“The role of the infantry… is to advance under the maximum possible protection of the maximum possible array of mechanical resources…” General Sir John Monash, GCMG, KCB, VD
With the advent of combined arms theory, commanders have sought to mitigate the vulnerability of infantry with the protection of armour and destructive power of artillery. Similarly, with advances in technology, commanders are seeking to maximise survivability on the battlefield. Drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were thrust into the 21st century battlefield, allowing commanders to achieve both.
Developed nations created military UAV’s capable of delivering precision munitions with no risk of personal harm. Similarly, developing nations and non-state actors purchased off the shelf drones, utilising the devices to increase situational awareness on the battlefield( and to carry small munitions such as grenades or home made bombs).
This article will discuss the concept of utilising UAV on the modern battlefield, specifically its employment within the mortar platoon in support of the mobile fire controller (MFC).
Mobile fire controller
The MFC is an integral component in the application of organic offensive support (OS) for the infantry battalion. The purpose of the MFC is to apply OS to the target area in order to allow combat teams sufficient time to manoeuvre once contact has been made. In order to achieve an appropriate coordination of fire, the MFC must have visual ‘eyes on’ both the forward line of own troops and where the rounds are landing. Therefore, the MFC must be located in an established observation post, or more commonly, located with the lead call sign.
To best support the manoeuvre arms commander (MAC), the MFC must ascertain the following: enemy locations including size and disposition; objectives in priority order; friendly locations, including form up points and support by fire locations; routes; type of cover for danger close missions; and the rate of advance. As with all things warfare related, the MFC must be able to ascertain this information even when the friction of combat causes the plan to turn haywire.
To state the obvious, the MFC is not bullet proof. Yet the effect OS can provide in the contact is immense. Studies have shown that OS produces extreme physical effects; in addition to head, torso and limb injuries caused by the splinter pattern of OS, targeted personnel can receive auditory, respiratory and brain injuries as a direct result of blast pressure – if the affected member survives the initial blast. In addition to physically impacting the enemy, the use of OS can have devastating psychological effects. It is undisputed that OS is a force multiplier on the conventional battlefield. Therefore, to lose the MFC in the heat of battle would significantly hinder the ability to use OS as this force multiplier. As such, increasing the survivability of the MFC in turn prolongs the survivability of force elements on the ground.
To achieve this, the modern battalion utilises UAVs.
Unmanned aerial vehicles
A UAV is an aircraft not manned by a pilot. It is either remotely controlled by a human operator or flies on a predesignated flight path with little ability to react. The proliferation of UAVs has increased at an unprecedented rate since 2005. Initially they were designed to be utilised as an intelligence gathering system. Presently UAVs are used in electronic attack roles, strike missions, communication relays, and combat search and rescue. This diversity of roles is credited to an increase in technological advances; they have decreased in size whilst maintaining an effective array of payload delivery systems, optics and sensors.
The decrease in size gives dismounted troops the opportunity to gain access to the UAV and the advantages it has to offer. One such UAV available is the UAS Wasp AE RQ12A (Wasp). The Wasp is classified as a micro air vehicle (MAV). It is a hand-held or remotely controlled system with a maximum range of five kilometres. Its current flight time sits at approximately 50 minutes and it can operate autonomously once a flight plan has been programmed. This particular MAV payload is restricted to a high resolution camera, capable of infrared and live feed recording. Importantly, the Wasp is a packable item, weighing as little as 1.3 kg, boasting a 102cm wing span and overall length of 76 cm.
Through consistent operator training, the MAV can both assist in the delivery of OS and increase the survivability of not only the MFC, but all force elements of a company.
With the MAV’s ability to provide a high resolution live feed aerial view of the area of operations, the MAC now has an aerial information, surveillance and reconnaissance platform organic to the company. The MAV can patrol vulnerable points of the patrol program and reconnoitre key terrain dominating the MAC route. And whilst the payload can only observe, the MFC is, in effect, a weapon that can strike.
In addition to providing high definition live feed, the MAV or Wasp in this instance, can provide an accurate 10 figure grid reference to identified targets from distances of up to 1.5 km from the target area. This information reduces the likelihood of rounds landing off target by eliminating the need for human calculations. Similarly, the MFC can then adjust the ‘fall of shot’ with the live feed from the MAV. Overall this process decreases the potential time for first rounds on target and eliminates the requirement for the MAC or MFC to be within visual range of the threat, thus increasing his or her survivability.
With a bedded-in mortar platoon in support of the MAC, and a competent MFC, strike on target can be achieved in one round. This provides a drastic increase in lethality, however, it relies on three additional factors. Firstly, the platoon must account for meteorological data in order to compensate the effects on a round’s trajectory. The standard issue M32 computer system calculates this automatically, eliminating human error. Secondly, the mortar platoon, in addition to bedding the tubes in, must prove the ‘belt of fire’. In doing soon, the platoon ensures all rounds fired in support of dismounted troops land accordingly, and ensures that discrepancies of the individual tube are effectively taken into account. Lastly, the UAV optics must be calibrated off a known feature in order to prove the accuracy of the 10 figure grid reference, or alternatively prove the adjustment required to rectify the inaccuracy.
By accounting for meteorological data, proving the belt of fire and accuracy of the 10 figure grid reference, the MFC can coordinate OS accurately onto threats with one round. This reduces the threat’s ability to withdraw or react to the impending barrage when the surprise is lost by adjusting onto the target. The reality is, when accounting for the MAV’s optics, accuracy and time of flight, the MFC can strike an unsuspecting threat with OS without ever being placed in danger by that target, allowing the MAC to coordinate their forces to strike, by-pass or withdraw before being identified.
 Australian Army, ADF, 2018. ‘Mortar Platoon Tactical Deployment and Fire Control’. ‘Land Warfare Procedures – Combat Arms (Offensive Support)’, LWP – CA (OS) 5-2-7, 6.1.
 Claudia Xavier-Bonifay. 2014. Explosive Weapon Harm: Mental Health and Psychological Impacts.
About the author Thomas Grawich is a junior officer in the 8th/9th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment. He attended the Australian Defence Force Academy in 2012 and graduated with a Bachelor of Business in 2014. He completed 2 years as a rifle platoon commander before posting to the mortar line officer in 2018.