Laser-tethered drones

One of the drawbacks of battlefield aerial drones is the radio link, another one is their endurance of minutes or few hours that requires some extra effort for near-continuous coverage.

Both could be avoided to some degree by wireless (laser) power transfer and by non-radio (laser) communication. Power transfer by laser is possible and was demonstrated; a small quadcopter could hover for hours, if not days. Such a quadcopter could communicate with a base vehicle by a two-way laser link. Its service could continue during movements of the base vehicle if the latter's laser system was stabilized well. It could also "sit" on some high vantage point (some roof) and receive wireless power for operation as a de facto unattended ground sensor on an overwatch position.

It could serve
(1) as a vehicle-accompanying flying eye with bird's view (IIR and E/O)
(2) as a radio relais* and passive radio direction finder
(3) as laser target designator
(4) as a wind vector sensor
(5) as radar warning receiver** and passive radar direction finder
(6) as laser communications relay for no radio emissions communication over several km distance***
(7) remote IFF interrogations without disclosing the base vehicle's position
(8) assuming enough power transfer, a LIDAR sensor could be employed

The laser-tethered drone could keep enough battery power for a safe return without wireless power transfer and it could operate at distances of up to 3,000 metres. Platoon-level laser-tethered drone would probably stay within 500-1,000 m, though.

Such drones could profoundly change the way small units and units 'see' the battlefield.**** Areas concealed from such a bird's view would be of prime interest, and likely be penetrated by other drones or human scouts to close gaps in the surveillance.

Periods of strong winds, fog or heavy precipitation would suppress such a laser-tethered drone capability and constitute phases of vulnerability similar to how some forces in the Mid East attack during sand storms to avoid air strikes.

Both the very much changed 'normal' perception of the battlefield with the potential of mobile ops with radio-like communications during radio silence AND the increased importance of 'blackout' periods could change land warfare doctrines substantially - across the whole "spectrum of conflict" (sorry for the buzzword). It's been easy to find technology-centric texts on wirelessly powered aerial drones since about 2008, but the changes of behaviour and purposeful tactical repertoires (tactical freedom of action) are more intriguing, and not so commonplace:

How much would blocks in the line of sight such as hills, patches of woodland, small settlements, dust thrown up by artillery strikes and smoke lose their relevance?
Would the smallest practical units of manoeuvre change because less terrain features would provide adequate concealment for movements?
Would surveillance with bird's view be powerful enough that attack even against a mere delaying action defence would become unacceptable unless the drone threat was suppressed with dedicated and "all troops" battlefield air defences?
Would drones and their spare parts become a bulk supply concern due to high attrition?
Could a deception effort be staged by simulating entire battalion battlegroups in defensive position by a mere dozen drones supported by two or three vehicles?
Would manoeuvre element leaders avoid movement through terrains that block the line of sight to drones such as woodland and settlements?
Would vehicle positions behind buildings become the new "reverse slope defence"?
Would proper shielding of movements against observation require smoke not one-dimensionally on the ground, but two-dimensionally up to hundreds of metres altitude?
Would officers on the ground become more aware of and involved in the low altitude air combat situation down to small unit leaders?
Would officers become accustomed and dependent enough on bird's eye view and surveillance in general to become timid if not ordering withdrawals once lines of sight for such drones were disrupted by smoke and dust?
Would we add information about areas with often out of bounds winds to our (digital) maps, adding a new topographical feature of relevance?
Would the (im)balance of power between mechanised and dismounted forces, or military and paramilitary forces, change because the whole system including the base vehicle could be inexpensive and largely be made with COTS equipment?
Would the base vehicle crew hesitate to conceal itself when this would cause a disruption of the line of sight to their laser-tethered drone?
Would tanks require an additional crew member to make good use of the bird's eye view or would the tank commander use this instead of his independent viewer on the vehicle?

Most of these questions could be satisfactorily answered in trials or actual warfare only.


*: For communication beyond line of sight and to avoid a correct triangulation of the base vehicle by opposing forces.
**: An electronic warfare capability that rarely gets much public attention in the context of ground forces. Increasingly important in light of tanks' active protection systems.
***: This could be as simple as revealing a reflector device that makes reflections of the base vehicle's laser coding visible to other drones or vehicles.
****: If they were freed from red tape such as required permissions in an airspace deconfliction regime.

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