Will U.S. Lose its Drone Edge?

The U.S. has traditionally dominated the use of unmanned drones. But will rising powers be able to blunt its edge?

A decade after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency flew its first armed Predator drones over Afghanistan, the consensus view is that the U.S. military and intelligence community have achieved a lasting near-monopoly on robotic warfare. The Pentagon and CIA operate the vast majority of the world’s armed Remotely-Piloted Aircraft (RPA) and sponsor most of the cutting-edge research and development for new drones.

But that could change, according to two experts who hold outside views. They say increasingly sophisticated foreign armies – for example the Chinese People’s Liberation Army – could render U.S. drones useless in future high-intensity conflicts.

Today’s Predator and Reaper drones are slow and vulnerable compared to traditional, manned jet fighters. They were designed to operate in undefended airspace against unsophisticated enemies. A determined, high-tech foe could knock them from the sky using ground-based air defenses or aerial fighters – or could jam their control signals. “There isn’t an RPA that can survive in full-scale warfare,” Dr. Robbin Laird, a former government analyst currently working as an independent consultant, told The Diplomat.

The Pentagon shares Laird’s concern, although not his fatalism. The U.S. Navy and Air Force are both working on jet-powered, highly-autonomous unmanned aircraft that could prove more survivable than today’s propeller-driven RPAs.

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But could they defeat enemy drones? Dave Kilcullen, an adviser to now-retired U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus when Petraeus headed the Iraq war effort, told The Diplomat that world powers will soon counter U.S. drones with unmanned aircraft of their own. “We’ve dominated the drone field – except for Israel – for the last decade. We’ve never really had to deal with an environment where the enemy has drones as well. Within a decade we’re going to be in that environment…it’s going to be our drones versus their drones.”

In predicting an imminent end to U.S. drone dominance, Laird and Kilcullen are definitely in the minority. But with world powers – China, in particular – rapidly developing better air defenses, new jet fighters and unmanned aircraft, their view is worth considering.