Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) in Battle Group Reconnaissance - Thoughts on capability requirements and use

Armoured Brigade 25.8.2017 13.58
Press release

Mechanised and motorised battle groups will gradually receive Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) for reconnaissance and it is possible that in the future also the lower echelons of the battle groups will receive UAS’s that are lighter than the current ones. This article looks at the general intelligence and reconnaissance requirements of battle groups and the use and requirements of UAS's within that context

Organisation

A battle group is meant for offensive operations. The attack echelon of the battle group consists of four armour units: the composition depends on the unit type (picture 1). Although the battle group may advance on multiple avenues of attack, the width of its attack should not be wider than a few kilometres. The ground reconnaissance of the battle group is armoured reconnaissance that moves only a short distance ahead of the main force and reconnoitres what type of enemy is present at which phase line, thus enabling the correctly timed use of the main force in combat.

The Mini Unmanned Aerial Systems (MUAS) that will soon enter service will be placed in the battle group's Headquarters Company and they will be used to support the battle group's reconnaisance and use of fires. The use of the MUAS should be included in the battle plan of the Tactical Operations Centres (TOC) so that the reconnaissance data and real-time reactionary capability is available when needed, in order to execute the battle group's battle plan.


 Picture 1.

 
 
 
 
 
Operating environment

The battle group will prepare to attack quickly, even over a long distance and usually in conjunction with combat operations of another unit, and most likely, to or through an area of another unit (picture 2). In such cases the decision to use the battle group should be done by higher echelon and based on the observations of the units already in the area.  It would be rather odd, if the battle group had to reconnoitre many directions of possible attack in other units' area or to decide for itself how it should be used.  Therefore, it can be said that the battle group's own reconnaissance operations start only when it receives a clear offensive task.   It is, however, easy to see the danger  that losses would have already occurred to the UAS capability by using it to "peek into and to make sure of things" in other units' areas. Since, in line with common tactical principles, a battalion-size force can defeat a company and come to a draw with another battalion, it can be assumed that preparation time is going to very short. That is because an enemy company or a battalion is such a low level unit that its movements will not be known until an hour or two before contact, at best.

 

 Picture 2.

 
 
 
 
Information Requirements

In an attack the main task of the battle group's reconnaissance is to find out whether the force can advance on the intended route, where and what type of enemy must be defeated along the way, and finally, what forces are operating in the objective area.  As soon as the situation starts to develop, one must start to get advance knowledge of the enemy's reaction or where his reinforcements are headed: while at the same time using indirect fire on suitable targets. The data and information production capability of armoured reconnaissance is mainly limited to where the forward edge of the battle area is, what the enemy is doing, and then mainly to use fires and takeover from the front-most unit. The ground reconnaissance does not have time to reconnoitre what units there are at the enemy dispositions upon contact or how it will react behind its front lines, as the reconnaissance elements must advance in depth to the next phase line.   This is the "black hole" of reconnaissance and intelligence what UAS reconnaissance is most needed for to fill.

UAS reconnaissance, just like armoured reconnaissance, produces raw data and the analysis is done at the battle group command level. In the battle group's attack the focus must specifically be on collecting real-time information that affects the current, ongoing phase.  In different phases UAS reconnaissance can be used to specify the enemy information collected by the armoured reconnaissance or vice versa (picture 3). The battle group's combat consists of battles fought by units or unit pairs and the end results affect continuing the entire battle group's mission at a given time. One unit's enemy situation on a mission might be a few specialised weapon systems ( a transporter erector launcher and radar (TELAR), a mortar carrier etc) or a reinforced platoon, for example. Because of the attack speed of an armoured force, the units' reconnaissance capability is more or less only scouts or a forward platoon.  In these cases the unit's information on the enemy at the beginning of an attack is entirely dependent on the battle group's reconnaissance. Therefore, in each phase of the battle group's battle the reconnaissance must answer very detailed needs for information (picture 4), and not so much wide tactical entities.

 Picture 3.

Picture 4.

 
 
 
 
 
 
Chain of Command

While advancing, the situation changes continuously and each decision by the Battle Group Commander immediately creates a new information requirement. In such cases it is vital, that just like the platoon leader of the Armoured Reconnaissance Platoon is in voice communication with the Battle Group Commander and aware of the situation of the battle group's most forward unit, the UAS user (TOC Battle Captain, Chief of Intelligence or Intelligence Officer) must personally be "on the map" about the ground situation and in contact with the Battle Group Commander. This means that it is preferable that the UAS user is at the Battle Group's Forward Command Post (TOC in charge) or even with the Commander's Mobile Command Post (command vehicle), rather than that they are far behind the lines in the Battle Group HQ.

