Weaponized drones are here — it’s time for the US to act

The recent attack on Abu Dhabi, carried out by drones equipped with explosives, signifies a dramatic shift in Iran’s strategic offensive strategy. We have reached the apex of the overall drone strategy, on which our adversaries have been focused since Desert Storm in 1991. With drone technology sufficiently advanced to carry weapons and explosives, drones are now capable of deployment on land and sea throughout the world.

The last time the United States successfully employed a large mechanized, armored force was during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. We have gained relatively little knowledge since that campaign against Saddam Hussein. After that conflict, every nation learned an important lesson and our adversaries began to alter their strategies: Instead of engaging a military force’s most powerful strengths on just any battlefield, a military instead should seek out its enemy’s vulnerabilities and exploit them with weapons and tactics against which the adversary cannot defend itself. 

It has become clear that the advanced capabilities of drones, the U.S. failure in Afghanistan, and our military and political disaster in Iraq are all examples of how our adversaries’ tactics and strategies are evolving while the United States appears to remain stuck in the Cold War’s post-World War II organization, purchases and methodologies. Our opponents have gained valuable experience from each battle; on the other hand, America has refused to confront the reasons that we seem to be incapable of winning wars — and, more importantly, why we lack the strategy and capacity to prevent wars in the first place.

This month’s drone attack is a good example of this phenomenon. It seems unlikely at this juncture that the U.S. Navy has the capability to track drones, especially small ones flying at low altitude. Tracking drones across land or water would necessitate the presence of a U.S. unit on land or at sea. However, while certain commercial marine radars may be able to identify the drones, Navy ships are not yet equipped with small, high frequency “boat” radars, which may detect the drones.

Since 9/11, the Navy and the CIA apparently have overlooked capabilities — both our own and those of our adversaries — at the low end of the technological spectrum. This is one of the problems with the way we have developed our defense systems.

Consider the Oct. 12, 2000, attack on the USS Cole in Yemen’s Aden harbor. Three individuals in a small fiberglass boat launched a two-minute attack that sunk a $1 billion, state-of-the-art guided-missile warship and killed 17 soldiers. A billion-dollar asset was brought back to the United States repair port like a fish on a boat deck, lying on the back of a big barge. The repairs conducted on the boat took months to complete, and the amount of money expended for towing the barge out and back was likely unimaginably high. For weeks, images of one of our most advanced missile boats being destroyed by three jihadis in a single-engine fishing boat appeared in Middle Eastern newspapers.

If the United States cannot capably track drones, it is worth mentioning an ominous, yet completely feasible scenario: Bad actors could float up the Potomac River, stop for gas in Old Town Alexandria, and then, later, launch their drones on Washington in the pitch black of a moonless night, causing havoc in the United States. This is an unavoidable consequence of readily available drones. Someone can simply strap a five-pound high-explosive charge on a drone and have the potential to cause significant damage in our nation’s capital. It would practically be a “name your target” affair. Law enforcement would search for hours to determine where and what caused the attack, yet it is possible that the watercraft would have traveled deep into the Chesapeake Bay, past Oregon Inlet, and into the Atlantic before sunrise.

In essence, we are unprepared because we have insufficient or nonexistent knowledge about the plans and intentions of our opponents. Before another terrible attack happens on U.S. soil, both our military and law enforcement must invest in technology and systems to track new and emerging threats.

Armstrong Williams (@ARightSide) is the owner and manager of Howard Stirk Holdings I & II Broadcast Television Stations and the 2016 Multicultural Media Broadcast Owner of the Year. He is the author of “Reawakening Virtues.”

National Security