When the earliest tanks came into service during the First World War, they were a revolutionary piece of technology that changed the face of battle and reintroduced mobility back into combat that had grown stale in Western Europe’s muddy trenches. Gone were the days of the romanticised cavalrymen who would charge around the flanks of their foes, surround and destroy them. Instead of noble steeds of flesh and blood, elliptically shaped boxes of steel armour and continuous tracks had slowly rumbled their way onto the battlefield, shunting aside the millennia-old horse for the final time to provide mobile protection and firepower to the beleaguered Tommys. While mobile warfare existed on the Eastern Front, particularly in the earlier parts of the war – look no further than the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914 – the bulk of the fighting on the Western Front consisted of now-infamous static lines of dugouts, bunkers and warrens of trenches where soldiers lived, fought, died and rarely advanced without paying a hefty butcher’s bill. The British pioneered the invention of the tank that helped them and their allies to prevail in the Great War, but by the Second World War it was clear that the Germans had taken it to its fullest operational potential, combining armour with mechanised infantry, airpower and supported by artillery to create modern combined arms divisions that continue to form the backbone of many an armed force until the present day.

However, now that the world has had tanks in service in militaries around the world for more than a century, the trusty weapon needs to contend with new tactical realities that pose a significant threat to their survivability, particularly ones that now dominate the skies as much as they dominate the headlines. Of course, we are talking about drones.

A recent history of violence

Military drones as a concept are nothing new and have existed in the imaginations of military theorists and science fiction writers for many decades. However, the advent of high-tech innovations just before the new millennium – such as satellite communications, advanced microprocessors providing powerful onboard computing, materials sciences to make lighter and stronger aircraft, and also sophisticated imaging technologies – have allowed for the creation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that are capable of unleashing large amounts of lethal firepower while simultaneously providing reconnaissance and intelligence capabilities.

Take, for example, the US-made MQ-1 Predator drone and its successor, the MQ-9 Reaper. These drones are capable of both autonomous flight operations as well as being remotely controlled, with operators often described as sitting comfortably in US Air Force (USAF) bases in Nevada and Hawaii as their weapons prowled the skies of Iraq and Afghanistan, raining death down on their targets. Not only are these UAVs capable of targeting enemy armour – more on that later – but they were also used extensively in assassination missions against high-value targets. As a recent high-profile example, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in July 2022 by a Reaper likely armed with an R9X Hellfire missile – a kinetic force armament that killed the militant with blades and physical impact as he took what was his last breath of fresh air on his Kabul hideout’s balcony.

Such was the wild success of the US’s drone programme that former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told academy cadets in March 2011 that the USAF was now training more pilots for advanced drone UAVs than for any other weapons platform. For the country that made its human pilots famous through decades of overwhelming air superiority as well as by pushing that image via cultural icons like the Top Gun movie franchise, this was a remarkable statement indeed. The US’s UAV fleet was expanding even as its emphasis on the manned aircraft that had propped up the nation’s power since the Second World War was gradually waning.

However, one could argue that US UAVs have not yet realised their full potential, even after being three decades in service. This is because, while Reapers can be outfitted with Hellfire variants such as the AGM- 114K High Explosive Anti-Tank (HEAT) missile that can knock out even a modern main battle tank, they have not been put to extensive use against a conventional foe fielding modern armoured vehicles supported by anti-aircraft weapon systems. Rather, their use has been shaped by the adversaries the US has faced primarily in Afghanistan and Iraq, but also low-intensity conflicts elsewhere.

Turkish delight

If the Reaper represents the Rolls-Royce of combat UAVs, then Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 is its Volkswagen – inexpensive, reliable and, most importantly, effective. Such is its popularity that its Turkish manufacturer, Baykar, has received attention and orders from Kuwait to Poland and several countries in between. Most notably, it has been used extensively in Ukraine’s war to defend itself from Russian invasion, and the Turkish weapons platform was so effective and revered by the Ukrainians that its Lithuanian allies began to crowdfund to raise money to buy more, with each unit estimated to cost around $5m. The Ukrainian military also produced a patriotic song called ‘Bayraktar’ in honour of both the drone and its inventor, Baykar’s CTO Selcuk Bayraktar.

