Countering the Coming Drone War

An Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicle, the Shahed-136, is displayed at Azadi Square in western Tehran, Iran, on February 11, 2024, during a rally to mark the 45th anniversary of the victory of Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. (Photo by Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Following the attacks at Tower 22 in Jordan last month that killed three American reservists in the first deadly aerial assault against U.S. ground troops in more than 70 years, the Pentagon is hoping to revamp the military’s counter-drone capabilities as Iran and China in particular expand their unmanned aerial armies. 

The question is whether an outdated weapons acquisition process and congressional gridlock stand in the way.

“We have the technology to render much, if not most, of Iran’s arsenal completely irrelevant,” John Noonan, senior adviser at Polaris National Security and a former congressional staffer, told The Dispatch. “That is, we have technology that could have saved the lives of the troops in Jordan had the Pentagon been able to get out of its own way and buy weapons in an expeditious manner, particularly defensive weapons.”

The Pentagon knows the need for such defensive weapons is growing. A Pentagon spokeswoman said last month that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) was assessing how it could refine its air defenses in the Middle East in the wake of the deadly Tower 22 breakthrough. Capabilities for countering unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are a priority as the “democratization” of drone technology puts the increasingly lethal weapons in the hands of state and nonstate actors alike. 

Driving that proliferation in the Middle East are Iranian-made drones, which are fast becoming easier to operate, more widely available, more deadly, and small enough to evade air defenses. They can fly together in large groups, which makes keeping track of the incoming projectiles using traditional radar systems more difficult, or in concert with other projectiles like ballistic and cruise missiles to confuse or overwhelm air defense systems. 

The unmanned systems can also trick air defense systems into thinking they’re friendly aircraft. This was reportedly the case in the Tower 22 attack, when a one-way drone was believed to have evaded detection by tailing a U.S. surveillance drone to the outpost that typically houses 300 to 350 American service members. U.S. officials later assessed the attacking UAS to be a “type of Shahed”—self-detonating drones produced by Iran and operated by its proxies across the region, including Hezbollah and Yemen’s Houthis. 

But the threat isn’t only in the Middle East. The Iranian-made “loitering munitions” pose a deadly challenge on Ukrainian battlefields as well. Throughout its war, Russia has relied on Shahed-136s as both sides vie for aerial dominance in what some analysts have called the world’s first drone war. While Ukrainian forces use unmanned systems—many of which have been purchased commercially and retrofitted to carry explosives—to disrupt advancing Russian troops, Moscow hopes the mass production of kamikaze drones will give it an edge in the increasingly dug-in conflict. With the help of Iran, Russia recently completed the construction of a UAS factory in Tatarstan, where it plans to produce 6,000 Shaheds by 2025. 

The Iranian-made drones’ relatively low price tag makes them a particular concern, with some analysts comparing the increasingly ubiquitous weapons to the widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to some estimates, the self-destructing systems can be made for as cheaply as $20,000. 

And that’s one of the factors underscoring the Pentagon’s need for innovation: The American-made NASAMS air defense system used to shoot down those Iranian-made drones in Ukraine can go for as much as $500,000 per interception. The U.S. military faces a similar asymmetry in the Middle East, where the U.S. Navy destroyers have fired $2 million missiles to neutralize inexpensive Houthi drones in the Red Sea. 

The overreliance on traditional air and missile defense systems puts Washington on the “wrong side of the cost-imposition curve,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy—the Pentagon’s third-ranking civilian position—between 2005 and 2009. “Your adversaries are in a much more advantageous position to spend you into oblivion, because they can produce many more of these cheaper drones than you can of these expensive missiles.”

Emerging counter-drone technology may be the answer to this imbalance. The U.S. has already invested billions of dollars into directed energy capabilities, which use high-powered microwaves and high-power lasers to disable or destroy incoming projectiles, without using pricey warheads. In November, the Army received its first prototype for the Leonidas—a system from defense technology startup Epirus that uses high-power microwaves to destroy the electronic components of attacking drones. 

