Category: 4GW

Even more rockets and wilder speculation

I’m feeling positively blog-happy after getting away with an Israel/Palestine post, so what about another one? This one is also about rockets, just on a different scale.

A lot of strategic concepts have an odd kind of fractal quality, keeping the same form at different scales. We saw how the rocketing was, in a sense, suppressive fire directed at the economy, and the air raids and artillery were counter-battery fire intended to suppress it in its turn. Now, this wasn’t enough to achieve either suppression or destruction. So what now?

Well, if you can’t find the rocket teams accurately enough to shell or bomb them, the next option is to seize the ground they fire from, or to force them to fight for it, just as it would be in a skirmish between two groups of four soldiers. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, this means that the next move is an Israeli ground incursion. Remember that the ground looks like this.

These raids are something of an Israeli speciality, using a mixture of tanks, super-heavy armoured personnel carriers (a specialised vehicle class not seen in other armies), and engineering equipment to undertake attacks into urban areas with relatively low risk while forcing the guerrilla enemy to fight at a disadvantage. Direct fire, armoured protection, and combat engineering are used to avoid using infantry. The spectacular and shocking destruction of the urban fabric that results is meant to have a deterrent effect on society at large, in a sort of horizontal version of airpower theory.

Here’s a Le Figaro newsflash from last week when the Israeli army did a substantial raid in force into Gaza and lost 13 men killed and one missing. I quote the sentence I find important:

Au moins un char de cette unité a été détruit au cours des combats par des missiles de type Sagger. Un commandant de l’unité a pour sa part été blessé lors de cette opération.

This isn’t quite the first time anti-tank guided weapons have been confirmed in Gaza (one, a much fancier AT-14, was fired across the border in October 2010, and later one was launched across the border at a school bus – stay classy, Hamas!)

But as in Lebanon, they seem to have been effective in imposing losses on Israeli ground forces and in constraining the freedom of manoeuvre that they otherwise gain by reshaping the ground with engineering plant and explosives. Although I haven’t got access to the whole text, this Ha’aretz story and the tweet accompanying it seems to say that the raid into Shujaya ran into trouble, specifically a massive ambush with ATGWs, and the Israeli army called in a huge artillery bombardment to cover its disengagement.

The point here is that when the best Palestinian anti-tank weapon was an RPG, they had to get to within 100 metres of a tank to be effective. Ideally, you’d want to creep up on the tank from behind, so we can understand the tactics here as being about controlling the space to the flanks of the advance out to 100 to 500 metres. Drenching the RPG engagement zone with suppressive fire and then bulldozing away buildings that provide cover was the solution.

Now, ATGWs like the Sagger permit engagement from 3km away with a high success rate. This makes the super-heavy APCs and engineering vehicles into big, slow-moving, valuable targets. That’s precisely what happened on the night of July 20, when one of them was destroyed with a whole section of Golani troopers aboard. The area to the flanks of the armoured group that must be cleared to prevent this happening increases dramatically. Because this is happening in a city, this usually means more infantry, and you can probably see where we’re going here.

Let’s pull the camera back from the tactical scale to the strategic scale. The fundamental political offer from Israeli leaders is that with a “tough security stance”, “mowing the grass” periodically, the benefits to individual groups in Israel (e.g settlers, the religious, clients of the defence establishment) that might be lost under a general peace settlement can be retained at an acceptable price, like the occasional Operation Pillar of Defence.

The offer from the peace camp, when it had any power, was that national unifying ideals were at risk from the cost of major wars, and therefore a sacrifice for principle was called for. But if the cost could be kept down, this didn’t sound like such a good deal, especially to people (the religious, ex-Soviet immigrants, Sephardic Jews) who didn’t necessarily recognise themselves in the ideals people like Yitzhak Rabin claimed to represent..well. It’s probably no surprise that this didn’t happen when peace was proposed with the Arab states, and that it did when it was proposed with the Palestinians.

