Small wars are often harbingers of things to come in the never-ending evolution of weapons and warfare. They often underscore changes in the relative advantages of offensive versus defensive capabilities. This was true of the Spanish Civil War, which demonstrated the offensive potential of aircraft and tanks. The same was true of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, which highlighted advances in the defensive power of surface-to-air missiles and antitank weapons. In both instances, these advances in military-technological capabilities were central to revolutionizing the way forces were equipped, organized, and employed.
History Informs Technology Evolution
Recent twenty-first-century wars suggest that the outcomes of future conflicts could be determined by the contest between unmanned aerial systems (UASs), also known as drones, and the means deployed to counter UASs (C-UASs). More than 30 nations have either fielded armed drones or are developing them. The U.S. made extensive use of drones in Southwest Asia and in its global campaign against violent extremism. It is currently developing an array of advanced drones of various sizes and degrees of complexity.
But what is significant is the extent to which others, states and non-state actors alike, are deploying increasingly sophisticated militarized drones in larger numbers. Armed UASs, including so-called suicide drones, have figured prominently in the civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen. Non-state actors, such as the Islamic State, Boko Haram, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, have employed UASs to collect intelligence and attack soft targets. Some years ago, a prominent Washington think tank warned that the challenge facing the U.S. military would be that of “a drone-saturated world.” That world has arrived.
Modern Conflict with Drones
Drones have been employed in conflicts for some 30 years, but only recently have their roles expanded to the point of signaling their potential to have a decisive impact in large-scale warfare. This is the consequence of improvements in their performance and the proliferation of numbers. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 and the current war in Ukraine appear to be harbingers of yet another turn of the military-technological wheel. The former demonstrated the powerful battlefield effects of connecting drones with long-range fire systems. It also showed the power of suicide drones, particularly in the suppression of air defenses.
In Ukraine, the number of drones employed on the battlefield has grown exponentially. Their roles have expanded to where they are now a major factor in both the air and ground portions of this conflict. Both sides have used UASs to conduct strategic strikes, support long-range fires, and even directly attack vehicles, weapons systems, and personnel. Russia and Ukraine are both employing a variety of domestically produced military drones and modifying commercially available platforms for military purposes. Russia is also importing UASs from Turkey and Iran. Meanwhile, the U.S. has provided Ukraine with large numbers of different drones, including the Switchblade loitering munition, Phoenix Ghost, Scan Eagle, and Puma.
The increased offensive danger posed by UASs has led to investments in countermeasures to these systems. Both Ukraine and Russia have struggled to counter the other side’s UASs with success. Drone operators have developed sophisticated tactics and techniques such as swarming and the use of autonomous drones in order to defeat C-UAS systems.
To an extent, C-UASs are a subset of air and missile defense. Against large, high-flying, long-range UASs, conventional air defenses have proven relatively effective. But against small and medium drones, those operating in near-Earth airspace (also called the air littorals), they are significantly less effective. These drones are relatively small, fly low, and some can hover. Detecting, tracking, targeting, and defeating them has proven to be a challenge for air defenses. Additionally, using conventional air defense systems generally results in a negative cost exchange ratio, against even large drones.
Among the large number of air defense systems the U.S. has sent to Ukraine, Stinger and Patriot have proven especially effective against larger Russian drones. Last year, the U.S. sent Ukraine an experimental C-UAS system called Vampire, which consists of a four-pod launcher that fires laser-guided missiles such as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System.
The U.S. military recognized the threat posed by UASs of all types, particularly small- to medium-sized drones. It also recognized the need to develop a robust C-UAS capability. To this end, in 2019 the Pentagon established the Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Office (JCO) to sort through many potential countermeasures and develop a program to field effective C-UASs. Because small- to medium-sized drones are a particular problem for ground forces, the Army is the executive agent for this effort.
In its efforts to revitalize ground-based tactical air defense capabilities, the Army has deployed systems such as the vehicle-mounted Maneuver Short Range Air Defense (M-SHORAD), which uses missiles and cannon fire to defeat low-flying threats including drones. In addition, the Army is in the process of acquiring the Howler defense system, which arms RTX’s Coyote UAS with an explosive warhead in a C-UAS role.
One air defense/C-UAS program the JCO is supporting is the Light-Marine Air Defense Integrated System (L-MADIS). This is a variant of the MADIS system, which consists of a JLTV-mounted turret equipped with Stinger missiles, an automatic cannon, and perhaps most importantly, a multi-functional electronic warfare (EW) system to defeat individual and swarming drones. MADIS uses both radar and electro-optical sensors to detect and track targets.
Given its new strategy of deploying small forces within an adversary’s weapons engagement zone, the Marine Corps needs a C-UAS capability that is light and mobile as well as lethal. The L-MADIS is such a capability. It deploys MADIS’ proven sensor and EW technologies on two Polaris ultra-light tactical vehicles. The L-MADIS successfully downed an Iranian drone in the Persian Gulf in 2019. The Marine Corps is working on enhancing the capabilities of MADIS/L-MADIS to enhance its lethality against drone swarms and autonomous UASs, as well as making the system even lighter.
The contest between the UAS and C-UAS is still in its infancy, but the war in Ukraine is accelerating developments in both areas, likely leading to another revolution in military affairs.
Dr. Daniel Goure, a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, is Senior Vice President with the Lexington Institute, a nonprofit public-policy research organization headquartered in Arlington, Virginia. He is involved in a wide range of issues as part of the institute’s national security program. Dr. Goure has held senior positions in both the private sector and the U.S. Government. Most recently, he was a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. Dr. Goure spent two years in the U.S. Government as the director of the Office of Strategic Competitiveness in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. He also served as a senior analyst on national security and defense issues with the Center for Naval Analyses, Science Applications International Corporation, SRS Technologies, R&D Associates, and System Planning Corporation.