Impact of Drones in Battlefield

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by Cmde BR Prakash VSM (Retd),  published Defense Research and Studies, February 27, 2023

Impact of Drones in battlefield has changed the conventional warfare.

Drones are the latest game-changers or force multipliers in modern warfare. Drone warfare started to gain prominence when the US cracked down hard upon insurgents and terrorists soon after the 9/11 bombings using drones to strike at targets. Since then, they have been extensively deployed for surveillance and strikes in the battle against terrorism. The last four years saw several countries using drones in their battles; Nigeria used drones against Boko Haram, Turkey used them in Syrian raids, the UK in Iraq and Syria, and the US in Libya. The latest conflict between Azerbaijan-Armenia again witnessed their deployment in large numbers where they were tremendously effective against the entrenched troops, armour and artillery. Azerbaijan used its drone fleet to destroy Armenia’s weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, enabling a swift advance and victory. 

The success of drones against armour and artillery has been analysed threadbare and there is no doubt of its success as a cost-effective weapon of choice in the battle against tanks and AD systems. However, there is another aspect of drone warfare particularly against infantry troops, which has not received the same attention. This is the psychological impact of these weapons on the warfighting morale of troops in the open, in trenches or entrenched in bunkers. Unlike artillery barrages, which are generally limited by inherent inaccuracies, time and volume; drones can remain in the area for very long durations and precisely strike targets, even well-entrenched targets. The psychological impact of weapons on the human mind has always been a subject of research and in recent times, it has gained further importance under the umbrella of Tactical psychology. Tactical psychology is the art and science of exploiting human weakness – encouraging the enemy to run, hide or surrender1. When applied correctly it increases the operational tempo, saves lives on both sides and saves ammunition. It can stop a war descending into a messy quagmire.

Leo Murray in his book, “War Games: The psychology of Combat” has dealt with this subject giving a new perspective to understanding the human element in combat. He brings out that unlike battle morale, which he describes as a vague label that includes everything from national culture to the quality of boots, tactical psychology focusses on what soldiers do once they are in contact with the enemy. He emphasises that tactical psychology focuses on what a front-line soldier can do to win a battle rather than looking at the things governments and generals might be able to control or worrying about the million tiny problems that no one can control.

The application of tactical psychology on the battlefield is not about making our own men fight more but making the other side fight less and give up. It is all about employing combat instruments like suppressive fire, aerial bombings, flanking attacks and fast attacks and these days’ armed drones to break the will of the enemy to fight. It is sometimes about simply driving a powerful message to the enemy that they have the chance to surrender.

Like many aspects of war, tactical psychology combines art and science. The art is the practical application: all those dirty and not-so-dirty tactics that accomplish the task. The science blends psychology, history and field experiments to quantitatively analyse how each tactic works. This analysis can help armies and soldiers mix attrition and manoeuvre more effectively.

Brigadier General SLA Marshall, a military journalist and historian, who understood the realities of combat, advocated the concept of fire ratio theory in his book Men Against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command; based on group interviews and concluded that fewer than 25% of men in combat actually fired their weapons. He said that the nub of battle, and therefore the outcome of the war, was a simple question that a soldier asked himself when he was under fire: ‘Will the possible effect on the enemy of my active participation be worth the possible adverse effect on me?’ This ‘is it worth it?’ calculation is an almost unconscious, quick and dirty comparison of the costs and rewards of fighting. This begs the question as to ‘who fights?’ and the answer is ‘pretty much everybody’. If the conditions are right then almost any man will fight, but change those conditions and almost everybody will stop fighting. It is indeed this aspect of human psychology that modern weapons like armed drones tend to exploit by changing conditions to ensure that the will to fight is swiftly extinguished.

In a battle, it has been observed that men are much more likely to stop fighting when bullets pass near them, when their mates stop fighting, when their mates are killed or injured and when they get very close to the enemy. The attacking soldiers continue marching into the enemy fire until they take 10 or 20 per cent casualties. Only at this point, will they go to the ground and try to find a better way to attack. This can be related to the phenomenon of “fight” -or- “flight” response (also called hyperarousal or the acute stress response), first described by Walter Bradford Cannon, which is a physiological reaction that occurs in response to a perceived harmful event, attack, or threat to survival. His theory states that animals react to threats with a general discharge of the sympathetic nervous system, preparing the animal for fighting or fleeing. In its application to the armed combat, Leo Murray in his book “War Games: The psychology of Combat” expanded on this theory to include “Freezing” and “Fussing” and proposed a ‘Four Fs’ theory of freeze– fussing- flee–fight as a model for armed combat. Freezing is a kind of paralysis partly due to the physiological powering-down following, and sometimes during, a period of high stress, while fussing is a tendency for people under pressure to focus on what is manageable rather than what is important. This is a useful theory because, rather than equivocating about morale or how men feel, it focuses on what they do and what makes them do it.

