Q. Are drones necessarily a game changer on the battlefield?
The inherent advantages of drones will not alone make traditional international warfare more likely—such conflicts are relatively rare anyway. Nor will the probable type, quantity, range, and lethality of armed drones that states possess in the coming decades make a government more likely to attempt to defeat an opposing army, capture or control foreign territory, or remove a foreign leader from power. Indeed, in 2015, after a year of using a combination of drones and manned air- power against ISIS in the Middle East, the United States and its allies were finding themselves unable to hold territory, which is a criticism of airpower more generally compared to ground forces.
In addition, a number of potential limitations stand in the way of drones becoming a ubiquitous game changer. They generally fly relatively slowly (the cruise speed of an F-16 is about three times that of a Reaper), and have therefore been described even by one Air Force general as "useless in a contested environment."63 Countries with anti-air defense systems are well- positioned to shoot down the slow-moving drones. Hamas discovered this in 2014 when it flew what it referred to as an armed drone—very rudimentary—into Israel only to have the drone shot down. The current vulnerability to air defenses may also explain why Israel has not come to rely exclusively on armed drones in its conflicts. While drones are becoming more advanced, which means faster, stealthier, and able to fire more missiles, countries such as the United States and China are also developing technology that specifically targets drones, hoping to defang this emergent form of warfare.
Another source of vulnerability is that smaller drones must be linked by radio to their controller and the datalinks can be easily jammed and disabled. In an episode of the show 24, a United States drone is hacked and taken over by a terrorist that then tries to use the drone to kill the United States president. The plotline is not entirely science fiction. In one study, scholars showed how hackers could mimic GPS signals and fool the navigation systems. Drone cyberattacks could cause a drone, at the least, to be unable to calculate its position, causing it to be brought down fairly easily.64 Responding to these vulnerabilities, the Defense Department has come up with a software program that is meant to ensure that the drone's control and navigation systems cannot be hacked. "Unhackable" seems a bit ambitious but is certainly the direction that drone software needs to go to address current vulnerabilities.
While drones are also developing better self-protection hardware systems or sensor capabilities to bring them in line with existing technologies, they are doing so only at a cost that many countries will not be able to afford. A stealth drone, for example, may be more useful and more resistant to this emerging technology, but will also be prohibitively expensive for all but a few countries. The Northrop Grumman- made Global Hawk, for example, lacked the U-2's system of defending against Russian-made air defense systems such as the S-300.65 Upgrades that would bring the Global Hawk's defense system in line with U-2s was estimated to cost $1.9 billion over 10 years.66 (That said, one government representative asserted that transitioning to the Global Hawk would bring longer-term savings because the U-2 costs $32,000 per flight hour compared to the Global Hawk at $24,ooo.67)
Another reason why drones might not be transformative is that many of the capabilities of drones are also found in other systems. Helicopters, ballistic missiles, and manned aircraft can perform many of the same functions and are less vulnerable to anti-air defense systems. For terrorist groups, IEDs are likely simpler and more effective, and for groups such as
Hamas, a barrage of rockets would be better able to penetrate anti-air systems than a slow low-flying drone. As Davis and others indicate in their overview of drones for the Rand Corporation, "conventional technologies such as nil bombs and explosives are easier, cheaper, and can even be more lethal than drones." Take, for example, the 1995 Tokyo subway attack that killed 13 or the explosives on the London underground that killed 52.68 Individuals seeking to wreak havoc or simply have a lethal impact could do more rapid harm with an assault rifle than a drone.
In some cases, manned alternatives bring superior capabilities. While the Reaper is an improvement over the Predator, for example, it is still less capacious than the A-10 or the F-16, which can carry bombs with more destructive power. In terms of raw weight, the Reaper's payload is about equivalent to that of the Army's Apache attack helicopter and a fraction of those of the A-10 (16,000 lb. or 7200 kg) and the F-16 (17,200 lb. or 7800 kg). However, it would be erroneous to equate payload weight to combat efficacy: the capabilities these payloads represent are quite different. As of now, the Reaper's principal armaments are the Hellfire air-to-ground missile and the Paveway II laser-guided bomb. While the drone is theoretically capable of carrying a Stinger air-to-air missile, factors such as limited range of view, aerodynamic limitations, and a lack of electronic countermeasures make the prospect of currently operational drones engaging in air-to-air combat an impossibility. The F-16, on the other hand, can effectively conduct both air-to- air and air-to-ground missions, a capability made possible in part by the range of the different classes of weapons the aircraft is designed to carry. Even the Apache and the A-10, both of which were principally designed to counter Soviet armored movements in Western Europe, can and have successfully engaged aerial targets. Furthermore, the three-manned aircraft discussed above are all equipped with a machine gun. While this may seem like a minor difference, cannons are highly versatile weapons systems, providing the ability to conduct a variety of anti-personnel and anti-materiel operations. In short, the Predator, with its Hellfire II missiles (a variant specifically designed to destroy above-ground structures), is uniquely suited for its current role of targeted killings and surveillance. In the event of a shooting war with a conventional army, the limited survivability and versatility of the current generation of unmanned systems limits some of their tactical value.