Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Begun The Drone Wars Have

It appears that recently I've become the BAE Systems of the defence blogging community; promising much, only to deliver the end product late (though thankfully not over budget, on account of their not being one!). It's been a hectic few weeks and tomorrow sees me off on a round trip to Surrey, which I'm sure will be hilarious and not at all frustrating, what with all the Christmas Eve traffic. Only after that will I be able to relax for a while with family, which fundamentally is what Christmas is all about. 

I shall be away from any form of computer until after the 5th January, so I think it best to get my Merry Christmas's and Happy New Years in now before I get started. I'd just like to say thank you to everyone that has read the blog over the last year, especially those that have interacted through the comments. It's been a pleasure conversing with you all and I hope that in the past year the blog has lived up to the standard that you've come to expect from it. One of my resolutions for next year will be to exceed those expectations going forward.

I'd also like to give a special thank you to Think Defence and his fantastic website, in particular for the regular links back here which have helped to consistently grow the blogs traffic through 2014. My sincere hope is that the quality of the articles here has been sufficient to earn that attention.

And speaking of linking elsewhere, the December issue of Global Defence Technology is now available. Indeed, it's been available for a while now, it's just that some of us are a little behind the curve! You can find the latest issue here, including an interesting graphical timeline celebrating 100 years of the Royal Navy's submarine service.

But the main feature of this article is at almost the opposite end of the scale to submarines. Rather than dipping below the waves, we're going up, up and away. 

Sort of.

Because since the latter stages of the second word war the UK has operated almost exclusively in environments where control of the air was either uncontested by the enemy, or contested only briefly. The Falklands war is the obvious outlier, perhaps with Korea thrown in as well, but it very much remains the exception to the broad rule of UK operations post 1945. The significant aspect of that which I want to look at today has been the almost complete absence of aerial observation over UK forces in the field.

This has been especially true in recent years, with operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. And though the UK armed forces are returning to more "conventional" training, it will doubtless be in the back of everyones mind that UK ground forces are likely - at least for the foreseeable future - to find themselves operating in a theatre where control of the air is held by UK and/or allied assets.

One wonders then (for One is now in posh mode, having started to read "Edgehill 1642", by Peter Young, having now cleared a 12 month backlog of reading material. Highly recommended so far) to what extent will UK forces (and indeed its allies) emphasise the need to protect positions against observation from the air? 

Even with the advantage of air superiority, UK ground forces have still had to remain conscious of the danger posed by enemy observers on high ground. But camouflage against overhead observers - particularly in rear areas - is something quite different. For example some of the accounts provided by German officers who fought in France during the mid-late 1944 period is illuminating, not least because of the tedious and often extreme lengths that they had to go to in order to avoid allied aerial observation.

The reason I ask is simple; drones.

Forget about the big ones like Northrop Grumman's Global Hawk or the General Atomics Reaper for now. I'm talking little drones, up to about the size of the Boeing Insitu ScanEagle (wingspan approx. 10 ft). Because the one thing that has struck me the most watching the footage coming out of places like Ukraine, Syria and Iraq has been the proliferation of small drones, most of them commercial types available to the general public, and their potential for military observation.

Being small, made predominantly from non-metallic materials, and with no real major heat sources, these drones have so far proved incredibly difficult to detect, even when flown here in the UK close to commercial air traffic routes. And even when they can be seen, an army is likely to run out of surface to air missiles long before the enemy runs out of cheap drones, while machine gun and rifle fire has to date proven to be ineffective as a means of bringing these vehicles down. At the minute electronic jamming would seem the most promising first line of defence.

Carrying small cameras like the GoPro range, they thus offer a relatively cheap and difficult to counter method of acquiring overhead imagery of enemy positions. The quality of these images is already pretty good and is only likely to improve further still as the continuous drive to make better cameras for mobile phones pushes back the boundaries of what can be achieved in such a small package.

It doesn't take much imagination from there to realise the implications for UK forces going forward. A cheap drone, a cheap camera, and a cheap transmitter all couple together to provide potential enemies with the ability to peer not just over the frontline, but potentially quite a distance back into allied positions. For those wishing to avoid the unwanted attentions of a 155mm battery dropping rounds into a command post, it might in the future serve to become masters of protection against aerial observation. 

