Drones—Useful Tools in the Military’s Toolbox

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The hype about drones is extremely overblown. They are not a revolution in warfare, but rather simply a way to put surveillance gear in the air and deliver ordinance to targets on the ground. Drones perform no missions that other kinds of aircraft long in the arsenal couldn’t perform. Drones perform some of those missions better, and all of them at less risk to American personnel. But even those improvements are not transformational. Drones are extremely useful tools, but still only tools.

The main advantage of drones is that they can fly low and slow without putting pilots at risk. Flying low brings surveillance gear closer to the target, providing better resolution and clearer imagery. Flying slowly gives analysts time to make sense of what they’re seeing and take action while the target is still in range and view. Fighters can’t fly slowly—they’re designed to move fast. Slow-moving armed aircraft, like the AC-130 gunship, offer surveillance and targeting capabilities similar to drones, but they are big targets and have airmen on board. The willingness to lose drones to enemy fire (because they are unmanned) is what makes it reasonable to design aircraft that are not very survivable in contested airspace, giving them their advantages over manned aircraft.

The limited survivability of current drone models should, in fact, be a matter of concern. They cannot operate against enemies with meaningful air defense systems, and the proliferation of advanced man-portable air-defense systems will decrease the areas over which they can fly in the future. We will have to continue to innovate simply to retain our current drone capabilities. The odds of such innovations fundamentally revolutionizing war, however, are very low.