The importance of reconnaissance to any military mission has been recognized since the time of Alexander. Having the ability to see ahead of and around the unit’s current position and communicate back anything of concern has defined military formations and tactics for centuries. This need is not restricted to that of an army commander. It is just as relevant to a company or section leader and even to individual soldiers. The only difference is the scale and scope of the area requiring coverage.

Although unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been around since World War I and reconnaissance UAVs saw heavy use during the Vietnam War, in the past 10 years their utility to the brigade and division commander has become so obvious that most regional commanders now insist on having this capability within their command. Aerial recon has been available for decades through use of air force assets. However, since these were not organic to the army command, they were not always available. Even when they were, they could be re-tasked by their own command if a higher priority task came up during the mission.

Providing regional ground commanders with a UAV system has allowed them to guarantee the availability of air assets and to prioritize assigned tasks based on their own command priorities, not those of a higher level command. This has allowed commanders to undertake important missions that were previously impossible.

An example of this is the “pattern of life” missions often performed by UAVs against insurgents in Iraq or Afghanistan. A suspect is followed for hours, days, even weeks by a UAV without them ever being aware that they are under surveillance. By following the suspect, the UAV commander can observe meetings with other, more senior insurgents and transfer observation to them. In this manner the commander can, over time, work their way up through the rank structure of the insurgent cell and identify senior personnel against whom operations can be directed. This type of mission is only possible using an organic surveillance asset that is completely under the control of the regional commander who can utilize it in accordance with the priorities and objectives.

Of course these systems are also used in support roles during patrols, engagements and other missions. Having a dedicated “eye in the sky” allows the personnel on the ground to have real time updates on suspicious activity, enemy defences and the like, greatly improving their own safety and efficiency.

With almost 10 years of experience using tactical UAVs at the brigade and division level, it is somewhat surprising that these same capabilities have not yet been widely issued to the company, platoon and section level. However, the soldiers serving in the field are certainly recognizing what they could do with such a capability. Being able to launch a small air vehicle when needed would greatly enhance their ability to combat the threats they currently face in asymmetric warfare.

One of the key tactics of asymmetric warfare is the ability to “attack and fade away.” The insurgent executes an attack and then melts into the civilian crowd, denying the unit an opportunity to identify him or to close and prosecute before he slips away. Having an organic air capability would allow the unit to immediately – and perhaps covertly – acquire and track the insurgent without threat to civilians.

The utility of UAVs in support of engagements cannot be overestimated. Giving the soldier an ability to see the threat “around the corner” without exposing himself increases safety and the ability to quickly and accurately neutralize the threat without collateral damage. By ensuring that these organic air assets are interoperable with the larger, tactical systems soldiers on the ground will not only be able to see imagery of their own target but will also have a bird’s eye view from the orbiting tactical UAV, allowing them to see in real time the other activities around their area and place their activities into the correct context. For instance, such cross-platform interoperability would allow the soldier to know about a fire fight three blocks to the east or about a bridge that has been taken out two blocks ahead; he can then alter his plan of attack and contingencies accordingly.

Instead of having a limited number of dedicated Remote Viewing Terminals (RVTs) for the tactical systems and supplying them to just a few of the troops, every small and micro UAV control station becomes an RVT for all the other UAVs in theatre.

The final consideration to be noted when examining the soldiers’ need for a UAV solution is the imminent addition of unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to the arsenal. These systems are already in heavy use against one of the main weapons of asymmetric warfare – the improvised explosive device (IED). However, there are several UGVs that have been fitted with weaponry to allow soldiers to engage threats without exposing themselves.

Just as the ability to interoperate with other UAV assets is important for the future soldier, so is the ability to simultaneously control both a UAV and a UGV. This will require a domain-agnostic control solution that allows the operator to easily move back and forth from controlling an air asset to controlling a ground asset.

In the same manner as the modern army includes a mix of assets to place lead onto their target – howitzers, mortars and rifles – so too it needs to have a mix of UAV assets that reflect the needs, both current and future, of the various levels of command. It should not be a choice between a Predator, a tactical or a mini UAV procurement. Rather, it should be the right mix of UAVs – all interoperable with each other – to best meet the needs of all levels of command.

These days, as much as in Alexander’s, the most important weapon in the arsenal of any soldier is accurate and timely information. Never before have we had the capability to put this information so directly into the hands of those who must fight. We owe it to them to ensure that they have the best weapon at their disposal.

Mike Meakin is the president and co-founder of InnUVative Systems, a software development company specifically targeted at the unmanned vehicle industry. He serves on the board of Unmanned Systems Canada (formerly UVS Canada).