The Marine Corps only recently has begun fielding small unmanned aerial systems (UASs) at the platoon and squad level (and does not possess a single armed drone)—more than four years after ISIS began employing commercial drones in Iraq. Self-imposed restrictions by a risk-averse bureaucracy and delayed recognition of the value of such systems at small-unit tactical levels have slowed their adoption. Meanwhile, China employs a whole-of-government approach, with industry and universities developing autonomous drone swarms.[i]Across the globe, more than 90 countries possess military-grade drones; 27 have advanced drones capable of flying at least 24 hours; and 11 countries possess armed drones.[ii]
The proliferation of voice, video, and data transmission technology has provided extraordinary capabilities to states and individuals alike. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS used commercial drones for surveillance, propaganda, and to deliver munitions. One Syrian rebel group launched an attack on a Russian airbase with drones built to fly up to 100 km.[iii]Yet the Marine Corps only began in January to consider armed group 5 Reaper drones on a limited basis and is examining the purchase of the MAGTF unmanned expeditionary drone (MUX), a platform that does not yet exist. Even once these systems are fielded, there will be an enormous gap in medium-range drones and integration of command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR).
The quality of unmanned aircraft has improved radically in recent years, with one observer equating the difference between a 2007 Predator drone and a Reaper in 2017 with the leap from early Air Force fighters to the F-16. As they have evolved, UASs have transitioned from surveillance roles to close-air support. Continual improvements in loiter time, durability, optics, and other sensors will lead to additional evolution in the roles such systems play.[iv] Their economical price has lowered the barrier for entry among state and non-state actors, with far-reaching implications for U.S. forces.
Ride the Whirlwind
A UAS is more than a flying camera or missile-delivery platform; it can serve as an essential component of a C4ISR network at the tactical level. The earliest military aircraft provided artillery spotting and surveillance, with fixed-wing aircraft evolving quickly for close-air support and strategic bombing; drones are developing even more rapidly. Beyond ISR and lethal strikes, UASs will double as pinpoint or area electronic-attack platforms, jammers, and decoys. Drones will provide logistical support, conducting resupply across scattered islands or naval lodgments, and engage enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat.
Perhaps most important, drones will establish distributed mobile ad hoc networks to serve as airborne command-and-control hubs, particularly when satellite communications are denied or degraded. Airborne cell towers have emerged in recent years, often used after natural disasters to reestablish connectivity quickly, but they have obvious applications on the battlefield. One company has installed a scalable 4G LTE base station on a quadcopter to generate a network in the sky that connects to the nationwide cellular network. AT&T has developed a drone to provide voice, video, and data connections across as much as 40 square miles to 8,000 people.[v]
Digital interoperability is essential to future combat. Emerging 5G networks will allow for data throughput at speeds ten times that of existing 4G. To take advantage of this trend, the military must develop comfort with and facilities for adapting commercial telecommunications networks securely. In addition to 5G, modern commercial radios (such as TrellisWare, Sylvus, and Wave Relay) offer high-definition streaming video at 8 megabits per second or more across multiple nodes, creating a true self-healing mobile network.
To provide digital interoperability, drones must be capable of modular payloads for command-and-control relay, ISR, and electronic warfare. Existing technologies, such as the Mobile Joint Effects Coordination Link, Tactical Radio Application Extension, and Mutual Link, can translate disparate communications seamlessly but require better integration with different systems. The Department of Defense has yet to bridge the gap even between the F-22 and F-35, that are unable to share secure Link-16 data. As Marine Corps squad leaders begin to employ tablets and smartphones in 2019, UASs will become increasingly important in supporting mobile ad hoc networks on the ground.[vi]
Advanced C4ISR systems, however, face a dilemma: As they expand, they become harder to secure. From a technological standpoint, units cannot ignore the need to conduct operations in a degraded environment, to operate electronically “in the dark.”[vii] Counter-drone technology is also on the rise, consisting of roughly 10 percent of all global research and development on drones.[viii] Such systems must be hardened as much and as rapidly as possible against the many threats they face, such as spoofing, hacking, or jamming.[ix]
The introduction of new technology cannot be taken for granted. The Mark 14 torpedo scandal during the early years of World War II (in which defective torpedoes were issued repeatedly to submarines sent to face the Japanese fleet) offers a lesson on the need to test the integration of each component of a system and on the ways doctrine, training, and organizational structure impact successful innovation.[x]
Yet there is no substitute for bottom-up innovation—as one prominent historian has noted, the “bureaucratization of innovation . . . guarantees its death.”[xi] Delivery of cutting-edge technology calls for robust experimentation at the lowest possible tactical levels. Drones and mobile networks should be given to small-unit leaders with which to experiment at will, not just during formal exercises such as Sea Dragon 25. Program-management processes that require years of testing rob warfighters of the needed experience and potential to develop new tactics through day-to-day exposure.
The Marine Corps must place new drones and mobile data–network technology in the hands of warfighters early and often. The military also should arm opposing forces (OpFor) at the Navy Fighter Weapons School and Marine Corps Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course with the latest electromagnetic warfare equipment and software. Available software should be tested for simplicity, ease of use, and vulnerabilities.
Integrating technology requires a balance between decentralized efforts such as the top-down Defense Innovation Unit—Experimental (DIUx) that bypasses bureaucracy, and bottom-up warfighter-led innovation:
The value of bottom-up thinking is that it enables success in rapidly changing environments. To this end, cyber innovations cannot be separate from the physical battlefield or the warfighter perspective—be they cyber or conventional. While top-down stovepiped approaches aim at creating the institutional systems, military innovation is all about process improvement—providing a service that increases security and the chances for victory.[xii]
The military faces an innovator’s dilemma—it takes many iterations to innovate successfully, and many early attempts fail even as competitors force a reshaping of innovations through unexpected developments. The military must determine if its organizational structure is designedadequately to adapt. The Mark 14 torpedo scandal proved that a decentralized system that lacked an effective mechanism for feedback from tactical units up to the bureaucracy can slow or even halt improvement.[xiii]
Let Warfighters Solve the Problem
Keeping pace with innovation relies on balancing disruptive technologies with the right organizational structure and realistic training. In the face of rapid technological change, military leaders should check doctrinal, conceptual, and organizational assumptions at the door. The most critical asset to integrating new technology is talented people, who understand that a “blind obsession with technological acquisition is just as imprudent as those stubborn advocates who suggest that archaic weapons are sufficient for future tactical and operational success.”[xiv] Warfighters consistently have integrated weaponry into a combined-arms system at lower tactical levels when given the opportunity. Without the intellectual “thoughtware” at our disposal, however, the hardware and software will be irrelevant.