If the costs of periodic short wars get to be more like full mobilisation, this package starts to fall apart. “Protective Edge” is no longer much like “Pillar of Defence” and is heading for “Lebanon 2006” pretty quickly. I’m not sure where we’ll go here. As I said in the earlier post, you can make a case that the Israel-Lebanon border is quiet because Israel and Hezbollah have reached a degree of mutual deterrence. But as I also said, the same processes also seem to make for greater emotional/political intransigence, and on both sides, the end of positive sources of mobilisation (normality and Western integration for Israel, development for Palestine) implies that negative ones (basically, either intolerant religion or intolerant nationalism for both) become more important.

The question is whether we settle into an awkward, paranoid, intolerant peace or rather a permanent ceasefire, perhaps with the cycle time from coexistence to war getting longer, or whether one side or the other attempts to change the terms of the conflict by a dramatic move of some kind.

Wild speculation on a highly controversial subject

I started planning this post asking why Palestinian rockets seemed to be steadily increasing in range, but not improving in accuracy. Although nobody publishes circular-error probable figures for these things, various indicators suggested that they were still essentially random weapons. For example, there were no or few reports of them hitting valuable infrastructure or politically symbolic targets. We’ve covered this in the past here and here.

However, things have changed with the continued disruption of Ben-Gurion International Airport, and this post will now discuss to what extent this is a big strategic change, how we would know, and what that implies. As of this morning, although some airlines resumed operating, flights were being cancelled again, aircraft were going-around, and others holding for extended periods of time. As the FR24 coverage shows, very few flights are moving, although the official NOTAM information to pilots (uses a POST, search for LLBG) doesn’t mention it.

So, rockets. Why do they fire them? Unlike artillery, a rocket’s propulsion is applied in the rocket itself, so there is no need to make a barrel that is long enough for the propellant’s energy to be transferred to the projectile, of thick enough steel to contain it, and stiff enough to be pointed accurately, while being mounted in such a way as to be pointed in any direction and to stay that way despite the recoil. That sounds difficult and it is. Rockets don’t need any of that stuff, being as William Congreve said, “the soule of artillery without the body”. So we have a light, hence mobile, cheap, hence common, and simple, hence available way to hurl explosive at one’s enemies no matter how high the wall they put up around you. Because everything is less constrained, absent an active guidance system, they trade off accuracy for this.

You could imagine that this is the physical expression of a sort of generalised venting of rage – randomly tossing ineffective bangs over the wall. But you’d be wrong both in the sense that it trivialises the rocketry’s effect on Israelis, and that it denies Palestinians’ agency and competence.

It’s too easy to point to the fact that they very, very rarely kill anyone and argue that in fact they are a bit puny and the Israelis should just man up and show some stiff upper lip rather than calling in artillery on the nearest school for the disabled. I have myself given in to the temptation before. The point isn’t destruction so much as suppression, the effect created by the fact of being under fire. And what they want to suppress is essentially the Israeli economy.

Remember that GDP is a flow concept – loaves out of a bakery, cars off a production line – not a stock concept like Scrooge McDuck’s treasure. Israeli GDP in 2013 was $286.8bn at purchasing power parity. We can usefully think of this as $32.6 million GDP per hour. While an air warning RED is in force, it is a good guess that economic activity is basically zero. Not quite, of course, the electricity is on, the phone network is up, and the government sector is more than busy. But as a rule, if you’re in an air raid shelter you’re not at work or doing much else than worrying. The Iron Dome close-in weapons system is a major commitment of complicated technology, a diversion of social resources, so the cost of air defence has to be offset against that. And the warning system, which MIT’s Ted Postol credits with protecting the population much more than Iron Dome, does so at the cost of putting more people under warning for longer.

So, you can see why they would go for range first. During this wave of conflict, the percentage of Israeli territory under warning has been as high as 75%, or $24.6m of foregone GDP per hour. A tiny commitment of additional materials per rocket provides a much bigger effect. Also, range requires “bigger” but not “better”, at least until the structural integrity constraints of the rocket are reached. A rocket is a container of propellant, so increasing its volume doesn’t require a proportionately greater quantity of materials. Another important reason to go bigger first is that it makes it possible to launch from anywhere in the Gaza Strip.

Increasing its accuracy, though, requires the rocket maker to incorporate new skills from the civilian labour market. Electronics would be an obvious one, but let’s not run before we can walk. “Accuracy” is a more macho way of saying “quality control”. There’s even a classic book about this in the context of US nuclear missiles, and the far-reaching effects it had on the politics of the workplace.

