At 11:40 am on October 4, 2017, a group of Army Special Forces embedded with Nigerien soldiers came under intense attack by Islamic State militants. Initially, the US operators only put out a “troops in contact” call without further request for assistance. Nonetheless, this call activated the quick response force consisting of Nigerien ground forces, a Nigerien helicopter, and French aircraft. Despite Nigerien ground units deploying only eight minutes after the initial notification, response time was over four hours due to terrain and distance. French Mirage fighter aircraft arrived overhead forty-seven minutes after the “troops in contact” call was made, but were unable to establish radio contact with the US operators. Outnumbered and under withering small arms fire, the US operators and their Nigerien counterparts attempted to withdraw. In the confusion, their convoy became separated. Taking casualties as they retreated, the US forces radioed that they were in danger of being overrun fifty-three minutes after the initial “troops in contact” radio call was made. The militants’ assault was finally broken when French Mirage aircraft performed shows of force over the battered convoy. By the time French helicopters arrived over five hours later to evacuate the remaining US and Nigerien troops, four Americans and four Nigeriens were dead.
Subsequent military investigations revealed several internal failures, including deficiencies in planning, notifications, and oversight. Airpower’s initial absence and, finally, its conspicuous presence, played a critical role in the attack that unfolded and underscored airpower’s immense importance to ground missions. Crucially, because of limited aviation resources at the time of the ambush, it appeared that no airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft were assigned to the mission. When French tactical aircraft responded, they were unable to establish radio communications with the ground forces or identify friendly positions, which prevented them from employing the immense firepower at their disposal. Even still, the presence of airpower likely saved the rest of the lives within the convoy.
US ground forces are regularly employed without dedicated air support, from special operations forces working with partner nations to conventional Marine and Army tactical units, despite repeated calls for dedicated support from unmanned aircraft systems (UAS). With tactical units competing for the allocation of a finite amount of theater air assets, the question should be asked whether there is a more effective way of providing airpower to small tactical ground units. Organic and lethal airpower provided by Group 3 UAS (which consists of platforms weighing less than 1,320 pounds) has the potential to significantly increase the effectiveness and lethality of small units while simultaneously reducing the burden on traditional and much more expensive theater aviation assets (e.g., F-16, F-15, and F/A-18). This is because Group 3 UAS are large enough to carry the necessary payloads of lethal munitions, but small enough to be attached to and controlled by close combat units, making these units largely self-sufficient with regards to their armed overwatch and ISR airpower requirements. In addition to their lower operational and procurement costs, organic airpower systems typically have smaller operating footprints—they can be launched by hand or rail systems, which may also help reduce overall mission signature in politically sensitive operations. Therefore, it is imperative that the US military starts investing more heavily into airpower platforms that can be directly attached to close combat units. Group 3 UAS platforms can provide real-time ISR, kinetic and nonkinetic fires, and lower operational costs for small tactical units, while simultaneously minimizing overall mission signature and theater support requirements.
Neither the Department of Defense’s summary of the investigation into the Niger ambush nor media reporting disclose if air support had been requested prior to the operation. What we do know is that UAS responded “within minutes” after the request for air support was made. That no airstrikes occurred indicates that it was most likely unarmed. At the time of the ambush, the predominance of operational US air assets were involved in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, where coalition forces assisted the Iraqi government in dislodging militants from Iraqi territory, and Syria. Considerable demand for airpower also still existed in Afghanistan at the time and forces in Africa had far fewer assigned aviation assets. Other commentators have argued that SOCOM’s decision to buy seventy-five light attack aircraft is evidence of a looming gap in armed overwatch in the special operations community.
We will never know if the attack could have been prevented had US operators had an organic tactical UAS with them at the time of the ambush. But if they had, they would have at least improved situational awareness and an immediately responsive platform for striking back at the insurgents from above. Consider the Niger scenario, but now with organic lethal airpower attached to the US operators. Unable to avoid contact and confronted with a numerically superior force, the team is able to leverage the ISR capabilities to quickly ascertain the disposition and size of the enemy force. Working directly with the UAS operator as the attack intensifies, the ground force commander is able to identify militant technicals with heavy weapons suppressing members of the team using the UAS’s optical sensors. The ground force commander then orders the UAS operator to neutralize the enemy vehicles. The resulting aerial kinetic fires give the enemy pause, if not neutralizing their vehicles entirely. Unsure of the type and accuracy of the airpower present, the enemy forces hesitate. At a minimum, this hesitation allows the friendly force to withdraw and cover its egress. In fact, this scenario describes the level of UAS integration envisioned in the US Army’s “Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap 2010–2035.”
