The push for new military technologies is incessant. Marcel Plichta details how and why ‘unmanned’ systems are being developed and considers why they may prove to be military game-changers in the years to come. 

A great deal of mirth followed the announcement that a United States (US) ally had used a $3 million Patriot missile to down a commercial drone that cost all of $200 online. While the revelation may have been funny at the time, the event reflects the changing face of modern war and the slow transition away from the weapons and tactics we have become accustomed to. New technologies and operational necessities have caused a shift in what militaries fight with today and what they will be fighting with in the future. Traditional platforms and their operators such as tanks, aircraft, and ships still play an important role in modern warfare, but they are not suited for every occasion. They will increasingly find themselves replaced by smaller and cheaper counterparts.

In the past decade alone, drone warfare has gone from the realm of science fiction to a routine occurrence on the battlefield. A significant number of contemporary conflicts – Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and many smaller conflicts and counterinsurgencies – see the prominent use of drones, on both sides. Many people are familiar with the Predator and Reaper drones, the large platforms that fly thousands of feet in the air and fling missiles at militants in distant locales. Less familiar to the general population are cheaper and more expendable drones that can operate by air, land, or sea, where their more illustrious manned cousins cannot do so safely.


Urban battles, most recently demonstrated by the Siege of Mosul, are complex affairs. These claustrophobic environments are typically littered with improvised explosive devices and snipers. Invariably, they also contain large numbers of civilians. The armaments brought to bear by manned planes and helicopters are often ill-suited for operations over this type of conflict zone. Their munitions – large precision-guided bombs, and Hellfire and Brimstone missiles – are designed for heavily armoured targets, and are often both too expensive to regularly employ and too deadly to use in densely populated areas. An MSNBC reporter, interviewing American forces on the ground during the Siege of Mosul, noted that there were still large numbers of civilian casualties, despite the apparent precision of US weaponry. Given funding restrictions and the need for greater precision, the US and other militaries have been looking beyond traditional manned aircraft with heavy payloads to deliver the results they are looking for.

ISIS and other militant groups have adopted small commercial drones with gusto, rigging them to surveil enemy forces and drop 40 millimetre grenades.

The ‘new normal’ of urban combat led both sides in the Mosul conflict to adopt the use of quadcopter drones. These smaller varieties of drone play a number of roles on battlefields in the Middle East and Ukraine, from reconnaissance, to dropping bombs, to becoming bombs themselves. ISIS and other militant groups have adopted small commercial drones with gusto, rigging them to surveil enemy forces and drop 40 millimetre grenades. These smaller drones have become so common that tech manufacturer Battelle has developed an anti-drone device called the Drone Defender, which disables hostile drones by disrupting communications between the drone and its operator.

These new developments have not gone unnoticed by the wider world. Israel has purchased an unknown quantity of a new drone, called the TIKAD, which can fire a service rifle and adjust to the weapon’s recoil, allowing it to fire with precision from angles that humans may not be able to reach.


Many of the tried-and-true systems on land are also getting smaller thanks to drone technology. The US Marine Corps has been testing drones for amphibious landings and breaching doors in urban environments. Russian Arms Manufacturer Kalashnikov has unveiled prototypes for fully autonomous armed drones and turrets. Kalashnikov has announced a number of drones in development, such as a 20-tonne drone tank, less than half the weight of a T-90 Main Battle Tank, and a 7-tonne drone armed with anti-tank missiles, all of which could have autonomous capabilities.

Not wanting to be outdone, the US Army has unveiled a prototype ‘hoverbike’ that the designers claim will be able to carry 800 pounds for 125 miles.

Land-based systems may revolutionise logistics as well. China has unveiled plans for unmanned supply trucks. These drones, while not much smaller than regular supply trucks, point to a future where GPS guidance, self-driving cars, and artificial intelligence lighten much of the military’s logistical load, whilst also offering greater force protection. In a recent article for the Modern War Institute at West Point, Major John Spencer points to ‘drone resupply’ as a means to ‘make up for restrictions on manned aviation platforms’ in urban environments. The UK Ministry of Defence opened a competition for drone resupply, with some defence engineers wanting to build ‘convoys of self-driving lorries, guarded by unmanned or remote control armed vehicles, as part of any future military logistics chain.’ Not wanting to be outdone, the US Army has unveiled a prototype ‘hoverbike’ that the designers claim will be able to carry 800 pounds for 125 miles.