The estimated cost of a Bayraktar TB2 drone.
Atlantic Council

The TB2’s impact has been significant, as it is one of the few examples in recent years where we have seen how drones can be used against a conventionally armed opponent. Perhaps of more interesting to Western observers is that it seems the TB2’s favourite prey has been Russian equipment and tanks. Prior to the war in Ukraine, Turkey successfully deployed the TB2 against the Russian-armed and equipped forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to great effect. Between 27 February and 5 March 2020, TB2s – supported by anti-tank crews – destroyed at least 73 Syrian armoured vehicles.

In the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict of 2020 between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Azeri military was supported by not only TB2s – whose ‘kill cam’ footage against Russian-made T-72s and other armoured systems repeatedly went viral during the 44-day war – but also by Israeli-made Harop loitering munitions and their Turkish STM Kargu counterparts. These loitering munitions caused significant damage by being used as ‘kamikaze’ drones, flying straight into hostile armour before detonating their payloads. Making matters worse, they are cheap enough that they can be bought in large numbers and used in swarms, overwhelming more traditional and cumbersome anti-air defence systems. The resulting carnage led to Armenia raising the white flag of surrender.

Perhaps learning from these lessons, as well as the drubbing they took during the Ukrainian spring offensive of 2022, the Russians have innovated their own cheaply made Lancet-3M kamikaze drones that have wreaked havoc on Ukrainian artillery pieces and even tanks. Pilots can enter a ‘first-person view’ when flying the drones at low-altitude to avoid detection, before sharply increasing altitude only to nose-dive directly into the top of Ukrainian armoured vehicles, sometimes even penetrating the lighter armour found at the tops of the vehicles. Like Nazi Germany’s Stuka bombers, often the only warning the Ukrainians got was the sudden sound of a Lancet – or a swarm of them – rising and then descending to deliver its deadly payload.

The number of Syrian armoured vehicles destroyed by Turkish TB2 drones between 2 February and 5 March 2020.
Middle East Institute

Changing with the times

However, as is often the case in war, every new tactic or technology is met by another innovation to defend against the once-novel tactics. In the Ukrainian case, during the winter lull in fighting, reports showed how Kyiv had made creative use of camouflaged metal snares right over their artillery and armoured units that forced Russian Lancets to detonate their payloads before making actual contact. This greatly increased survivability, and led to a number of other similar innovations.

For example – to combat the threat of kamikaze drones or small commercial quadcopters that have been modified to drop mortar rounds and bomblets directly on top of tanks – metal enclosure cages have been added to tanks that are seeing action in Russia and even more recently in the Gaza Strip. Numerous Israeli Merkava IVs and Namer APCs have been shown using these so-called ‘cope cages’ that provide a level of separation between the bomb being dropped and the vehicle’s hull. In some cases, explosive reactive armour has also been added to the meshed roof to provide additional protection by exploding out toward the explosive threat, neutralising it before it can knock on the tank’s hatch.

This has not stopped the cycle of creative countermeasures, however, as Hamas militants have as recently as November released videos showing drones dropping tandem charged munitions from drones to generate successive explosions to defeat a tank’s meshed enclosure. They have also been known to launch multiple attacks to generate hits on Israeli armour, and so the arms race between measure and countermeasure continues in real-time as the war in Gaza continues to unfold.

Such is the threat coming from these drones that military strategists and decision-makers the world over have spent the past few years deliberating on how best to counter them. While ‘cope cages’ have limited some damage, the recent and ferocious combat in Gaza has shown that they are not a fool-proof solution. Instead, armoured commanders must look beyond individual vehicle defence to more area defence, with early warning and electronic warfare capabilities being crucial in detecting and delaying drones through jamming and other methods before shooting them down.

However, this needs to make economic sense, and firing a $6m Patriot missile at a drone that costs $100,000 will quickly bankrupt a nation trying to defend against swarms of cheap UAVs. Instead, great strides and hefty investments have been made in new technologies such as solid-state laser weapon systems, with the US leading the way and successfully demonstrating in April 2023 that their Directed Energy Manoeuvre-SHORAD lasers mounted on a Stryker fighting vehicle could knock drones out of the sky.

But with these weapons still being prototyped and not deployed on a large enough scale, tank commanders will, for the foreseeable future, be driving anxiously about the battlefield with their eyes not only focused on the targets in front of them, but also on the machines stalking them from above.