When the phase of the battle or the type of operation allows that the UAS be used for other purposes, then the user may naturally be at the Battle Group HQ or for example, for using fires, at the headquarters of the Armoured Howitzer Battalion. The situation should be such that no units of the battle group are in contact with the enemy (for example when the battle group is waiting as the higher echelon reserve), or when there are at least strong grounds to assume that the situation of the main elements will not take a sudden turn for the worse (for example when the enemy is already disengaging and another friendly unit is assuming responsibility of the area). In the previously mentioned situations care has to be taken to avoid the mentioned "needless losses" to the unmanned systems.


Limitations of the Systems

The best suited UAS for the immediate needs of offensive operations is a system that can be launched in minutes without preparations (a micro UAS), or in the case of a heavier system (such as the Orbiter II that has been acquired for battle groups), such that the unmanned system could be used from the front even though it would be flown from further back to the rear.  The above is possible with the battle group's system as well, but it would require multiple control stations for each flying unit.

In regards to the size of the unmanned system, it would be best if it could be transported in the TOC's command vehicle along with other equipment. The reason for this is twofold: firstly, because there are no extra armoured personnel carriers to do transport all of this and secondly, because all non-essential vehicles complicate the battle group's operations by jamming up the order of battle. Additionally, it should be obvious that a wheeled vehicle, not to mention a non- off road capable vehicle, should be out of the question.

 
The Future

While the first unmanned systems are being eased into the routines of the battle group,  collection of the reconnaissance information needs should be happening alongside. These needs could then be met with unmanned systems placed on the company, platoon or even on section level (picture 5). This is one way to decrease the need to reconnoitre individual targets with the battle group's UAS capabilities and use it to focus on the flanks and the enemy's activities in depth. It is understandable, however, to keep the focus primarily on supporting the first unit or unit-pair in the advancing column and thus support the success of the main force, i.e. very real-time and low-level information gathering

Picture 5.

Pictures

Picture 1. The differences in the composition of a mechanised and a motorised battle group. There are also differences in the main battle tanks of the tank companies (MECH - LEO2A6, MOT - LEO2A4) and the armoured infantry companies vehicles (MECH- BMP-2Mod, MOT - MT-LBv)

Picture 2. Examples of tasks for a battle group when preparing to attack the area of a defending brigade. A - to support a battalion, B- to the rear of the enemy's main force, C- to defeat a threat to the flank(s). Notice the four preparatory tasks directed at completely different areas.

Picture 3. Examples of cooperation between armoured and UAS reconnaissance. A - An armoured reconnaissance platoon meets the enemy's point unit and heads in-depth behind the point unit by side roads, UAS reconnaissance is tasked with reconnoitring the enemy's numbers. B- UAS reconnaissance discovers enemy positions in the forest behind the factory, the armoured reconnaissance platoon is tasked with finding out the enemy's unit type.

Picture 4. Examples of battle group reconnaissance on the attack route of the point unit. A- UAS reconnaissance detects an enemy infantry fighting vehicle on the back yard of the tank company's phase line objective (TAV 1) and reconnoitres if the enemy is directing its attack to the battle group's phase line objective (TAV 2), the armoured reconnaissance platoon continues towards the battle group's objective and along the way reconnoitres positions for an anti-tank platoon on the ridge of the tank company's objective (TAV 2).  B- UAS reconnaissance finds out that the enemy fighting the the armoured infantry company at its phase line objective (TAV1) is an anti-tank section and it discovers that that there is a enemy tank platoon between the buildings, waiting for the order to attack. The armoured reconnaissance platoon leaves behind an engineer reconnaissance fire-team that secures the bridge at the armoured infantry company's objective (TAV2).

Picture 5. Principle picture of the desired end state of the battle group's UAS reconnaissance. Before the attack (blue) the miniature-UAV's of the battle group will reconnoitre the battle group's phase line objective (TAV1). In the first phase of the attack the point company's micro-UAV's reconnoitre first at the area of the phase line objective and then at the main objective. At the same time the battle group's mini-UAV's reconnoitre the flanks and the area of the battle group's objective (TAV2). The platoons' micro-UAV's will reconnoitre the platoons' avenue of attack. In the third phase, the micro-UAV's of the main force companies and platoons conduct reconnaissance as previously mentioned, while the battle group's mini-UAV's reconnoitre the enemy's advantageous direction for counter-attack and to the direction of the battle group's preparatory task.

Major Tero Mikkonen

Armoured Brigade

Previously published in Finnish in the Armour Magazine (Panssari) issue 4/2016, published by the Armoured Association ( Panssarikilta)

Joukko-osasto Parolannummi, Hattula