In Over Their Heads: U.S. Ground Forces are Dangerously Unprepared for Enemy Drones

May 30, 2017

For special access to experts and other members of the national security community, check out the new War on the Rocks membership.

America’s ground forces are not accustomed to looking at the sky. That’s because the last time the United States sustained a reported casualty from an enemy aircraft was April 15, 1953 — 64 years ago.

For decades, American air dominance has gone almost uncontested, and ground forces have all but forgotten they can be touched from above. But thanks to the proliferation of small, low-cost drones and desktop manufacturing, that paradigm is now changing — and quickly. As T.X. Hammes argued last year, small aerial drones have brought about the “democratization of airpower.” Today, both state and non-state actors are capable of coordinating precision air attacks at remarkably low costs. And the U.S. military is alarmingly unprepared.

It’s not that the government isn’t spending money on the problem. The Department of Defense’s FY2017 budget request called for $226.7 million on counter-drone solutions. The problem is that we have failed to adequately inform our troops about the threat. As a result, the United States has a force that, at the fighting level, remains shockingly and dangerously unaware the threat even exists.

If it sounds laughable to think America’s ground pounders have somehow missed this development, consider the cost and accessibility of small drones inside the military today (special operations forces excluded). The Army and Marine Corps’ most widely-fielded system, the AeroVironment Raven, costs approximately $30,000 per aircraft, making it one of the most expensive pieces of gear in an infantry battalion. Its less-available little brother, the AeroVironment Wasp AE, costs around $49,000. These systems, described by developers and defense wonks as “cheap, disposable UAVs,” are considered so expensive in the operating forces that commands have been known to shy away from flying them at all, even while deployed. As Lt. Col. Nick Kioutas, a former Army drone program manager, observed in 2014, “Small UAVs were supposed to be a ‘launch and possibly lose’ concept, but they’re just not there yet. They are still too expensive.”

Cost and accountability concerns often shape what assets military leaders choose to employ. That is certainly the case with small drones. In training, commands worry about incurring financial responsibility for systems and becoming mired in lengthy investigations if they crash. When deployed, the stakes are much higher. Dangerous retrieval missions can make small drones feel like more like a liability than an asset. As a result, U.S. ground forces often remain skeptical about how much value small drones can provide. Add poor video quality, burdensome weight, and the challenge of getting airspace clearance into the mix, and it’s easy to see why many ground units have all but given up on drones. These decisions seem informed by a fictional belief that the enemy’s access to “Group 1 UAVs” (20 pounds or smaller) is more limited than their own. But this isn’t the case.

In fact, today’s battlespace is saturated with capable and affordable commercial drones. According to Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone, “In Syria and Iraq today, there are more drones, made in more countries, and flown by more groups, than in any previous conflict.” It is not a stretch to say that American systems may be among the oldest, bulkiest, and most expensive in the field.

As an infantry advisor at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, I have enjoyed a level of exposure to military technologies rarely afforded to marines and soldiers in the operating forces. In 2016, I observed an experimental exercise designed to demonstrate what the enemy had already been doing with drones for years. It was the first time I had even seen a drone at all. Like many at that exercise, I walked away with a striking sense of urgency, but quickly found there was no way to bring that same demonstration to my brothers and sisters in arms. With draconian range restrictions and a limited access to quadrotor drones — the system of choice in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq — the event demanded more logistical support than I could muster. Without seeing, there was no believing. Marines balked at hearing the Islamic State could have a more robust small drone program than we did.

Over a year later, I still encounter marines and soldiers on a near daily basis who have never considered the likelihood of an enemy drone attack. The situation is dire and getting worse. It’s time to confront what we’ve missed about drone warfare and to discuss how we can catch up.

What We’ve Missed

In August 2014, Russian-backed separatists near Donetsk shot down an old Tu-143 Soviet reconnaissance drone. The system, first fielded to the Soviet Army in the 1970s, was so hulking and antiquated that the separatists mistook it for a failed missile. At the time, it was the Ukrainian military’s only unmanned aerial system.

That quickly changed. By fall 2014, volunteer hobbyists and engineering students from throughout the country had begun to mobilize, building small hobby-style drones for Ukrainian forces and developing free training programs to educate them on the construction and operation of UAVs. The Ukrainian Centre for Aerial Reconnaissance, an all-volunteer organization also known as Aerorozvidka, formed its own experimentation team and began testing ways to drop explosives. Soon after, the People’s Project crowdfunded the development of the PD-1, a larger and more advanced fixed-wing drone, and then the PC-1, a military grade multicopter.

By 2016, the Ukrainian military’s drone arsenal had grown from one system to 30, including the Polish Warmate and the Yatagan-2, both kamikaze-style attack drones carrying explosive payloads. As Popular Mechanics reported in February 2017, “[Ukrainian] drones are tested in action almost immediately, and then redesigned, upgraded, or discarded in a fierce aerial Darwinian competition.”

Meanwhile, in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State was discovering the utility of small commercial drones as well. As early as late 2014, ISIL began disseminating propaganda videos shot with DJI Phantoms and GoPro cameras. Reports at the time suggested the drones were being used for surveillance and to adjust mortar fire as well. In December 2015, ISIL attempted its first unsuccessful weaponized drone attack against the Kurdish YPF in Syria using a $100 hobby kit. In November 2016, Iraqi forces stumbled upon an ISIL drone workshop in Mosul, the first of many to be discovered in the city.  By mid-January 2017, coalition aircraft were targeting ISIL drone facilities in Mosul on almost a daily basis.

