Defense One Radio, Ep. 88: How Air Warfare is Changing

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Guests include Stacie Pettyjohn, Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security; Becca Wasser, fellow in the Defense Program at CNAS (both Wasser and Pettyjohn begin at the 2:44 mark); Zachary Kallenborn, research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (at the 21:14 mark); and Sam Bendett, Adviser with CNA and a member of its Russia Studies Program (at 29:25).

Extra reading:

  • Find Pettyjohn and Wasser’s War on the Rocks columns here and here;
  • Read Kallenborn’s analysis of the Israeli Defense Forces recent swarm operations here;
  • Read a CNA report Bendett co-authored in May entitled “Artificial Intelligence and Autonomy in Russia” (PDF) here.

A transcript of this episode is below.


The end of America’s war in Afghanistan can be interpreted as many things to many people. But to me one observation that stands out more than most concerns the limits of military power and technological advantage. It’s a common point, and I’m sure you’ve heard it in some form before.

But one striking detail that I noticed walking through farmland in southern Afghanistan involved the many covered trenches we found that had been built not all that deep into the ground. And often quite randomly, as though distributed like seeds in the wind.

Inside, we’d find first aid kits and sometimes snacks. There was just one way in, usually. For the ones I saw, anyway. Sometimes reinforced above by metal I-beams. The tiny little den carved into the earth, its entrance only visible when you stepped up close.

They weren’t built to hide from American or NATO warplanes, though they were certainly used for that. They were built for defense against Soviet airstrikes in the 1980s.

It’s a pedestrian point to hear on a podcast perhaps; but it’ll blow you away to behold it in-person—pondering the souls huddled in there, decades apart, surviving. Both ultimately winning in the face of an incredibly advanced air force.

Well it’s been a decade since I walked up to that bunker in Kandahar’s Panjwai district, near Zangabad, in southern Afghanistan.

And in that time alone, a *lot* has changed in terms of American air power. Quite a bit about American strategy and hubris has also changed. And there have also been several notable technological leaps for some of America’s biggest competitors—Russia, for example.

Well this episode we’re going to speak to four experts who help explain a few ways in which air warfare is changing—taking lessons from the long war in Afghanistan to a short war in Azerbaijan, from urban battlefields in Gaza to sea lanes over the Pacific Ocean.


Stacie Pettyjohn is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. And Becca Wasser is a fellow in that same program and co-lead of the Gaming Lab at CNAS.

Watson: Stacie, Becca, welcome back to Defense One Radio. 

Wasser: Thanks again for having us.

Pettyjohn: Great to be here.

Watson: All right, so the last time we spoke, it was about this time almost exactly two years ago. And you taught us how useful notional conflicts can be, how we can learn a lot about our strategies, and even ourselves, and Wargaming. Well, in the months since the two of you have turned your attention to understanding the many different ways that aircraft were used in the five-year-long war on ISIS. Of course, you looked at many things, but that was one of the things you’ve been looking at. And beyond that, you actually looked all the way back to Desert Storm to draw a few conclusions. And you extended your consideration to President Joe Biden’s so-called “over the horizon” approach to fighting terrorism, with virtually no boots on the ground, as it were. And that’s kind of like the case in Afghanistan now, for example. You write in “War on the rocks” [that] “Airpower is an unusually seductive form of military power, because of its immediate effects. Its distance from the battlefield, and relatively low risk application. But there are right and wrong ways to apply air power.” Becca, I’d like to start with you. What are some wrong ways to use my fancy air force to get my unruly neighbors to do what I want them to do?

Wasser: So one of the wrong ways in which we often see airpower applied are some of these one off strikes that are supposed to have some coercive intent behind them. But oftentimes, what that is actually trying to achieve is not made clear, you know, airpower is perhaps most effective when it’s applied. And there is a clear, usually operational or tactical goal in mind, you know, when you use air power to try and coerce another country, a neighbor, if you will, into doing something, but you don’t make those terms clear. That’s usually a pretty bad application of airpower.

