Getting Drones Ready for Conventional War
While the U.S. military fields an impressive arsenal of unmanned aircraft, the effectiveness of these drones is largely unproven in roles beyond counter-terrorism. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and elsewhere across the Middle East, drones like the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper provided the United States and its allies with a decisive intelligence and precision-strike capability, often finding and killing high-value enemy leaders that would have been otherwise impossible to target. Due to the massive commitment of aircraft and personnel required by the “Global War on Terror,” U.S. military drones have been forced to learn in combat, continuously flying without an opportunity to address fundamental flaws in the tasking, command and control, and targeting processes critical to these aircraft. As the United States prepares for the potential for war against near-peer threats, and state-enabled non-state actors, the drone program must change to meet these new requirements. To ensure unmanned aircraft remain a viable component of coalition airpower, the United States cannot rely on its past success. Instead, it should actively prepare for the future.
I have flown the MQ-9 Reaper since 2016. I had over a year of combat experience, with more than a dozen strikes, before I ever had the opportunity to participate in a large-scale training exercise. One unit I flew with was able to increase its accuracy by nearly 20 percent through a long-term analysis of historical combat data. While this was a significant achievement, the need for combat data to create viable tactics demonstrates a significant deficit in necessary testing and training opportunities. If the United States is required to fight a conventional adversary, it will not have the luxury of months, or years, of steady state combat operations to learn from. Aircrew must grow their skills in a peacetime environment, and when called upon to employ weapons they must be as lethal as possible from the first moments of the conflict. Drones have proven vital in conventional combat in Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and elsewhere, demonstrating that medium-altitude, low-speed unmanned aircraft have a role far beyond counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency.
The war in Afghanistan was bookended by two drone strikes that show significant failures of targeting as well as command and control. In 2001, a U.S. MQ-1 Predator targeted a vehicle parked outside of Mullah Omar’s compound in Kandahar, despite knowing the Taliban leader was inside an adjacent building. In the ensuing chaos, the Taliban leader escaped and was able to elude U.S. forces until his death. In 2021, due to a tragic miscalculation during the evacuation of Kabul, an MQ-9 Reaper killed 10 civilians who were believed by the military to be an enemy threat, despite intelligence authorities understanding that they were not. While the sensor and weapons capabilities of drones made evolutionary leaps over two decades, fundamental issues with their employment methodology remained.
Armed drones achieved significant success early on in the Global War on Terror, significantly degrading al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. The first Predator to fly in Afghanistan was essentially an experimental aircraft. An unintended consequence of these early successes was the assumption within the U.S. military that unmanned aircraft could perform in combat without a significant focus on joint training and targeting. Today, the United States and its allies should improve drone capabilities through advanced, multi-domain training to ensure their readiness to face new adversaries and missions.
Survivability: Theory Versus Practice
Prior to the war in Ukraine, the central argument against platforms like the MQ-1, MQ-9, and even the TB-2 was their lack of survivability. How can an aircraft that is slower and less maneuverable than a World War II fighter stand a chance against contemporary air defenses? Houthi rebels in Yemen were able to shoot down Air Force Reapers, and Iran famously shot down an MQ-4 high-altitude surveillance drone in 2019.
While these losses do point out vulnerabilities, they are just as much a critique of how the aircraft are tasked as of the platforms themselves. History has shown that legacy weapons can threaten advanced aircraft in the right situation. In 1999, Serbian forces used a 40-year-old SA-3 to shoot down an F-117 stealth bomber — a feat made possible through exploiting NATO lapses in intelligence and operational security. In each case, these losses demonstrate the consequences of failing to understand threats in the operating environment and the need to minimize technical weaknesses.
Within the U.S. military, much of the debate regarding survivability is theoretical. So much of the U.S. unmanned enterprise has been devoted to counter-terrorism that the United States has not had the personnel, aircraft, or infrastructure to conduct extensive technical analysis of how its drones fair against likely threats. In Ukraine, Russian air defense systems designed to engage traditional fighters have struggled to target the TB-2 because of its low speed and unique radar cross-section. Sources indicate a significant portion of Russia’s air defense system losses in the conflict are from TB-2 strikes. A cursory look at the characteristics of the Bayraktar or Reaper might suggest they are completely outclassed by most missile systems. But further examination will reveal air defense weaknesses that drones can exploit. Today, the Air Force regularly flies drones over combat-training ranges with advanced threat-simulation capabilities, yet rarely evaluates the aircraft against surface-to-air systems or simulated enemy fighters.
Unlike the U.S. Predator and Reaper, the TB-2 is controlled by a line-of-sight datalink. While this allows it to be a much more affordable, the datalink restricts its range to less than 200 miles. The crew and ground control equipment are also much more vulnerable because of their proximity to the battlefield. Satellite control allows an MQ-9 Reaper to be flown from anywhere in the world, and the aircraft has an operational range of over 1,000 miles. This drastically increases the volume of airspace an adversary needs to defend and allows attacks to be mounted from multiple directions. The use of all-weather standoff munitions further complicates defense against these drones, requiring more surface-to-air systems and more fighter patrols. With more “attritable” drones, which are designed to be expendable, the United States can further increase its ability to saturate an enemy’s air defenses. In Ukraine, Russia’s failure to establish air superiority has significantly increased its vulnerability to drone strikes — the United States could leverage the advanced capabilities of its own drones to present an exponentially more challenging problem.
