat from drones. However, ISIL displayed more imagination than expected. For a few days in the early phases of the assault on west Mosul, they owned the sky underneath coalition air power, containing Counter-Terrorism Service forces. As the Iraqis entered the Ghazlani military complex, their old compound on the outskirts of the city, ISIL unleashed several waves of drones overhead. Some officers reported more than 30 drones throughout the day. The drones hovered over hotly contested intersections and buildings and guided vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) and mortar fire onto their targets. Even with the world’s most powerful coalition of air and ground support, the elite Iraqi unit was operationally petrified. While coalition fighter jets and multimillion-dollar high-altitude drones supported the Counter-Terrorism Service from above 15,000 feet, they seldom reacted quickly enough to a VBIED coming out of a garage, driving four blocks, and detonating on the Iraqis’ halted column. The jets and drones could do even less about a DGI Phantom quad-copter, barely a cubic foot in volume, hovering over friendly forces and guiding the VBIED. From the ground, the best the beleaguered Iraqi soldiers could manage was to haplessly shoot at the drone with small arms as it darted overhead. Meanwhile, ISIL capitalized on the uncontested space and used it to guide lethal munitions to their targets.
ISIL’s drone capabilities showed an understanding of intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and a willingness to both imitate successful practices and innovate amidst some of the fiercest urban combat since Fallujah. Above all, the group used drones as observation platforms. Three years of uncontested control of Mosul gave ISIL fighters ample time to construct engagement areas within the city. Using abandoned cars and debris, ISIL created roadblocks across the city, canalizing the Iraqi forces into narrower and less maneuverable terrain. Drone operators were then able to identify and observe Iraqi forces’ avenues of approach within these tight corners. ISIL, aided by high-definition cameras mounted under the drone, confirmed the presence of government forces within an engagement area while their maneuvering fighters kept a safe distance from direct fire.
By observing troop movements from their aerial vantage points, ISIL fighters were able to quickly engage Iraqi forces. ISIL mortar teams, in direct communication with the unmanned aerial system operator, engaged the Iraqis’ static positions based on adjustments from the observing drone. VBIEDs drove into roadblocked Iraqi positions using the drone to navigate past obstacles. ISIL used drones to identify high-payoff targets like command vehicles, tanks, and bulldozers. The VBIED threat was less fatal than indirect fire, but the ingrained fear of VBIEDs and drones crippled the coalition’s momentum whenever a drone appeared or a VBIED detonated. ISIL would also employ the drone as armed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, dropping makeshift 40mm grenades onto Iraqi positions. The fear of anything flying over Iraqi heads stunted momentum and forced valuable resources away from the advance on the ground.
Irregular conflict will continue to feature this type of technological democratization. An uneducated man with an iPhone and a commercially available drone quickly approaches the effectiveness of a trained forward observer with a proprietary laser rangefinder. The Department of Defense already has ample electronic warfare capabilities, and the services already field hardware capable of combating this threat on a case-by-case basis. However, those capabilities are not integrated with ground units’ tactics and won’t adequately respond to a concerted enemy drone threat. Ground units must employ counter-drone capabilities that encompass the land, air, and cyber domains.
Exploring Counter-Drone Solutions
During the first drone sightings and attacks, coalition advisors pinpointed potential drone launch sites but ultimately focused on the ground fighting within several hundred meters of the front lines. They favored either immediate strikes in direct support of maneuvering ground forces, or deliberately targeted positions supported by multiple layers of intelligence. A drone operator fell into neither category.
The Counter-Terrorism Service leadership requested coalition assistance to respond to the drone attacks. The 82nd Airborne Division advisors mounted a static counter-drone system called the Anti-UAV Defense System on the back of an armored truck and installed its operating system inside another. The next day, the system broke the deadlock by neutralizing the drones harassing the Iraqis and allowing them to continue to advance. From then on, paratroopers from the 82nd followed closely behind Counter-Terrorism Service forces. The mobile system created a cone of fire within which enemy rotary-wing drones were unable to operate freely. The system either repelled an ISIL drone back to its operator’s location or, more regularly, neutralized it by jamming its frequency. Temporarily stopping the drone often gave Iraqi forces the opportunity to shoot it down. A recovered drone contained valuable information that provided a better understanding of ISIL’s tactics.
While the coalition explored different ways to include drone information in targeting efforts, the Iraqis also co-opted ISIL’s tactics. Government units acquired their own commercially available drones, offering the same low-cost, crystal-clear image and user interface, and used them offensively. The Iraqis connected their ad hoc network of drones to the vast array of coalition air support. Instead of grainy pictures from high-altitude drones, commanders on the ground were seeing much crisper images from the smaller low-altitude drones – at a fraction of the cost. Though not a direct part of the counter-drone effort, the effectiveness of these drones in the Iraqi forces’ hands was undeniable: Coalition observation from low-altitude drones became ubiquitous during the closing stages of the battle.
