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Don’t Just Bring a Gun to a Drone Fight!

The Joint Force and Drone Warfare

By Monte Erfourth




INTRODUCTION

Early morning, June 6, 1918. Marines of the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, crouched along the expanse of a French wheat field, preparing to attack Hill 142. The hill is located on a ridge overlooking Torcy and Belleau Wood. Taking the hill and Belleau Wood would prevent flanking fire against the French as they maneuvered to prevent a German advance at Château-Thierry, just 59 miles from Paris. The German infantry and machine gunners were well dug in and gaining momentum on their planned push towards Paris.

On order, the Marines stood and, in perfect formations, began their movement across the waist-high wheat field. German machine guns almost completely destroyed the first wave and mercilessly ripped through the waves that followed. The Marines marched out as Civil War-era doctrine directed. Tight, disciplined formations were to be kept, but technology had made mass formations hopeless and fatal. It became the deadliest day in Marine Corps history. More Marines were lost on that June 6th morning than in all the battles the Corps had fought since its founding in 1775. Technology had changed, and Americans were needlessly killed because leadership failed to adapt to technology.

On January 28 of this year, three U.S. soldiers were killed in Jordan, and more than 40 other service members were injured following an uncrewed aerial system attack at a military base near the Syrian border. Those service members were in Jordan to support Operation Inherent Resolve, which is the U.S. and coalition mission to ensure the defeat of ISIS. For a casualty-sensitive nation, this is a legitimate blow to the forces deployed to defend the homeland from a resurgent ISIS.

Much like the Marines in that French wheatfield, this loss of life highlights a growing concern about the United States Military's preparedness for a new technology on the battlefield: drones. Historical shifts in military technology, from the introduction of tanks, submarines, and machine guns, emphasize the transformative impact drones could have on modern warfare. The attack in Jordan exposed a vulnerability: U.S. forces mistook the attacking drone for one of their own aircraft returning from a training exercise. This incident illustrates the challenges in detecting and identifying drones and the efficacy of current defense systems against such threats.

Warfare is evolving, and there is an urgent need for advancements in offensive and counter-drone technologies. The drone technology market is becoming increasingly competitive, with countries like China and Turkey challenging the United States and Israel for dominance. These countries are making significant progress in drone capabilities, offering more affordable solutions to the global market. This adds further complexity to the security dynamics of the United States and NATO. The development and proliferation of drone technology provide state and non-state rivals with a significant strategic advantage that could not previously have been attained. The effects of a traditional air force can now be had on the cheap. This poses a considerable challenge to the United States military, which is not fully prepared for a new era of combat in which low-cost, AI-controlled drones could fundamentally change military tactics, strategy, and global power dynamics.

THE SITUATION

Federico Borsari, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, highlighted disparities in readiness within the NATO alliance, indicating some members are ill-equipped to counter enemy drones. The United States, despite its technological advancements, faces challenges in developing effective offensive small drones, detection, and countermeasure systems against drones. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the tactics of Iran’s militant proxies and possibly informed by lessons learned from conflicts like the war in Ukraine, where drone usage has been prolific and informative in terms of exposing defense gaps.

The Joint Force and NATO are thought to have insufficient numbers of small drones and delayed modernization of forces, leaving U.S. military personnel unprepared for modern battlefields where drones play a crucial role. Despite the global proliferation of small drones and their demonstrated effectiveness in conflicts, such as the ongoing war in Ukraine, the U.S. military has not equipped its infantry with adequate numbers of drones, nor has it decentralized their ownership to the extent necessary to impact operations significantly. The U.S. military is facing a failure of vision, traditionalism, and bureaucratic resistance that is hindering the effective integration of small unmanned aerial systems (UAS). This is at least the consensus in the media; there are signs that the DoD is aware of the problem and is attempting to build a capable drone system and capability.

SIGNS OF LIFE

There are some signs that UAS innovations are happening. The Defense Department is launching the Replicator initiative, aimed at deterring a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan by deploying a fleet of small, unmanned systems, including surface drones and overhead loitering munitions. The initiative, costing approximately $1 billion, is designed to quickly field swarms of unmanned systems to address military challenges, specifically the threat of an amphibious invasion of Taiwan. This funding is split across two fiscal years, with $500 million allocated in FY 2024 and another $500 million in FY 2025.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks emphasizes the Replicator initiative as a pioneering effort to reduce internal barriers and test autonomy in unmanned systems, suggesting it could lead to further investments in autonomous capabilities within the military services. The initiative also includes developing software to enable these unmanned systems to autonomously identify threats while allowing human operators to make final strike decisions.