With this as a background, the analysis of how employment drones could be exploited to prey and mess the human mind is more easily understood. The defining characteristic of the drone that makes it qualitatively different from the less sophisticated artillery barrage or machine-guns fire is its ability of pervasiveness in the battlefield area for long durations. Drones do not enter into a battlefield like a strike aircraft or Special Forces team, quickly taking out the target and then leaving. Drones are omnipresent. They hover over in the area, watching, transmitting data, coordinating strikes or in some cases carrying of strikes themselves while continuing surveillance. It’s like Big Brother in the sky. The soldier recognises that he is under constant surveillance and that all his movements are tracked for vulnerabilities. He subsists under the constant fear of being attacked at any time but does not know when unlike an artillery barrage. Since the drones operate at extended heights above SAM engagement ranges or is insignificantly small to be tracked and engaged by SAM systems, neutralising it an immense challenge. Drones in the air induce a sense of both uncontrollability and unpredictability of action. Armed drones like Israeli Harpy, Harop, or Rotem can be used with pinpoint accuracy. In the future, drones can be used with swarm tactics like a hive of bees to undertake microscopic surgical strikes at precise locations killing or maiming a few whiles spreading panic or causing others to freeze into inaction or flee from the scene.

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What is the impact due to this uninterrupted drone presence? The constant noise of a drone circling overhead, combined with its potential lethality, has a profound psychological effect on the soldiers on the battlefield. While there has been a wide range of studies investigating this phenomenon particularly in its impact on civilians, no similar studies have been done on its impact on soldiers. This may be due to the primary employment of drones to combat terrorists, as borne out by their employment by Nigeria against Boko Haram, Turkey in Syrian raids, and the US in Libya. The recent clash in Nagorno-Karabakh is perhaps the first deployment in an actual war.

In the absence of such studies on soldiers, the findings of studies on civilians can form a reasonable basis for assessing the possible psychological impact on soldiers. “Living Under Drones”, is one study conducted by lawyers and researchers at Stanford University and New York University in the northern tribal region of Waziristan (FATA), which comprehensively examines the impact of drones on the civilian population.

The findings of this study are truly disturbing. A vast majority of people reported being perpetually scared of drone strikes, day and night. Just the constant noise above makes people experience bouts of emotional trauma and symptoms of anxiety. And these symptoms are more widespread than previously thought – there are reports of men, women, and children too terrified to sleep at night. Medical practitioners have asserted that these anxiety-related disorders amongst the people of Waziristan often manifest themselves in the form of physical illness, ranging from headaches to heart attacks, even suicides. Drone-induced anxieties are having a profound impact on the way these people live their lives. For example, people avoid daily activities such as grocery shopping, farming, and driving for fear of drone strikes. This behaviour is symptomatic of “anticipatory anxiety” – a psychological phenomenon that causes people to worry constantly about their immediate future, which is very common in conflict zones.

Scientifically and medically speaking, this phenomenon can be explained as an outcome of unpredictability and uncontrollability. The psychological impact of the unpredictability of traumatic events is further aggravated by their uncontrollability. Since the 1960s substantial experimental work (e.g. inescapable shock experiments with animals has shown that unpredictability and uncontrollability of stressor events lead to anxiety and fear. Exposure to such stressors causes certain associative, motivational, and emotional deficits in animals that closely resemble the effects of traumatic stress in humans8. These deficits include learned helplessness – a phenomenon characterized by the failure of animals initially exposed to uncontrollable shocks to subsequently learn to escape or avoid shocks that were potentially controllable in a different situation. The studies of war, torture, and earthquake survivors show that unpredictable and uncontrollable stressors have a similar impact on humans, most commonly leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression. Although other stressful war events (e.g. aerial bombardment, artillery barrage) may have some of these features, few have all of them in the same pronounced fashion as drone warfare.

