Army Buys 3-Pound Mini-Helo Drones as Part of New War Strategy

Kris Osborn

Video Analysis Above: Drone Fighter Jet vs. Manned Fighter Jet .. Who Wins?

By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) Under heavy enemy small arms fire, seeking cover behind walls and under rocks, dismounted, “tip of the spear” infantry units are often at a loss to know key specifics regarding enemy positions and movements. Many enemy maneuvers are inside buildings, hidden by mountainous terrain or otherwise obscured from view from overhead drones and aerial surveillance. Closing with an enemy in the close-in-fight, often called CQB for Close Quarter Battle, requires an ability to adjust in seconds to unanticipated enemy actions, developments which in many cases are almost impossible to predict.

Having an organic, individually operated forward mini-drone, however, might enable infantry to look on the other side of a ridge, see into the next room in a building or simply offer that “unblinking eye” in otherwise inaccessible areas.

This tactical reality is exactly why the Army is now fast-tracking larger numbers of a tiny three-pound drone to, as Army documents explain it, “provide the squad with an organic ‘quick look.’”

It’s called the Soldier Borne Sensor (SBS), a tiny mini-drone intended to give soldiers on the move a quick look around a corner, eyes into a building or over-the-ridge glance at enemy positions, providing an unprecedented tactical advantage.

“At a total system weight of less than three pounds, SBS minimizes the transport burdens placed on the squad while providing situational awareness to one kilometer with fifteen minutes of endurance,” the Army’s Small Unmanned Aircraft System Strategy states.

The small platform consists of a hand-held mini-helicopter-like drone and a small soldier-held viewing screen engineered to work in tandem with one another to offer “forward eyes” to individual soldiers on-the-move. The Army is now in the process of acquiring thousands of these SBS systems, following several years of development. One such system bought by the Army is the Black Hornet Personal Reconnaissance System made by FLIR.

The 2020 SUAS Strategy document, written by the Army’s “Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate,” delineates the strategic and tactical intent for the mini-drone system, explaining that it can give “scout squads” under enemy fire in a platoon a unique ability to “surveil danger areas.”

“SBS enables infantry squads to surveil target areas, develop a scheme of maneuver, and enhance survivability in and out of enemy contact. This system facilitates decision-making, protects the force, and enables movement and maneuver at the tactical edge of the battlefield,” the strategy says.

The Army’s ultimate goal, according to a 2018 service report, is to “field one SBS to nearly every squad in the Army, which includes more than 7,000 sqauds.”

Citing SBS and concern about the proliferation and combat performance of EW-armed small Russian and Iranian drones, the Army Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems strategy calls for the implementation of several new tactical approaches.

The SUAS plan calls for continued fielding of groups of interconnected swarming drones, extremely small, soldier-launched drones and unmanned aircraft even able to fire weapons or function themselves as explosives.

“The SUAS capability is a tool that enables small units to overcome limitations presented by terrain and quickly employ capabilities forward to increase the forces’ influence across larger portions of assigned areas of operation. Delivering these capabilities at echelon allows leaders at all levels to individually conduct information collection,” the strategy writes.

Mini-drone swarms using systems like the SBS also brings the tactical advantage of redundancy and survivability; groups of small drones can blanket an area with surveillance or attack and, should one or two mini-drones be shot down, the mission will retain operational functionality given that there will be many other drones to continue. Small drones of this kind are also naturally smaller, more difficult-to-hit targets for enemies.

While addressing the particular needs of infantry units and Brigade Combat Teams in combat, the strategy cites the short and long term tactical aims of a full span of small drone missions, to include Short, Medium and Long Range Reconnaissance. The drones themselves are varied as well, as they include both 3-inch soldier hand-held drones as well as portable rucksack systems and other, slightly larger integrated unmanned vehicles operating in coordination with one another while supporting ground units.

“Deployment and use of robotic systems integrated across the BCT will enable commanders

to expand or reduce the density of the battlefield without adding additional manned systems.

SUASs will provide the “unblinking eye” to equip battalion and below echelons with early

warning, enhanced detection of potential threats at greater distances, and assist in the

prediction of future enemy actions,” the strategy states.

The strategy document specifies both Russian and Iranian threats, in a clear effort to emphasize the importance of countering innovations now emerging from hostile nations. The report cites the Russian “Zala-421-08” small scale drone which has “in large quantities seen successful employment in the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.” The Iranian Farpod small drone is also mentioned as a system containing significant improvements in range and electromagnetic warfare capabilities.

The report specifies key developmental and tactical trajectories to include planning out to 2028 and beyond. Long-Range reconnaissance is identified as more than 10km, Short-Range is of course those closest in threats with medium in between. Not only can small drones provide that “persistent stare” across high-risk battlefield areas for targeting and force positioning operations, but they can also themselves perform certain crucial attacks with EW systems to jam enemy weapons guidance or radio communications and even function as explosives programmed to detonate upon enemy formations, vehicles or other high-value structures.

Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest*. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.*

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