How drones and automated machines already play a significant role in warfare more so than most would expect.
A single red eye tracks the night sky, it’s turret slowly rotating back and forth. A surge of activity causes it to snap to attention; a single rocket flying towards the base which the machine is tasked to protect. Alarms go off, men scatter. They are under attack. The red eye makes a near-instantaneous calculation of the rocket’s trajectory, then it makes a decision. A stream of red from thousands of bullets fill the night sky, every 4th bullet being a bright red tracer round. A rocket travelling at 300 meters a second is quite literally shot out of the sky, and many more are intercepted by the same machine throughout the same night. This is not science fiction; this is C-RAM - standing for Counter Rocket, Artillery and Mortar system. A rapid fire-radar controlled gun, this system has the capacity to be fully autonomous, tracking, selecting and engaging targets all on it’s own when given the greenlight by a human. Even then, all an operator does is look at a screen, and decide whether or not to allow the C-RAM to shoot down a target it identifies through an infra-red camera. Neither is the C-RAM the pinnacle of such automated technology in warfare. It has a bigger cousin, the CIWS Phalanx System, used as a close-protection system on ships to shoot down missiles autonomously, though it has the capability to track a jet flying at supersonic speeds. The Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system has shot down over 400 missiles, being praised as one of the world’s most effective anti-missile systems.
We are moving further and further away from the skirmishes of the early 2000’s and 2010’s where infantrymen took the spotlight in the Middle East, in battles from Afghanistan to civil wars in Syria and Iraq where fighting was in vicious, urban, close-quarter environments. The decisive battles of conflicts will not what has been shown to us on the silver screen or video games, where brave protagonists will beat the odds against hordes of lesser soldiers to save lives or kill a single evil man. The wars of today and tomorrow are fought in sanitized, silent rooms where the first and most crucial blows will be struck by a man pressing a button, launching a missile from the belly of a remotely operated flying machine. Tragically, one needs to only look at the Middle East again to see how this face of warfare is evolving. One of the United States’ latest accomplishments in terminating the military leadership of it’s Iranian foe was the assasination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January, by drone strike while he had been present in Baghdad. In January 2019, the panel of Experts on Yemen of the United Nations cautioned to the UN Security Council that “unlike in 2015 and 2016 when the Houthi forces used complete or partially assembled weapons systems supplied from abroad, such as extended-range short-range ballistic missiles, they were now increasingly rely on imports of high-value components, which are then integrated into locally assembled weapons systems, such as the extended-range unmanned aerial vehicles”. The Houthis have made good use of their investment, having carried out two successful drone strikes on Saudi oil facilities 500 miles away from Yemeni soil back in September 2019. Even more recently as of October 2020, the Houthis launched two successful drone strikes at Abha International Airport in southern Saudi Arabia. Azerbaijan is also the ground zero for the role drones can play, where the Azerbaijani military have used drones to stunning effect, wiping out Armenian armour and infantry with kamikaze drones provided by Israel. What makes drones especially attractive for such missions is their expendability and lack of political risk. When US pilot Scott O’Grady was shot down over Bosnia in 1995, a huge rescue mission was mounted with full media coverage. When an unmanned Predator was lost, the Air Force simply bombed the wreckage to prevent the enemy gaining intelligence, and wheeled out the next replacement. It barely merited a paragraph in the newspapers. As a history student, one might even draw comparisons to actions seen here to the Spanish Civil War, where Hitler used the Condor Legion to test out theories of close air support so often associated with blitzkrieg warfare.
With all these rising trends becoming clearer to see, the question begs itself ; what is Malaysia doing to prepare itself for this new era of conflict? At a Conference on Future of Drones and Air Mobility systems hosted by Defence Services Asia, Major Nik Mohd Hazriq, UAS Operation Officer of the Malaysian Armed Forces saw a need for kamikaze drones, similar to the ones employed by Azerbaijan to be fielded to stay ahead. Malaysia’s most recent exercise with the United States in 2019 also saw us using drones. If one thing has been made clear from these past few years, it is that we will never have to worry about a T-800 menacing our lives. Instead, we will have to fear the possibility that one day a missile launched by a drone might blow our houses down.