For those that are interested here are a few videos to illustrate the point. The first comes from the conflict in Ukraine, showing how even a drone flying at a relatively modest altitude can see for quite some distance in all directions;

You might have to open it out in a new browser or use the full screen function, as I can't adjust the embedded video player size.

The next video comes from Syria, featuring drone footage taken over Kobane. Once again it is clear just how far the camera can see even at this modest height. A manually adjusted focus function wouldn't be hard to install, and the image as it is already provides a remarkable amount of detail that could be analysed more closely at a later time;

And just in case you've ever wondered what it's like to be on the receiving end of a volley of 155mm rounds, wonder no more. Don't try this at home!;

Which is worse though; being shelled by heavy artillery or shot at by an AH-1 Cobra? Decide for yourself;

Merry Christmas everyone, and a Happy New Year too.

Friday, 19 December 2014

In The Post

I'm working on something right now, but don't have time to finish it just yet. Maybe later today, maybe tomorrow.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Going Commando

Some of the very best ideas and debates are formed over the course of a few beers. Unfortunately so are many of the worst. I'll leave the reader to decide at the end which category this falls into. Hopefully it'll be interesting if nothing else. Because today we're going Commando.

Specifically in response to the question; "(Hic)... What I don't understand, right (hic)... is why the army got rid of the Commandos?"

The answer is that technically speaking it didn't.

The Commandos were formed during the second world war after the British evacuation from Dunkirk. The purpose was to create a force that would hit back at the Germans by raiding areas under German occupation, doing damage to the German war effort, tying down German forces needed to guard the coasts, and serving as a morale booster to the British public that would also show potential allies such as America that Britain was still in the war and actively fighting.

The application of this concept would come from units that were roughly the size of an infantry battalion (a "Commando") and who had carried out specialist Commando training both to increase physical standards and to teach unorthodox skills such as small boat handling and explosives work. In theory at least a full "Commando" would attack some objective in enemy territory, and potentially many Commandos could be brought together to attack much larger targets.

In practice the results were exceptionally mixed. Planned raids were routinely called off for a variety of reasons and many of those that went ahead proved to be disasters. Two of the more successful ventures were Operation Biting, which involved the capture of a German Wurzburg radar set, and Operation Chariot, the raid on the St. Nazaire docks. Oddly enough both raids had a connection to No.2 Commando; Biting was carried out in February, 1942 by members of the 1st Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, which had previously been known as No.2 Commando until November of 1940. At this point a fresh unit took up the No.2 Commando mantle and it was this unit that took part in Chariot in late March, 1942.

But the raid on St. Nazaire also highlighted one of the main problems with Commando raids. If a large force could not be extracted immediately then it was prone to suffering heavy casualties as the infantry - lacking the support of heavy weapons and artillery - was gradually rounded on by the local defending forces. Many other raids failed before reaching their targets because of the inherent difficulty associated with inserting a large force covertly and then keeping them hidden. A large number of men spread out in sub-groups, often navigating at night, proved apt at stumbling across German patrols or checkpoints, thus raising the alarm and compromising the operation.

The solution to this problem was devised convergently (at least the evidence points that way) by two men. One was Roger Courtney, a Corporal who had been through Commando training and who was convinced of the potential value of a small unit that used kayaks to covertly approach enemy warships in their harbours in order to plant explosives on them. At first ignored, Courtney later successfully (and at some risk to his own life) boarded a Royal Navy ship anchored in the Clyde by approaching it in his Kayak. He thieved the cover off a deck gun which he later used as evidence of his activities, along with having cheekily inscribed his initials on one of the doors of the ship. He was promoted to Captain and given command of a new unit that would ultimately become the Special Boat Service.

The other, and undoubtedly the more famous now, was David Stirling, a Lieutenant in No.8 (Guards) Commando. It's possible that Stirling had been influenced by Courtney, as Courtney's first command was only a small unit that was originally attached to a formation known as "Layforce", of which No.8 Commando was also a constituent part. As things stand though there is no real evidence that the two met or had any conversations on the matter.