Pettyjohn: If I could jump in, just add on what Becca said, part of the reason that it’s so ineffective in these coercive situations is because it is limited-risk and limited-liability. Your adversary knows that you’re probably not going to put a lot more effort and risk into what you’re willing to do. You’re trying to do it in the most low-cost way possible to yourself, which shows a limited amount of will to be involved in this situation. And oftentimes, it’s just used punitively even—just to punish someone for doing something that we dislike or have disagreed with. And it’s not clear that it has any effect whatsoever going back to hitting Gaddafi in 1986 to many strikes against Saddam during the years of Northern and Southern Watch. I think part of when strikes are useful depends on what effect they have, how much of target ability do they actually degrade. And a lot of times, they don’t actually significantly diminish their power, which is part of the problem. Other times you can look at strikes that are used as a part of a campaign, a more sustained period of pressure—what the U.S. has done against terrorists in places in Africa, like Somalia, and in the Middle East, in Syria, in Iraq—where they’re slowly but consistently hunting down leaders and decapitating, eliminating them, and putting pressure on the organization. And more generally, it can have a greater effect because it’s sustained and cumulative. And also, there has been a good bit of research that’s shown that the leadership attacks do hurt an organization, especially when they’re not one-offs.

Watson: Yeah, that’s an interesting consideration. Of course, there’s so many factors into any of these kinetic military actions. But yeah, to weigh the difference between Somalia and the Assad regime—you know, incredibly different considerations knocking out an airstrip versus trying to go after a decapitation strike. All right, in your second column from War on the Rocks, you write that the conditions were almost two optimal in Iraq, for the war on ISIS, the air conditions. It’s an interesting point, I think, as we look ahead to like, pretty contested skies are likely pretty contested skies over, for example, the Pacific region, should something develop over there over the next several years, I gather, the two of you aren’t too sanguine about what could happen in the Indo-Pacific, given just our current understanding to military technology. But you also kind of elaborate on some things that could use fixing. Could you tell us what some of those things, the gaps are?

Wasser: So one of the things that emerged from the air war against the Islamic State was that, you know, there’s a bunch of issues that the United States currently has in terms of targeting that you know, the speed of modern warfare, it’s going to be quite greater when the United States is up against a near-peer or peer adversary. So trying to plan for things like deliberate strikes—so the strikes that, you know, the Air Force would want to take against a critical node in a state-based network against, you know, what they view as perhaps China’s center of gravity—that those were entirely too slow to actually have any tangible effect on the battlefield. And that sort of derived from a war against a non-state power. When you’re looking at a very capable adversary, you’re going to need to move even faster. So trying to sort of retool the air tasking order cycle and the targeting cycle, to be able to keep up to speed, to be able to respond to attacks more efficiently, and to be able to deal, frankly, with targets that are going to be a little bit more fleeting. There’s going to be a lot more, you know, camouflage, concealment and deception that the United States is going to have to contend with, if they were to fight Russia or China versus what they had to deal with with the Islamic State, which was hard enough, as is. 

Pettyjohn: The Air Force really enjoys and wants to replicate the success that they had in Desert Storm against Iraq, where they had this massive air campaign that preceded ground operations. And most of it was based on pre-planned targets that they had intended to strike. A lot of them [were] fixed facilities, buildings [and] locations where the Iraqi government did business or had forces. And that method of operating might work at the beginning of a war against a more capable adversary like China or Russia. But the process of building that plan every day takes at least 72 hours. And we found in Inherent Resolve that actually took much longer than that, which is just simply too slow for the speed of modern warfare when you’re facing an adversary that can hold at risk your own forces. Air operations in the Pacific in general would be more difficult, because China has an extensive network of air defenses that make it risky for even stealthy U.S. aircraft to try to enter into their airspace, and to be able to reach targets and drop bombs on them directly. So they’re more likely to try to launch standoff strikes from a distance. But that is challenging too, because those weapons can be interdicted by those enemy defenses. And they still need to find a targeting solution, which was another big problem in Inherent Resolve where finding mobile targets was a challenge. And this has historically been a huge challenge. Going back to the Gulf War, where they couldn’t find the Iraqi Scud missiles. The Scud hunt was notoriously ineffective, but the U.S. devoted a huge amount of assets to it—in part for political reasons to make sure that the coalition stayed together, and that Israel didn’t get involved.