The first set of Replicator vehicles has been selected. However, details have not been publicly disclosed as part of a strategic decision to conceal and reveal information carefully. Additionally, the U.S. Navy will establish a new squadron for small unmanned vessels in May, indicating the military's commitment to integrating unmanned technologies into its operational strategies.

The Replicator initiative could significantly enhance the U.S. military's capabilities to deter and, if necessary, counter a Chinese amphibious invasion of Taiwan through the deployment of advanced unmanned systems. This effort represents a strategic pivot towards utilizing swarming, attritable drones for immediate defensive needs while laying the groundwork for future advancements in military autonomy. The Navy is not alone, as each service requests funds for Drone research and development. The DoD remains the largest customer for unmanned systems technologies, with an estimated budget of $7.5 billion for FY 2021.

Money is being earmarked, but the frustration comes from the system built for high-end platforms that stymies the quick pace of drone development, testing, and fielding. Too much reliance on expensive and technologically advanced systems, coming at the expense of cheap but effective systems, looks like the probable outcome. The taxpayer and the U.S. military both lose in this scenario.

THE SOLUTION

The solution seems simple and attainable, given the efforts of the services and the amount of money being applied to the world of unmanned requirements. However, the procurement and requirements process can be complicated to navigate. NATO and the U.S. military must remove bureaucratic obstacles and empower the right organizations to proliferate, decentralize, and familiarize combat units with drone technologies. Failure to adapt quickly risks repeating historical mistakes. It could leave the U.S. military at a significant disadvantage in future conflicts where drones are expected to play an increasingly dominant role.

Traditionalists within the military question the disruptiveness and effectiveness of small drones, preferring instead to invest in more traditional forms of military power. This viewpoint, combined with an adherence to legacy constructs for controlling and managing drones, leads to a centralization of control and a reluctance to accept the operational risks associated with deploying drones more freely within operational units.

This reluctance seems unfounded given the experiences in Ukraine, as the growing importance of drones in modern warfare has become a significant lesson learned. Indeed, Iranian proxies and the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) are learning at a faster rate than the Joint Force or NATO can match. Israel, Ukraine, Russia, Iranian proxy groups, China, and others have shown that small drones are becoming a defining technology. Some friends and even more foes invest heavily in drone development and deployment. The U.S. military's current approach to drone integration—marked by incremental fielding and excessive bureaucracy—contrasts sharply with the urgent and widespread adoption seen in Ukraine and the Middle East.

A cost-benefit analysis should clarify that we can invest in drones and continue with legacy investments. The DoD spent around $13 billion on the USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier, while Iran spent about $20,000 per unit on its Shahed-model drone. This is not an apple and dump truck analogy. U.S. and NATO adversaries can deploy vast numbers of low-cost drones that are individually manageable threats but, deployed in large numbers and directed by advanced AI, could overwhelm and possibly defeat even the most sophisticated and expensive defense systems. This shift suggests that future military dominance may not rest on superior weaponry but on superior AI-directed weapons systems in coordinated, large-scale operations. For example, if fifty AI-directed Shahid Drones could defeat the USS Ford, that’s a $1 million system beating a $13 Billion system. Even the U.S. cannot sustain that kind of fiscal imbalance.

AI is central to this story. Small drones alone are not all that is required. When guided by AI, the effectiveness of drones truly comes into its own. The looming transformation in warfare, driven by the integration of AI and drone swarms, could challenge traditional concepts of military power and require urgent attention to ensure preparedness. The future of military dominance may well hinge on the ability to adapt to and innovate within this new paradigm of AI-directed systems of weapons.

The nature of both NATO and the Joint Force being unprepared is multi-faceted, involving a combination of bureaucratic inertia, regulatory hurdles, and a lack of tactical innovation at all levels. At the most senior level, the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) must embrace and direct the Joint Force to drive innovation by experimenting with the following:

  • Revised Procurement Systems: Legacy procurement evolved intentionally as the nation expanded beyond an isolationist bent to become and then sustain being a global superpower. Well-intentioned or not, the current system is a Kafkaesque nightmare of red tape and dense legal requirements. OSD and Congress must work to streamline the process for AI adaptation, small drone purchase and use, and other rapidly developing technologies that will dominate the present or near future battlespace.

  • New Warfare Technologies Adaptation: Historically, military advancements have often come from not just new technologies but new concepts of their application. The potential impact of drone swarms compares to the revolutionary use of machine guns in the Great War. The integration of machine guns with indirect fires and in-depth defense has allowed for unprecedented destruction of infantry forces, and AI-driven drone swarms are redefining what it takes for battlefield success today. Adapt quickly in R&D or face expensive defeat on the battlefield.

