Small, smart, many and cheaper: Competitive adaptation in modern warfare

Defense Journal’s Rich Outzen spoke with T. X. Hammes, a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense program of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a distinguished research fellow in the Center for Strategic Research at the Institute of National Security Studies of the US National Defense University, on January 26, 2024. The conversation is lightly edited for style.

Defense Journal by Atlantic Council IN TURKEY (DJ): Dr. Hammes, you’ve been tracking and predicting developments in drones, unmanned systems, and the changing nature of combined arms warfare for over a decade now. Looking back, what has surprised you and what has confirmed your early surmises in recent years?

T. X. Hammes: From the beginning I expected that “small, smart, and many” could overcome “few and exquisite” by sheer numbers. The general trend has held, but what has surprised me—especially in Ukraine—has been how quickly users have adapted. For instance, Ukraine has employed carpenters to build drones made out of wood powered by outboard motors. It was undeterred by its lack of manufacturing facilities for advanced synthetic materials. These drones launch from a simple wheeled carriage but can achieve a range of 750 kilometers, and carry a fairly substantial payload. These very cheap systems are being used to attack oil facilities deep in Russia.

I suggested in 2016 that, in many cases, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) doesn’t necessarily have to deliver the explosive; it is enough to bring the detonator. Modern societies provide their own explosives and combustibles. Very small drones can do great damage by impacting with enough of a detonating charge to induce fuel, ammunition, or energy sources to explode. Large warheads are not required.

In 2016, the idea had little traction with senior [officers], but younger, field grade officers got it. Unfortunately, developing a concept and bending the procurement system are two very different things. We have the “iron triangle” of vested interests in procurement—defense contractors, the Pentagon, and Congress. Each is vested in keeping current systems and approaches for as long as possible. This is very difficult to change. Congressional reversal of the US Navy’s attempt to not refuel an aircraft carrier (the Harry S. Truman) in favor of devoting more resources to advanced strike capabilities is an example of this. There are thousands of jobs in congressional districts engaged in military production: the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) involves production in forty-five of the fifty states. Couple these economic incentives with the fact that military officers are inherently conservative as a group, and you see resistance to real or rapid change.

As always, warfare will include the adaption, counteradaption and counter-counteradaption cycle. The Turkish Bayraktar drones were a shock early in the war in Ukraine, but the Russians gradually got an air defense system together and effectively neutralized the Bayraktar. Today, the Turks are developing jet stealth systems like the US Valkyrie XQ58A. I don’t know what the Turkish model will cost, but the Valkyrie is roughly $4 million apiece. The F-35 costs nearly $140 million each. With an expected operational lifespan of 8,000 hours, at $30,000 per flight hour, the lifetime operations and maintenance (O&M) cost can exceed $360 million per F-35. This gets to be real money over time. Further, with the current fleet-wide mission capable rate of just over 50 percent, you effectively need two aircraft (for $720 million) to ensure one mission-capable aircraft. Current full-mission capable rates on the F-35 are 28 percent, so we’re close to needing four to ensure one fully mission-capable aircraft. In essence you are spending $1.4 billion for each full mission-capable F-35. You can have hundreds of XQ58As at that price. And the world will know where the F-35s are (few in number, operating in a world with pervasive surveillance).  Keep in mind, these figures cover only O&M costs for F-35s. They do not cover the cost of pilot or maintenance personnel and training pipelines. Nor do they cover the cost of large fixed air bases and air defense for the facilities required to operate F-35s. The Turks will likely develop an export version of their aircraft, and so we can see a world in which small, high-speed, deep-penetrating drones with a variety of onboard armaments and sensors will be available to almost anyone. Drones like these can operate up to 1,500 miles beyond launch points. And they do about the same as some of the advanced munitions fired by F-35s, such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, at $3 million a missile.

DJ: Some observers think that Russia is winning the drone war against Ukraine, including Eric Schmidt, whose recent Foreign Affairs article, “Ukraine Is Losing the Drone War,” cited the effective pairing of drones for observation and strike (Orlans and Lancets). Do you agree?

Hammes: Schmidt is right about Russia outproducing Ukraine in drones. But this does not translate directly to winning the conflict. I find it bizarre that some commentators essentially take the Russian side without critical comparison. This goes for commentators and in some cases political leaders. If you look at both Russian and Ukrainian sources, Ukraine continues to inflict three or four times as many casualties on attacking Russian forces: this is typically the case, an advantage to the defender.

With regards to UAS, both sides are training a lot of drone pilots. But as the war drags on, both Ukrainians and Russians are finding difficulty in recruiting for traditional combat arms. For instance, recent warehouse fires in Saint Petersburg and elsewhere in Russia reportedly stem from resistance to the forced roundup of conscripts for the war.

In the case of the Foreign Affairs article, title notwithstanding, the piece was not really about the drone competition—it was about industrial competition and the race to mass produce. The article was right: it’s an industrial competition. Ukraine can win and compete if the United States leans into it. But the Biden administration has been too reticent in providing advanced and long-range strike systems. The Kerch Strait Bridge should be down. And why are we demilitarizing MLRS [multiple launch rocket system] ammunition rather than allowing the Ukrainians to fire it in defense of their country? Domestic politics on both sides of the aisle has been working against us fully leaning into the defense industrial competition. The Russian production goal is two million UAS per year; they are not there yet. The Ukrainian goal is 100,000 per month. They are producing enough to pose a substantial long-range strike capability deep into Russia. Russia has already had to pull air defense systems back from Ukraine into its own territory to defend key sites. In the Ukraine war, we are seeing early forms of largely autonomous UAS and swarm usage. After launch, some of these systems can be fully autonomous. If you launch tens of thousands per month, the requirement for autonomous guidance grows. It is far more complex than UAS usage in counterinsurgency or small wars.

