In 2016 the United States Special Operations Command (“USSOCOM”) witnessed a technological development of grave significance for the future of global conflict. According to the then-Commanding General of USSOCOM, Americans had to contend with armed enemy aircraft during the Battle of Mosul.
The United Kingdom at the height of its powers in the 19th century enjoyed a mastery of the seas that France, Spain, and other rivals could challenge, but never truly match. Rome and its legions conquered much of Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, but still knew defeat in battle. The United States, in contrast, had not contended with an enemy aircraft attacking its ground forces since the Korean War. For six decades, the United States enjoyed a degree of dominance that no other competitor ever effectively challenged, and this era is over.
That the unmanned aerial systems (“UAS,” or an aircraft with a human pilot providing guidance remotely) the Islamic State employed were not decisive in battle should not obscure the significance of this technological development. To cite other recent examples, UAS helped Russia-backed separatists achieve stunning successes against Ukrainian forces, UAS of uncertain origin successfully attacked a Russian airbase in Syria, and a recreational UAS breached the perimeter of the White House, so developments from the campaign against the Islamic State are not aberrations. In short, UAS are not necessarily expensive, sophisticated systems that only the US, Israel, or China, for example, may operate. Now, even non-state actors can employ UAS in a way that improves these groups’ ability to gather intelligence, their operational precision, and – ultimately – their ability to cause harm against military and civilian targets alike.
Recent events in the Middle East demonstrate just how rapidly evolving technology is changing the modern battlefield. While investigations are still underway, two oil facilities operated by Saudi Aramco came under aerial attack on September 14, suspending half of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s production capacity and effectively cutting global oil production by 5% overnight. The origin of the attack is uncertain (Iran or Iran-linked paramilitaries are the most likely responsible parties), but it appears a series of UAS and low-altitude cruise missiles were employed with exceptional precision (17 separate targets were struck) against a target that was well-defended from traditional air or ground attack. By way of comparison, in August 1943 the US put hundreds of aircraft and thousands of crewmembers at risk to destroy oil production facilities in Romania, and achieved only temporary results against the target. In this instance, at a fraction of the financial cost the US incurred in this example, achieving total surprise, with no loss of human life, and maintaining a degree of anonymity, the attackers of September 14 achieved virtually the same impact as the Americans targeting Ploesti 76 years ago.
Technological development injects uncertainty into global affairs and attempting to absolutely arrest the proliferation of technology – an “Inevitability Challenge” – is likely doomed to failure. Certain weapons systems, however, like surface to air missiles (SAMs), have yet to truly proliferate in the way UAS have in the past decade. SAMs – in their guidance and propulsion systems – are vastly more expensive than commercial, off-the-shelf UAS, so programs to limit non-state actors’ acquisition of these weapons have been occasionally effective. In contrast, UAS will continually reduce in cost, field superior engines and batteries, include robust electronic countermeasures, employ improved optics, and carry heavier payloads. That UAS have compelling commercial applications (unlike SAMs) will only accelerate this process. The promise of autonomous aerial platforms – true “drones,” rather than UAS as currently employed – adds further variety to any imagined future conflict scenario.
At the start of the 20th century, the United Kingdom was the world’s dominant great power. Its surface fleet was unparalleled in reach or in combat capacity. However, as Paul Kennedy’s “The Rise and Fall of British Naval Mastery” demonstrates, Britain nearly starved in World War I – and again in World War II – due to its lack of naval preparedness. No rival surface fleet bested the Royal Navy in battle in either war, it was the development and employment of German submarines that nearly ruined the United Kingdom. The first surprise when facing Kaiser Wilhelm II is understandable, if regrettable, but the second surprise when facing Hitler was inexcusable.
The United States military is aware of its loss of absolute air dominance, both on account of its own experience and what is easily observable in the Middle East, Ukraine, and elsewhere. With the attacks of September 14 in mind, it is now clear that UAS, either on their own or coupled with other weapons systems, are giving lesser powers and non-state actors alike an ability to destroy targets that were once reserved for the most sophisticated state militaries. The US and other countries, militaries, and commercial entities, having this awareness, are not doomed to repeat the mistakes of the United Kingdom in its Battles of the Atlantic, however. To brush off UAS as a mere nuisance, rather than a fundamentally important development in the means of human conflict, would be a first step towards an almost certain future disaster for any actor that decides to not recognize these developments and assess and manage risk accordingly.