Africa is not the only region that US close combat forces might find themselves without air support. Covert or politically sensitive missions might preclude air support in all but the most extreme circumstances. Conventional forces operating against a peer or near-peer adversary might be stripped of their air support by enemy air defenses or simply because battlefield demands outstrip the supply. The Niger incident is only one example of US forces being forced to operate without dedicated air support.
Existing UAS technologies are more than sufficient to provide persistent air support to close combat units—and future systems are even more promising. Ground units battling the Islamic State in Iraq had a variety of tactical ISR platforms available to them including the RQ-7 Puma, RQ-20 Raven, RQ-7 Shadow, and ScanEagle. The Department of Defense categorizes UAS into five groups:
- Group 1 (small) UAS weigh less than twenty pounds and fly lower than 1,200 feet above ground level and at airspeeds less than one hundred knots. This group includes the Puma and Raven.
- Group 2 (medium) UAS weigh between twenty-one and fifty-five pounds and fly lower than 3,500 feet and at airspeeds less than 250 knots. These include the Shadow and ScanEagle.
- Group 3 UAS are less than 1,320 pounds and fly lower than 18,000 feet mean sea level and at airspeeds less than 250 knots. Group 3 UAS are the largest systems designated as tactical, meaning that control and tasking authority rests with the ground unit in possession of the system (organic). Also, Group 3 UAS have a larger payload capacity relative to a Group 1 or 2 UAS, making it the best candidate for carrying munitions.
- Group 4 and Group 5 UAS, which include the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper series, are considered operational assets and may fall under the purview of the air component commander, like manned aerial platforms. Central control of Group 4 and 5 UAS results in centralized tasking based upon theater priorities.
The Puma and Raven are lightweight and portable enough to be carried into missions by individuals. After being hand-launched, an on-site operator controls the UAS. These UAS carry electro-optical sensors, an infrared pointer, and other mission-specific payloads. As Group 1 UAS, the Puma and Raven fly lower profiles, are relatively slow, and possess endurance of less than two hours. These flight profiles make them particular vulnerable to ground fire, with some reports of losses. Larger and more capable, the Shadow and ScanEagle can carry optimized mission payloads, fly further, and stay aloft in excess of twelve hours. The ScanEagle also has a bigger footprint, including a launch rail and recovery skyhook system. The Army is currently experimenting with larger vertical takeoff and landing UAS that does not require launching infrastructure.
During the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, some special operations forces had UAS operators attached to their units. These specialists sometimes embedded with operators on their missions. In one particular case, they were able to install a ScanEagle ground control station (GCS) into a vehicle. This allowed the launch and recovery station located at the headquarters to launch the ScanEagle and conduct a hand-off with operators in the field. This arrangement gave the operators organic overwatch and route sanitization during their entire mission, despite being out of range of the headquarters GCS and with no outside air assets assigned. When the mission was complete, the vehicle GCS handed control of the UAS back to headquarters for its recovery. Marines have been able to do the same with their smaller Raven and Puma systems in exercises.
Additionally, limited organic airborne strike capability exists for ground units. The Switchblade is a loitering munition outfitted with a small warhead designed for low-collateral effects. Launched from a small mortar tube, the munition was used successfully in Iraq to engage militant targets in defilade or located behind cover. The success of the weapon system led the Marine Corps to make a purchase of the weapons in 2018. Because the Switchblade uses a small electric motor for propulsion, endurance is limited. This makes it ill-suited as a standalone armed ISR platform, and more useful for striking known targets. Loitering munitions are limited in what they can provide to ground forces by themselves. However, a Group 3 UAS could carry multiple loitering munitions, giving it a multi-engagement capability.
Traditionally, unmanned armed ISR support has been filled by MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAS series. These systems have many of the requirements of manned systems—the MQ-9 is similar in size to the A-10 Warthog. Developed runways of suitable length, ground support personnel, and ramp space are all requirements for flight operations. Additionally, like manned aircraft, control of the assets is centralized and allocation is based on priorities and availability. Cost and manning requirements are another issue: the Reaper can cost upwards of $64 million and requires a highly trained pilot and a sensor operator for as long as it is airborne. These factors limit the numbers available and the units capable of sustaining their operations. Larger UAS are simply not as practical for the ground unit nor as cost-effective for the military as Group 3 UAS would be for dedicated support to ground forces.
