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Are UAVs a Blessing or a Curse for the U.S. Military?

Perhaps Both.

Drone swarms are an inevitable part of our future. (Photo courtesy US Army)

For decades, as part of its strategic offensive and defensive capabilities, the U.S. military has expended considerable resources on developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones). Much of that effort was undertaken with the goal of bringing down expensive drones deployed by adversaries with sophisticated technologies at their disposal, such as the People’s Republic of China or Russia.

Now, the threat facing the U.S. military has evolved as insurgent groups, such as Islamic State and Houthi rebels operating in Yemen, have adopted a new tactic using far less sophisticated – and much less expensive – weapons. Inexpensive, off-the-shelf drones, until now used by hobbyists, are being equipped with explosive devices and deployed individually.

Speaking to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee in April, 2021, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said, “I am very concerned about it. We still have a ways to go to get on the right side of the curve with this, because right now you can go out and buy one at Walmart or some other location, you can weaponize it very readily.”

Killer Drones Being Used by Terrorists

Using off-the-shelf drones enables terrorist groups as well as national armies to inexpensively attack high-value targets. The risk of shooting down a weaponized UAV increases the probability of unintended, collateral damage wherever the explosive lands, causing damage to civilian properties or worse – casualties or death to civilian populations.

Previously, drones could be brought down by jamming the radio-frequency guidance systems or firing missiles to destroy them. Now, the systems with the most promise of success fire microwaves or lasers – what are known as directed-energy weapons – to disable or burn the UAVs and any explosives they might have attached to them. While effective, the cost to design and build these weapons is comparatively high, while the operational costs of using them is quite low – “A cup of diesel,” according to Ron Dauk, program manager for laser and electro-optical systems at Boeing Company.

Austin Doctor, a counterterrorism researcher at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, explains further “Advancements in counterdrone technology won’t fully address the problem without regular adjustments. As the Pentagon and others invest in new technology, armed groups will keep innovating as well.

“This is the dance—the back and forth of adaptation,” said Mr. Doctor. “In many ways, the battle between governments and militants is about creativity and anticipating the next move.”

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Dave Clarke

Dave Clarke is a California-based writer who is fascinated by the way technology changes our lives.