Wasser: One of the other challenges that emerged during Operation Inherent Resolve was really that, you know, the United States was not used to operating in a contested air environment. In Syria, the airspace, it was not contested in the way that we often talk about future contested air environments in the Indo-Pacific; but it was certainly congested. You know, you had Syrian air force up, you had Iranian drones, you also had Russian air forces operating; and the Russian air force tended to pose not the greatest threat to the United States and the coalition, but definitely was the more capable air force in that environment. And so there were a lot of uncomfortable engagements, if you will, and it sort of emerged over time that pilots and airmen, they really weren’t comfortable really sort of taking control over those situations. And, in fact, there had to be a bunch of conversations with senior commanders where they went, you know, in quotes of a senior leader ‘eyeball to eyeball’ to sort of tell them that you know, they should be following mission plans, that they should be able to act of their own volition, and if they needed to, you know, act decisively because there was a threat in that air environment, they should do so. So there’s been this hesitancy that has emerged over time to actively, in some cases, defend critical airspace. And so that would actually be quite a big issue in a, in a potential fight against a more capable adversary where there isn’t going to be time to ask for permission to, you know, take the shot.

Pettyjohn: And in a war against a capable adversary, like China or Russia, they are going to go after U.S. communications. And it’s going to be impossible for pilots to call back to their commanders at their operation center and to get permission in this situation. So they’re going to have to feel empowered enough to take this action on their own and understand what’s supposed to be done, what is permitted, what isn’t permitted. 

Wasser: I would also just say, while we’re sort of looking at this battle space, you know, one of the other challenges that emerged was that there seems to be a bit of an issue when it comes down to battlefield geometry. And by this, I mean, you know, how it is that you separate the battlespace into different areas of operation. And as we are looking to future warfighting concepts that really focus on integrating all elements of the Joint Force—so air, sea, ground cyberspace, you name it—this is going to become even more of an issue. You know, it’s something that frankly, there were a lot of analog workarounds to in Operation Inherent Resolve when it came down to de-conflicting airspace with, you know, missile salvos. They’re not going to really have time to do those kinds of work arounds with the speed and pace of what a future conflict would actually look like. 

Pettyjohn: Yeah, the main idea behind all domain operations during all domain command and control—pick your favorite acronym—is that the United States is going to be able to overwhelm adversaries because they can come at them from any direction. So they can have ground based missiles firing; they can have missiles being shot from the air or bombs dropped; they can have cruise missiles that are coming off of ships or submarines. And that makes it more difficult because the adversary won’t know where the attack is going to come from. And it gives us commanders a lot more options in that situation. But for that to work, the U.S. military has to develop a much more dynamic way of managing the airspace in the battlespace. This requires having a common picture of the battlespace, knowing where forces are and finding ways to allow them to actually be coordinated and integrated instead of happening sequentially, which is what happens most of the time right now.

Wasser: Yeah at present, without trying without making some significant changes to the way in which the United States is training to fight, organizing to fight and some of the authorities that really undergird all of this. It’s the United States that is at risk of being overwhelmed rather than overwhelming the adversary.

Watson: We are all kind of implicitly building up to this speed of battle, JADC2 confrontation here. It felt like Stacie, you are a little, I think, rightly skeptical or pessimistic over the connectivity issue presently because it’d be too easy to disrupt U.S. communications, for example. And JADC2 always has these networked, mosaic, layered warfare of 500 different objects linked by dashed lines on an illustration. And they’re all covering the coast of China in some way. 

