By Daniel Mathis; Image by NPR
Authors Antonio Calcara, Andrea Gilli, Mauro Gilli, Raffaele Marchetti, and Ivan Zaccagnini argue in a recently published article that the long-predicted “drone revolution” has been blown out of proportion. They assess the role of drones in the Western Libya military campaign, the Syrian civil war, and the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh in order to draw conclusions about drones’ potential to revolutionize war. In doing so, they find that many of the predictions about the “drone revolution” have not come to pass. Drones did not produce a major offensive advantage, nor did they level the playing field for weaker actors, nor did they eliminate the role of ground combat. Part of the reason for this, they argue, is that advances in air defense systems have mostly kept pace with drone advancements and enabled drones to be countered effectively. However, their findings come with an important caveat.
Their findings — which they acknowledge — pertain to the drones of yesterday, not the drones of tomorrow. The drones that Calcara and colleagues examine were an unquestionable advancement, enabling previously risky strikes and reconnaissance without risking pilots. Despite this, the authors are correct in asserting that the UAVs of the prior two decades weren’t truly revolutionary. The UAVs used in the aforementioned conflicts greatly resemble manned aircrafts in size, shape, and — crucially — air defense vulnerability. The same will not be true for the drones of the future. Glimpses of this can already be seen in the War in Ukraine.
While larger military drones have enabled air strikes that may not have previously been possible, such as Iran’s SHAHED-136, more interesting is the role of small non-military drones. Both sides have relied extensively on off-the-shelf consumer drones such as the DJI Mavic. The DJI Mavic is a consumer camera drone that can be purchased for less than $1,000 dollars. While its offensive capabilities are limited, the DJI Mavic and similar drones have played a major role in supporting scouting and artillery spotting during the conflict. Off-the-shelf drones like the DJI Mavic and the DJI Matrice 300 allegedly contributed significantly to Ukraine’s successful counter-offensives. While the War in Ukraine, has largely been characterized by traditional war tactics, the capabilities granted by small off-the-shelf consumer and commercial-grade drones hint that the full warfighting potential of drones is yet to be realized. While Calcara and colleagues may be right about legacy UAVs failing to revolutionize the conflicts, it is way too early to discount the role that drones will play in future wars.