Stirling was frustrated with the constant failure rate incurred by the Commando units and became enamoured with the idea of using small units dropped behind enemy lines by parachute. Once on the ground the men would split into teams of around five and walk to their targets. He reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that these very small teams would find it much easier to hide from the enemy and to slip onto a defended objective using stealth instead of firepower.

Thus it was Stirling's new unit "L Detachment, Special Air Service Brigade" (an intelligence fiction that only had around 60 men) that really began to unlock the potential of the Commando concept. Its raids behind German lines in North Africa started to inflict significant damage, especially against the Luftwaffe's transport aircraft that were often used to ferry vital fuel supplies. Increasing numbers of German soldiers were tied down on guard duties across a swathe of sites, and when things went bad for the members of "L Detachment", the nature of the small parties meant that losses were comparatively light.

The solution to the Commando's problems had been found.

And really that in turn answers the question on the fate of the army's commando units. They still exist, just now in the form of the SAS. Even then, many of the roles they used to perform have been replaced. Because one of the major issues that led to the formation of units like the SAS was the desire to destroy targets of high value to the enemy. Bomber aircraft of the time generally lacked the accuracy to hit precise point targets like a specific dock or power plant. 

These days any reasonably large, static object like those mentioned are highly susceptible to being hit with modern precision guided munitions. The requirement to send in a unit of men to blow up a bridge tends to look a little mute when we have the ability to either fire Tomahawk cruise missiles from over a thousand miles away or to have a pair of aircraft whizz overhead and hit the bridge at multiple aim points with laser or GPS guided weapons.

That's not to say that there is absolutely no use for a unit like the SAS in its more traditional role of sneaking around behind enemy lines blowing things up. I'm sure you could rattle off plenty of scenarios where this would be a preferable solution. But that list of scenarios has shrunk significantly over the years and without some revolution in counter air defences it's likely to stay shrunk.

And if you want to be somewhat liberal with definitions then the Commandos still live on, partly of course in the shape of the Royal Marines, and also in the Parachute Regiment. As mentioned above, the Parachute Regiment was first formed from what used to be a Commando and all of its members were Commando trained. To this day the Parachute Regiment retains a training and selection regime that goes slightly above and beyond what is normally expected of an infantryman, coupled with actual parachute training.

There is also one little interesting nugget that seems to have been lost to general history that I turned up while doing some additional research; even the RAF had its own Commando units. 

I shit you not.

They were first formed by the RAF in early 1942 at the recommendation of Lord Louis Mountbatten, who was the then Chief of Combined Operations and responsible for fostering solutions to some of the problems that would be faced in the event of future allied landing operations. One of these problems was that tactical fighter aircraft - especially those that would provide direct close air support to advancing forces - would need somewhere to land that was relatively close to the frontline in order to maintain reasonable coverage. The army was already working on the means to rapidly construct new forward airfields and the potential of capturing German ones was obvious, but a new problem now reared its head; who was going to rearm and refuel the aircraft? 

The squadrons own ground crew would be needed back in Britain to keep the aircraft flying during the landing operations and it could take potentially days for these crews to move along the logistics chain from their normal sites to somewhere like Normandy, during which the aircraft would have to be grounded. The answer, as realised by Lord Mountbatten, was to form new units made up of technicians, armourers and the like, along with supporting staff, who would go in with the landing troops and service the aircraft at the forward airfields until the normal ground crews could arrive, at which point the temporary crews would move forward to the next site and so on and so forth.

These units were given the full gamut of Commando training to prepare them for the rigours of the landing operations and life in the field close to the enemy, and became the Royal Air Servicing Commandos. You can read more about them at their associations website linked here, as well as the account of Sergeant Edward Handbury Tee, which goes into more detail about the nature of the training and gives a flavour of the sort of operations they conducted in North Africa, link here.

EDIT; Commenter Topman provided this link to an RAF Historical Society document which contains more information on the Servicing Commandos.