Pettyjohn: I’m a little skeptical of JADC2 as it’s being currently envisioned, in part because it’s kind of going back to the well. It harkens back to air-land battle and connecting our forces better, which has proven to be very effective for the U.S. military, when it has faced less-capable adversaries like Iraq and fighting terrorists, it’s been really useful. But the problem is our great power competitors—China and Russia—have spent a lot of time studying how we fight, and realized that connectivity is our Achilles heel, and one of the weak points that they can push at, and that if they disconnect us, our force doesn’t necessarily know how to fight. So this is an area where our colleague has written a report, “More Than Half the Battle,” Chris Dougherty, and he’s looked at information degradation, and argued that the U.S. military needs to develop ways for fighting when they don’t have perfect communications, and when they don’t have perfect information, which is going to involve practicing and becoming accustomed to operating in really different environments than they have been recently. And being able to transition back and forth between having those connections, understanding what’s going on and then operating in smaller, more disconnected units and still being able to achieve your overall goal.

Wasser: I’ll sort of take the flip side of the coin, which is a little bit more looking at how DOD is actually developing some of its joint operational concepts at the moment, you know, in which JADC2 falls under. We had [Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Air Force] Gen. [John] Hyten talking about the joint warfighting concept and about how in recent wargames, it failed miserably. And that as a concept, it was meant to be aspirational in nature. You know, and I think that really speaks to the fact that some of our joint operational concept development is actually broken. And perhaps we’re going about it with some of the wrong assumptions. And we’re developing some of these concepts in a way that frankly, is not tied to some of the realities that we face—possibly for some of the future warfighting environments that we’re going to face. But to me, it really just speaks to the need for that process to be reformed, because right now, there’s a lot of critical gaps in some of our joint concepts, just as there are a lot of critical gaps in some of DOD’s analytic processes, to include concept development. So, you know, until we actually address that, I think we’re going to struggle with some of the concepts that we’ve put forward.

Watson: Becca Wasser is a fellow in the defense program and co-leads the Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security. Stacie Pettyjohn is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at CNAS. Stacie, Becca—thanks so much for talking with me.

Wasser: Thanks for having us on.

Pettyjohn: Thank you.


Zachary Kallenborn is a research affiliate with the Unconventional Weapons and Technology Division of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, or START, at the University of Maryland; and he’s an officially proclaimed U.S. Army “Mad Scientist.” 

Watson: Zak Kallenborn, welcome to Defense One Radio.

Kallenborn: Thanks for having me.

Watson: Very good. Okay, so you write in a piece for Defense One not all that long ago, you write that something strange happened for the first time ever this past May. And you refer to it as a “wake up call for the United States and its allies.” What is this unusual event that you argue is critical to the future of smart national security policy?

Kallenborn: Yeah, so back in May, in the context of Israel’s conflict with Hamas and Gaza, they use for the first time ever a drone, actual drone swarm in combat. Now, when I say drone swarm, what I’m specifically referring to is drones that communicate and collaborate and essentially formed into a single integrated weapons system that stands in contrast to what we’ve often seen in the past, which is large numbers of drones. But this is vastly more significant. And it’s particularly significant because it shows that this threat and this technology is here now. There was a mixture of activities of the swarm actually did, it appears to have various sensor systems to collect information on targets and relay that information to mortars and other types of weapons systems. But it also appears to have actually engaged in direct kinetic attacks against targets. There’s been all sorts of discussion within think tanks and places like Defense One about swarms, but they haven’t actually come to fruition until now.

Watson: Okay, then now we’re understanding the threat. We’re seeing it illustrated. What should we do about this sort of thing, these swarms? And more realistically, what can we do about these things?

