A company poster from a Russian trade show shows an aircraft-mounted RPG-29, one of the many potential asymmetric threats listed in a new Army report. (Army)
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Terrorists, insurgents and other enemies of U.S. forces are likely to use more lethal weapons and some advanced fighting tactics in years to come, according to a new Army future threat assessment called "Asymmetric Threats to Current and Future U.S. Forces."
The assessment found that U.S. adversaries will likely use more unmanned aerial vehicles, improved rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank guided missiles, shoulder-fired missiles, and vehicle-mounted mortars along with small to medium arms.
"This is all open-source material coupled with the best military judgment. We look at likely trends for the future," said retired Marine Corps Col. Darrell Combs, who runs the TRISA (TRADOC Intelligence Support Activity) Wargaming, Experimentation, Test and Evaluation Directorate at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.
Combs and his "red team" of researchers at Fort Leavenworth analyze tactics, budgets and available weaponry across the globe to identify potentially challenging war zone scenarios for U.S. forces.
"We look at weapons that are more available to state and non-state actors that are accessible, cheaper, and certainly more affordable compared to an F-18," said Combs. "Our job is to provide the stress and tension on the U.S. military so that they can identify where the weaknesses are. We look at trends worldwide, run military budget analyses and put packages together for different parts of the world," said Combs.
The threat estimates are used by Army leaders who are preparing for the likelihood of continued irregular warfare for years to come.
"As an adversary looks at the technologies we are developing, there may be some unknown vulnerabilities. We want to put a lens on it and make sure we know that the low end and the high-end of [potential enemy] capability is something our full-spectrum forces can handle," said Army Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, who commands the Army Capabilities Integration Center, TRADOC, at Fort Monroe, Va.
The assessment's findings involve the blending of anticipated technological progress and the likely availability of those weapons coupled with a potential enemies' ability to buy them.
"We do a lot of research into who the potential enemies are and where they come from. Then we ask, given what I know about these guys, their investments and resources, what capabilities might they have?" said Greg Fontenot, director of the Army's University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth.
The threat assessment cites the possibility of vastly increased UAV use by terrorist groups or hostile foreign governments. The report found that UAVs are currently in use by more than 32 countries worldwide, and that their costs are dropping with some of them priced at $2-3,000.
The threats they pose are broken up into categories by the report including chemical threats, weaponized UAVs and so-called swarm UAVs which could be used to send hundreds of football-sized UAVs packed with explosives toward a target location, Combs said.
"Our research found this Russian technology to program large numbers of UAVs for an attack," he said.
Overall, the report cites the anticipated increased use of militarized UAVs worldwide, citing Hezbollah's use of UAVs against Israel in 2006.
At the same time, the report highlights concern regarding the possibility that some commercial UAV-type technologies could be adapted for military use. For instance, the Yamaha-made RMAX helicopter UAV used for rice farming in Japan could easily be adapted for offensive military operations.
Another area of concern cited in the report is Ultralight aircraft, described as lightweight, slow-flying motorized aeroplanes able in some cases to quietly fly at high-altitudes. Ultralights were used by the Iranian military and tested in a training exercise by Chinese special forces in 2006, according to the report.
"It does the same thing a helicopter does in many ways, just quieter and it can fly lower and slower or fly higher with oxygen," said Combs.
In fact, the Indian Army used Ultralight aircraft to travel 3,000 kilometers from southern India to the Kashmir region in the northern part of the country near the Pakistani border. Using oxygen to fly at 12,000 feet, the Indian team traveled the distance in 59 days, Combs said.
Another expected area of increased focus among potential enemies is so-called technicals, commercial vehicles outfitted with weapons such as mortars or small arms, the report states. Prevalent now in Iraq and Afghanistan, technicals have been used increasingly by insurgents. For instance, the report includes photographs of vehicle-mounted 14.5mm heavy machine guns hidden from view by a tarp. "Between January and March of 2007, insurgents in Iraq shot down multiple helicopters with technicals," said Combs.
Also listed in the report is a new, more lethal, tandem blast RPG 32, a weapon able to fire from longer ranges and reload faster than its predecessor, the RGP 29. The mobile, six to ten-pound RPG 32 can hit targets out to 700 meters and beyond with anti-tank, anti-personnel and thermobaric rounds, Combs said.
Made by a Russian-Jordanian company called Bazalt, the RPG 32s are increasing available on the open market, Combs said. Of particular concern is the likelihood that groups of RPGs will be mounted on light aircraft and fired from the air, Combs said.
"At a Russian airshow there were RPGs mounted on a Cessna aircraft, so [potential enemy] tactics are being improved," said Combs.
Vane said the Army's Future Combat Systems program will review these reports as it prepares to field emerging technologies.
"As we go through our last big review over the summer, we will take a look at these far-reaching threats and make adjustments for them. We look at traditional, irregular and catastrophic threats, but now we want to look at disruptive threats and ask if something is a capability you would not expect," said Vane.