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Killer Drones versus Battle Tanks

June 16, 2009
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MQ-9 Reaper armed for bear with Hellfire missiles.

MQ-9 Reaper armed for bear with Hellfire missiles.

Airplanes versus Tanks

Currently the US military is using its supreme anti-tank missile, the Hellfire, fired from unmanned drones like the Predator against Middle East insurgents and terrorists. I am curious if on some future air/land battlefield if the Hellfire and UAV combo will be used in the missile’s original role against the main battle tanks of better armed aggressor nations.

It is true that aircraft and armored vehicles have been at odds since each’s inception in the early decades of the 20th Century. Their development coincided with the mechanization of warfare and both came of age during World War 2. Aircraft were viewed by some as an economical way to blunt the German superiority in armored blitzkrieg tactics, and specialized tank busting planes were built or modified from existing designs for this purpose. Some of the notable ones then and since include the German Ju-87 Stuka, the Soviet Il-2 Sturmovik, the British Hawker Typhoon, as well as the long-serving A-10 Thunderbolt II.

Tiger Tank captured in Tunisia in WW 2.

Tiger Tank captured in Tunisia in WW 2.

Fearsome land Goliaths like the German Tiger II, the Russian T-34, the British Centurion, and the American M-1 Abrams managed to survive the Age of Airpower and even thrive. Today they are still the dominance force on the land battlefield and no respectable Army would be without some type of tracked battle tank.

It appears likely due the advent of missile weapons equipped with precision technology, the reign of these very large and expensive behemoths might be at an end. Of course,  the demise of the tank has been predicted before, but where we think the change will come is in the form of these fragile new unmanned planes now being used to good effect in the Wars of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, now armed with Hellfire and highly accurate smart bombs, there is no longer a place to hide.

Bridging the Gap

The UAVs close the gap between high flying and fast manned attack planesand their land-based quarry. These robot planes rely on their very fragility to defeat more powerful foes. They are slower and smaller than the larger anti-tank planes and helicopters. This loitering ability coupled with persistence, allows the killer drones to wait for its intended target for as long as necessary without putting a human pilot at risk. Some like the new Fire Scout can hover while waiting patiently for its target, up to 8 hours without refueling. Advanced terrain sensors also allow the armored vehicles little of its traditional cover, even in overgrown areas.

British Hermes 450s have reportedly been modfied by Israel with Hellfire missiles.

British Hermes 450s have reportedly been modified by Israel with Hellfire missiles.


While the new unmanned combat vehicles (UCAV) have so far been used exclusively as “flying artillery”, the weaponry most often carried were originally geared for the anti-tank missions. Wikipedia reveals as much on Fire Scout which:

…include weapons such as Hellfire missiles, Viper Strike laser-guided glide weapons, and in particular pods carrying the “Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS)”, a laser-guided 70 millimeter (2.75 inch) folding-fin rocket, which the Army sees as ideal for the modern battlefield.

Of course, all this is conjecture, since the two weapons, one new, the other well-tried and proven in combat have yet to face off in battle. Still, the use of increasingly powerful missile weapons launched either from the ground or the air, with the rapidly improving lethality of combat UAVs, it appears that heavy tank advocates have further need to worry for the safety of their armored chariots.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Grunt permalink
    May 3, 2010 2:54 pm

    I hope you know UAV’s would be no match for most modern countries modern ADA assets, the only current UAV capable of escaping AAA or a missle launch would be the global hawk but its current role is reconnisance w/ a flying ceiling of 65,000ft….

    In their current state, to say they could be used for anti armor purposes is idiotic..

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 22, 2010 7:08 pm

    Tom you’re right, and you can use the same metrics on most major weapons systems currently in production or needing replacement. I consistently follow the budget numbers and see radical change approaching. Might take yet another decade but its coming…

  3. January 22, 2010 10:58 am

    There’s no reason to doubt on the basis of economics alone that unmanned drones will rapidly evolve and increasingly encroach into the roles traditionally provided by manned combat aircraft and armor.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    January 3, 2010 8:39 am

    Mike, if you have any proof of that, I’m ready to listen. I know there are a lot of theories that the drones won’t be able to tackle a “real” air war, instead of our current insurgency conflicts, but I suspect this is just more traditionalist thinking of “hands off our manned planes”!

    Actually, if we look back, the need for drones were born in conflicts ripe with contested airspaces, such as Vietnam, the Arab-Israeli Wars, and more recently over Kosovo (recalling there were also lost one of our stealthy F-117s).

  5. Mike Jones permalink
    January 3, 2010 1:17 am

    You guys do know that none of our current UAVs are survivable in a contested air defense environment, right?

  6. west_rhino permalink
    June 17, 2009 3:10 pm

    While MPADS may be subject to countermeasures, how hardened are UAVs to AAA? How well does range match up versus a ZSU-23/4, given that the UAVs inbound munitions could well be set off by that volume of fire. I’m led to think back to early IDF tactics vs ATGMs of concentrated fire to distract the Sagger gunner.

  7. Bill permalink
    June 16, 2009 8:06 am

    Randon comment: I’m happy to see the ‘cheap’ guided version of the 2.75″ FFAR finally come to fruition. Development of that thing (guided version) actually got started around 1985 (I was involved..back when I really were a rocket surgeon..before I decided that boats were much safer things to play with) .and we’re finally seeing something come out of it.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink
    June 16, 2009 7:12 am

    Alex, I have considered hunter/killer UAVs operating on their own against other aircraft, but not from tanks. Might be something for the tankers to consider!

    Distiller, I remember that Russian helicopters in Afghanistan in the 80s (whose speed closely matches that of UAVs) were roughly handled by insurgents armed with portable SAMs. So far, with Russian SAMs freely available on the world market, the American UAVs have not received the same fate. In fact, the insurgents, notably Hezbollah have used them as well. I do see your point but I think that such unmanned operations will not only increase, they will also adapt to any rising threat. They must because the manned combat plane’s days are numbered.

  9. June 16, 2009 6:55 am

    I am still waiting for the dogfight UAV, small enough to be mounted on a tank, so that when said tank is underattack from UAVs or Aircraft, it launches this little thing, and bang bang the attackers are gone…and the best thing is its just making a current technology drain even more draining and even more expensive; the goverments of this world will love it; what do you think mike?

  10. Distiller permalink
    June 16, 2009 6:48 am

    It will be interesting to see how “the other side” reacts to the increased use of UAVs by the U.S.

    Looking back at WW2 the Russians took AAA everywhere on everything to try and keep Rudel’s Stukas away, in the late stages of the war also always with fighter CAP over the tank formations, so that Rudel was forced to fly one third of the unit with Fw190 as escorts, one third with bomb Stukas against AAA, and only one third with the 37mm canon against tanks.

    The Russians seem quite well prepared with their cheapish radio guided missiles and gun combos on SA-19 and SA-22. And I bet mot and inf units down to company level will get MANPADS teams as a standard, like there are ATGM teams now. Also maybe simple Jeeps (or later mech walkers like the Lockheed dog) with 50cal and an IR seeker to get rid of those pesky hand-launched micro UAVs.

    I’m pretty sure hunting UAV will become a major job for attack helicopters and jet and fast turboprop trainers armed with MANPADS derivates.

    The periode of basically unoppsed UAV operations will not last forever …


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