We’ve been talking about suppression, and this may sound like the opposite of accuracy. But if you want to suppress the economy, it’s obvious that some bits of it are much more important than others, which requires accuracy. Also, as the rockets have to get past the Iron Dome system, it’s important both that the ones that do get past aren’t wasted, and that they can be concentrated in order to flood one particular radar or fire unit’s sector.

In the Gazan context, the question might be “how much of the work needs a real craftsman, and how much can be done by an underemployed 19-year old who may also be the one to fire it?”, followed by “which of those two is more likely to vote Hamas?” Siege is a fundamentally economic form of warfare; the Israelis are besieging Gaza, and the Gazans are trying to impose a counter-siege (John Kerry wasn’t entirely wrong). As always, it requires the political mobilisation of the skilled on both sides.

The Israelis reckon that the production is organised in craft workshops, about 70 of them, with about 250 employees, i.e about four employees per business. If you assume that each shop is run by a craftsman, this is quite a skill-dense process. That said, this 2009 Der Spiegel piece by a reporter who actually witnessed rocket manufacturing seems to suggest a more informal process, more closely linked to the launch team, although it also identifies that an apprenticeship career path exists or existed. Now that’s interesting!

So, is this airport disruption going to go on? Well, here’s some actual data from that fount of truth, the IDF Official Spokesperson’s twitter feed:

You can argue whether the Spokes’ is trying to play up how effective Iron Dome is, trying to play up how bad the rocketing is, or what, but focus on the blue bits. They’re important. Those represent the Israelis’ count of rockets that didn’t go off properly, dropped short, blew up, went off somewhere weird etc. That’s a direct observation of Palestinian industrial quality control, and it seems to have improved quite a bit since last time. Which fits entirely with them pitching onto the airfield at Ben-Gurion.

If you were a optimist you might say “Yay! Here comes mutual deterrence, and with it, peace! It’s the war to end wars…hmm, could be a good slogan that?” You could even point to the fact that Israel and Hezbollah aren’t fighting much since Hezbollah got the range of the Haifa container terminal and the Israeli air force showed they were just as thug as ever. But I suspect you’d be wrong.

Here’s the point on the Israeli side. Palestinian rocket range and the vote for the Israeli extreme-right are strongly correlated; each ward to come under threat reports an increase of between 2 and 6 percentage points in the extreme-right vote (being the 95% confidence intervals). Here’s the point on the Palestinian side, in the Onion‘s inimitable style.

“When I think about it, I guess I’d go so far as to say that I don’t completely enjoy how this is being done entirely without my consent. And I’m not crazy about the fact that Hamas is actually okay with me dying as long as it fuels both resentment toward Israel and support for the party. If I’m being honest, I don’t like that part at all. But then, sometimes I put myself in Hamas’ shoes, and I guess I sort of appreciate where they’re coming from, so it’s tough. Of course, my kids hate it—they’ve actually told me that a couple of times. Oh, well, I guess I’ll give it a couple more weeks and see how I feel about it then.”

At press time, sources confirmed an inbound missile was about to solidify thousands of Palestinians’ opinions on the tactic..

But as I say, the fact of better quality control is itself evidence of successful mobilisation into parts of society other parties don’t reach. The ideological content required to mobilise the people needed, on both sides, is only weakly associated with the technology that requires the mobilisation, but once it is used, it will have its own political consequences.


File under “Really Strange”: Southern Californian gangsters turn up fighting for Assad in Syria (from Borderland Beat of course).

The explanation seems to be that if you’re an Armenian or indeed Syrian immigrant in LA, you’re considered Latino for purposes of street politics, and of course Armenians do have a dog in the fight.

Here’s a dense interview about the insurgent groups involved in the current resurgence of violence in Iraq. Note that the 1920 Revolution Brigade is back.

It looks like some Syrian rebels, and specifically the FSA, have got a connection for modern ATGWs.

And Mexican forces invade the United States.

Your occasional Mexican popular militia update

You know when people say “I hope he doesn’t get on any small planes”? Well, the leader of those Mexican countergangs has done, with proverbial results. He was transferred to the capital for his ambiguous safety and is all right. He may have made some sort of commitment to the government or perhaps not, while various weird things happen, the military try to disarm some of his people and then give the guns back, and his followers keep staking out more ground in the interregnum. Here, they expropriate, sorry, return illegally occupied land to its rightful owners, and Borderland Beat‘s DD is right there with smartphone in hand. I am in awe.

