The U.S. military radically changed warfare over the past two decades with its pioneering use of armed drones on the battlefield.
That revolution in conflict, however, has sparked an urgent new mission for the Pentagon: to defend against the other guy’s drones.
As “unmanned aerial vehicles” become exponentially faster, cheaper, more deadly and more widespread around the globe, U.S. military planners are racing to develop a viable defense for suddenly vulnerable troops, tanks and ships.
Analysts and military researchers say nations, along with nonstate hostile actors such as terrorist groups and drug cartels, now grasp the immense strategic value that small drones provide and the inability of most enemies to counter them effectively.
Counterdrone platforms will become especially crucial in the coming decades as China and other rivals invest heavily in terrifying swarm technology that allows dozens or even hundreds of aircraft to harass, disrupt and in some cases destroy traditional military formations.
Through sheer numbers and ability to adjust strategy on the fly, autonomous drone swarms will be modern warfare game-changers that combine unmanned attacking vehicles with artificial intelligence. The drone clusters could effectively overload enemy sensors or overwhelm ground forces and disable large combat vehicles by peppering them with small bombs or grenades. The swarms also will fundamentally change how militaries conduct reconnaissance or search-and-rescue missions by spreading out and providing a much more comprehensive picture of the terrain.
Drones have been credited with altering the balance of power in frozen conflicts such as the standoffs between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists or between Azerbaijan and Armenia, a clash that military strategists are studying intensely.