DJ: Turning to the US military, have we adapted doctrine, organization, and employment to shift from drones as a counterterror platform to drones as an integral part of maneuver warfare?

Hammes: The services are trying. The US Navy fielded Task Force 59 in the Persian Gulf as a way to deploy experimental unmanned technologies and designs. The US Fourth Fleet stood up an experimental task force. The Navy also deployed a four-ship squadron of unmanned systems in the Pacific—primarily as a sensor package. Following the Marine Corps FD2030 lead [Force Design 2030], the US Army has a Strategic Mid-range Fires program that includes small-signature trucks launching Tomahawks and other missiles up to and beyond 1,500 miles. In a major war against a near-peer competitor—say China—airfields and fixed installations will be heavily targeted, so distributed fires of this sort will be important. We can conceivably go to country X and buy native-style trucks, which will be very survivable due to blending in, and put these systems on them. The US Air Force is investing in unmanned combat vehicles as wingmen for F-35s or advanced bombers. But again, everyone will know where the advanced bombers live and stay. Containerized missiles based on commercial ships can saturate bomber airfields and kill low-density, high-cost assets on the ground. In sum, we are seeing adaptation beginning across the forces, but procurement and advanced planning remain the big problems. Instead of $360 million for one aircraft we should consider buying 360 $1 million missiles in containers. These systems need a high level of autonomy and small crews. In the current environment, we need to focus resources on the weapons, not the delivery platforms. Low cost and expendable, primarily unmanned weapons will overwhelm the large, exquisite but few platforms of our current forces.

DJ: Defense Journal examines issues of common interest to the United States, Turkey, and NATO. Can I get your views on the Turkish experience with UAS, and how they’ve become a major player in production, export, and operational use of UAS?

Hammes: Unmanned systems allow a country at very low cost to influence a conflict. With automated systems you can intervene regionally with lower human cost, and little risk of blowback. Turkey has done this successfully. What will be interesting is when the other side starts countering with their own UASs. As these systems proliferate, what is to keep cheap launch trucks and boats from approaching striking range of Turkey? When everyone has long-range precision strike capability, and every modern society has highly combustible, energy-dense targets embedded in their society, security concepts have to adapt. Not just medium powers, but insurgent groups have the ability increasingly to conduct this type of operation. The Houthis proved this with the attack on Saudi oil facilities. There are massive geopolitical implications when everyone can strike at long range.

DJ: In most military technological fields there is a sort of dialectic or cat-and-mouse game between developers of offensive and defensive systems. Why the great lag in counter-UAS systems vis-à-vis the platforms themselves?

Hammes: There is a lag. UASs present a very tough challenge. Many are very small and made of polymers, plastics, and wood, so they are very difficult to track and engage. That said, the electronic warfare (EW) systems of Russia and Ukraine have been very effective. But the counter-countermeasure has been more autonomy for the attack systems. We are seeing autonomous drones that carry EW jammers, and rely more on visual/optical IR [i.e., infrared] sensors. In the war in Karabagh, 70 percent of vehicle kills were achieved by drones or drone-fired munitions—and the Armenian side was not prepared. If you look at Reddit and other social media feeds covering the fighting in Ukraine, you can see absolutely terrifying videos of how UASs dominate the battlespace. UASs are hunting individual vehicles and soldiers. They can fly into buildings and turn corners in pursuit.

The game of competitive adaption has been a mixed bag. At one level, UAS have greatly strengthened tactical defense. Yet with increased methods of long-range strike, at the operational level, offensive capabilities are strengthened. Perhaps also strategically, as we see Ukraine going hard against the Russian oil industry.

We are starting to see the advent of counterdrone drones: drones that fly into other drones. It will be interesting to see how this further develops; we are likely to see a cheap version of the identify friend or foe (IFF) sensors carried on manned aircraft to protect drones operating over friendly forces, so you don’t have your own killing your own. The innovation cycle in Ukraine is very short, with each side adapting rapidly, sometimes in a few days, to innovations by the other side. In fact, Ukrainian innovation with naval drones has pushed the Russian Black Sea fleet back significantly. In less than a year, starting from scratch, Ukraine developed unmanned surface vessels that hit several Russia ships and restored export shipping lanes for Ukrainian products.

There is a need now for better command and control nodes to consolidate information from pervasive drone sensors and get it to commanders. We have entered the era of pervasive intelligence for targeting; everyone will be visible and targetable, so everyone will have to keep moving.

My key advice for the United States and its friends is to get away from focusing on platforms and focus on weapons.

T. X. Hammes is a nonresident senior fellow at the Forward Defense program of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Hammes is also a distinguished research fellow in the Center for Strategic Research at the Institute of National Security Studies of the US National Defense University.

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Image: Col. Thomas x. Hammes (Ret.), Senior Research Fellow at the National Strategic Studies, National Defense University, right, participates in a discussion with service members from US Air Force and the Afghan National Army Air Corps on April 21, 2010. US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Quillen.