Non-stealth, high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been instrumental in counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in recent decades, but a revival of great power competition promises to cash their roles in future conflicts.
Opponents like Russia and China are trying to exploit time advantage, for example by achieving rapid military gains before the United States or its allies can implement effective responses. To prevent such done, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Evaluations recently formulated the concept of deterrence by detection: Drone fleets that maintain persistent intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) orbits over potential conflict zones, such as the South China Sea or Eastern Europe. The central mechanism of detection deterrence is that potential aggressors, knowing that they are being watched in the “tribunal of world public opinion”, will be less likely to take military action. Historical precedents may lend credence to the effectiveness of detection deterrence, but the approach may prove barely sufficient when applied to the types of aggressive maneuvers observed in the emerging threat environment.
Tactics frequently used by high powered rivals can make it difficult to determine who and what is seen from the perspective of medium- or high-altitude, long-endurance drones (MALE or HALE, respectively). Aggressive maneuvers can be carried out in disguise, for example by deploying the Coast Guard or fishing boats pursue expansionist plans, or hide affiliation of the armed forces. Various objectives can also be achieved indirectly by exploiting local insurgencies whose alignments are not always clear. Ultimately, detection by drones can be avoided by using electronic warfare tools to jam, spoof or disrupt UAV data links, targeting either the unmanned aircraft or satellite communications. The net result of these and other tactics is a general obscuration of the battlespace, which orbiting MALE or HALE UAVs performing ISR missions are unlikely to significantly mitigate on their own.
As stated in the concept of deterrence by detection, in general detection does not need to be entirely precise to be effective: simple suggestive evidence might be enough to put pressure on an adversary. However, American competitors have become highly skilled at conducting sophisticated information operations in order to changing the conflict narrative. The ambiguity offered by imperfect detection represents an ideal opportunity for adversaries to manipulate information and thus mask their involvement.
This ambiguity is further exacerbated by the propensity of adversaries to adopt small-scale hybrid tactics aimed at avoid escalation—Allowing them to extend military campaigns even when their implication is known. In eastern Ukraine, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) maintained a drone surveillance program as part of its Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to observe the ceasefire conditions following the Minsk agreements. However, despite a marked reduction in hostilities, the SMM continues to report numerous daily violations of the treaty, and OSCE drones were attack—By units aligned with Russia — on several occasions.
While this case illustrates that adversaries under surveillance are sometimes willing to risk exposure, some form of exposure may even be useful to an adversary whose strategy is based on coercion – for a recent example, consider the bullying of Filipino fishermen by Chinese maritime patrols. In cases like this, it can be assumed that persistent ISRs could amplify threat signals sent by an adversary by highlighting even relatively small incursions.
To be clear, it is not that a persistent ISR strategy by a fleet of drones cannot contribute to deterrence, but rather that it must be planned with the current modus operandi of high-powered rivals in the United States. ‘spirit. Two promising avenues for effectively utilizing the ISR capabilities of long-endurance drones could also be to improve network surveillance capabilities and continue to focus on clear and credible red lines.
A coordinated surveillance network – space assets, manned and unmanned platforms, sensor networks, aided by social media and public reporting, could combine passive and active detection to reduce ambiguity. Reducing the ambiguity would in turn leave few options for an adversary trying to hide or disguise his military enterprises.
As for the light red lines, these may need to be more marked. affirmed to strengthen deterrence in the current renewed era of competition from the great powers. In the case of the OSCE drone program, it is possible that a lack of clarity in the Minsk agreements and the common treaty violations observed by other means compromised the deterrent value of airborne ISRs by making it clear that certain types of aggressive maneuvering would likely be tolerated anyway. As a result, the visibly high tolerance levels would have helped to strengthen the opponent’s belief that he could continue without being disturbed by persistent surveillance efforts.
Jasmin Léveillé writes from the Washington metro area. He has worked for most of the past decade on military research related to artificial intelligence and drones.