Outgunned in the Drone Fight: The U.S. Military Is Failing to Adopt the Next Machine Gun

1/8 UAS Mortars

The British Army began World War I with only two machine guns per infantry battalion. One gun was a spare, meaning the effective ratio was one per 1,000 soldiers. Historian John Ellis summarized, “For the British commanders, on the eve of the First World War, the machine gun simply did not exist.” The inability to grasp the changing technological character of ground combat cost British forces dearly early in the war. In what remains the bloodiest day in the history of the British Army, tens of thousands of British soldiers were mown down by German machine gunners in the 1916 Battle of the Somme, despite automatic weapons having existed in a similar form since 1893.

The adoption of the machine gun is an apt analogy for the integration of small unmanned aerial systems in the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. military. As with the adoption of the machine gun, failure of vision, traditionalism, and bureaucratic resistance are leading to insufficient numbers and delayed force modernization. Despite observing small drones proliferate globally and their growing use on modern battlefields, the U.S. military has still not equipped its infantry with adequate numbers or pushed ownership of these systems low enough to have an impact.



The U.S. military risks repeating history unless bureaucratic impediments are removed and the right organizations are empowered to make significant changes regarding the acquisition and distribution of small drones for infantry units — drones need to be proliferated, decentralized, and familiar to the units employing them. To do this, it must be made easier for infantry units to acquire and train with them. Failure to do so leaves the U.S. military unprepared for the modern battlefield.

Failure of Vision

In 1915, after World War I became a protracted stalemate, the number of machine guns allotted to a British infantry battalion doubled to four. By 1918, some battalions possessed as many as 80 machine guns, and the British Army created a machine gun corps with over 130,000 men to employ them. But much of this progress was owed to mavericks who recognized that the character of warfare had changed and defied their leadership to acquire and field the weapons required in sufficient quantities. Unfortunately, changing bureaucratic inertia was slow and cost thousands of lives.

A different tug-of-war is occurring today. In a time of constrained budgets, traditionalists question  the disruptiveness or effectiveness of small drones on the battlefield and contend that resources are still best applied to traditional levers of military power and defense. They argue that small drones are solutions for weak states or the stateless that cannot field their own air force. The result is a U.S. military incrementally fielding small systems while pouring resources into grander projects like long-range weapons and air defense systems, yet falling victim to weapons it has not pursued. However, traditionalist bureaucratic impediments are mainly inadvertent due to the adherence to legacy constructs. Control and reporting requirements for small drones are typically modeled after manned aircraft, leading to incongruencies and friction in operations.

Utilizing legacy constructs designed for traditional aviation encourages centralized management and risk aversion. Marines who flew the RQ-21 Blackjack recall being overwhelmed by time-consuming mishap investigations, even in combat, for drone losses. Former Army Maj. Gen. Patrick Donahoe recalled, “In Iraq, as a battalion commander, I spent two days with guys out looking for a Raven that crashed in the Euphrates River. … [Drones have] got to be expendable, [so] if the link gets broken and it crashes, we don’t have to go look for it.” Failing to accept risk with unmanned systems disincentivizes the correct use of the reporting system and the drone. More problematically, it increases the appetite for higher echelons of command to centralize and sequester control of assets at higher levels, restricting the access, knowledge, and familiarity of the wider force.

A review of the most recent Marine Corps Aviation Plan displays lingering ignorance of the ongoing democratization of airpower, developed in concert with Naval Air Systems Command. Despite being the authority for all Marine Corps aviation, the plan makes no mention of small tactical drones. This raises important questions. Are small tactical drones the purview of the infantry that will wield them, or does authority lay with behemoth and gridlocked organizations like Naval Air Systems Command, the office for all naval aviation? Can traditional aviation be trusted to prioritize the needs of the ground force over other priorities? The history of ground support between the Army and the Air Force, and even the reason for the creation of Marine Corps aviation, makes such assumptions dubious. Yet, Naval Air Systems Command is where small drone oversight rests for the Navy and Marine Corps.

Simply, small drone experience and understanding are not widespread because drones are not accessible at lower levels of the force. Too few drones exist and are controlled at too high of a level. The result is a force where too few Marines and soldiers understand the threat or capabilities of small drones and cannot train with or against them. In this environment, advocacy in acquisition halls is constrained, if not silenced, and alarm at infantry unpreparedness is smothered with majority ignorance. The military needs many more small drones in its units so that Marines and soldiers can test, experiment, and train with them at speed and scale. This experimentation is especially critical because it leads to the development of drone variants, counter-drone defenses, and tactics. The problem: It is not happening.

Drones Today

The ongoing war in Ukraine showcases small drones as key tools for ground combat in the modern era. The technology behind them will continue to improve, as machine guns did, by becoming more reliable, portable, and tactically useful. Ukraine and Russia are desperate for better and more drones to equip their forces. This year, the Ukrainian government aims to produce one million small drones for military use, and its partners are focusing on supplying thousands more. As much as 50 percent of Russia’s modern T-90 tank combat losses are attributed to small first-person-view drones. Over 3,000 verified drone strikes occurred along the front line in January 2024. At the same time, Russian forces are building and using drones with equal zeal. In at least one case, a bakery was converted to 3D printing drones, and public schools are teaching classes on drone flying along with other martial topics. Small drones are becoming the defining technology of the conflict.

