As Russian forces continue to surround Kyiv and conduct urban operations throughout Ukraine, Ukrainian forces have turned to drones to supplement their combat power. Whether being used in a reconnaissance role or to deliver lethal munitions, drones such as the TB2 Bayraktar are strengthening the Ukrainian military’s ability to fight the numerically superior Russian army in close proximity to the civilian population. While using small drones is not a new concept, the ability of larger, more capable platforms to influence the urban battle is worth examining in further detail.
In the fall of 2016, the United States launched an air campaign to support Libyan militia forces attempting to recapture the city of Sirte from ISIS. At the time, Sirte was ISIS’s primary safe haven outside of Iraq and Syria. Heavily relying on remotely piloted MQ-9 Reaper drones, almost five hundred close air support (CAS) strikes were launched against ISIS positions in the city. Unlike the concurrent Mosul and Raqqah campaigns, the fight in Sirte is unique because it highlights the ability of remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs) to support a partner force and provide a decisive advantage in urban operations without the presence of a large coalition task force. The MQ-9’s success demonstrates the potential of armed RPAs in urban warfare, and to transform even unsophisticated partner forces into effective fighting formations.
Overflying the Urban Battlefield
The MQ-9’s flying characteristics allowed its crews to track targets in urban terrain. At low speed and medium altitudes, the aircraft could see in to urban canyons to provide a far more detailed picture of the battlespace than that offered by other aircraft. The live feed was downlinked in real time to US commanders, strike cells, and intelligence centers far from Sirte. Footage could then be slowed down, reviewed, and fused with historical imagery and other intelligence products to maximize the understanding of the fight. While full-motion video is the signature capability of the MQ-9, video alone lacked the context necessary to effectively conduct urban CAS in irregular warfare. Multiple sensors and a contextual understanding of the battlefield were essential for effective air support. Because trained analysts processed data from video and other sources in real time, the Reaper missions allowed US forces to develop a thorough understanding of the situation. This provided both commanders and aircrew with high-confidence assessments of exactly what they were seeing before choosing to employ weapons.
Operating above the city, the Reaper’s relatively low speed and small orbit size enabled the crews to strike targets that would have been beyond the capability of other aircraft. In the first month of the operation, an MQ-9 used a Hellfire missile to neutralize an ISIS fighting position on the bottom floor of a multi-story building. The target was between two taller structures, and masked from above by a balcony. By holding along a precise bearing to the target, the crew was able to maintain its line of sight and guide the Hellfire directly on to the enemy. Because of the low speed of the aircraft, and the high velocity of the missile, the crew could release the weapon and maintain the aircraft’s position throughout the time of flight to ensure a precise hit.
Flying at high speeds with a much larger turn radius, fighters and bombers generally need to orbit around a city, rather than maintain a specific position. This subjects them to masking from buildings, towers, and trees—forcing them to rely on off-board targeting or to employ larger weapons. The MQ-9 can maintain a precise offset to see through an urban canyon, or simply hold directly over the target and look straight down. Attack helicopters, operating at much lower altitude, are even more subject to obscuration than fighters—while exposing their aircrews to a much higher threat. Additionally, neither fighters nor helicopters have real-time intelligence support to analyze what they see.
Precision Fires and Long Endurance—Controlling Tempo on the Urban Battlefield
The long duration of the MQ-9 sorties, combined with the flexible weapons payload of the aircraft, provided commanders with the opportunity to develop tactical situations and ensure the right munition was used for each engagement. Carrying different weapons configurations to defeat diverse targets, Reapers destroyed sniper positions, improvised bunkers, and armored vehicles. Pilots tailored each attack to the situation on the ground. ISIS attempted to nullify CAS by fighting from obscured positions at extremely close range, but the Reaper crews were able to leverage the flexibility of their weapons system to defeat that strategy. The overwhelming majority of engagements in Sirte were considered danger close, demonstrating the effectiveness of the Reaper in close-quarters urban combat.
Reapers over Sirte often maximized their capability by rapidly coming together in dynamic, multi-aircraft formations. During one flight, MQ-9 formations simultaneously struck multiple ISIS defensive positions, allowing the Libyan forces to advance block by block. Each time the partner force advanced, MQ-9s scanned for and attacked threats, often striking targets less than a minute after identifying ISIS resistance. This synchronized CAS ensured continuous fire support as the Libyans retook the city.
The extended duration of the Reaper allowed US commanders to wait until the Libyan forces postured to move, allowing maximum coordination between the air and ground campaigns. Because of the MQ-9s extended time on station, US commanders were able to ensure strikes were executed at a pace that matched the maneuver speed of the ground force. The presence of MQ-9s over the city held ISIS vulnerable to strikes from all axes, denying the group the ability to consolidate forces as the Libyan militias advanced against them. Constant Reaper coverage precluded enemy fighters from reconstituting their defenses. The persistence of the Reapers allowed the combined US and Libyan effort to operate inside ISIS’s decision cycle, destroying targets faster than the enemy could react. This operational tempo ensured ISIS never had an opportunity to rest or rearm.
The use of low-yield, precision munitions also limited damage to the population and the city itself. There have been no reports of civilian casualties or fratricide from Reaper strikes in Sirte. Three years after the battle, Sirte set an all-time record for oil production. The weapons and sensors on the MQ-9 allowed the United States to conduct the air campaign using the minimum amount of force necessary to protect the Libyan militias—larger munitions and less effective sensors would likely have resulted in a much more destructive operation.