Al-Jazeera takes a view.

A blog you should read if you don’t already

Borderland Beat needs no introduction, as a great and indeed heroic blog. This week, it has excelled itself. Here is an interview with an American lawyer, a member of an elite Mexican-American family that straddled the border and the law with minimal concern, who became a defence brief to the cocaine traffickers, and eventually one of them. It’s stuffed with interesting information about the precise terms of business and the premodern tribal and modern class structures involved, as well as the personal history of a man who lived the traditional gangster movie story-arc.

But by the time you get working well, you’ve already met everybody and everybody knows everybody. It’s a very small circle. Everybody knows everybody. And that’s where the problems start occurring, because before it was the drug dealer who lived and went to those restaurants, to those clubs. And the juniors and their families went to those restaurants and to those clubs–separated. When the juniors became involved, they started mixing. People didn’t like that. People from good families started getting killed. People didn’t like that.

For the first time, the heat started coming down on the government, from people that had a voice. And that’s what started this big trend of real heat. Everything started coming out to the open. Because now real people, powerful, legitimate people, were bringing in heat to tell the government, “What the hell are you doing about this problem? Now they’re sucking in our kids. Now they’re sucking in our culture. Now they’re mixing with our crowds. Put a stop to these guys.”

And that’s when things really got ugly. The military and the police and eventually the navy ripped into the drugs world and it ripped back. These days, the big theme and the only hope that’s going is the self-defence movement of village-level countergangs. Was it inspired by US counterinsurgents of the 2000s, remembered from their denied 1970s ancestors, or borrowed from their leftist enemies? The Beat goes out in the field with the people who claim to be the reasonable rebels.

They’re an increasingly powerful and deadly force in politics, and they’re developing a bloodthirsty Internet following, to some extent a network of intelligence sources, to some extent a fan base, and to some extent a noisy propaganda machine.

The state in its desperation encouraged them, and in its absence and complicity made them necessary. Now it’s worrying about the forces it created. This tells us something about the origins of those of those forces.

According to their own account, “in the 80’s and early 90’s the great wave of violence that appeared on the roads of Montaña (now known as the Tlapa-Marquelia highway) and Costa Chica (San Luis Acatlán-Marquelia) in Guerrero drove some of the communities’ residents to join forces against it. At this time, organizations and production companies, mainly in the coffee industry, were also affected because they could not safely distribute their products and economic resources.”

That is to say that the origin of the community police is in protecting themselves and their land. It is part of their [indigenous] conception of collective justice, self-organization, and even self-government. They don’t hide their faces, and they are chosen at assembly elections for merits such as honesty and respect for their community and family. The community maintains them, even though they receive support from their respective governments.

These same causes also gave rise to the Community Police of Cherán, Michoacan, and groups in other indigenous populations of the Purépecha plateau in 2011. That year, the indigenous communities of this area got organized, took up arms, and fought the illegal loggers who were backed by The Michoacán Family and Knights Templar cartels..

In that quote we have a whole variety of interesting contradictions. There’s a founding myth, protecting the peaceful traders from dangerous bandits. They’re also described as an indigenous force representing indigenous values and interests and protecting the indigenous population’s ecological resources.

However, they’re also apparently looking after the coffee business, and in some senses fighting the enemies of the state, as well as being a threat to it. As we have seen, this may be either the result of a Briggs/Templer win-the-aborigine counterinsurgency plan or a sort of echo of one in the past. The intelligent answer is that probably all of these are true to some extent, and you should keep reading that blog.

No surprise blogging

From Crooked Timber:

Speaking of hypocrisy, what of the revelations (big surprise) that CIA had been briefing Pakistan govt on the drone strikes, while the latter was simultaneously denouncing them?

From the blog, December 2012, I point out that the CIA and the Pakistanis were evidently cooperating in so far as they coordinated their use of airspace over the NWFP, keeping the drones, army helicopters, and Pakistani F-16s out of each other’s way.

They weren’t just advised of the flying programme, but also of the targets and the intelligence files.

