As with the pikemen of Switzerland and the rifles of the American revolutionaries, preemptive, large-scale integration of novel technology often occurs first in those countries where necessity outweighs the pressure of tradition. Others innovate once conflict erupts and the strictures of peacetime wear thin. Russia has not faced the former pressure, rendering the costs of addressing the structural issues within its own ranks higher than the expected price—one evidently based upon a fundamentally flawed analysis of Ukraine—incurred by inefficiencies in combat.
It should thus come as little surprise that Israel, for whom the Swiss military served as its model, was the first to recognize the potential of loitering munitions (LM) and remains the top developer in an increasingly crowded field. After Israeli fighters suffered heavily against Soviet-made surface-to-air (SAM) missiles during the Yom Kippur War, they embarked on reforms that led to the development in the late 1980s of the first operational LM, Israel Aerospace Industries’ (IAI) Harpy. Fired by truck-mounted canisters, the Harpy was intended to conduct the initial suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), allowing more valuable, manned planes to perform their missions without fear of threats from below.
In the three decades since their deployment, the capacities of LMs have expanded to include nearly every support capability of traditional airpower. This range was on full display during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war where Azerbaijan used its fleet of over 200 LMs, purchased from Israel, to overcome an enemy with significant tactical advantages in training, leadership, and morale. LMs and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) allowed Azeri forces to penetrate into the Armenian rear, striking high-value targets and paralyzing reinforcement efforts. Following Turkey’s ability to strike Russian short-range air defense (SHORAD) systems in Syria and Libya, Armenian S-300 SAM batteries proved wholly ineffective against a drone threat that they were not originally designed to face.
Russia too has invested in its unmanned air fleet, spending $9 billion with a stated goal of producing 500 UAVs after their success as artillery spotters and reconnaissance drones during the Crimean conflict of 2014. However, they have been largely absent from their attack against Ukraine with only four downed LMs documented. Though impossible to reach any firm conclusions yet, there is strong evidence that a combination of stifled technological development, caused by US sanctions, and the efforts of the Ukrainian military and its international partners to harden systems against electronic interference has hampered the development of the Russian drone fleet. The tale of the tape is best measured by the disparity between the state of the downed drones of both combatants. While the Ukrainian systems show the signs of being struck by anti-air missiles, the Russian drones have been found relatively intact, indicating that they were disabled by lasers or electronic countermeasures.
While this shows a clear lack of sophistication in Russian defenses, the dilemma they face with the Bayraktar TB2—which costs somewhere between $1 and $5 million—is orders of magnitude lower than what it would be against an LM fleet. First, most electronic countermeasures against UCAVs rely on severing the connection between the system and its controller, but most modern LMs are fully capable of operating without a guiding link. Second, UCAVs like the TB2 or the US’ MQ-1 Predator, are more akin to light-attack planes—costly and high-maintenance enough to limit their numbers. Thus, launching a SAM to destroy a UCAV is a cost-effective prospect. Against LMs, which generally cost under $100,000, the calculation reverses, and non-kinetic counter-measures become the sole pathway to an efficient defense.
The operational differences between traditional UCAVs and LMs like the Switchblade and IAI Harop are not reflected in published US doctrine. Like the Armenians who suffered greatly against Azeri LMs and our European allies, published US manuals and doctrines do not properly distinguish between LMs and other UCAVs or even broader airborne threats. This failure to systematically examine the distinctions between fundamentally different weapon platforms hampers planners’ ability to fully appreciate the dangers, and advantages, of a fully autonomous weapon system resistant to many common counter-measures that can facilitate a new era of combined arms and offer low-risk, precise, and multi-axis lethality at a significant distance.
At this moment, the US is not prepared to defend against such a threat. Worse, should it quickly develop effective measures to protect its outposts and air bases from the threat of a mass of small, slow-moving, unmanned vehicles, the ability to sweep the sky of enemy planes will no longer secure air superiority. Even against the least technologically sophisticated of foes, the curtain is quickly closing on the days that US ground forces can operate without fear of threats from above.