Kallenborn: Yeah, that’s a good question. So I’ll first note that I think this is really just the start here. What we’ve seen just in Israel is just a handful of swarms. But over time, we’re looking at much, much larger [operations]. So for example, the Naval Postgraduate School is potentially looking at up to a million drones and what to do about it. So what can we do? One of the big challenges is [learning] how exactly is this technology going to develop over time. I think there are a few basic things we can look at here. The obvious one is about trying to develop some form of counter-drone system or counter-swarm systems. Well, that’s a bit difficult. We don’t know, again, what that is going to fully look like. But certainly thinking about how do we counter large numbers of different types of drones? How do we sever the connections? How do we manipulate them? Because in many cases, they may be using some form of artificial intelligence that may be manipulable, as well as general algorithms that can be a problem. There’s also of course, so that’s sort of the more direct response. But there’s also to what extent do we have change operational tactics and procedures to actually respond to this because part of the challenge that with swarms that you have potentially multiple drones coming from different directions, you have different types of drones carrying out different types of attacks, and you have potentially coming from multiple domains simultaneously. So how exactly do militaries need to respond to that? I think there’s also a broader question of how do we deal with proliferation of this technology and to what extent we can and I think that’s an open question to what extent we can. But I think it’s worth going into quite a bit because I see as this technology grows and expand a potential web future weapon of mass destruction, effectively equivalent to more like a chemical and biological-type capability; but potentially at hitting that low level of nuclear weapons capability, both in terms of actual harm, as well as some of the risks to civilians in broader society. Because you start getting to, you know, 10s of 1000s of drones; it’s not possible to have any meaningful control over that; we have to trust the algorithms and the AI systems that we know are currently very brittle, particularly where they may make mistakes relatively easily. And that’s exacerbated with this swarm, because not only are there many, many more drones, but there’s also communication elements where a mistake in one drone may be shared between the others. And you may have sort of a collective error, where sort of different pieces of correct information get compiled into a collectively wrong picture, leading to creating all sorts of harm. So in thinking about that, I think there’s a need directly to declare some of these weapons, potentially weapons of mass destruction on a larger scale. Now, when I say what declaring it, that doesn’t mean that we actually necessarily give up the capability because certainly the United States has weapons that, you know, the United States acknowledges are weapons of mass destruction—namely, nuclear weapons, but certainly thinking about how we limit the spread of these weapons and thinking about how we limit particularly egregious uses, like what happens if particularly nefarious state releases of, you know, 10,000 drones on one of their cities? What do we do about that? What’s the right approach there?

Watson: Yeah, interesting. You make me think about three—now three pretty significant episodes involving swarms. Specifically, as I recollect, now, I guess, swarm maybe that’s I’m stretching the definition. Whenever I think about an episode that had happened over the Department of Energy and installation, I believe in Arizona, where it was several drones that had come together, and had hovered over a facility. And then the other episode that comes to mind, you know, the Saudi Arabian facilities had gotten attacked by a number of drones kind of simultaneously, some oil refineries had [suffered] a significant amount of damage. Now, this is different from the size of these Israeli Defense Forces drones, what can you tell me about—as we understand these ones, in the episode that you were writing about for Defense One—what do we understand about the size? It’s just like in the palm of your hand? Or is this more of like a quadcopter?

Kallenborn: Yeah, so I understand that it’s probably more like a quadcopter. The size is not particularly large. The challenge, though, you run into with swarms, both through swarms, and as you said, sort of drones just in numbers, or drones en masse, is that you just have to deal with how many there actually are. So yeah, maybe possible to knock out like one or two directly. But when you’re dealing with a whole bunch of drones coming out, you challenge whether they’ll come through? And of course, you also have detection system problems where your detector detects effectively; but how many can they actually track at any given time? I believe there are many of the detectors that are out there only can deal with like one or two. There’s also the issue of autonomy, particularly where as drones come into larger numbers, you increasingly have to have autonomous drones where there are no flying designated GPS paths. And that creates a challenge because many of the current counter drone systems emphasize jamming, like jamming between the signal between the operator and the actual drone itself. But if you have an autonomous drone, you’re not actually preventing any communications. 

Watson: Interesting. Can you tell me how Drones seem to have helped change the course of events in this recent conflict that brought Azerbaijan and Armenia to war with one another. It was almost exactly a year ago. But it only lasted a month and a half. Now we come off Afghanistan, two decades of war. I’m fascinated by this month and a half, do you think drones helped keep that duration limited?