Despite ISIL’s innovation, small drones have several limitations. Most notably, their range is often only a few kilometers. They are most useful in urban terrain, where their maneuverability and clear optics can capitalize on the tight spaces and infinite angles. As terrain opens up, they lose effectiveness. Small drones also lack significant protection and can be jammed easily, since they don’t have onboard software to protect their frequency bands. Once jammed, Iraqi forces could shoot the stationary target down.
Iraqi government forces and their partners achieved victory in west Mosul through a combination of targeting methods, coalition air and ground support, and emerging counter-drone technologies. The coalition developed new means to target and destroy some of ISIL’s most effective and most technologically advanced systems. The integration between ground and aerial forces grew stronger as they filled the space between the two. Finally, the Iraqis imitated their opponents’ efficient use of drones, combining it with conventional air superiority to overwhelm ISIL’s last stand in west Mosul.
The ongoing wars in the Middle East have become proving grounds for young American service members and the technologies upon which they rely. The Mine Resistant Ambush Protected family of vehicles, now so universal in bases across the world, was born of an urgent need to protect troops from increasingly lethal IEDs. A comprehensive counter-drone solution will soon become a necessity rather than a luxury. As their capabilities increase and size and cost decrease, small drones will find their natural home on the battlefield. The 30 drones over Iraqi soldiers in Mosul constituted one of the first tactical swarms, and the potential for greater control of these swarms offers more lethality. Increasingly intrusive software loaded onto drones will be able to exploit previously impenetrable locations, personal devices, and data. Proliferation and advancement of technology closes the capability gap between conventional militaries and irregular and insurgent forces. Based on my experience in Iraq, I propose three guidelines to adequately respond to adversaries’ evolving drone capabilities .
First, U.S. targeting efforts must recognize and exploit the inherent value of small drones. Because of their effectiveness as intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets, drones offer a valuable link to the decision-makers of an adversarial organization. Just as coalition leaders relied heavily on high-altitude drones for intelligence and lethal strikes, ISIL’s ground leaders used small drones to gain the awareness needed to strike Iraqi ground forces. Drones offer commanders what they want most: the situational awareness required to make judicious tactical decisions. VBIEDs and indirect fire in conjunction with quad-copters are just the first examples of this connection between aerial observation and tactical maneuvers on the ground. Exploiting the link between battlefield leaders and the technology helping them fight will offer valuable perspective on the adversary’s command and control structures, communications architecture, and operational network. For instance, following the drone may prove that the high-value target is not the mortar team or the rifle squad, but rather the senior leader coordinating his troops from a hidden location while keeping an eye on the fight through the lens of a $600 drone he ordered online.
Second, counter-drone systems must become a standard piece of equipment for ground combat units at multiple echelons. The 82nd Airborne’s success with an ad-hoc counter-drone system provides an example of successfully utilizing available technology to defeat small, rotary-wing drones on the urban battlefield. This innovation, however, will not translate into victory on every battleground. ISIL’s drones flew over extremely dense terrain, in a small area, defending a fairly linear front line. The Anti-UAV Defense System was effective in dealing with drones over a single ground unit’s advance; it won’t be as useful when offensive and defensive terrain is not well-defined. Moreover, two trucks were required to move the entire system – adequate when supporting larger maneuvers, but too bulky to support smaller operations, such as a single platoon’s patrol.
Developers are hard at work. Battelle’s Drone Defender offers a portable option for small unit operations. SRC’s Silent Archer offers a vehicular package like the mobile Anti-UAV Defense System built by the 82nd in Mosul. For longer-range threats, Lockheed Martin is developing a laser-based counter-drone package called ATHENA, and an adaptation to its counter-battery radar that will enable it to detect low-power drones. Incorporating these into a ground unit’s repertoire will provide solutions to a threat that will evolve to continuously target it.
Finally, every American ground combat unit must train and deploy with small drones. The agility of the Iraqi military in adopting ISIL tactics was laudable. Battalions and companies already benefit from the longer range of fixed wing drones such as the Raven or Puma. Platoons and squads should be employing small rotary-wing drones like ISIL’s quad copters on every patrol. When working in difficult terrain or amongst civilians, the drone acts as a first line of defense, covers blind spots, and gives patrol leaders more breathing room. Incorporating drones into small unit tactics helps young leaders more quickly detect changes in the environment, allowing more time to respond. One young soldier can watch over his entire platoon during an operation.
The integration of offensive and defensive counter-drone systems along with tactical and traditional aerial platforms vastly mitigated the drone threat facing the Iraqis in Mosul. The constant targeting of drone launch sites and the steady success of ad hoc counter-drone systems made ISIL’s air force exceedingly difficult to operate effectively. Still, opportunities abound for the drone battle to continue. Low cost, ease of use, and constant technological evolution will persuade organizations to continue attacking from the sky. Friendly forces have already seen their use in Syria. A concerted effort across the land, air, and cyber domains will minimize the effects of such tactics and reinforce control of the sky under 2000 feet.
Pablo Chovil is an infantry officer in the U.S. Army. He served in the 82nd Airborne Division from 2015 to 2018, including a deployment to North Iraq in 2017. The views expressed in this article do not represent those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.