The parallels to World War I are uncanny. Last year, Ukraine’s then-commander-in-chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, described the conflict as a stalemate. Small drone operators stated that because of the proliferation of small drones, “nobody knows how to advance.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky recently highlighted the importance of drones, stating that “repelling ground assaults is primarily the task of drones.”

While a disproportionate amount of attention is paid to larger unmanned systems like the remotely piloted MQ-9A Reaper flown by the U.S. Marine Corps, smaller, less sophisticated drones are just as essential. Small drones alter the combat landscape by giving ground forces access to organic airpower with the ability to detect and attack targets that would otherwise be hidden or out of reach. Besides traditional reconnaissance, small drones can be used as displaced radio relays for signature management, remote sentries, electronic warfare platforms, decoys, artillery spotting, and strike aircraft. Some small drones are now equipped to shoot down other small drones as counterair defense, following a remarkably similar combat development path in early airplanes. Drones also showcase the vulnerabilities of well-trained forces and sophisticated weapons, like tanks, when proper countermeasures are not in place. These vulnerabilities are known and were war-gamed. Marines modeling infantry scenarios with swarming suicide drones (loitering munitions) absorbed greater than 30 percent casualty rates when the opposing side also possessed them.

Despite the obvious need for large numbers of small drones across the U.S. military, relatively few systems are in the hands of Marines and soldiers. As early as 2016, then-Commandant of the Marine Corps Gen. Robert B. Neller, called for the Marine Corps to field small drones at the squad level, a ratio of one drone for every dozen Marines. Because of changes in Department of Defense policy about the commercial purchase of drones, Marine rifle squads are still waiting for their drones almost a decade later. The military must accelerate the acquisition and fielding of small drones across the services by attacking traditionalism and other bureaucratic impediments head-on, unifying efforts by eliminating stovepipes, and ensuring drone systems are managed at the lowest possible levels.

Stifled Experimentation and Innovation

Senior leaders often assert a common refrain that the military needs to move out on experimentation with small drones by putting new gear “in the hands of soldiers in the dirt,” or as the Commandant of the Marine Corps recently put it, the best experimentation is “where real Marines put hands on real equipment and tell us what does and doesn’t work.” This experimentation is critical because it gives leaders, acquisition professionals, and doctrine writers the necessary feedback. Unfortunately, in communities like the Marine Corps infantry, small drones are painfully out of reach in training, and only a small number of systems are available for deploying units and predeployment training. If small drones are available at all, they might be husbanded at a higher echelon.

Marines who need access to drones to refine their tactics, techniques, and procedures and integrate them across the force might not be able to get their hands on them. This lack of access contrasts with Marine leaders who imagine battalions armed with “thousands” of small drones and loitering munitions and who extol the ubiquity of drones “across the battlefield.” To its credit, the Marine Corps continues progressing with its organic precision fires program that will bring different sizes of loitering munitions to the fleet. However, it is unclear when these weapons will become operational across the force, with the latest official reporting from the service indicating that fielding will not be before 2027. Meanwhile, hundreds of similar systems are employed daily in eastern Ukraine, and all Marines units are forced to wait for a combat-proven capability.

Units that are disinclined to or cannot wait for years-long service-wide procurement programs face major bureaucratic hurdles to procure their own small drones, even for in-house experimentation and testing. The bottom-up refinement of tactics, techniques, and procedures that can lead to major tactical innovations and force-wide familiarity is systematically stifled.

In 1898, a U.S. Army colonel chided his force for their unfamiliarity with machine guns. “Generally speaking, not one officer in a hundred has any special knowledge on the subject of machine guns, and very little is known of their construction, capabilities, or proper uses.” This unfamiliarity retarded institutional acceptance, blunted understanding, slowed integration, and set the United States decades behind its European peers. The same thing is happening with drones. In the joint terminal attack controller course, where students learn to call in airstrikes and artillery, few students and their instructors are familiar with small drone tactics, capabilities, or use cases despite small drones being used for artillery spotting and target designation for offboard weapons. The unfamiliarity with drones in the U.S. military extends to aircrews of conventional aircraft, many of whom were surprised to learn that small drones could be used to direct their weapons. In contrast, the Ukrainian military is training thousands of operators to fly specialized first-person-view drones and needs an estimated 10,000 operators for its military.

Counter-drone defense is a priority, but access and training heavily depend on the unit. Many systems being touted by the military are available only to deployed units and not for training. For example, military infrastructure like homeland airbases must possess counter-drone equipment and procedures. Upon learning that one author had access to drone systems in a passing conversation, airfield management requested he bring his drones out to test security measures. It was the first time the base’s counter-drone systems and personnel were tested, and the test was the result of happenstance. Without access to drones, small units cannot create a new cadre of weapons specialists, train to protect themselves, or develop new tactics and techniques to employ drones offensively.