Kallenborn: Yeah, that appears to be the case. Obviously, it’s a complex array of factors. I mean, in any given conflict, you’re gonna have, you know, things people are good at, or bad at. But at least that in much of the discourse, that appears to be the case that drones were particularly decisive, particularly gave Azerbaijan a fairly significant air force capability allowing them to sort of like put drones over a particular area and just sit and loiter and wait for targets to come into view and then sort of explode them as necessary. And it’s also a couple of limitations—in Armenia’s case where it sounds like they had relatively limited air defense support. And it sounds like there were some questions about like they weren’t particularly trained well, and it sounds like the main may or may not have had any real—well, they clearly didn’t have any significant counter-drone capability. But nonetheless, what appears to be clear is that Azerbaijan was able to successfully take out a very substantial amount of Armenian targets, using drones while losing relatively few. And would have that I think, sort of to what extent that is generalizable is an open question, right? Because these are two relatively middling to small powers. This isn’t a “great power” U.S.-China conflict, where you have super advanced counter-drone systems, air defenses, all sorts of integrated network systems, and really complex training and battle battlefield management. But certainly, I think we can reasonably conclude that when we have smaller powers, where you have that sort of imbalance between one system—one side has a bunch of drones, the other doesn’t—that’s potentially destabilizing. But there’s also a very much a potential terrorist threat here. Well, I don’t believe that your terrorist threats are going to get to like the, you know, 10,000-type, million drones—that sort of extreme situation. That’s sort of, I think, ridiculous for me to imagine. But I think there are very real threats even at much lower scales. And we’ve sort of, as you mentioned, with the event around Los Alamos and Department of Energy, as well as certainly what happened in Saudi Arabia, where smaller amounts of drones can prove quite devastating because it essentially allows a terrorist to have a tactical air force, which potentially can overcome some of the existing counter terror defenses that are very based on assuming like ground-based attacks like vehicle-borne IEDs.

Watson: Zak Kallenborn is many things, including a policy fellow at the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. He’s also, of course, a US Army mad scientist. Zak, thanks for talking with me.

Kallenborn: Thanks for having me, Ben.


Sam Bendett is an Adviser with CNA, where he is a member of the Russia Studies Program. He is also an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Watson: Sam, welcome back to Defense One Radio.

Bendett: Thanks so much. Glad to be back.

Watson: Very good. So we talked last year, we talked about some unmanned systems. We were sort of looking into drones a little bit, more drone-specific aircraft type items last year. But I think we had talked also about another annual event that had happened in Russia, which is what I want to kind of turn to now—Army 2021. It’s kind of, from what I understand, maybe the biggest defense expo that Russia holds every year. I believe their defense ministry puts it on in Moscow. This is kind of like showing off what is sort of like their prototype equipment, is that right?

Bendett: That’s correct. Army 2021—and this is an annual display—it’s a forum for the Russian military technology writ large. So: concepts, vehicles already in operation, some prototypes, a lot of foreign companies, and a lot of Russian allies are also displaying their technologies. There are a lot of discussions, roundtables; but of course, the display of hardware is what attracts a lot of people. So what’s interesting is that following Russia’s years long involvement in Syria, and the use of different types of aerial and ground unmanned robotic systems, and especially following the conclusion of Nagorno-Karabakh war, Russian military and the Ministry of Defense especially is now kind of pressuring its defense establishment to deliver long-range combat UAVs on a much tighter schedule, so that these schedules kind of shift to the left, as opposed to sliding to the right as was always the case before. And so at the Army 2021, several key announcements were made regarding these long-range unmanned combat aerial vehicles. So MOD announced that Altius UCAV —unmanned combat aerial vehicle—would be acquired starting later this year. Next year in 2022, Russia should start acquiring a Okhotnik S-70, heavy, stealthy, long-range combat aerial vehicle—possibly a year or two ahead of schedule. And then in 2023, the MOD announced that it wants to acquire a brand new concept called Sirius. And Sirius is another long-range combat aerial vehicle that was built by Kronstadt, a company that just delivered Orion mid-range combat and ISR UAV to the Russian military. So all this pressure following testing and evaluation in Syria, testing and evaluation in Russia, and obviously looking at the conflicts around the world—including at Russia’s periphery and Nagorno-Karabakh—convinced the MOD that it wants, and it needs all these systems yesterday. And so it is now kind of tightening the delivery schedule. So if those schedules hold and if the defense companies actually deliver as indicated, we’re going to see a very interesting lineup emerging within the Russian air forces and within Russia’s growing unmanned aerial fleet, in general. Now going forward, the concept here is to have UAVs function more autonomously, to integrate UAVs into the same airspace and battlespace as manned vehicles, as loyal wingman and manned-unmanned teaming, and to start integrating UAVs with unmanned ground vehicles and other unmanned combat systems.

