Armour’s New Antithesis: Dive Bombers, Mini-Tanks and Normandy Inversed
No Sherman Tank could stand up to a Panther Tank, but the U.S. had advantages of supporting airpower, plentiful reserves, and an overwhelming superiority of numbers.
During the Normandy Campaign in the Second World War, German Panther and Tiger tanks proved to be technically superior to Allied M4 Sherman Tanks. The heavily armoured German tanks outgunned their opponents with higher velocity tank guns, resulting in huge losses of Allied tanks. Consequently, Shermans became known as Purple Heart Boxes.
The United States 3rd Armoured Division alone suffered a tank loss rate of a staggering 580%.
Wehrmacht defenders with fewer and more complex tanks were unable to match Allied tank replacement rates. Allied airpower was also decisive with fighter-bomber aircraft continually strafing and bombing Wehrmacht armoured columns with devastating effects. Hence, the defenders were ultimately defeated by sustained mass of the Allied offensive.
Massed Combat Drones
In battle, quantity has a quality all of its own.
As drone technology matures and military applications are perfected, the sustained mass effect of combat power witnessed at Normandy may be replicated by drone variants in future conflicts. This feature of drone warfare is amplified with manufacturing methods, including 3D printing, which can be leveraged to mass produce fleets of lethal drones. Evidence of this evolving risk is in abundance if you consider ground combat drones were tested under battle conditions in Syria and aerial combat drones are an established reality.
The coordinated concentration of ground and aerial drone systems would be a modern analogue of massed Sherman Tanks and fighter-bomber aircraft.
The apparent lethality potential of massed drones presents as a rising risk to tactical land combat capabilities that are based on the last war.
In the next war, if combat vehicles remain organised in legacy force structures, akin to Panther tanks at Normandy, they risk suffering the same fate as defenders in that historical battle. Combat outcomes are seldom certain but with recent combat vehicle capability choices and extant system requirements, results in battle may be even more uncertain.
An inverse Normandy scenario presents as an alternative future that force modernisers still have time to analyse and, if deemed necessary, mitigate.
But the risk from tactical attack drones will only metastasise as they are optimised in anti-tank roles and become intrinsically more dangerous to armour and other land combat systems. A situation comparable to M4’s that fought increasingly advanced German tanks in WWII: the M4 was good in 1942, adequate in 1943 and totally outclassed in 1944.
Dive Bombers Reloaded
Stuka dive bombers were more than a bomber, they were an instrument of fear.
Tactical aerial drones could be configured to operate similar to dive bomber aircraft of WWII. Consider a flight of mini dive bombers carrying anti-tank munitions hunting a target armoured fighting vehicle and using terrain to mask low-altitude approaches. Top-attack shaped-charges, including white phosphorous to blind vehicle sensors and crew viewing aids could be delivered en masse from flank and rear attack vectors. Variations of this are already here if you consider the development of aerial loitering munitions.
Drone bomb salvos might be dropped from several directions sequentially or simultaneously to confuse vehicle crews, exhaust active protection counter-measures and overwhelm digital targeting systems. Hence, a crewed armoured vehicle turret may be unable to react fast enough to engage drone dive bombers attacking at close range.
Rough terrain did not prove to be a severe obstacle for light Japanese armour.
Japanese light-tanks were a combat multiplier for advancing Japanese forces in WWII during the Malayan and Burma Campaigns. So while mini-tank concepts did not endure with modern armoured systems, they have found new purpose with automation technologies. Autonomous light armour is already being upgraded following battle testing in Syria, so it could be a future threat to crewed armour.
Inventive new ways to employ light armour may appear, such as Tactical Jammer Tanks. In lieu of auto-cannons, a short-range electronic warfare suite may be employed to disrupt adversary communications during ground assaults.
Drone mini-tanks could conduct massed assaults on Australian combat teams delivering both kinetic and electromagnetic spectrum denial effects. Light drone tanks may be easily destroyed by crewed armour, but akin to mass dividends of Sherman Tanks, smart mini-tank teams could be deadly. Heavy armour may also be vulnerable (like Panther tanks in Normandy) in close country, relative to light drone tanks with superior tactical mobility.
Armour’s Ascendant Antithesis
Tactical combat drones may be set to surpass anti-tank missiles as the bane of armoured warfare. Unlike missiles, drones will think, cooperate and precisely mass their effects.
Anti-tank missiles have long been armour’s antipode, but smart drone warfare will likely change this paradigm. Consider the examples above of tactical dive bomber drones and drone mini-tanks, but operating in combined ground and air hunter-killer teams to support human combatants; adversary human-machine teaming.
