The weekend news that the U.S. launched airstrikes on the Iraq-Syria border in response to recent drone attacks on U.S. troops underscores the fact that drones in various forms are transforming the battlefield and pose increasing challenges for countries that seek to incorporate them — and the necessary defenses against them — in a way that is not just piecemeal.
A menagerie of systems — from the “loyal wingman” program in Australia, where drones act as a potential Sherpa alongside a manned aircraft, to Iran’s influence on kamikaze drone technology in the Middle East — is changing the role of drones on the battlefield. Attempts to incorporate small tactical drones into ground forces illustrate the daunting challenges.
Though these challenges are not new, most militaries have yet to adopt a systematic drone doctrine that deploys unmanned systems throughout their services. Drones have been around for decades — Israel used them in the 1980s to find Syrian air defense, for example. In the U.S., the Pentagon acquired the Predator and Global Hawk unmanned systems that came to be a staple of counter-insurgency operations. A 2005 roadmap for American unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) noted that there were some 20 types of drones in use that had flown 100,000 hours during operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Their range of missions was rapidly expanding, as was their diversity in size, from micro drones weighing less than a pound to the 32,000-pound Global Hawk.
While the Pentagon has fielded impressive UAV systems, from the Predator to the stealthy Sentinel, gaps remain in how to incorporate drones throughout the armed services and what the next drone war might look like. As the U.S. shifts air defenses from the Middle East to Asia, it is likely drones will play a role in future tensions with China. Key to the challenge is also defending against drone threats, such as the attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq in recent months. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, has warned about these increasing threats, including what he termed “drones from Costco” that could be used by militant groups.
Meanwhile, Turkey, China, Iran and other countries are fielding an impressive array of drones. Turkey is selling Bayraktars to Poland and Ukraine, and showcasing new tactical loitering munitions, such as the Alpagu. These types of smaller drones are fired out of a tube and the drone consists of a warhead so that it searches for a target and then flies into it like a missile. Such systems have become common in Iran, and among Iranian allies such as the Houthis and Hamas and pro-Iranian militants in Iraq. Another example are Israeli-made drones such as the Harop, a drone that can be used in a “suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD)” mission.
As warfare strategy changes, it’s unclear what role drones ultimately will play; no two major powers have gone to war with each other. Drones are used by both sides in some wars — such as fighting in Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army or between Israel and Hamas — but there is asymmetry in those operations. For example, Hamas fielded only a few Ababil-style drones in the war with Israel in May, but Israel is one of the leading drone producers in the world. This mismatch in new technology is comparable to the limited role that airplanes and tanks played in World War I, as opposed to the role they would play in World War II, when everyone had them.
The quest for a drone doctrine, like the quest for how best to use armor, whether en masse or spread among units, is where most countries find themselves today. Innovator Elon MuskElon Reeve MuskElon Musk mocks Biden for ignoring his company's historic space flight Inspiration4 and the quest to cure childhood cancer SpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission MORE raised eyebrows last year when he said the F-35 could be defeated by a drone eventually. In interviews I conducted in Israel for “Drone Wars,” an F-35 pilot and a drone designer both agreed that the next jet age may be dominated by drones. The manned-unmanned teaming system Boeing has sold to Australia and the first aerial refueling with the MQ-25 Stingray could point the way to an era in which drones refuel each other in the air.
A survey of systems being rolled out by China, Iran, the U.S. and Israel illustrates that the components exist for boosting reliance on drones. That means unmanned vehicles launching loitering munitions to penetrate enemy air defenses. It also can involve robotic dogs being used in unison with small quadcopters to enter and map houses before special forces conduct raids. The array of options is staggering, but building a multi-dimensional unit around them, such as a combined arms drone unit, is a challenge.
Here is where militaries still have an ad hoc element to using unmanned systems. Israel’s advances in UAVs, and its pioneering of loitering munitions and man-packable drones, still meant it faced challenges in the recent war in Gaza with Hamas. Drones played a key role from the start of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, but U.S. forces nevertheless are exiting, which could lead commanders to conclude that drones are oversold as a platform strategy. The U.S. isn’t buying as many Reapers as in the past, for example. Most advanced Western militaries appear to think drones don’t win wars, as evidenced by the slow adoption of large numbers of the systems.
The quest for a drone doctrine will be answered by the first country to field a force that is fully integrated with the technology and air defenses to stop drone threats. Drones have proved themselves useful in ungoverned spaces where asymmetric warfare is typical, such as hunting militants in Somalia or in the fighting between Saudi Arabia and the militant Houthis in Yemen. Drones primarily work well in uncontested airspace against those who lack integrated, multi-layered air defense.
If we look at the history of military platforms, we find other eras with such experimentation — for example, the various tanks that emerged in the 1920s and 1930s, many of them an evolutionary dead end prior to the creation of main battle tanks, or the types of warships built prior to the dreadnought. Drones, whether small or large, need to mature and become more trusted before they are widely adopted. Then they will be sorted, so that the best systems become a mainstay.
Seth J. Frantzman is the author of “Drone Wars: Pioneers, Killing Machines, Artificial Intelligence and the Battle for the Future” (Bombardier Books, 2001). He writes for Defense News and The Jerusalem Post, covering the Middle East. His previous book, “After ISIS,” focused on the defeat of ISIS and geopolitical competition in the region. Follow him on Twitter @sfrantzman.