Watson: Okay, so Russia is carrying out its big war games known as ZAPAD—joint drills with Belarus. And it’s brought out several different unmanned systems for this both aircraft and ground robots.

Bendett: Different types of unmanned ground vehicles, UGVs, and unmanned aerial vehicles, is to kind of have them operate and in a combined formation. Basically, how do you integrate these UGVs with existing forces? How are they going to function? Are they going to augment? How can they help assist? And so, for example, during ZAPAD over the past several days, Russia used four different types of UGVs in different roles. It used Uran-9 heavy combat UGVs for reconnaissance and fire support. They useD the Uran-6 for demining. They use a smaller Nerehta UGV for reconnaissance and fire support; and a smaller Platform-M UGV for urban combat, and for passing through minefields. And specifically Uran-9 and Nerehta are part of these combined arms formations. And when it comes to unmanned aerial vehicles, Russia used its sort of workhorses Orlan-10 and Forpost—the UAV’s that were used widely in Syria and that form sort of the backbone of Russia’s UAV fleet. It used them in ISR roles, but there were also new roles. And so an Orion combat UAV was used in ground attack roles. A Forpost combat UAV, which is sort of the Russian reverse engineering of the original Forposts that they received from Israel years back—that was in a combat role. And then an Orlan-10 workhorse, which is basically forming half of all UAVs in the Russian force today—along with an ISR role, it was also used in a combat role. So you have several types of UAV used together in sort of familiar roles, but also in new roles. And so going forward, Russia military will build on that experience; it will build on sort of the lesson learned from ZAPAD 2021 in using all these different types of UAVs for ISR, for target acquisition, and now for ground attack roles as well.

Watson: I don’t know if you’re familiar with the movie “Single White Female,” you remember that movie?

Bendett: Of course. Yeah, that’s the—wow, you’re really dating yourself.

Watson: Do you get the sense of—I mean, is the U.S. doing anything more novel than Russia? Or vice versa in this yet? Or do you just see basically that we’re shadowing each other?

Bendett: I think both countries are more or less on the same when it comes to the fielding of, for example, unmanned ground vehicles in different types of roles and tests. Obviously, the United States is ahead of Russia when it comes to using different types of UAVs. Especially in long-range combat UAVs, the United States is really the standard by which other countries are to be matched. But when it comes to UGVs, I mean, it’s a different story. There are a lot of drills and exercises taking place at different American military bases and in different army labs across the country where all kinds of UGVs—including combat UGVs and semi-autonomous and optionally-manned systems—are tested. And Russians are obviously observing what the United States is doing. But again, they’re trying to adapt their technology to their own way of fighting. And so that’s why there are different types of UGVs, especially, and some UAVs, in particular, which are used in some Russian military exercises, for example, but not others. The running line right now, of course, across MOD is that it used over 300 different military systems in Syria over the past several years. So a lot of Russian military novelties, a lot of concepts, are going to get tested in Syria. And so Uran-9, Uran-6 was tested in Syria. Orion was tested in Syria, and many other systems. And so a lot of the tests, a lot of the drills and exercises are actually based on what the Russians have learned in Syria. In fact, that’s usually the line that’s quoted in many drills and exercises, that the concepts for such practices are based on what the MOD has learned and picked up in Syria. So I wouldn’t necessarily compare what the United States is doing to Russia directly. Both countries are more or less in the same experimental space. But there’s this initial introduction of UGVs, and trying to understand how these UGVs actually work and fit with existing formations, is going to occupy the Russian MOD, and obviously the U.S. Department of Defense for years to come.

