Technological advancements in combat drones promise increased safety for U.S. ground troops, as well as lethal accuracy for neutralizing threats.
But the emergence of affordable "suicide drones" is a double-edged sword, as the technology is no longer a monopoly of the United States and can therefore be deployed by friendly and non-so-friendly combatants.
For example, according to NBC News, the AeroVironment Switchblade 300 has been used to target enemy operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria for years. This small, relatively inexpensive suicide drone costs just $6,000, as compared to the $150,000 Hellfire missile that must be fired by larger Predator and Reaper drones. In the case of the suicide drone, they don't need to launch missiles because they are the missile. Unlike conventional missiles, suicide drones can strike with extraordinary precision—the blast radius can be adjusted to pinpoint threats and leave bystanders (hopefully) unharmed, and they also can be "waved off" up to two seconds before impact to prevent mistakes and dangers to civilians.
But the low cost and global proliferation of suicide drones is bad news for the United States and its allies.
“There are more than 100 countries and nonstate groups that have drones today,” said former Army Ranger and author of Army of None Paul Scharre to NBC News. “It levels the playing field between the U.S. and terrorist groups or rebel groups in a way that's certainly not good for the United States.”
At a weight of 5.5 pounds—including its warhead—the Switchblade can be "backpacked" into battle. It's tough to detect on radar and can fly up to seven miles to seek its target. The Switchblade 300—dubbed "switchblade" because its wings snap out on launch—is made for killing individuals, and a bigger 600 variant is used to demolish armored vehicles.
The presence of suicide drones are often gamechangers on the battlefield, as they typically can't be seen, heard, or even expected. Unfortunately, the U.S. military is no longer wielding such a superweapon on its own.
We do have the Switchblade—which could be the most advanced of its breed—but Russia, China, Israel, Iran, and Turkey are producing their own killer drones. Even a country as small as Azerbaijan deployed small drones manufactured in Turkey to devastate Armenian troops during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. Iranian-backed militias used small drones to attack U.S. bases in Iraq ten times this year.
Many experts consider drones will have as much impact on ground-war tactics as the machine gun did at the end of the 20th Century. (Although, sadly, generals in WWI still sent waves of unprotected troops to be butchered by machine guns fired from enemy trenches.)
Despite spending billions of dollars to date, the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security have not been able to develop an infallible "counter drone" technology, such as electronic jamming or systems that can shoot them down.
“Every time we come up with some way to defend ourselves against drones, the technology rapidly advances to the point where it defeats our defensive capabilities,” said Michael Mulroy, a retired Marine and former CIA officer who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East from 2017 to 2019.
Fortunately, no terrorist group has deployed suicide drones yet, but the clock is ticking, and we aren't doing much to forestall or defend ourselves against the inevitable.
Almost four years ago now, David Glawe the head of the Department of Homeland Security's intelligence division warned Congress that “commercially available drones can be employed by terrorists and criminals to deliver explosives or harmful substances. This threat is significant, and it's upon us.”
Hopefully, we won't learn our lesson when some disaster-flick-inspired swarm of killer drones descends upon a sports arena and wreaks havoc on suspecting civilians.