In late January 2017, ISIL released a lengthy propaganda video filled with aerial footage of  dozens of drone attacks. The video demonstrated ISIL’s ability to coordinate air attacks with suicide bombings, and included one particularly memorable strike that killed an Iraqi Abrams tank commander. ISIL also announced the founding of an “Unmanned Aircraft of the Mujahedeen” unit in its al-Naba newsletter, touting an estimated 39 Iraqi soldiers killed or wounded by drones in a single week.

In March 2017, Army Gen. David Perkins revealed a U.S. ally had used a $3 million Patriot missile on a “quadcopter that cost $200 from Amazon.” Shortly thereafter, it became clear that Houthi rebels in Yemen had employed low-cost drones to disable Patriot missile systems in Saudi Arabia. As Gen. Perkins joked, “I’m not sure that’s a good economic exchange ratio.”

What Needs to be Done

The drone threat may not be the most advanced technological challenge on the battlefield, but it is irresponsible to approach it as an easily-manageable one for conventional ground forces. Just like improvised bombs first hidden in Iraq’s roads and fields over a decade ago, small enemy drones may not immediately cause mass casualties, but they will greatly impede movement on the battlefield. They could drive ground forces into the same singular force protection mindset that IEDs created in Iraq and Afghanistan, thereby changing the course of entire wars. If the United States wants to properly prepare its ground forces for this new threat, it needs to make a few key and immediate changes to the policies that govern the way that we approach, acquire, and employ small drones.

1. Open the Skies Above Military Installations

Avoiding collisions between manned and unmanned aircraft is important, but “airspace deconfliction” has become such a prohibiting factor aboard military installations that it is exceedingly difficult to fly drones at all. Several certified Marine drone operators at Camp Lejeune recently told me during a focus group that they are going a year or more in between flights because their units can’t secure range space. Likewise, the Army’s Center for Lessons Learned noted in December 2016 that “a Stryker unit experimented with the employment of SUAS in support of combat operations and experienced many…challenges due to the constraints of the training environment.” Operators from both branches argue they have to “sell” their commanders on the value a drone can provide in order to justify the administrative campaign required to fly one.

Getting airborne is just the first of many hurdles, though. Operators also complain that Range Control (the organization on each installation that manages local training spaces) can “ground” them at any time, and that manned military aircraft rarely respect restricted airspace over approved ranges. Additionally, because the consequences of violating airspace restrictions with small drones are so grave, operators feel they are taking their careers into their hands with each flight. Some have even admitted to hiding their qualifications from commands so as to avoid the responsibility altogether.

Ground forces need consistent access to approved flight ranges where they can train their operators and their small units on how to both use and counter unmanned systems. They also need an appropriate level of forgiveness for mistakes. Only through exposure can marines and soldiers begin to wrap their minds around the battlespace above their heads —and that requires streamlined flight approval systems and a willingness to incur a marginal amount of risk.

2. Develop Agile, Low-Cost Systems that Can Keep Pace with Commercial Technology

Current contracted systems like the Raven and Wasp are exorbitantly expensive compared to the models being employed by many state and non-state competitors. And, with the burgeoning drone market driving rapid innovation, they also have little chance of keeping pace with commercial technology. The military needs to transition away from its traditional acquisitions framework for small drones and embrace flexible and modular systems that can be easily repaired and replaced on the battlefield.

The Nibbler, is just that — a 3D-printed, government-owned, sensor-agnostic system that can host any payload it can lift. At less than $3,000, the Nibbler is much closer to the price point battalions might consider “expendable” as well. It is even built from scratch by marines themselves, which allows them not only to understand how the system works, but also how the enemy might design drones of their own. Systems like the Nibbler push innovation to the edge, allowing operators to identify new capabilities as they emerge. By doing so, the U.S. military might even allow itself to keep pace with and preempt its adversaries.

3. Reduce the Formal Training Burden and Encourage Experimentation

One of the most challenging hurdles for battalions is the extensive training program required to produce a single drone operator. In fact, many battalions deploy with only one or a handful of operators because they simply can’t spare the time to train any more. Piloting drones, especially quadrotors, is often so intuitive that children are picking it up in a matter of hours. Meanwhile, formal military training organizations still require nearly a week of instruction per system.

Defense officials need to lighten the formal training load and allow drone operators to informally train their peers inside of their battalions. They also need to stop prescribing exactly how to employ a system and instead invite experimentation. Only by testing in force-on-force exercises and live-fire training events can ground forces begin to understand how drones can be used against them. That allows them to organically develop tactics to counter drones, as well as to discover new uses for the systems that may not be identified in formal doctrine.

People, Ideas, and Hardware — In That Order

Col. John Boyd famously preached that in warfare, “People should come first. Then ideas. And then hardware.” The military’s approach to enemy drones has been just the opposite. Millions have been invested in counter-drone technologies, but military leaders have forgotten the basic importance of informing small unit leaders about the threat and enabling them to develop tactics, techniques, and procedures in response.

IEDs were not just mitigated by technologies like mine-sweepers and the THOR system. Threat management also depended on simple tactical innovations like the V-sweep formation and the Holley stick. Likewise, the enemy UAV threat demands tactical development in conjunction with complex detect and defeat technologies. Right now, the Pentagon is investing heavily in the second at the expense of the first. It’s vital that we change that approach before we sustain our first 21st century casualty from the air.

 

Sgt. Jonathan Gillis is a Marine infantryman and tactical advisor at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab in Quantico, Va. He previously served with 2d Battalion, 2d Marines in Camp Lejeune, NC. He has worked extensively on developing low-cost, 3D-printed UAVs for infantry use. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab, the U.S. Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or any part of the U.S. government.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret

We have retired our comments section, but if you want to talk to other members of the natsec community about War on the Rocks articles, the War Hall is the place for you. Check out our membership at warontherocks.com/subscribe!