Watson: Interesting. Yeah, no, I’d certainly believe it. Okay, last question. What can you tell us about Azerbaijan’s so-called “silver bullet” drones? And, you know, what do you think are among the more useful technological lessons from that conflict, which was almost exactly a year ago?

Bendett: Right. And what’s interesting is that this conflict made a very big impression on the Russian military and it kind of laid bare the absence of loitering drones and long-range combat UAVs in the Russian military, which prompted the Russian MOD to actually pressure the defense sector to deliver those systems on a tighter schedule. As I’ve indicated, shortly after the Nagorno-Karabakh war ended, the Russian military announced that they tested two types of loitering munitions in Syria, and that those will be entering Russian military service. That’s the Kub and the Lancet loitering drones. And I think these are the lessons that we’re taking from that war for the Russian military. And that is using sort of legacy systems with a conventional military. Alongside these new and emerging systems and technologies like the UAVs and loitering drones, and many, many others. The drones by themselves weren’t necessarily “silver bullets,” but when again, used in concert with ground forces, in sort of combined operation, are able to be very, very effective. Loitering munitions especially proved themselves to be kind of a cheap way to attack adversarial forces. And this is something that obviously is very high on the Russian military agenda right now. Again, as I mentioned, they’re trying to acquire loitering munitions for their own forces. They’ve advertised these loitering munitions both at the Army 2020 in the Army 2021 military expos. So I think these are some of the lessons that are learned from that conflict. Obviously, the ground forces bore the brunt of losses. They—both countries lost a lot of troops. And in fact, now we’re learning that the losses by Armenian and Azerbaijani militaries may have been higher than originally reported a year ago. But again, having a lot of ISR and combat UAVs, in the air, having loitering munitions in the air alongside ground forces and ground formations and legacy systems is what actually pushed Azerbaijan sort of to victory over lesser developed and less or modernized Nagorno-Karabakh military. 

Watson: Interesting. Yeah, I feel like I’ve been hearing more about the anticipated effect of drone tankers in the sky, and how that can extend things even more in the future.

Bendett: What’s interesting for the Russians is that they’re looking at Nagorno-Karabakh, they’re looking at the use of different types of UAVs by other countries—like Turkey, in Syria and Turkey, in Libya, and obviously, in the Caucasus—so Russians are trying to come up with sort of a new way of doing things. And so one of the new concepts that the developer of Lancet, the Kamikaze drone, came up with is aerial mining—basically Lancet drones will be hanging out in the air in this sort of aerial net. And whenever they would get the target, which would be, you know, either a slow flying combat UAV, or maybe ground ground target, they would then sort of attack en masse, so that no target would be able to penetrate this aerial mining barrier that is set out by these loitering drones, which are flying in air. And Russians claim that they’re the first sort of to come up with that concept. And now they’re apparently testing such a concept at home. So we’ll see if that makes it into the Russian military exercises and drills as well.

Watson: Interesting, that kind of vaguely reminds me of what I was told had been Russian military doctrine, sort of with ground forces and artillery where you pound until you find an opening a weakness and then as soon as you find that you put all elements on the weakness and you’ve concentrated it all all there that was something Clint Watts was telling me a couple months ago, sort of the parallel to an information operations kind of strength in numbers and then once you find a weakness throw all the numbers at that weakness.

Bendett: Well, what’s interesting now is that Russians are actually using their UAVs to actually find weaknesses—to monitor the adversary, to determine the adversarial movements, possibly the composition of forces—so that that information is relayed in real time to the artillery, to multiple-launch rocket systems or to other assets, and then pound the target once everything about the target has been identified. And so these reconnaissance-fire and reconnaissance-strike contours were tested in Syria and is now an emerging Russian concept of operations where the UAVs are playing a pivotal role in connecting information about the target with land based and air based assets.

Watson: Yeah, right. Sounds an awful lot like mosaic, networked JADC2 warfare.

Bendett: Well, the Russians have their own version of network-centric warfare, and they’re obviously paying attention to what the United States is doing.

Watson: Sam Bendett is an Adviser with CNA, where he is a member of the Russia Studies Program. He is also an Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Sam, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

Bendett: Of course.

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Defense One Staff