GSM Warlord, with actual statistics

Via Trombly x Exum, an interesting paper on mobile telephony and the Iraq war is here. I was impressed by the fact the authors know there are multiple antenna sectors per cell-site, and that they bothered to find out roughly what an emerging market GSM operator’s roll-out process is like. In fact, if you wonder, the paper is actually quite a good high-level brief on how you go about picking the sites for a mobile phone network and some of the operational considerations, in Iraq or anywhere.

But that’s not the point. The authors set out to answer whether GSM helped the insurgents or the counterinsurgents in Iraq. They reasoned that it might help the insurgents by letting them co-ordinate their activities and by letting them set off bombs remotely, and the counterinsurgents mostly by making it easier for civilians to inform on the insurgents. They also took note that it could contribute to economic development, which is presumed to help the government side. (They don’t discuss the impact of either counterinsurgent ELINT spying on GSM traffic, or insurgent spying, probably as it’s very hard to get any information.)

They pulled a hell of a lot of data, helpfully provided by Zain (i.e. ex-Celtel), and concluded after a creditable effort to understand it that there was a small, but formally statistically significant, effect in favour of the counterinsurgent. Importantly, this was strongest in the areas that were classified as mixed Shia/Sunni in 2003, i.e. the battlefield, and during early 2007, i.e. the decisive peak of the battle.

That said, the R^2s aren’t huge (highest is 0.28). There’s also a problem in that they took quite a lot of care to identify antenna sectors that got service for the first time, in order to compare them with ones that already had it and ones that never did. This is scientific, but it does pose the problem that Zain weren’t putting so many BTSs out there in the spring of 2007 in the worst of the civil war, because their people didn’t want to die, and therefore you wonder about the sample size and the representativeness of some data points that are quite crucial.

Actually, you learn a lot here about the history of Zain Iraq’s network; in the months before the fateful mosque attacks of 2006, they were building out like maniacs, true to their reputation back then as Mo Ibrahim’s pioneers covering the most troubled hellholes of Africa. Then, it got bad enough and suddenly that they shut down most investment and stayed that way until the end of 2007. The authors say that “month-to-month variance in violence” didn’t lead to “major design change”, but the point wouldn’t be design change but timing, and they also include a chart that suggests they basically stopped in the worst of the war.

Growth isn’t necessarily stabilising, and I suspect that Zain engineers would tell you that straight off. In a very low-trust society, more resources are quite likely to lead to more conflict. I think it’s a safe assumption that GSM coverage helps people to rat to the government more than it helps them to rat to insurgents, because insurgents need to be in the network of strong personal ties to survive. I’m not completely convinced, though. There were examples of insurgent intelligence exploitation of GSM back then (see the 2005 and 2006 archives) and the weak/strong tie distinction is subjective.

Also, I would like to know what role anti-social networking played; to what extent did better communications, that were mobile, two-way, and also personal, help to spread propaganda, hate-speech, and paranoia? Radio Mille Collines was a broadcast system, but there’s no obvious reason why incitement to genocide can’t be participatory via SMS or (better) voice.

That said, the most responsive measurement of violence was the percentage of IEDs found and cleared, which suggests something was going on.

But one of the most interesting things in the paper is this:

Most importantly, the teams would typically enter into long-term contracts with local community members and organizations to pay for site rental, generator fueling, site security, and training of local engineers to provide these services. Where possible, they would engage with local elites to identify the personnel who could be entrusted with these jobs.

This strategy of establishing close connection to local elites meant that once marketing had identified an area for network expansion, teams were mostly able to move in effectively even in areas with high violence.

So perhaps we’re seeing the emergence of people who can navigate the emerging low-trust society. On the one hand, the interhierarchical leaders of instant tradition, who would later be the key interlocutors with the Americans in the counterinsurgent phase, on the other, the pre-merger Celtel team who were already familiar with working in this kind of environment.