The system is “highly effective against drone swarms, compared to high-energy lasers which can only engage one target at a time,” a representative from Epirus told The Dispatch, adding that the  Leonidas is small, powerful, and lightweight. “We want to get our systems into the field. We are production ready, today.”

Similar systems are in development elsewhere: The United Kingdom’s laser system, DragonFire, has successfully engaged targets at the speed of light, British officials say. Israel likewise recently deployed its Iron Beam near the Gaza Strip in the hopes of making it operational as early as this year.

The U.S. is also eyeing new kinetic air defenses—systems that, like traditional systems, use solid projectiles to neutralize incoming attacks. Among them is Roadrunner, a jet-powered combat drone made by defense startup Anduril that harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to quickly detect and track targets to give operators time to decide whether to engage. If the mark isn’t deemed a threat, the weapon can safely land to be refueled and launched at a later date, making it a cheap alternative to Patriot surface-to-air systems and other interceptor missiles currently in use. An Aduril representative confirmed that the Roadrunner is currently under contract with a U.S. government customer, but declined to elaborate.

The U.S. isn’t the only country looking to AI in the fight for drone dominance. China’s military has been researching ways to incorporate the emerging technology into its already formidable drone fleet for years. Such advancements would enable China to hone its ability to launch drone swarms, when multiple unmanned systems work together to carry out coordinated strikes. Beijing last year successfully tested a swarm system that used an AI-powered “hive mind” to allow its drones to evade jamming—a common UAS countermeasure. 

In addition to launching its own initiative to field and mass produce drones to meet this threat, the Department of Defense has reiterated the need to procure counter-drone technology quickly and at scale. Pentagon acquisition chief Bill LaPlante recently called for rapidly upping the production rates of drone defense technology in the same way the military and its industry partners have endeavored to double the output of in-demand 155mm artillery shells.  

“The [drone] threat is evolving incredibly quickly and across the department, we are focused on accelerating production and delivery of these vital capabilities. Things like 155mmm artillery shells showed that we can—and are—moving quickly, and we’re working to do the same in the cUAS space as well,” Jeff Jurgensen, a Pentagon spokesman, told The Dispatch. “DOD remains committed to using the full range of acquisition and contracting tools Congress has provided in order to deliver capabilities quickly, cost-effectively, and most importantly, at scale.” 

But a January report by the Atlantic Council highlighted roadblocks to the Pentagon’s acquisition of the latest defense technology, pointing to a procurement process that often overlooks the newer, private sector companies driving defense innovation. While the Department of Defense spends billions annually to expedite research and development, only a small percentage of prototypes are eventually produced at scale—a process that can take years and likewise disadvantages startups like Anduril and Epirus. 

Adding to these difficulties are budgetary constraints from the legislative branch. Congress’ reliance on continuing resolutions to fund the government has left the Pentagon without a source of predictable and continuous funding by preventing defense spending from keeping pace with inflation. And recent budgetary cuts have required the military to pull funding from weapons programs. Politico reported last week that the Biden administration and Republican lawmakers reached an agreement last year that will see the Defense Department’s budget slashed by $10 billion—more than 1 percent of its total budget—in the coming fiscal year. 

“It’s likely that we will have the budget drop in early March, so fully funding C-UAS efforts is actually going to be pretty important in that context,” a congressional aide familiar with defense issues said. “When you look at some of this stuff, it’s really important that it remains cost-effective, scalable, and efficient to stay relevant in this budget cycle.”

But the deadly attack on U.S. forces last month may have lit a fire under the Department of Defense to prioritize counter-drone systems over other capabilities—even in the tight fiscal environment. 

The Tower 22 strike was “a huge wakeup call. That was the first deadly attack on U.S. ground personnel by enemy aircraft since the Korean War. So I know the Pentagon is obviously taking this very seriously,” Pete Modigliani—vice president at Beacon Global Strategies, an advisory firm focused on national security issuestold The Dispatch. “Given the drone threat, drone warfare is going to shape future conflicts, and countering it is a top priority.”

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