Emerging tactics in Syria – what works v. what doesn’t

Military theory is not static – a fairly obvious statement but one that warrants reminding. Military history shows us that technology can change how battles are fought but hindsight is not a luxury modern military leaders can afford.

As the conflict in Syria rages on, I’ve noticed some trends around the use of unmanned vehicles, or drones, that I thought were interesting enough to document.

The American school of drone usage revolves primarily around fire support and intelligence collection. As the first-mover in drone warfare, the United States was uniquely positioned to write the book on drones and, perhaps predictably, the technology was implemented as a low-risk, inexpensive air support platform. The Obama administration, cognizant of the public’s perception of casualties in the Middle East, prioritized drone usage to reduce the need for boots on the ground.

In Syria, we’ve seen the Russians layer onto the drone framework. They’ve rolled out UGV (Unmanned Ground Vehicle) models like JSC 766 UPTK‘s URAN-9 as the Syrian conflict has provided opportunity to test the tech in live-fire scenarios. So far, the results have been mixed. One significant problem with UGVs is the inability for operators to maintain line of sight with the vehicle, especially in urban terrain. For a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), line of sight isn’t an issue – the addition of a z-axis with few obstacles and a limited mission scope is an advantage here. For a ground vehicle in a combat scenario, the ability to react quickly to a threat requires operator vision.

But, the modern tank was underwhelming at first, too. And, in reference to the title of this column, the Russians have been figuring out what works and what doesn’t.

Non-state operators have also latched onto the ongoing dialogue of drone usage. In early 2018, the first use of drone swarm tactics was employed against a Russian air base in Syria. Khmeimim Air Base has seen repeats of the first attack, even as recently as Monday. With the exception of the first swarm attacks, Russian air defenses have adapted to prevent these smaller, fixed-wing craft from penetrating base perimeters, but such attacks are cheap, quick to set up, and can be hugely disruptive to air operations during action events, like a scramble.

UAVs that attacked Khmeimim Airbase

Finally, and speaking of cheap, ATGMs (Anti-Tank Guided Missiles) are rapidly evolving. Independent of the large-movement actions seen at the turn of the century, infantry embedded in static positions favor the ATGM as a means of disrupting an enemy’s prepared position – armored or otherwise. Guiding the missile allows for more frequent hits on-target, negating the pitfalls of indirect fire. The downside here is that the warheads are meant to destroy tanks so their effectiveness against infantry is generally pretty muted.

I could possible go on, talking about the Russian improvements in force projection, their failings in maritime operations, and the use of deniability when attacking American positions as seen during the Battle of Khasham. But I wouldn’t want to drone on on topics that have already been covered by more reputable publications.

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