Anticipatory fear is another reaction that is clearly associated with the unpredictability and uncontrollability of drone strikes. Such anticipatory fear is likely to be very intense and anticipation of a life-threatening event is among the most fear-evoking stressors in a war setting. There is no doubt that prolonged exposure to unpredictable and uncontrollable life-threatening events leads to intense fears in most people. Furthermore, such events also lead to strongly conditioned fears that are beyond cognitive control and resistant to extinction8, as is the normal case in operant conditioning when the strength of a behaviour is modified by reinforcement or punishment. Prolonged exposure to this inescapable environment invariably leads to an intense fear-induced state of total helplessness and poor or slow responses to situations. This implies that the operation of drones in an area is likely to have a cumulative impact that is likely to last well beyond their cessation of the mission.

It may be argued that well-drilled soldiers are trained to fight in hostile environments and extremely demanding conditions and are to an extent able overcome their fears, and therefore the studies on the psychological impact of drones on civilians cannot be directly extrapolated to soldiers. However, there are studies, which indicate that at the personal level, even well-drilled soldiers are far less effective at basic tasks when they are in contact with the enemy. A series of American and Canadian studies found it takes a man nearly 50 per cent longer to repair a radio when he thinks that artillery is accidentally dropping short around him. However, there is no doubt that prolonged exposure to stressors as drones in modern warfare does take a toll on the soldier, like other similar stressors during any war.

In conclusion, there is a requirement to undertake further studies on the psychological impact of drone warfare on the soldier to completely understand its impact on the soldier on the battlefield. But, there is no doubt that the use of armed drones to visibly alter and modify fighting conditions on the battlefield to ensure that the human will to fight is swiftly extinguished will be exploited.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views of the Government of India and Defence Research and Studies

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  2. Marshall’s work on infantry combat effectiveness in World War II, is controversial and has been questioned. While his data collection methods and percentages have been challenged, his conclusion that a significant number of soldiers do not fire their weapons in combat have been verified by studies performed in other armies.
  3.  Murray Leo, War Games The psychology of Combat, 31
  4.  Cannon, Walter (1932). Wisdom of the Body. United States: W.W. Norton & Company
  5.  The Harpy UAV is designed to detect and destroy radar emitting devices, such as SAM installations. The Harpy is currently operational and in use by air forces from several countries.
  6.  The Harop is a bigger, improved version of IAI’s Harpy anti-radiation drone, equipped with an electro-optical sensor, enabling the operator to select targets during the loitering time over the target area for suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) missions.
  7.  The Rotem L is a loitering munition developed by the Israel Aerospace Industries. The drone is a quadcopter that can loiter for 30–45 minutes with the maximum range of 10 km. It can carry 1 kg warhead that could be two fragmentation grenades.
  8.  Mineka S & Zinbarg R (2006) A contemporary learning theory perspective on the etiology of anxiety disorders – It’s not what you thought it was. American Psychologist, 61, 10–26.
  9.  Inescapable shock experiments involved giving electric shocks to an animal placed in a box while not allowing it to stop the shocks (e.g. by pressing a lever)
  10.   Overmier JB & Seligman MEP (1967) Effects of inescapable shock upon subsequent escape and avoidance responding. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 63, 28–33.
  11.  Murray Leo, War Games The psychology of Combat, 77

By Cmde BR Prakash VSM (Retd)

Commodore BR Prakash is a specialist in Missile and Gunnery warfare and was the Gunnery Officer and Surface to Air Missile officer of number naval ships including Rajput, Ranvir, Prabal, Charag. He has commanded INS Ganga, INS Vidyut and was Executive Officer and Principle Warfare officer of INS Gomati and INS Kirpan. He has also served as Joint Director at Naval Headquarters and at Indian Naval Tactical Evaluation Group Mumbai. He was Commissioning Commanding Officer of INS Sardar Patel. He was deputed to Israel for the joint development of the Long Range Surface to Air Missile System in collaboration with Israeli Aerospace Industries later installed and successfully tested on the Kolkata class Destroyers. He is an alumnus of Training Ship Rajendra, Indian Naval Academy and the Defence Services Staff College. He also holds an MSc degree in Applied Psychology as well as in Defence Studies.

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