Some in industry appear to have recognized the importance of a lethal Group 3-sized UAS. Boeing has developed the RQ-21A Blackjack, a Group 3 UAS that is in service with the US Marine Corps and Navy. Textron is currently marketing the Nightwarden, which is based on its successful Shadow UAS. Both the Shadow and Nightwarden are Group 3 systems and have been tested with precision weapon systems. All three systems launch via a rail system, making the takeoff requirements compact and suitable launch platforms diverse. The current version of the Blackjack recovers via a skyhook, while the Shadow and Nightwarden recover via conventional landing. This gives the Textron systems a larger recovery footprint than a hook system, but may be a necessity if the UAS are armed to prevent damage to remaining munitions or the recovery area. The Nightwarden system has the ability to recover using an arrestor hook system that can drastically reduce the required runway length, much in the same manner the Navy is able to safely recover their aircraft aboard aircraft carriers.
Weapon system miniaturization has created other viable weapons that, like the Switchblade, can be paired with tactical UAS—Orbital ATK’s Hatchet, Raytheon Technologies’ Pyros, and Textron Systems’ Fury. All three are glide weapons that feature GPS and laser-guidance modes. The Switchblade is capable of air launch and weighs five and a half pounds. The heaviest munition of the four weighs only thirteen pounds, allowing flexibility in both the types of platforms that can carry these munitions and the number of munitions that can be carried by a single platform. By comparison, a single AGM-114 Hellfire missile, which has been the preferred weapon for use with the Predator and Reaper, weighs approximately one hundred pounds. The accuracy of the munitions and the number that can be carried can give a tactical ground unit a substantial amount of effective airborne fires under its command. In some cases, these small munitions have been advertised to have demonstrated a lethal equivalency to a 500-pound bomb.
Counter-UAS and Nonkinetic Fires
Organic airpower can be a key component in countering enemy UAS and in electronic warfare. Islamic State militants have used UAS to attack Iraqi and US special operation forces. Houthi rebels used explosive-laden drones to attack a military parade in Yemen. Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan have used drones to recon and film attacks. A drone was even used to attack Venezuelan president Nicholas Maduro. Because these UAS are usually homemade or based on commercially available designs, they have command signals that are detectable and can be interfered with. An organic UAS with a tactical unit could be utilized as an early warning sensor to help detect enemy UAS and cue counter-UAS systems such as the Raytheon Coyote system.
Group 3 UAS platforms could also mount an array of electronic warfare equipment like the Army’s NERO pod to locate transmission sources and jam or spoof enemy communications and GPS equipment, or carry electromagnetic spectrum decoys to perform functions similar to Raytheon’s MALD for high-end air operations. Electronic warfare equipment can both support ground forces and increase the survivability of the UAS in a contested environment.
Decades after the introduction of armed UAS and despite the recent conclusion of the Air Force’s light attack experiment, there is still no low-cost platform dedicated to providing close air support and ISR to America’s close combat units. When the US Army published its 2010–2035 UAS roadmap, the document specified that manned systems would continue to comprise the majority of armed reconnaissance and strike missions in the “near term” and that the force would only transition to unmanned aviation for a preponderance of these roles years later (2026–2035). Close combat units with Group 3 UAS can keep control and tasking authority at the battalion or company level, ensuring that aviation assets are more responsive and more available to meet the needs of their small units than manned aircraft and theater UAS assets. Organic airpower can also give US forces a unique advantage in a contested environment where manned aircraft cannot operate without undue risk. Soldiers, Marines and sailors in Africa and the Middle East continue to operate beyond the wire without the aviation support that can increase their overmatch with enemy forces and save lives. In many cases they are facing enemy forces who do have organic and lethal UAS assets and employ unmanned ISR to film their attacks. In a prescient essay about the role of unmanned overwatch in future Marine Corps aviation, Lt. Col. Scott Cuomo wrote that US ground forces don’t need any more “unnecessary heroes.” American close combat forces cannot continue to wait for organic and lethal air support.
Trevor Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the F/A-18 “Super Hornet” in support of operations New Dawn and Enduring Freedom and is currently serving as a department head in VFA-2. He was previously assigned to Naval Special Warfare as a JTAC and fires support officer in support of combat operations in Inherent Resolve.
Dylan Phillips-Levine is a lieutenant commander in the United States Navy. He has flown the T-6B “Texan II” as an instructor and the MH-60R “Seahawk” in support of Operation Enduring Freedom and 4th Fleet in counternarcotics operations. He is currently serving as an instructor in the T-34C-1 “Turbo-Mentor” as an exchange instructor pilot with the Argentine navy.
Walker D. Mills is a captain in the Marines. An infantry officer, he is currently serving as an exchange instructor at the Colombian naval academy.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Amy Carle, US Army National Guard