Here’s something interesting. Andrew Krepinevich is quoted by the AOL News (!) blog criticising various aspects of US strategy, which is what he does. But this quote popped out of the background for me:

“The American military is losing some critical sources of advantage that it’s enjoyed over the last twenty years. One is the near monopoly we’ve had in precision guided weaponry,” he said. Not only are China and Iran investing in precision, he said, but even the terrorists who struck the US consulate in Benghazi may have used precision-guided mortar rounds…

May they really? If so, I think that’s the first confirmed use of guided indirect fire weapons against a US or “western” target, certainly by a nonstate actor, and a moment of some historic significance. Also, it’s Libya, which is currently leaking weapons in all directions. So if someone either has a supply of these rounds, or else an operation producing them, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they appear elsewhere soon.

That would include Syria and also Palestine, which makes it time to unfreeze this post out of the carbonite. Bill Clinton had a damn good point there.

GPS receivers available in commerce are restricted, via the CoCom export control machinery, to functioning below 60,000 feet altitude and at less than 1,000 knots ground speed. This is precisely intended to stop people building their own ballistic missile guidance systems, and greatly annoys amateur high altitude balloonists.

In practice, as JGC points out, some manufacturers implement this as an AND and some as an OR, but overall it functions as a restriction on the range of such a device. 1,000 knots is 514m/s. Assuming a 45 degree launch, that would give a maximum altitude of 22,000 feet, well within the restriction, and a range of 27km/16.7 miles with a time of flight of 74 seconds. For example, one of the Fajr-5s the Iranians claim they supplied to Hamas, or taught Hamas how to make would be out of court on both counts. Of course, it’s more likely that guidance would operate after the rocket burned out.

Middle Eastern Links

Back from MWC. Heavy cold. Browser queue jammed with stuff. I’m going to do a brief succession of link posts to clear up. (Happenings last week; huge Leveson revelations, James Murdoch out, King Mob abolished workfare, horse, Borisbus fiasco, debate on Daniel Morgan, even more Leveson..)

This one deals with everyone’s favourite global geo-political region, the Middle East. Anthony Shadid died, and Angry Arab thinks the obits weren’t tough enough on the Israelis. Alyssa at ThinkProgress has a list of 20 of his best dispatches and only one covers the Palestinians and tangentially at that. Really?

Foreign Policy‘s David Kenner provides some history of the 1982 Muslim Brotherhood revolt in Syria and its repression by President Assad’s dad President Assad. Worth noting that by the time the Syrian army began its infamous destruction of Hama in ’82, the struggle had been going on since 1976. Just because the rebels have kept it up so long – which is astonishing and a demonstration of extreme courage – shouldn’t be taken to mean that they are going to win in the end.

Colin Kahl, writing in the Washington Post, points out that the Osirak raid in 1981 didn’t slow down Saddam Hussein’s effort to build the Bomb, in part because it hadn’t really started before the raid. However, the attack convinced him to make a concerted effort, and also caused Iraq to abandon the power reactor-reprocessing-plutonium route in favour of the highly-enriched uranium route, which is much easier to conceal and also to distribute among multiple facilities and which turned out to have a entire black market supply chain.

He also links to this piece on planning considerations for Israel, which highlights their air-to-air refuelling tankers as a key constraint. Kahl also points out that in the event of an Israeli raid, their air force would probably be needed at home immediately afterwards.

The Americans, for what it’s worth, don’t think a strategic decision has been taken to get the Bomb.

Bizarrely, the IAEA inspectors have discovered that the fortified enrichment plant at Fordow in Iran contains 2,000 empty centrifuge cases but not the centrifuges themselves. Is it a bluff of some sort? Is it a decoy target? Is it just a very odd way of going about building an enrichment plant?

Binyamin Netanyahu memorably described as “carrying both Anne Frank and the entire IDF around in his head”, presumably in between the bees in his bonnet and the bats in his belfry. It is argued that he won’t attack Iran because the settlers won’t like it, or possibly that he’s bluffing about Iran to draw attention away from them.

Ultima Ratio is down, but you can read their excellent (French) review of Syed Saleem Shahbaz’s posthumous book Inside Al-Qa’ida and the Taliban in the Google cache. Fans of “Kashmir is still the issue” will be interested by the argument that Muhammad Ilyas Kashmiri and ex-Pakistani officer Haroon Ashik introduced a new strategy aiming to bring about more conflict between Pakistan and India, in the hope of alienating Pakistani leaders from the alliance with the US. Apparently they were planning something against an Indian nuclear site when Kashmiri was droned in June 2011.

