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Defence in 2020 | It’s been a low key, but profoundly interesting year

The defence sector has seen considerable movement, from Boeing Australia’s ‘loyal wingman’ to Turkey’s order for its second batch of Russian S-400s, and from the Armenia-Azerbaijan war to Japan’s aircraft carrier

December 08, 2020 / 05:34 PM IST
Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems drive during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016.  REUTERS/Grigory Dukor - LR1EC590MOQ22

Russian S-400 Triumph medium-range and long-range surface-to-air missile systems drive during the Victory Day parade, marking the 71st anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia, May 9, 2016. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor - LR1EC590MOQ22

The year 2020 was truly Annus Horribilis for people, governments and budgets. However, defence is probably one sector that didn’t get affected much. Buried in the year’s headlines of COVID-19, several defence deals and developments went unnoticed. Each of these was of long-term global and domestic significance.

Technologically the most important development was when Boeing Australia unveiled its ‘loyal wingman’ attack drone. Unlike current drones which have limited manoeuvrability, this is a full-fledged combat capable beast. Perhaps more importantly it thinks for itself in most situations.

The Achilles heel of the United States (and western) drone complex was that they require humans controlling them from ground stations. The problem with this is, that these drones are linked to their operators through satellite links, consuming huge amounts of incredibly expensive bandwidth for data, but also are highly vulnerable to an emerging generation of anti-satellite weapons.

The loyal wingman concept (and the similar but significantly less advanced Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B) does away with this, accomplishing large parts of its mission autonomously through artificial intelligence, but is also directly controlled by the manned aircraft it flies with, adding significantly to that aircraft’s lethality, while significantly reducing vulnerability. In many ways this concept marks the first significant step towards completely autonomous combat not dependant on humans (leaving aside the moral, legal and technological implications).

Politically, the Turkish order of a second batch of S-400 missile systems from Russia was the highlight of 2020. In a sense this decision is a microcosm of not just the deteriorating quality of decision-making in Ankara, but also the widening rift within NATO over Syria and Mediterranean gas reserves.


If the first order of S-400 in 2019 saw Turkey being kicked out of the F-35 fighter programme and Turkish companies being removed from all aspects including the crucial armament; then the second order in 2020, shows a deeper malaise.

For starters, all of Turkey’s most crucial military assets — the technology-intensive war winners such as submarines and combat aircraft are NATO supplied and NATO compatible. Even domestic programmes such as surface ships, depend heavily on NATO electronics. They will simply not be able to interface with the S-400 and should Ankara attempt any interface bypassing producer safeguards, severe industrial consequences will follow.

On the other hand, should such a move by Ankara eventuate, the Turkish military-industrial complex will find an eager partner in Russia. Russian technology having ossified in the late 80s desperately needs infusions of modern technology and production processes that Turkey benefitted form through its membership of NATO. Moreover it would have significant data about the F-35 fighter which would be a treasure trove for Russia.

So what will push Turkey over the edge? It seems increasingly that the emerging alliance between France, Greece, Egypt, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia will be the determinant. Already this six-country cohort is engaged in active hostilities with Turkey in Libya, but also with significant spillage into Syria. This is now complicated by huge gas reserves in the middle of the Mediterranean — reserves which both Turkey and its Libyan proxies claim, but have no right to under international law.

How Joe Biden’s renewed hostility to Russia, support of Islamic State remnants and Al-Qaeda in Syria (‘moderate rebels’) and his desire to engage Iran will affect this situation remains to be seen.

Other significant events and developments included the Armenia-Azerbaijan war — one in which the Azeri forces tipped the balance using drones and terrorists. While drones were initially developed by Israel to attack large fleets of enemy tanks, their use has become synonymous with taking out terrorists — essentially the consummate anti-terrorist weapon.

Azerbaijan showed that the original intended purpose of drone — to attack tanks was still relevant but added a significant new paradigm of modern warfare — that drones operating in co-ordination with brigades of hired international terrorists (rather than against them) was a potent new battlefield equation.

Elsewhere Japan decided to operationalise its momentous decision to convert its ‘helicopter carrier’ into an aircraft carrier armed with F-35 fighters. Given Japan’s deep pockets, tenacity and technology, this will be the critical action that decides the balance of forces against China in this century.

Finally, there was India’s first ever lease of Reaper drones from the US. This marks the first break in the ‘buy foreign or buy Indian, but buy’ mentality of the forces. Taken to its logical conclusion, such leasing, could open up a whole new set of options in fixing India’s disturbingly deteriorating levels of combat equipment.

All up a low key but profoundly interesting year.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.
first published: Dec 8, 2020 05:00 pm

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