Drones are here to stay. Their use is a heated topic of discussion in the U.S., and with good reason. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, are fast becoming a major component of our nation’s military arsenal. However, the technology is spreading. Several countries are in the process of either purchasing drones or learning how to manufacture them. Many soldiers, scientists and scholars claim that drones will revolutionize the way wars are conducted. They are not wrong. But how remains an open, pressing question.
The U.S. has used drones successfully for years for intelligence, target acquisition and offensive operations. The technology continues to advance rapidly. The US RQ-4 Global Hawk is frankly the best aerial surveillance and reconnaissance platform ever devised. The MQ-9 Reaper, likewise, is a superb multi-purpose unmanned attack aircraft. Drones are now capable of carrying out a great variety of missions. They can cover hundreds of miles in short order and remain aloft for sustained periods, called loiter time. The American Switchblade drone is a munition that can literally fit in a backpack. Sometimes, smaller is better.
Drones have greatly increased the capabilities of our military. Most importantly, they can be used for the accurate targeting of enemies without placing U.S. troops in harm’s way. Furthermore, they can offer a greater payload than traditional manned aircraft, with the ability to carry multiple precision-guided munitions.
Drones are also less expensive than traditional military aircraft, making them easier to produce and deploy. This fact along with the low risk of casualties makes them a much less politically and financially demanding alternative. As a result, drones played critically important roles in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. They will continue to do so in future conflicts for the same reasons.
The greater use of drones will inevitably lead to a shift in the mindset of nations. Russian use of Iranian-made drones in Ukraine provides merely one example. Since Russia’s army has proven to be largely incompetent, drones have provided the Kremlin a low-cost means of attack — maintaining the pressure on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.
Outside of the Ukraine conflict, drones can also be used to conduct preemptive strikes on various opposing nations’ facilities and military installations without risking a brutal retaliatory strike via “plausible deniability.” A rogue nation or substate actor, like a terrorist organization, can simply deny it was them. Explosive drones leave little in the way of forensic evidence regarding their places of manufacture and battlefield points of origin. Moreover, drones are devilishly difficult to defend against. Because they are small relative to more traditional weaponry like manned aircraft, their reduced radar cross section and diminished heat signature makes targeting them with missiles challenging.
The drastically reduced cost and destruction associated with drone warfare will also have an impact on strategic decision-making. Nations may be more likely to enter limited conflicts with targeted drone strikes that result in minimal relative destruction, thinking to avoid full-scale military conflicts. Such thinking could reduce the number of casualties and lead to greater stability in some parts of the world, or it could lead to conflagrations. Nobody knows for certain.
New weapons create nascent and often unexpected outcomes. So, not all implications of drone warfare are potentially beneficial. In addition, they are as susceptible to malfunction as any other device. Drones will be used in future by terrorist groups, rogue nations and dictatorships to attack their enemies, perhaps even us. They are, after all, both cheap and effective — the ultimate military two-fer.
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Drone technological advances have created a powerful weapon that needs to be better understood in terms of its implications not only for the U.S., but for bad actors as well. While our armed forces improve the capabilities of these weapons systems, we must remain mindful of their coming proliferation into the hands of the unscrupulous. We must be ready for it, and devise better means to defend against it. We are currently the world’s leader in the production of capable multi-purpose military drones. Given their coming greater proliferation, it would be merely prudent to remain on top. Drones are changing the face of war. We had best be prepared,
Robert Bruce Adolph is a former senior Army Special Forces soldier and United Nations security chief, who holds graduate degrees in both international affairs and strategy. He is the author of “Surviving the United Nations: The Unexpected Challenge.” In May 2022, he served as mission leader for a multi-national team in support of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Ukraine. Learn more at robertbruceadolph.com.