May 13, 2024 | C4ISRNET

America needs to lead in drone warfare

May 13, 2024 | C4ISRNET

America needs to lead in drone warfare

When Russian tanks invaded and cruise missiles and drones rained down, Ukrainians responded with grit, a highly motivated fighting force, and their own waves of drones. This nation of 38 million people has stood firm against one of the world’s largest militaries, in part by using drones as an invaluable force multiplier. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) play an instrumental role in modern asymmetric warfare, but if the U.S. does not step up, our partners and allies will continue turning to China and Iran to purchase this technology.

Both Moscow and Kyiv use drones for intelligence gathering, target acquisition, and airstrikes for devastating effects. Drones have evolved from mere intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tools to lethal weapons capable of carrying up to 500-pound munitions, striking targets with incredible accuracy. With their ample processing capability, drones can rapidly identify, track, and attack targets.

Drones have also become key to extending communications lines, collecting intelligence for law enforcement officials, and delivering supplies to contested areas. With UAVs, Ukraine has successfully mounted wide-ranging attacks inside Russia, causing significant damage to Russian energy infrastructure sites, destroying naval bases and shipyards, and damaging several Russian military aircraft. Yet without sustained supplies of drones, electronic warfare equipment and other defense support, Ukraine’s efforts will be constrained by the sheer scale and superiority of Russia’s forces.

Early in the war, Ukraine heavily utilized cheap Chinese commercial drones for tactical missions. Just a few months in, however, Kyiv began noticing problems: Chinese drone maker DJI appeared to be leaking data on Ukrainian military positions to Russia. Chinese drones also proved susceptible to powerful Russian jamming and electronic warfare attacks. Then, in July 2023, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) began restricting drones sales to Ukraine while continuing to supply Russia. Facing challenges replacing the small drones that form the cornerstone of its kill chain, Kyiv began looking elsewhere.

Now, hundreds of American-produced drones are in use across Ukraine to disrupt Russian supply lines and help document Russian war crimes, including Russian barrages against civilians, hospitals, schools and infrastructure. These drones are easy to use and operate securely offline. They are powered by next generation artificial intelligence and autonomous capabilities. And their rapid, iterative software updates can stay ahead of Russian countermeasures, greatly enhancing Ukraine’s ability to resist Russian forces and helping Ukraine regain operational control over the battlefield.

America’s partners and allies are taking note. Leveraging rapid software modernization and technological advances levels the playing field for smaller, less capable countries facing a larger adversary. Even Taipei, facing an adversary whose defense budget is the size of the entire Taiwanese GDP, could maintain its ISR over the island and surrounding waters in a crisis, inject resiliency into its communications systems, and target advancing PRC forces with asymmetric capabilities, like masses of smaller, multi-functional UAVs.

The problem for Taiwan and other nations in the Indo-Pacific is that China has flooded the global markets with cheap drones from DJI and Autel, capturing 90 percent of the global market for small drones. Indeed, the PRC has increased its investment in advanced drone technology, working to make Chinese drones more cost-effective and capable – all the while developing new military capabilities like drone swarms and stealth drones and supplying hundreds of millions of dollars of support and a steady supply of drones to Russia.

Our allies and partners need American-made drones, not Chinese or Iranian ones. Our own military needs cutting-edge, secure drones with reliable supply chains even in a crisis. Thousands of new American drones in the hands of the warfighter scales battlefield insights and accelerates the speed of decisions and actions.

As the Biden administration seeks to restore American manufacturing, the drone market is a prime industry to invest in. Beyond creating American jobs, these drones would fuel commercial, industrial, and first responder markets with drones “Made in the USA”. American drone manufacturers can (and do) work closely with military personnel to rapidly iterate on the designs based on users, missions, and environments. And so the Department of Defense (DoD) has taken the first step toward investing in this industry by championing rapid development of drones and AI-enabled autonomous vehicles. DoD can also use a portion of the newly secured supplemental funding for Ukraine to provide U.S. drones to Ukraine – either as new purchases or as a draw from existing U.S. military stock.

The U.S. State Department should also fund UAV usage for international law enforcement and promote U.S. drone capabilities amongst allies and partners. As the primary touchpoint with foreign countries, embassy officials should warn other countries of the risks of using PRC-made UAVs, and our commercial service officers should work in tandem with the State Department to promote U.S.-made alternatives. Congress should also bolster funding for State Department programs that have successfully utilized drone technology to support their missions, such as the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Bureau’s efforts in countering transnational crime with help from ISR drones.

There is a clear global demand for more drone technology. According to industry analysis, the global drone market will double from 2022 to 2026 and then triple, to reach over $160 billion, by 2030. Without U.S. support and clear alternatives, Ukraine, Taiwan and other countries with a high demand for UAVs will be forced to turn to U.S. adversaries for cheaper options and accept the accompanying national security risks.

Today, America’s strategic competitors dominate global commercial drone markets. To support our allies and ensure military superiority in future conflicts, the United States must reassert a leadership role in rapid, iterative drone development and production at scale. U.S. companies must put in significant resources and scale production, and Washington help American manufacturers outpace Chinese competitors as well as maintain support for allies like Ukraine whose battlefield experience further confirm the criticality of American efforts.

Mark Montgomery is a senior director and senior fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served for 32 years in the U.S. Navy as a nuclear-trained surface warfare officer, retiring as a rear admiral in 2017. He also served as Policy Director for the Senate Armed Services Committee under the leadership of Senator John S. McCain.️

Issues:

China Cyber Iran Iran Global Threat Network Military and Political Power Russia U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy Ukraine