In addition to the Marine Corps’ prototype vehicles for amphibious landings, a number of drones have been developed to navigate on, and beneath, the ocean. The US Navy Office of Naval Research tested drone “swarming” in 2014, in which unmanned vessels quickly surround and engage an adversary to overwhelm its sensors. In December 2016 the Navy announced that those same drones are now able to “collectively perform patrol missions autonomously, with only remote human supervision.” The Navy recently revealed an unmanned surface vessel that can continuously patrol for up to 70 days in search of hostile submarines. This development has alarmed the Chinese, who have launched over a dozen submarines in the past decade. Chinese experts labelled emerging drone technologies a “severe challenge to [China’s] future submarine force.”

However, the Chinese themselves are developing drone technology that may render the UK’s Trident program, and the plans to replace it, obsolete. A 2016 briefing from the British American Security Information Council (BASIC) asserted that swarms of roving underwater drones, a field that China has invested heavily in, may be able to disperse, detect and engage enemy submarines far more efficiently than we currently are.

Might sophisticated submarines be vulnerable to emerging drone technologies? Image: Ian Arthur, Defence Images [CC BY-SA 2.0]

There are questions over how capable drones may ultimately be at locating submarines. However, there’s no telling what technologies will be developed in the decades to come. Many were quick to jump on the BASIC report’s revelations to urge cancellation of the Successor-class submarines intended to replace the UK’s current Trident missile-carrying boats on into the 2060s. The report was received far more coolly by Trident proponents, who argue that the Successor-class has far more stealth technology than the current Vanguard-class subs, and that the ocean remains far too vast for underwater drones to make any appreciable difference in locating a single sub.

Speaking of submarines, an American Unmanned Underwater Vehicle (UUV) was captured in December 2016 by the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. While the US Navy claims the drone was actually just for capturing “oceanographic data,” it also held a competition earlier this year to develop underwater drones capable of completely replacing ballistic missile submarines without the historic financial or psychological challenges of maintaining a submarine crew that is continuously underwater for months at a time.


While many are excited about the ability to save military and civilian lives – not to mention a great deal of money – through the use of drones and other ‘unmanned’ systems, developing systems which may have ‘full autonomy’ remains a massive legal, ethical and operational concern. Some have argued that whilst nations such as the US and UK are unlikely to allow lethal actions to be entirely decided by a drone, Russia, China, and Iran – all of which manufacture drones – may have fewer ethical hang-ups.

Despite those concerns, political and military parameters will increasingly dictate that unmanned systems are used to reduce death and destruction on ‘our’ side, and maximise it on ‘theirs’.

It is also worth noting that Kalashnikov’s market access in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East means that there may be widespread use of smaller, less costly, or more autonomous systems soon after they are available. China in particular is intent on developing Artificial Intelligence for warfare, a field it wishes to lead by 2030. The legality and ethical implications of autonomous drone proliferation are unclear. For its part, the US military has made the case for some degree of drone autonomy in order to “withstand adversary electronic warfare operations,” but has shied away from allowing an automated system to take lethal action without a human operator’s explicit consent.

The expanding role for unmanned systems in near-future warfare offers new opportunities for militaries around the globe. With this comes a variety of concerns surrounding their use. Despite those concerns, political and military parameters will increasingly dictate that unmanned systems are used to reduce death and destruction on ‘our’ side, and maximise it on ‘theirs’.

Marcel Plichta is a postgraduate student studying global security at the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. His areas of study include emerging defence trends, defence economy in developing states, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Feature image: a Hunter Joint Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in flight during a Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) training exercise in the USA. The Hunter is an Israeli multi-role short-range UAV system in service with the US Army (USA). Image: Goodfreephotos [CC].