Iran recently shot down a drone in or near their territory (depending on who you ask.) The attack has increased the chance for war dramatically and heightened tensions in the region even more. In the most recent news Donald Trump refrained from a retaliatory strike on Iran at almost the literal last minute. There is a long term trend that is even more important concerning the drone that was shot down and the approach the U.S. takes to upgrading its assets.
There are two schools of thought about the new technology. The Small Wars Journal and Foreign Affairs published interesting articles arguing that warfare is entering a new age of hyper-connectivity, relentless innovation, and use of prototypes. The authors point to the increasing use of digital-to-physical processes and how this can make small organizations more specialized.
The crux of the argument is that America’s military is akin to Blockbuster in the age of Netflix. “A military made up of small numbers of large, expensive, heavily manned, and hard-to-replace systems will not survive on future battlefields, where swarms of intelligent machines will deliver violence at a greater volume and higher velocity than ever before. Success will require a different kind of military, one built around large numbers of small, inexpensive, expendable, and highly autonomous systems,” said Foreign Affairs writer Christian Brose.
A cursory knowledge of recent history suggests some caution about the rather fanciful naval gazing that overstates the role of technology. The First Gulf War was called by many analysts as the first video game war. The 90s featured many military personnel pushing what was called the Revolution in Military Affairs and the early 2000s included items like so-called 4th generation warfare. This was supposed to be so decisive that American technology would revolutionize the battlefield and get inside of the opposition’s military decision-making process.
Yet the new military with super-dominant “revolutionary” technology found that shock and awe only went so far, and basic things like a wooden frame that facilitates the soldiers exit from 5-ton trucks and extra armor for their Humvees often mattered more than the fanciest technology. (Though advanced electronics and jammers have shown promise in preventing IEDs from being detonated remotely.)
This applies to the drone that was shot down by Iran. The Global Hawk is an impressive drone that cost several hundred million dollars, can provide 24-hour surveillance and detection, and carries a vast array of powerful sensors. The Global Hawk drone was reportedly shot down with Iran’s Khordad-3 air defense system. Now, it’s possible Iran is giving out false information to shame the U.S. military no differently than when the Serbians shot down an F-117 in 1999 but U.S. forces did confirm that the Iranians did not use their most advanced S-300 missile systems.
So if true, having an expensive and advanced system shot down by a mediocre air-defense system suggests the U.S. military is having the worst of both worlds. They are seeking a compromise between truly state-of-the-art drones that are stealthy, fast, and could evade any and all missile systems, and a large fleet of inexpensive and more expendable drones. In the former case, a small number of super-elite and expensive drones would be upgraded with newer versions to the point that any single drone is incredibly hard to kill. In the latter case, the large number of inexpensive but useful drones would mean the U.S. could lose them at a great rate without losing effectiveness in combat or a large investment.
Instead, the U.S. has done something in between with the drone fleet. They operate somewhat expensive drones that do well in low-intensity conflicts against insurgents, but fail against the weapons systems of near-peer adversaries. They haven’t properly developed and employed drones like the XQ-58 Valkyrie which are fast, cheap, and designed to fly along with fighters. They also shelved the X-47B, citing cost. But having this drone shot down was more expensive than acquiring a new F-35, and it could have been avoided if the military properly invested years ago.
As this incident and others like the decade-long insurgency in Iraq show, the U.S. has rather advanced technology but still struggles with low-cost and effective alternatives. Probably the worst thing they could do happened in this case, where they pursue a middle path with expensive drones that haven’t been updated (to save money) while new, elite drones or their low-cost alternatives have been shelved. They aren’t hi-tech enough to survive against modern missile systems, but they are expensive enough that any single loss truly hurts.