The U.S. military radically changed warfare over the past two decades with its pioneering use of armed drones on the battlefield.
That revolution in conflict, however, has sparked an urgent new mission for the Pentagon: to defend against the other guy’s drones.
As “unmanned aerial vehicles” become exponentially faster, cheaper, more deadly and more widespread around the globe, U.S. military planners are racing to develop a viable defense for suddenly vulnerable troops, tanks and ships.
Analysts and military researchers say nations, along with nonstate hostile actors such as terrorist groups and drug cartels, now grasp the immense strategic value that small drones provide and the inability of most enemies to counter them effectively.
Counterdrone platforms will become especially crucial in the coming decades as China and other rivals invest heavily in terrifying swarm technology that allows dozens or even hundreds of aircraft to harass, disrupt and in some cases destroy traditional military formations.
Through sheer numbers and ability to adjust strategy on the fly, autonomous drone swarms will be modern warfare game-changers that combine unmanned attacking vehicles with artificial intelligence. The drone clusters could effectively overload enemy sensors or overwhelm ground forces and disable large combat vehicles by peppering them with small bombs or grenades. The swarms also will fundamentally change how militaries conduct reconnaissance or search-and-rescue missions by spreading out and providing a much more comprehensive picture of the terrain.
Drones have been credited with altering the balance of power in frozen conflicts such as the standoffs between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists or between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a clash that military strategists are studying intensely.
Defeating swarms is a central piece of a high-priority initiative deep inside the Pentagon, where planners with an Army-led joint counter small unmanned aerial systems office early next month will release the first militarywide blueprint to fight back. The counter-unmanned aerial systems (C-UAS) strategy is expected to offer a smorgasbord of solutions, including traditional anti-aircraft tactics and electronic attacks that can disrupt the links between drones and their operators. They will also give a nod to even more cutting-edge ideas such as the use of artificial intelligence to help predict how a single attack drone or swarm is likely to behave and develop a counterattack plan.
But analysts say the U.S. military and its allies can’t solve the challenge with one stand-alone strategy and that the Pentagon and its private-industry partners must prepare for a long, grueling transition period as drones remake the face of modern warfare.
“I think we have been in, and will be in, an arms race for some time. As C-UAS improves, drone operators — at least the bad actors — will find ways to defeat current technologies,” said Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at the leading research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
“At this point, speed kills. A lot of the C-UAS solutions out there are limited on detection range, so a fast drone, by the time it gets detected, may already be too close to mitigate,” he said.
Hitting the target
Indeed, the speed of modern drones has proved difficult to counter with most traditional anti-aircraft methods. The ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has offered a window into the effectiveness of small armed drones. Each side has sustained huge losses to armored vehicle formations from attacks using relatively inexpensive drones.
Small drones also became favorite tools of the Islamic State group during fighting in Syria and Iraq, where they often confounded fighters who tried to hit the aircraft with guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers and other familiar weapons.
In some cases, militaries have resorted to using major systems such as Patriot surface-to-air missiles. In July 2018, the Israeli military launched a Patriot missile to take out a Syrian drone that had crossed into its airspace.
Although the Patriot successfully took out the drone, specialists warn that such tactics simply won’t work against swarms of small drones. In addition to the frustrating logistical difficulty of trying to hit relatively tiny drones with huge missiles, employing Patriots also means a military could spend millions of dollars to take out aircraft that can be assembled for, at most, a few thousand dollars.
Analysts say many militaries have failed to invest in the numerous layers of defensive capability that could allow for counterstrikes against new tools such as small drones, which over time will become even more critical in attacks against tanks, troop formations and other land forces.
“Because we have not been facing enemies that can field those layers of capability, we have not invested in a lot of those layers,” said Jack Watling, research fellow in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London. “We’ve said, ‘Well, against the threats we currently face we can prioritize our investment in the bit that gives us maximum utility today.’”
The result, he said, is that “our defense systems are very mini-max: It’s Patriot or nothing.”
Most modern militaries are well-schooled at targeting larger drones. Iran’s armed forces, which often rely on old, substandard equipment because of a struggling economy and decadelong international arms embargo, last year shot down a U.S. RQ-4A Global Hawk drone, which is 44 feet long with a wingspan of 116 feet.
It was a key step in a series of events that nearly brought the U.S. and Iran to war, but it also served as a reminder that even vaunted American drones are vulnerable to inferior enemies.
The U.S. surely will continue relying on the Global Hawk, Predator and other large drones, but military leaders and specialists say the smaller, less-expensive drones pose the biggest problems for strategists. Such aircraft can be used for reconnaissance, resupply or other missions while flying undetected or avoiding attempts to shoot them down.
AI and drones
Perhaps the most ominous threat is the drone swarm. Remote operators already can theoretically control an entire squadron of small drones, making it difficult, incredibly expensive and inefficient to target all of them with large traditional weapons.
In the future, no enemy operator will be needed as multiple drones link together and act like a swarm of insects that can make decisions in real time. That capability has become a top priority for Beijing.
“China also appears to be betting that swarms of low-tech drones, linked with high-tech artificial intelligence, will become the weapon of choice in future conflicts and capable of countering any military force, including that of the United States,” military researchers wrote in a recent counterdrone study published by the National Defense University. “China’s level of effort in developing UAS suggests the importance and relevance it perceives the technology holds for potential future conflict.”
“Russia’s operational employment of drones in Ukraine, Iran’s proliferation of drone technologies, China’s emphasis on developing full-spectrum drone capabilities, and the evolution of drone use by nonstate actors show that Army planners must anticipate extensive UAS employment in future conflicts,” they wrote.
Indeed, Iran used drones last year as part of its strike on key Saudi oil facilities. Those drones, while highly effective, were of the more traditional variety.
The use of AI in conjunction with small drones will result in even scarier, more dangerous scenarios. Among other capabilities, AI could allow drone swarms to fly in a way that avoids radar and to organize themselves to fit through small chokepoints, meaning they will be able to defeat at least some traditional military strategies.
For military leaders, the development of AI-operated drone swarms serves as a stark example of how rapidly the landscape can shift and how war planners need flexible solutions that can adapt.
“The threat is evolving,” said Maj. Gen. Sean A. Gainey, head of the Army-led joint counter-drone initiative. In comments to the Army News Service, Gen. Gainey made clear that the proliferation of drones, combined with a shortfall in networked capabilities to counter them, represents a mounting problem that must be addressed.
Given the challenges of shooting at small drones with more conventional weapons, nearly 90% of the military’s counter-drone options right now center on electronic warfare systems, officials said. In most cases, such systems aim to disrupt the communication links between the operator and the device itself, rendering it ineffective.
The looming Pentagon counterdrone strategy likely will focus heavily on such an approach.
Gen. Gainey said Defense Department training efforts must better incorporate counterdrone strategies to train the next generation of service members to deal with the threat.
“We can start to institutionalize this capability and integrate it with our air and missile defense systems,” Gen. Gainey said. “Having a synergy at the schoolhouse will help the force understand how to get after this problem.”