​​It’s time to double down on drones for future conflicts

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The Air Force plans to retire the MQ-9 Reaper, pictured here in 2021, and the Block 40 RQ-4 Global Hawk, both workhorses of the U.S. drone force.

Success in future conflicts requires the U.S. to maintain a large and diverse inventory of combat drones. In a major war with China or Russia, reducing risks to U.S. forces will be essential.  Against large, capable forces, the U.S. military risks significant loss of blood and treasure, which, in turn, may lead to mission failure as the adversary’s military assets live to fight another day and American assets dwindle. Drones provide a way to turn the tables: They reduce U.S. costs — measured in both lives and dollars — and impose those costs on the adversary’s most valued targets.

Realizing this vision requires the U.S. Air Force — the service that brought the current generation of drones into warfighting prime time — to double down on drone innovation by protecting and improving on its current inventory, while also committing to the fielding of a new generation of drone technologies. 

Part one of an Air Force drone innovation strategy would involve shoring up current capability to meet future challenges. The Air Force should reverse plans to retire the MQ-9 Reaper and Block 40 RQ-4 Global Hawk — both workhorses of the U.S. drone force — and, instead, upgrade these inventories. While these drones were not designed to take on the most modern air defenses, they can cover large distances for surveillance, targeting and attack in less demanding threat environments. Indeed, the performance of the less capable Bayraktar TB2 against Russian forces in Ukraine indicates how current-generation U.S. drones might deliver a punch or otherwise contribute to success in conventional conflict.    

For the Air Force to make this strategy work, it will need backing from Department of Defense leadership to reallocate the existing drone inventory to the theaters where they are most needed — the Indo-Pacific and Europe — so that aircrews can train, develop and refine operating concepts tailored to those environments. These theaters are very different from the Middle East, where most of these drones have been flying for the past 20 years. Exercises like U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s Valiant Shield are a great start, providing an opportunity to develop new tactics, techniques and procedures to deal with different geography and peer/near-peer military capabilities. Another important step is to upgrade current-generation Air Force drones with artificial intelligence and sensors that allow for effective surveillance and target cueing in the face of vast ocean expanses, poor weather and complex terrain.  

Part two of the strategy should involve a clear commitment to a new generation of drones with capabilities beyond the current inventory. Service leaders have demonstrated a commitment to this; Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall included “collaborative combat aircraft” (the latest term for next-generation drones) in his operational imperatives. But ensuring these future systems succeed requires a clear flight plan. The service has issued a variety of requirements in recent years, only to have them go in a different direction with changes in leadership. Erratic guidance is burning through time and resources. It is also stretching the patience of investors who are funding many of the new entrants involved in this arena. 

An important step forward, therefore, is to clearly establish the value proposition for next-generation drones. War games and analyses conducted at the Mitchell Institute and elsewhere suggest there may be merit in producing smaller, low-cost and heterogenous drone inventories that can operate with varying weapons, communications and intelligence capabilities — and can even serve as decoys mimicking highly capable manned aircraft. Such drone formations can be employed in battle tactics that will make it more difficult for the adversary to decide which aircraft is worth engaging. Enemy forces will more rapidly consume munitions on large numbers of lower-value drones, raising the odds that next-generation bombers and fighters can better survive to bring their formidable combat power to bear.

To build such low-cost drones in large numbers, the Air Force needs a new approach to aircraft design, costing and acquisition practices. The traditional model assumes costly materials, redundant systems for safety, and the general desire to make the aircraft as capable as possible. An alternative is to start with an inventory cost objective (the price) and work from there. This would allow for trades between mission systems and payloads distributed across a larger manned and unmanned inventory, instead of designing multiple capabilities onto one airframe. Less costly materials and smaller form factors are also important attributes. In this model, complementary capabilities aggregated in a large inventory are what matters, a reversal from the current emphasis on building smaller numbers of aircraft with a multitude of capabilities, but at higher unit costs.   

This new way ahead — which embraces the strengths of current drones, while expanding and diversifying the inventory with new platforms — requires a fundamental shift in force structure and acquisition practices. The Air Force’s current modernization plan is to retire 1,463 aircraft, but acquire only 467. We need to flip that ratio, and drones are part of the answer. Nothing reduces risks to aircrew like taking the pilot out of the cockpit, and bringing in a new way of thinking about capacity and cost could make drones even more effective in future fights. 

Now is the time for the Air Force to capitalize on these opportunities, articulating a clear vision for the future of drone technologies and moving swiftly to execute it.

Caitlin Lee, Ph.D., is the senior fellow for the Mitchell Institute’s Center for Unmanned and Autonomous Systems. She previously served in multiple research leadership roles as a political scientist at RAND Corporation and as the senior aviation reporter for the Americas Bureau of Janes, where she covered Air Force acquisition, operations and technology.

Tags Artificial intelligence China combat aircraft drones Russia War games

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