Unmanned Power: The Future of Warfare

By David Hutchins, Senior Industry Analyst

A new era of combat isn’t rapidly approaching; it’s already here. The availability and sophistication of drone technology are changing the nature of military operations. Just as the invention of gunpowder, tanks, and aircraft altered how wars were fought, drones are adding a new dimension to warfare. This article defines drones, provides both historical and contemporary context for their use in combat, and highlights what is still to come. 

Defining Drones

Military drones — also referred to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) — are unmanned aircraft designed to identify, surveil, and sometimes engage targets. Drones have become an increasingly popular choice for both militaries and militias around the world due to their ease of use, relatively low cost, and ability to execute a variety of mission sets without endangering a human pilot. With the ability to gather intelligence, identify targets, and execute precision strikes, drones have become a vital military asset. 

Historical Context

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone ready to take off at sunset.
General Atomics MQ-1 Predator drone.

Contemporary Use

Silhouette of soldier are using drone and laptop computer for scouting during military operation.
Soldier using drone / laptop computer to scout during military operation.

On the Horizon

Advancements in technology, artificial intelligence, and autonomous capabilities are ushering in a new era of drone warfare. Testing is already underway to develop drone swarms — groups of smaller aerial drones capable of coalescing into a coordinated attack. Moving beyond aerial combat, drones are also being developed to aid military operations on land and at sea. Additionally, the increasing prevalence of drones also necessitates the development of counter-drone defensive systems. 

Drone Swarms

Swarm of security drones.

At present, drone swarms are only a theoretical concept, but one that is of particular interest to the Defense Department. Aided by AI, a fully autonomous swarm of drones operating in unison could bombard enemy infantry, destroy tanks, cripple sensors, and even sink naval vessels. Smaller, portable drones are also a fraction of the cost of cruise missiles and can prove difficult for modern air defense systems to target, especially when sent en masse toward a target. While larger drones of the past were more effective against enemies with little-to-no air defense systems, this advantage would be lost in the event of conflict with a peer adversary like Russia or China. Given the clear tactical advantages of drone swarms, the U.S. is not the only country pursuing this capability. China, Russia, Israel, Turkey, India, and the United Kingdom are also known to be developing drone swarms.

“The popular idea of swarming drones on the battlefield is still something largely limited to science fiction novels. In time, swarming drones will be a common feature, with clouds of them supporting small units and even individual soldiers.”

— Larry Dickerson, Senior Defense Analyst, Forecast International

Drones on the Ground

A remote controlled robot picking up a small mortar.

“Unmanned ground vehicles are slowly moving from a support, non-combat, and cargo-hauling role to engaging hostile forces with onboard weaponry. As with other advanced unmanned systems concepts, the entry of an autonomous combat vehicle — similar to the Bolo of Keith Laumer’s science fiction novels — is decades away, but is no longer trapped in the pages of these works.”

— Larry Dickerson, Senior Defense Analyst, Forecast International

Drones at Sea

“The USV market is further behind its airborne counterpart in development. Yet these systems have the potential to provide significant force multipliers in future naval warfare.”

— Larry Dickerson, Senior Defense Analyst, Forecast International

Counter-drone systems

Anti-drone gun for protection against air attack.

Final Thoughts

There are undoubtedly concerns about the future of drones in warfare. Their potential for fully autonomous operation and subsequent lack of human involvement has many worried. Also, the proliferation of drones could provide a “low-cost air force” for militia groups or nefarious actors. Despite these concerns, it is a near certainty that drones in the air, on land, and at sea will be an essential component of future conflicts. Ultimately, when integrated with existing military systems, drones provide a vital force multiplier for the battlefield and change how military operations are conducted. 


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