In this context, we can visualise the multifaceted threat that future combat teams may encounter, so it reinforces imperatives to prepare for this. Accelerated Warfare demands fast adaption to seize combat advantage, but this should include forensic review of already approved capability acquisition requirements to account for escalating drone risk factors—some of which are already here. The following narrative emphasises why:
Advance Guard lead combat vehicles slow on approach to a defile. A rocky escarpment to the East and woodlands to the West. Reconnaissance drones deploy from under armour to scout the path ahead. A platoon of light infantry dismount to lead the combat vehicles through the defile and to provide security. But they were detected by enemy recon drones.
Hostile aerial drones suddenly crest the escarpment on an attack vector from the North East. Silhouetted against the sky they are easily spotted and massed auto-cannon and infantry small arms fire dismantles the threat before it can close with the combat team. The ‘dronebuscade’ is sprung. But it was just a diversion carried out by ‘decoy drones’.
While distracted, security elements failed to notice more drones coming from the West. Stun grenades, flash bangs and smoke bombs are released among the infantry, dazing them and the combat vehicle crew commanders in open turret hatches. White phosphorous is dropped onto auto-cannon mantlets of several combat vehicles, blinding their sensors.
Dive bomber drones press home the robotic attack to deliver multiple shaped charge munitions onto vehicle engine decks. Lead and trail combat vehicles are disabled first and communications are lost. Mini-tank drones then launch a ground assault from the West. Small and nimble, the light drone tanks approach rapidly through vegetation and trees…
While complex robotic ambushing is years away, threats like this could be realised during the life-of-type of current and future land combat systems. Turn-key autonomous combat teams might also be deployed by non-state actors with no military training. Hence, this evocative portrayal shows why drones may have a trajectory to be armour’s next antithesis:
- Multi-variant ground and aerial attack drones enabled by cyber-secure attack algorithms will coordinate surgical close combat actions.
- Drones will use terrain to their advantage by leveraging superior tactical mobility, incorporating deception measures and electronic warfare to achieve shock action.
- Drones will blind armoured vehicle sensors and disrupt infantry security to deliver multiple top attack anti-tank munitions and/or explosively formed penetrators.
- Determining which drones are decoys as opposed to armed attack variants will be difficult as they may appear the same and vector in similar attack formations.
Drone Destroyer Systems
Efforts to modernise air defence via LAND 19 Phase 7B, while very helpful, will not be sufficient to account for the possibility of massed drone systems, engaging in low-altitude close combat. As tactical drones could infiltrate deep within the inner air defence tier, resulting in heavy losses of land combat systems via Dronekrieg tactics. Therefore, planned air defence assets will require reinforcement for land force drone protection.
Modernisation lines of effort must consider the inclusion of drone counter-measures.
Drone defences could eventually be fielded at section level and feature in every tactical grouping as standard combat equipment but cost-capability trade-offs will have to be made. I have previously proposed bespoke drone defence concepts for light infantry, artillery, aviation, combat teams and logistics, but it’s becoming increasingly evident that sentry drones to protect human combatants and crewed systems will become ever more vital.
Future Ready Forces
Accelerating drone warfare is altering extant models of combat and what was once old will be new again, only they will be more lethal, efficient and relentless.
Massed drone dive bombers and mini-tanks were not part of capability threat assessments for recent acquisition projects, as they were echoes of wars long past and too hazardous for humans to employ in subsequent conflicts. But these ‘old ways of war’ could be resurrected with the rise of drone close combat, where crew safety is not a factor.
Emergent lethality of massed drone threats and Normandy inversed directly challenges force structure calculus and military capability choices in relation to combat systems.
Intersection of a sustained mass dynamics with uncertain flux in the rules-based international order is suggestive of urgent acquisition priorities review, so that Australian land forces remain future ready. Rationalising future threat conjecture or unconscious bias to nostalgic military tradition will be key to achieving this outcome and averting contemporary Purple Heart Boxes.
About the Author: Greg Rowlands, a retired Lieutenant Colonel, served over 27 years in the Australian Army, including service in mechanised and light infantry units. As a combat tactics instructor, he was a selected as Instructor of the Quarter at the US Army Infantry School in 2006. He has published extensively on drone defence and military space operations, including emerging technology trends to inform Defence modernisation. He is a former Project Director and Combat Vehicle Systems Staff Officer in LAND 400 Land Combat Vehicle System. You can find him on Twitter @glrowlands1.
The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government. Further information.