  • AI and Decision-Management: AI's efficiency in managing complex, large-scale drone operations—processing what is known as the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act) far more rapidly than human commanders—could provide decisive advantages in conflict. The U.S. military's current decision-making structures and processes may be ill-suited to counter such AI-driven threats effectively. It’s not just the kill chain; it’s decision-making in imperative and mundane matters. The DoD must test the incorporation of AI into the tactical, operational, and strategic levels of competition and conflict.

  • Ethical and Strategic Dilemmas: The United States faces ethical and strategic dilemmas in integrating AI into military operations, particularly regarding autonomous lethal decision-making. While the U.S. emphasizes keeping a human in the loop for such decisions, adversaries might not share these ethical standards, potentially putting the U.S. at a strategic disadvantage. Conversely, the killing of World Central Kitchen aid workers by Israel shows the strategic impact of targeting mistakes. Practice is required to reduce unintended consequences.

Innovation will not simply be a top-down-driven transformation; it must also be driven from the bottom up. Despite the clear tactical advantages of small drones in reconnaissance, target acquisition, and direct action, the Joint Forces” current doctrines, procurement processes, and training regimens have not fully capitalized on these technologies. Reports have repeatedly cited criticism from Ukrainian soldiers about the inadequacy of U.S. understanding and preparedness for adaptive drone warfare. These Ukrainians deserve both respect and our attention, as they have been on the front lines against a technologically savvy adversary for two years. This criticism underscores a crucial shortfall in the US military's preparedness and adaptability in drone warfare at a unit level.

The U.S. Army and Marine Corps must foster a culture of experimentation and innovation, particularly among junior leaders and operational units. The following are concrete steps the services can take to enable a bottom-up drone innovation transformation.

To harness the full potential of small drone technology within military operations, the services can initiate a transformative approach by introducing expendable off-the-shelf drones to operational units. This approach facilitates bottom-up experimentation, enabling units to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) finely tuned to their unique operational needs. To further bolster this innovation, services must create formal pathways for sharing these invaluable lessons and successful TTPs, incorporating them into broader military doctrine and training programs. However, to truly capitalize on these technological advances, it's necessary to address and streamline the bureaucratic and regulatory barriers that currently impede these assets' rapid procurement and deployment. This would involve reimagining small drones as expendable tools, thereby encouraging their extensive use in training and operations without the constraints of financial or administrative penalties.

Looking to the future, investing in modular, upgradable drone technologies is crucial for maintaining a competitive edge, ensuring that military drone capabilities can advance in lockstep with the fast-paced developments in civilian and military drone markets. Additionally, by leveraging 3D printing technologies and promoting a culture of soldier-driven innovation, the Joint Force can significantly expedite the prototyping and fielding of drone accessories, modifications, and even entirely new systems, dramatically enhancing small drones' operational effectiveness and versatility in military applications.

Technological advancements demand a paradigm shift in how the Joint Force approaches AI and drone warfare. By embracing experimentation, innovation, and adaptability, the Joint Force and our NATO allies can close the growing AI and small drone gap and ensure both remain prepared for the evolving challenges of modern combat.

CONCLUSION

The United States military's approach to drone warfare and the adoption of AI to direct drone swarms must evolve quickly as a matter of great urgency. The historical instances of technological unpreparedness, from the devastating losses in a French wheat field in 1918 to the recent drone attack in Jordan, illustrate a pattern of failure to adapt that cannot continue. The U.S. and NATO must match and exceed our adversaries' advancements and fundamentally rethink warfare in the age of AI-directed drone swarms. The technological gap highlighted by drones' low-cost, high-impact potential demands a holistic reevaluation of military strategy, procurement, and operational doctrine. The future of military dominance hinges on embracing AI and drone technologies, decentralizing drone deployment, and fostering a culture of innovation and adaptability. Failure to do so risks repeating past mistakes on evolving battlefields, where technological superiority has defined strategic advantage.

The call to action is clear. The Joint Force and its supporting bureaucracy must adapt to rapidly evolving warfare technologies, with drones and AI playing a pivotal role. In WWII, the U.S. outproduced every country in the world in war-related material. Drones that are reliable, expendable, and capable of AI guidance at a low price should be our mantra to industry and within the DoD. The U.S. should own the market and dominate the battlefield. This is how to compete and win in Great Power Competition.


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