Empowering the Partner Force
The Libyan partner force in Sirte was poorly organized and equipped, with only limited numbers of vehicles and heavy weapons. While US partner forces suffered losses from IEDs, snipers, and indirect fire, the US air campaign prevented ISIS from ever using its defensive lines to directly engage the Libyan forces. Equipping and arming this partner force would have taken significant time and training, and invited problems of tracing and controlling any US-supplied weapons. In a crisis response operation like Sirte, there is limited time to vet partner forces, further complicating lethal aid policies and potentially delaying the operation. RPA support provided an immediate solution to address the Libyan militia shortfalls, without committing the United States to a long-term engagement. The MQ-9 enabled these fighters to execute an effective urban campaign.
Agile Deployments for the Future
The conflict in Ukraine demonstrates the potential for urban operations to be central to future warfare. European nations are actively bolstering their militaries to deter further Russian aggression. Following the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, there is an increased threat in South and Southeast Asia. Al-Qaeda-aligned groups continue to exploit the fractured Syrian state as a safe haven. Islamist militants have surged operations across Africa, especially in the Sahel, threatening population centers in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Mali. For both terrorist group and state actors, cities are a strategic prizes—not only does capturing them provide a perception of power and legitimacy, but they also serve as centers of gravity and sources of financial revenue.
The current situation in Ukraine demonstrates how rapidly a crisis can develop, highlighting the strategic necessity for rapid deployment of aircraft capable of urban combat options. Recently, the Air Force has made a significant step forward with the ability to rapidly deploy MQ-9s to unfamiliar airfields with minimal support. The Agile Combat Employment concept seeks to minimize the need for large, well-established airfields. The capability to rapidly begin MQ-9 combat sorties allows a joint and combined force to use airpower without deploying cumbersome support elements or establishing enduring bases. By reducing the timelines and resources necessary to fly Reaper missions, the feasibility of providing air support to contingency response missions increases significantly. For a situation that may become a critical crisis requiring a response in a matter of hours, air support that requires weeks to deploy is ineffective. If the aircraft can rapidly self-deploy to an austere airfield their utility to regional commanders increases significantly.
Agile basing options also serve as a significant risk reduction measure. While Reapers are capable of long-range transits, doing so magnifies potential issues. Shorter transits allow for continuous coverage of a target with fewer aircraft. An aircraft with a maintenance issue is more likely to survive an hour-long flight to be repaired than a six-hour transit that might result in a crash. In Sirte, the United States operated largely from bases in southern Europe, meaning adverse weather over the Mediterranean Sea jeopardized operations, even if the skies over the city were clear. Dynamic basing options also reduce the complexity of host-nation coordination, and preclude the ability of a non–partner nation to deny overflight clearances. If anti-air threats are present, the use of multiple bases allows aircraft to vary ingress and egress routes, denying the adversary the option to position air defense systems along a predictable route of flight. Fixed-base operations also present a high-payoff target to adversaries. Using multiple bases to launch and recover aircraft and rapidly transitioning operations between airfields mitigates this threat.
Beyond combat situations, the ability to deploy MQ-9s with minimal forward support also provides an opportunity to integrate RPA sorties with existing security force assistance missions. Special operations units routinely train with potential partners, and conventional air assets often deploy to areas of strategic interest to build host nation relationships and cultivate theater experience. A special operations unit training with a partner force could significantly benefit from the tactical intelligence and armed overwatch capabilities of the MQ-9. Furthermore, this support would enable prospective partners to build expertise working with US airpower. At the same time, RPA crews based in the United States could use these missions to develop operational competence prior to being called on in a crisis.
RPA Capability in Contested Operations
The Reaper’s contributions in Sirte offer a template for efficient partnered operations in urban settings. Remote airpower provided Libyan partner forces with an asymmetric advantage against the ISIS defense and allowed for an effective campaign in the city while limiting civilian casualties and damage to infrastructure. As both an intelligence asset and a strike platform, the MQ-9 allowed the United States to vet targeting information relayed by the partner force and ensure commanders had a thorough understanding of the battlefield before approving airstrikes.
These same capabilities have application to urban large-scale combat operations. The Air Force has started to upgrade the MQ-9 aircraft to increase its survivability against surface-to-air weapons, and harden the datalinks against electronic threats. In 2016, ISIS had no ability to threaten aircraft above ten thousand feet. In contrast, conventional adversaries’ field advanced air defense systems that can restrict the airspace above urban battlefields. While the MQ-9 has fundamental limitations against high-end threats, it has the potential to be paired with more advanced, smaller systems capable of operating where surface-to-air threats are present. The addition of penetrating and attritable remote platforms will allow the Untied States to maintain its capabilities when control of the air is not assured.
In the battle of Sirte, the use of the MQ-9 to support the Libyan partner forces was a choice driven by necessity. This will likely hold true for future operations, as decision makers explore means to execute effective military strategies with fewer deployments, lower costs, and less risk. An armed, multi-role RPA provides policymakers flexibility in their responses, providing intelligence and scalable use of precision airstrikes, and allowing for centralized control of airpower in sensitive environments. TB2 drones, far less sophisticated than the MQ-9, have allowed Ukraine to inflict significant losses on Russian ground forces by providing reconnaissance and firepower. As the siege of Ukrainian cities continues, the precision and reduced collateral damage afforded by these platforms provides an avenue for airstrikes when conventional CAS is not viable. By applying the lessons from Sirte, the United States can implement strategies to maximize success in future urban battles.
Major Joe Ritter is an Air Force MQ-9 pilot with extensive experience supporting both conventional and special operations missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Africa. He is currently assigned to Air Force Special Operations Command, and has over three thousand flight hours on multiple airframes.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, Department of the Air Force, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Staff Sgt. Laura Silverthorne