Bureaucratic obstacles are holding the U.S. military back from adapting in the face of some of the largest changes in combat in a century. Department of Defense policies intended to prevent the acquisition of unsecured drones that might offer adversaries a back door are halting the procurement of commercial off-the-shelf drones, effectively any drone that is not a known program of record. Drones that cross the “valley of death” and make it into a program of record experience little competition. These drones are rapidly outmoded by changing combat environments, potentially rendering them combat-impotent if called upon. Moreover, program offices are sometimes at odds with the larger force, presenting acquisition obstacles. For example, the Skyraider R80D is available within the naval supply system; however, the program is owned by Special Operations Command and blocks acquisitions of the drone by conventional units within the Navy.

Pulling the Rug Out

Responding to concerns that Chinese-made drones or components could constitute a “vector for cyber security risk,” the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense released a memorandum barring their use in 2018. It was likely hoped the memorandum would spur domestic drone development and break China’s monopoly over the sector. A well-documented problem throughout the defense industry, finding drones or equipment completely free of Chinese components is difficult. DJI, a well-known Chinese drone manufacturer, enjoys a share of over 70 percent of the global drone market. DJI’s dominance likely led to the only U.S. competitor, Skydio, exiting its consumer segment entirely to focus on enterprise and government contracts in 2023.

Once the memorandum was released, many government entities’ small drones were indefinitely grounded — including the Marine Corps’ “Quads for Squads” initiative. Any drone not part of known programs of record could not be flown. The memo pulled the rug out from efforts to dramatically expand the number of small drones in the Marine Corps and Army infantry. Exceptions were allowed if drones underwent an assessment by the Defense Innovation Unit and were placed on the “Blue UAS” list. Acquiring drones that are not an existing program of record or on the Defense Innovation Unit’s list requires an Undersecretary of Defense waiver signed by the first flag rank in a unit’s chain of command. Moreover, procuring these systems typically requires deploying units to use their own limited operations and maintenance dollars instead of funded acquisition offices paying for them, as is standard practice for fielding all other equipment to U.S. military units.

Furthermore, drones that are National Defense Authorization Act–compliant must still wait for a Blue UAS certification or a program office taking an interest before placing their products in the hands of troops. Certifications for Blue UAS take time and focus on cyber aspects and sourcing compliance, not combat utility. Additionally, certifications might require drone companies to demonstrate support from a military sponsor that will attest they might pursue serial production. But this is a catch-22 as individual military units are unlikely to need the large numbers required to move the needle with the Defense Innovation Unit.

The result is that the Blue UAS list has only a small pool of products relative to the available market with unknown combat effectiveness. It should then come as no surprise that U.S. military drones performed dismally in Ukraine and are much more expensive. Interviews with industry insiders indicate that many U.S. drone companies that visited Ukraine with their equipment, some of which were on the Blue UAS list, fared poorly. Companies that want to market their drones to the Navy and Marine Corps entities are forced to look overseas for customers, opportunities for relevant operational testing, and user feedback because of bureaucratic obstacles to working with the U.S. military. The result is that the military, with much of the best equipment money can buy, is falling behind in acquiring and integrating technology that can be purchased at your local Target or made in a factory for a few hundred dollars.


Before World War I, a British military magazine wondered, “When will the professional military class realize machine guns had become a permanent presence in battle? What will they do about it?” Today, we ask the same about the U.S. military and small drones. Small drones are in high demand worldwide; a recent Royal United Services Institute report found that Ukraine was going through as many as 10,000 small drones per month. In 2024, Ukraine could use as many small drones on the battlefield as it does artillery shells. Effective small drones are not expensive or difficult to manufacture; in Ukraine, many are provided by volunteer groups. A single first-person drone is now below the price point of an automatic rifle, and they have been weaponized by groups ranging from Mexican cartels to Hamas, the Taliban, and ISIL. And drone proliferation is accelerating.

Currently, the U.S. military is being left out. Troops cannot afford to meet drones for the first time on the battlefield. Existing tactics and equipment struggle against the onslaught of small, cheap weapons, and troops must be exposed to drones in training to adapt. In January, the U.S. military lost its first soldiers to an enemy air attack since the Korean War in a drone attack in Jordan. Are we repeating the sins of the cancellation of the Guardian Angel program, where traditionalism killed an urgent requirement for ground forces? The U.S. military cannot let sailors, soldiers, airmen, and Marines fall further behind the curve. There is promising progress with the opening of counter-drone schools in the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, but using small drones in the offense is still woefully behind. The military must change, or thousands of U.S. ground forces that remain exposed at the tactical edge could experience their version of the Somme in the next war.



Walker D. Mills is a U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer and MQ-9A Reaper student pilot. He has also worked with unmanned systems as an exchange officer with the Colombian Navy and Marine Corps.

Trevor “Mrs.” Phillips-Levine is a U.S. naval aviator and a special operations joint terminal attack controller instructor. He currently serves as the Joint Close Air Support division officer at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center and as an advisor for weaponized small drone development in a cooperative research and development agreement.

Image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Michael Virtue