Drones Will Surpass IED Threat in Future Conflicts

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The weapon system that personified the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan and shaped the behavior of the U.S. military for almost fifteen years was the Improvised Explosive Device (IED). IEDs were responsible for approximately two-thirds of U.S. and Coalition casualties suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Civilian casualties from IEDs number in the tens of thousands.

The important lesson to draw from the experience dealing with IEDs in Southwest Asia is the way a single instrument of war, no matter how simple, can have profound organizational, operational and strategic impacts. The IED allowed insurgents to regain the strategic initiative and set the operating conditions for U.S. and Coalition forces.

The threat became so pronounced that the U.S. created an organization just to deal with the threat: the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization. The Pentagon spent about $45 billion acquiring mine-resistant armored vehicles and nearly $20 billion more on other measures to detect and neutralize IEDs. Even so, IEDs remained a constant threat.

A Navy explosive ordnance disposal expert with multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan characterized the influence of IEDs on the conduct of operations in those countries this way:

“No other weapon shaped the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan like the IED. It required that troops charged with enhancing population security confine themselves to massive, armored vehicles and travel at high rates of speed or plow through farmers’ fields to avoid roads entirely. It slowed dismounted troops forced to sweep with metal detectors and divert around empty intersections. It partitioned Baghdad with 12-foot high concrete walls and caused a fertilizer shortage for farmers in Afghanistan. It was the only insurgent weapon that could cause mass civilian casualties, undermining local governance, the credibility of counter-insurgent efforts, and ensuring a steady stream of atrocities — of the horrors of intervention — could be broadcast globally.”

Even as U.S forces continue to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan and conduct worldwide counterinsurgency missions, the focus of Pentagon thinking and investments have shifted to future medium-to-high-end conflicts potentially involving peer competitors. Defense leaders are warning that the U.S. is in danger of losing its military edge against these peer adversaries.

In response, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work called for a “Third Offset” Strategy that would recapture the military’s waning preeminence by investing in cutting-edge technologies such as autonomy and artificial intelligence, big data analytics, man-machine collaboration, high-speed networks and hypersonics. The current Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, has described this strategy simply as building a more lethal force.

The recently released National Defense Strategy speaks of the need to assess the implications of new technologies, define military problems to be faced in future conflicts and anticipate how competitors and adversaries will employ new operational concepts and technologies. With this admonition in mind and reflecting on the experience of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the question the Department of Defense should be asking is: is there a technology or system on the horizon that could impact the U.S. military’s conduct of future operations as profoundly as the IED shaped events in the last one?

The answer could be unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones. While the U.S. military pioneered the large-scale use of drones, both for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and strike missions, other militaries are now catching up. In many ways, small and medium-size UAVs challenge the notion of air superiority.

Perhaps more significant, nonstate actors are rapidly adding UAVs to their arsenals and developing sophisticated tactics for their employment. ISIS pioneered the use of small, commercially available drones to bomb Iraqi forces. For the first time, nonstate adversaries will have air power. Equipped with cameras, drones provide terrorists and insurgents with critical, real-time ISR information. Loaded with just a few pounds of explosives, drones become precision-guided weapons. Deployed on ships, drones would provide our adversaries with a low-cost “aircraft carrier.” They could even be employed for targeted assassinations. In 2013, a Pirate Party activist dropped a 20-inch drone at the feet of German Chancellor Angela Merkel as she attended a political rally.

The drone threat is qualitatively different than that posed by manned aircraft. Because these drones are small, low-flying and quiet, they would be difficult to detect and engage with existing air defense systems. The defense is more likely to run out of interceptors before the insurgents run out of drones, particularly if the attacker employs swarming tactics. In addition, the cost-exchange ratio between cheap drones and the current set of expensive air defense systems favors the former.

Fortunately, efforts to develop counters to this emerging threat are picking up steam. Solutions require the integration of several capabilities: detecting and categorizing the drone, tracking the UAV even if it is in hover mode, and neutralizing the target by kinetic or electronic/cyber means. Increasingly, customers are looking for non-destructive ways to defeat drones including by seizing control of them.

There is no single answer to the drone threat. Solutions include most of the military’s traditional arms from rifles to anti-aircraft missiles. Then there are short-range, non-kinetic counters such as Battelle’s DroneDefender, a man-portable system resembling a rifle, which jams the control link between a small drone and its operator. Israel Military Industries’ Red Hawk 2 Drone Defender, capable of finding and non-destructively countering UAVs out to 5 km, was employed by the Royal Thai Air Force to protect the funeral procession for the late King. The U.S. Air Force has acquired a similar system for airbase protection.

Boeing’s new Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense System is designed to defend against drones, helicopters and manned aircraft from short to medium altitude. Other major defense companies such as Lockheed Martin, BAE Systems, Raytheon and Leonardo DRS are working on solutions involving a mix of existing capabilities and new technologies such as tactical lasers.

Fortunately, the U.S. military and defense industry are not waiting to be surprised by drones on the battlefield the way it was by IEDs. Victory in future conflicts may well be determined by the outcome of the battle of drones versus countermeasures.

Daniel Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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