Michael K. Nagata
The technology is advancing rapidly and the US is failing to keep up
The staggering pace of technological improvements in UAVs (aka “drones”) was recently described by the CENTCOM commander as “… the most concerning tactical development since the rise of the improvised explosive device [IED] in Iraq.” To place this assertion in context, thousands of American servicemembers have been wounded, maimed, or killed by IEDs. Also, it took several years for the U.S. government to provide a reasonably adequate set of response and defensive capabilities.
Unfortunately, the rapid technological advances in drone capabilities, and thus their growing military applications, are breath-taking. Improvements in range, cargo-capacity, speed and agility, and perhaps most concerning of all, increasing “autonomy” that frees them from the limitations of a human operator, mean that the military significance of unmanned aerial systems will keep expanding rapidly. We can be certain about this because drones are enjoying the same expansion and adoption that we’ve come to expect from other technologies, like mobile phones, driverless cars, cloud-based computing, and more. Barriers to entry are collapsing everywhere, allowing any state or non-state actor to procure increasingly powerful drones.
This raises the question of whether the U.S. government is today on a trajectory to match this pace of drone technology development, and if it is learning how to master this technology for both defensive and offensive purposes in ways that are superior to what potential adversaries and competitors are doing. Sadly, the answer at present is no. Today, the United States government is neither keeping pace with the technology, nor matching how swiftly its adversaries or competitors globally are embracing it.
Ironically, the U.S. expertise and ability to do both already exists, but they reside almost entirely in the commercial/industrial sectors, and the processes by which the government must identify, fund, and acquire these strengths are too cumbersome, risk-averse, and bureaucratic to generate the operational or strategic improvements our national security interests demand.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Michael K. Nagata is a distinguished senior fellow on national security at the Middle East Institute. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2019 after 38 years of active duty, with 34 years in US Special Operations. His final position was director of strategy for the National Counterterrorism Center from 2016 to 2019.