RQ-170 upshot, part 2: the bubble

Is there a drone bubble? It’s not clear whether this is more like the .com bubble, when a lot of useful stuff was built but a couple of years too early, or more like the housing bubble, when a lot of stuff was built in the wrong places to the wrong standards at the wrong prices and will probably never be worth much. It’s the nature of a bubble, of course, that it’s precisely at the top of the bubble that the commitment to it is greatest.

One of the things the RQ-170 incident tells us about is some of the operational limitations of the drones. Typically, they are piloted in the cruise from locations that may be a long way off, using satellite communication links, but when they land, they do so under local control via line-of-sight radio link from their base. This allows us to set some bounds on how much of a problem link latency really is, which will take us circling back to John Robb’s South Korean gamers.

Gamers are famous for being obsessed with ping-times – the measurement of round-trip latency on the Internet – because it’s really, really annoying to see the other guy on your screen, go to zap’em, and get zapped yourself because it took longer for your zap to cross the Internet than theirs. Typically you can expect 40 or so milliseconds nationally, 60-80 inter-continentally…or several hundred if a satellite or an old-school cellular operator with a hierarchical network architecture is involved. A sat hop is always clearly identifiable in traceroute output because latency goes to several hundred ms, and there’s a great RIPE NCC paper on using the variations in latency over a year to identify the satellite’s geosynchronous (rather than geostationary) orbit as the slant-range changes.

On the other hand, roundtrip latency across an airfield circuit a couple of miles wide will be negligible. So we can conclude that tolerable latency for manoeuvring, as opposed to cruising, is very little. Now, check out this post on David Cenciotti’s blog from January 2010. Some of the Israeli air force’s F-15s have received a new communications radio suite specifically for controlling UAVs.

You might now be able to guess why even drone pilots are going through basic flight training. Also, this post of Cenciotti’s describes the causes of six recent hull losses, all of which are classic airmanship accidents – the sort of thing pilot training is designed to teach you to avoid.

That said, why did all those drones get built? The original, 1980s UAV concepts were usually about the fact that there was no pilot and therefore the craft could be treated as expendable, usually in order to gain intelligence on the (presumably) Soviet enemy’s air defences by acting as a ferret aircraft, forcing them to switch on the radars so the drone could identify them. But that’s not what they’ve been doing all these years.

The main reason for using them has been that they are lightweight and have long endurance. This is obviously important from an intelligence gathering perspective, whether you’re thinking of over-watching road convoys or of assassinating suspected terrorists (and there are strong arguments against that, as Joshua Foust points out). In fact, long endurance and good sensors are so important that there are even so-called manned drones – diesel-engined, piloted light aircraft stuffed with sensors, with the special feature that they fly with intelligence specialists aboard and provide a much faster turn-around of information for the army.

Their limitations – restricted manoeuvre, limited speed and payload, and high dependence on communications infrastructure – haven’t really been important because they have been operating in places and against enemies who don’t have an air force or ground-based air defences and don’t have an electronic warfare capability either. Where the enemy have had man-portable SAMs available, as sometimes in Iraq, they have chosen to save them for transport aircraft and the chance of killing Americans, which makes sense if anti-aircraft weapons are scarce (and surely, the fact of their scarcity has to be one of the major unreported news stories of the decade).

But then, the war in Iraq is meant to be over even if the drones are still landing in Kurdistan, and the US may be on its way to a “pre-1990” military posture in the Gulf. This week’s strategic fashion is “Air-Sea Battle” and the Pacific, and nobody expects anything but the most hostile possible environment in the air and in the electromagnetic spectrum. And the RQ-170 incident is surely a straw in the wind. Also, the Bush wars were fought in an environment of huge airfields in the desert, and the ASB planners expect that the capacity of US bases in Japan and Guam and the decks of aircraft carriers will be their key logistical constraint. (The Russians aren’t betting everything on them either.)

I think, therefore, it’s fair to suggest that a lot of big drones are going to end up in the AMARC stockpile. After the Americans’ last major counter-insurgency, of course, that’s what happened. The low-tech ones are likely to keep proliferating, though, whether as part of the Royal Engineers’ route clearance system or annoying the hell out of Japanese whalers or even playing with lego.