Training for Modern Threats
The Russian military’s performance in Ukraine provides a prime example of the risk of sending an ill-trained force to war. While the United States and its allies have significant experience employing drones in counter-terrorism, they have perilously little experience against advanced threats. The only way to develop this experience is through integrated, multi-domain training. Exercises like Red Flag were designed to prepare manned aircrews for combat, yet unmanned aircraft participation in such events is very limited due to their level of operational commitment. Restrictions on the use on unmanned aircraft operations within the U.S. national airspace system further limit training opportunities.
The datalinks used to control military drones are a known weak link against an adversary with even rudimentary electronic warfare capabilities. In counter-terrorism operations, the United States faced minimal cyber and space-based threats, but China and Russia have spent years developing systems to challenge the U.S. military in the electromagnetic spectrum. To develop useful countermeasures, the United States must take the time and resources to build operational competency between unmanned aircraft and space and cyber capabilities, just as conventional close air support aircraft have spent decades training with ground forces to hone their effectiveness.
Decentralized Command and Control
During my very first strike in the MQ-9, I waited over 30 minutes to destroy an Islamic State artillery piece. This was due to the coordination required to ensure the airspace was deconflicted and then receive engagement authority. Against a dynamic adversary, or when threats are present, the kill chain needs to take seconds, not minutes. Ensuring that unmanned aircraft strike the correct targets is tactically and morally essential. But a war against a peer adversary will likely present an overwhelming volume of sensor data, and the U.S. military must be able to rapidly and accurately identify when and where to employ kinetic and non-kinetic weapons.
Throughout the Global War on Terror, strike cells or other central authorities were used control drone strikes. This architecture is only sustainable in a permissive environment, where the enemy lacks the ability to degrade U.S. communications and threat command centers with long-range weapons. Evidence from Ukraine suggests that by dispersing command and control elements and allowing unmanned aircraft to operate in a decentralized manner Kyiv has allowed TB-2s and other drones to keep flying despite Russian strikes and electronic warfare efforts. The United States has already demonstrated a nascent capability to fly its drones in missions without centralized control, but focused training opportunities are necessary to effectively execute these missions in combat.
Building Readiness for the Future
For its unmanned aircraft to remain effective against a near-peer adversary, the United States should develop a resilient command and control architecture that can outpace the enemy. In the wake of drawdowns in the Middle East, the United States has an opportunity to allocate resources to prepare its drones for future conflicts. At the same time, there is significant demand to allocate unmanned aircraft to new theaters to meet previously unfulfilled intelligence collection requirements. The U.S. Air Force has significantly expanded its MQ-9 presence in Europe, and both the Air Force and Marine Corps are actively working to include the Reaper in operations over the Pacific. Considering the threats posed by Russian aggression and Chinese maritime expansion, these are prudent force mapping decisions.
At the same time, the United States must realize that its drone force has been employed at a wartime surge level throughout its history. While the need to strike terrorists and provide armed overwatch for combat troops in Afghanistan justified delays in modernization, today the threat of conflict with a conventional adversary demands a shift in focus. The drone enterprise cannot continue with the same lack of training and disjointed command and control that has been seen over the last two decades. To grow readiness for new missions and test new targeting strategies, unmanned aircraft and their crews must have the opportunity to train against high-end threats and learn how to overcome inherent weaknesses in remote airpower. Both live and virtual training events, integrated with other military capabilities, are necessary to ensure unmanned aircraft are ready to fight on day one of a conflict. Emerging technologies have significantly increased the capability of current unmanned platforms and created new ways to use these aircraft. But without realistic and cohesive training opportunities, the U.S. military will not be able to realize its full potential.
Deploying armed drones to Afghanistan in 2001 was the right choice. But it established a flawed assumption that unmanned aircraft could fly in combat without a conventional test and training cycle. The current targeting methodology has demonstrated its shortfalls and will be woefully inadequate on the multi-domain battlefields of the future. While drones clearly have value in non-combat roles, commanders and policymakers should now ready the aircraft, crews, and command and control infrastructure for a full-fledged war. In future conflicts, the United States will have minutes, not years, to adjust its strategy. Advanced technology can never replace the need to train human operators, and without a deliberate program to ensure its future readiness, the United States risks losing its supremacy in unmanned airpower.
Joe Ritter is an Air Force officer with 14 years of experience in intelligence, flight test, and remotely piloted aircraft operations. He has supported conventional and special operations in the Middle East, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Prior to flying the MQ-9, he was an RC-135 Rivet Joint crew member and served as a project engineer where he developed and fielded new combat capabilities. The views expressed in this article do not reflect those of the Department of Defense, nor do hyperlinks constitute endorsement by the department. The author would like to thank Johnny Duray and Bri Dow.
Image: Flickr user Chris Partridge