- The battlefield is about to change radically, in the good sense, when it comes to establishing security areas and preserving the lives of soldiers.
- Drone technology had, until now, been confined to the skies, and to the fields of attack and reconnaissance.
- But a revolution is on its way with the arrival of land drones, which will change pretty much everything on how battles are fought, and troops are kept out of harm’s way.
Drones are not that new
In World War 2, both the Germans and the Soviets had already started using drone technology to increase their lethality on the battlefield. The Leichter Leidungsträger Goliath drone, for instance, was a mini-tank, small enough to fit underneath an enemy tank and detonate its near-200 pound explosive payload. It served two main purposes: exploit the traditional weak underbelly weakness of tanks by firing from underneath, and naturally cost far less to build than an actual tank. They had very limited range, as they were virtually limited to the line of sight of the operator. Since then, much has happened in the world of drones. First in the skies, with all major armies now using reconnaissance drones, and even some UCAVs, but the revolution has now taken to the land.
Increasing operational awareness is the first domain to which land drones were destined. The times when large conventional armies faced each other in deserts or plains is long gone, and soldiers now find themselves often operating in complex and dense urban areas, with blind spots everywhere. Despite soldiers scanning their environment constantly, the many hiding spots which cities offer make them particularly vulnerable to ambushes. Secondly, IEDs have proven the main threat to ground troops, with a majority of casualties being ascribed to these improvised devices. Whether in detecting the presence of hostile troops, or ascertaining the presence of IEDs, modern land drones enable the securing of troops by increasing knowledge about the area, while keeping soldiers out of the line of fire.
Attack and defense
After many years of development, new tactical drones are ready to be deployed to the battlefield, such as the Gladiator TUGV, a small-arms remotely-operated land drone. Equipped with traditional weapons and combining both light and heavy automatic fire, the Gladiator can secure landing zones, monitor space, recce new areas and break obstacles. It can be deployed using a simple HMMWV, the standard American vehicle, and be operated directly by the Marine unit. Even if the firepower of the drone is inferior to that of the unit, of course, it can still provide very valuable assistance in target acquisition for the Marine Unit, enabling it to direct its shots as soon as it enters the line of fire. Once engaged, the drone can cover additional angles and outflank the enemy or pin the enemy down while the unit flanks.
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Drones are particularly awaited by ground units to replace soldiers during particularly risky operations, such as re-supplies during battles. While under enemy fire, troops instinctively take cover, but still need to move and leave cover for re-supply operations (i.e. bring ammunition to a gunner somewhere on the battlefield). This implies exposing a soldier to enemy fire, which any commander would just as soon avoid. The same goes, of course, for first aid supplies or even food and water. The same goes for major and regular supply lines, which are just as easy a target.
Nexter, the European leader
French military industrial firm Nexter has developed an entire array of drones to support the intensive military activity of France – and the rest of Europe, as it is virtually the only major operational producer on the continent. Nexter’s product are similar to American products in capacities and quality and enable troops to enhance their lethality on the battlefield.
As reported by Army recognition: “Nerva-XX is a multi-purpose medium-size robot designed to perform reconnaissance and support missions. This UGV can be fitted with different types of equipment including night vision camera, gunshot detection system, chemical detection system. a total of 15 accessories is available for this robot. The Nerva-XX has a length of 47 cm, a width of 42 cm and height of 18 cm and weighs 12.2 kg with two batteries with a maximum payload of 15 kg. The NERVA-XX can reach a speed of up to 5 km/h and has an endurance from 150 to 240 minutes.”
As a major evolution, Nexter has now integrated its drone with its existing catalog of Infantry Fighting Vehicles, such as the Titus. Fitted on the outside hull, the drones can be deployed whenever the operator arrives on the scene and operated from with the protected vehicle. The Nerva drone can be fitted with a manipulation arm, a microphone, video camera, explosive devices and small arms. It can trigger IEDs, manipulate suspicious objects, breech booby-trapped weapons caches and scout ahead of vehicles in urban areas.
General Dynamics Land systems, the American leader
The US army has been pressuring the industry to invest into drone technology, aware of the operational potential within it, and General Dynamics has started fielding unmanned ground vehicles, which have already given excellent results on the battlefield – namely by keeping soldiers away from IEDs.
Military specialist Kris Osborn writes: “One of the main competitors now moving forward with the Army, General Dynamics Land Systems, has been working with the Army on requirements for many years […] Its robotic technical functions, it goes without saying, are a tremendous war priority for the Army; an unmanned vehicle can deliver forward-deployed fires, carry weapons and ammunition and function as a sensor node in dangerous or high-threat areas less accessible to manned crews.” Drones were extensively used both in Afghanistan and Iraq, where dense urban areas made the use of aerial drones less than optimal.
Within the next decade, many of the most dangerous battlefield tasks, until now accomplished by soldiers, will be taken over by machines, with complete integration within battlefield management systems. This revolution entails a deep change in modern asymmetric warfare. The insurgent strategy, until now, was to spend a few thousand dollars on artillery shells and a cell phone, hoping to destroy a multi-million-dollar vehicle and kill the soldiers inside. Now that all they will be breaking is a replaceable machine, it seems they will be needing a new strategy.