Iran's destruction of a U.S. Global Hawk unmanned aircraft with a surface-to-air missile near the Strait of Hormuz should be a wake-up call for proponents of autonomous or remotely-piloted warfighting systems. The era of drone warfare is not upon us, because the vehicles currently available for military purposes are too limited in their capabilities to survive combat with a reasonably well-equipped adversary.
Drones became popular in military circles at a time when the U.S. was fighting adversaries who lacked air forces or air defenses. That has led some observers to over-estimate their near-term utility in warfare. With U.S. defense strategy now shifted from a focus on irregular forces (like ISIS) to great-power competition, the relevance of unmanned systems to fighting and winning wars has become less clear.
Obviously, recent advances in artificial intelligence and related technologies have the potential to bolster the performance of autonomous or remotely-piloted warfighting systems, whether they operate in the air, under the seas or on the Earth’s surface. But emerging technologies can also be applied to weapons aimed at countering them. Here are five lessons from last week’s shoot-down that should give proponents of unmanned military vehicles cause for reflection.
Unmanned aircraft are largely defenseless.
Global Hawk was conceived at a time when the threat of facing near-peer adversaries in future war zones seemed remote. Like the smaller Predator, it proved highly useful in finding and tracking elusive adversaries during the global war on terror, but that was due in part to the fact that terrorists lacked anti-aircraft capabilities. Because it was bigger and costlier than other drones, Global Hawk was equipped with a rudimentary ability to detect and jam threats such as laser-guided missiles. But there’s only so much you can squeeze into a 3,000-pound payload capacity, and other features of the aircraft make it a sitting duck (see below).
The size of Global Hawk was dictated by its need for long endurance in collecting multiple types of intelligence. Unfortunately, that makes it easy to track and target. (end of excerpt)
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