Hamas’ use of small commercial-grade drones, generally classified by the Federal Aviation Administration as Small Unmanned Aerial Systems (SUAS), should come as no surprise to those interested in national security. The terrorists employed Chinese-made SUAS to take out sensors along Israel’s Gaza security fence and later dropped a Russian-model grenade on an Israeli tank in a manner reminiscent of Ukraine’s operations against Russia.
Drones increasingly define the modern battlefield, and SUAS are the most rapidly growing category of those. However, the Pentagon has yet to accelerate domestic procurement to ensure that we have the defense industrial base to produce these vital systems at scale.
The solution is a series of regulatory mechanisms to protect American markets from Chinese penetration, alongside additional funding for the Defense Innovation Unit’s (DIU’s) Blue UAS program and Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks’ recently announced Replicator Initiative in fiscal 2024. Together, the goal must be to cultivate American and allied SUAS ecosystems to sustain European, Middle Eastern, and Asian combat operations.
Ironically enough, Israel and then-Soviet Russia realized the potential of drones before the U.S. and Western Europe. Israel employed drones in combat for the first time in 1982, using them as decoys to suppress Syrian air defenses in the Beqaa Valley and enabling a ground invasion of Lebanon. The Soviets, meanwhile, recognized the role of pervasive sensing on the modern battlefield, embodying it in the term “Reconnaissance-Strike Complex,” a concept that makes the interaction between high-volume sensors and a variety of munitions the centerpiece of military power.
Yet the post-Cold War period, during which the U.S., its allies and its adversaries faced largely non-state threats lacking conventional capabilities, warped drone development. The drones that defined the Global War on Terror — the Predator and Reaper — were large, highly-sophisticated, low-volume assets used for continuous surveillance and strikes against enemies that could only hide, not respond.
However, SUAS — low-cost units under a meter or so across with four to eight rotors, a handful of increasingly sophisticated sensors, and potentially a mounting for small grenades or mortar shells — were first employed on battlefields during the counter-ISIS campaign. ISIS jihadists used SUAS to deliver grenades against Iraqi forces in ferocious urban combat, among other tactics, amplifying the already brutal reality of urban assault.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.