Cheap drones and countermeasures: What worries experts about the future of warfare

Cheap drones and countermeasures: What worries experts about the future of warfare

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Recent developments have made it easier than ever to acquire military grade drones, and the U.S. needs to focus on developing counter-drone measures, experts said Friday at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado.

“We do see this as a growing problem, because if you look at the availability of inexpensive drones, you find that the violent extremist organizations that we battle around the globe have easy access to this technology,” Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and Ranking Member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said. “They don’t need to develop anything. All they need to do is hop on Amazon, and they can buy a $300 drone that can be used against an adversary. And so it is a real concern.”

Ernst and Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo, a member of the House Committee on Armed Services, discussed developments concerning drone technology and the need for countermeasures. 

Ernst noted that China and Russia have started to focus on “swarm technology,” a concept discussed in U.S. Air Force papers and defined as “a group of autonomous networked small unmanned aircraft systems operating collaboratively to achieve common objectives.” The goal of such approaches focuses on overwhelming a target and “saturating its defenses.” 

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“It’s not just the one-offs that are being purchased on the internet, but now we have near-peer adversaries that are developing swarm technology where they can use 100 or 200 different drones — highly, highly evolved drones that can attack our service members on the battlefield,” she said. 

Developing AI to better utilize such technologies would remain important as the U.S. explores these kinds of weapons as well, Crow added. 

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“We have some really big unanswered questions, too, that we have to have some public debate about,” he said. “That’s just not the technology and the investment, but we have to have a discussion around what is the role of AI going to be, because we have discussions as a democracy and we have, we would take into consideration the moral and ethical implications of drones and ways that some of our adversaries do not.” 

Introducing AI into the discussion also raises the question as to what role humans have “in the kill chain,” as removing people can help speed up decision-making and targeting in combat scenarios, Crow explained. 

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“As we look at great power competition, our engagement in PACOM (United States Indo-Pacific Command) and what the scenarios for engagement and some of the war planning look like, that is an essential part of the debate that remains unanswered,” he said. 

Ernst also described the need to develop interoperable systems to handle the new landscape of air combat, especially with an eye towards Iran and its capabilities. 

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“With the threat that Iran poses, not only are we looking at missile defense, but now because of the drone threat, it’s air defense in a way that we haven’t had to think of before,” she said. “So we actually do have a bicameral, bipartisan act that would allow our secretary of defense to work with a number of allies and partners in coming up with interoperability systems that are tied together as far as air and missile defense throughout the Middle East and again, directed at protecting against the threat that Iran poses.”

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Federal Aviation Administration projected the number of unnamed drones in U.S. airspace to quadruple from 110,000 to 450,000 in 2022.