If anything, the attack on the night of January 27 that killed three US Army Reservists from the Georgia-based 718th Engineer Company and injured over 40 more troops, all sleeping in a tent serving as temporary living quarters at a forward base called Tower 22 (located near the Jordan-Iraq-Syria border), proved the immense power of the drones in modern wars, whether big or small and whether by State or non-state actors.
The attack was allegedly the handiwork of a radical organization called “Kataib Hezbollah,” an Iran-backed militia group that the US has previously blamed for attacks in Iraq and Syria.
The very fact that its “kamikaze drone” reached the target and exploded by penetrating the air defense is something that military analysts consider to be a serious lapse. They are unconvinced by the official justification that the low-flying kamikaze drone approached at the same time a US surveillance drone was expected to land and thus not engaged by air defenses.
After all, Tower 22 is known to have been overwatched by AN/TPS-75 PESA-type phased array radar typically used by the US Air Force for flight control and early warning and reportedly did have counter-drone defenses.
It is said that Stingers and C-RAM are both counters against drones. C-RAM can also gun down incoming mortar rounds and artillery rockets, which are also common forms of attack.
Tower 22 had them, along with some other counter-UAS systems, such as portable drone jammers or Coyote interceptor drones. However, these were not used as the defense system could not distinguish between friendly surveillance and the enemy kamikaze drone.
Failure to identify the approaching drone- threats (identify-friend-or-foe error) has been exploited by American adversaries in the Middle East in recent months. In fact, an hour and a half after the strike on Tower 22, Iranian proxies launched another drone at another American base just across the border in Syria, al-Tanf Garrison. However, this time, a US drone, RTX’s Coyote uncrewed aerial system, shot it down.
Reportedly, since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war on October 7, 2023, there have been around 165 attacks mounted on various US bases in Iraq and Syria by Iran-backed militant groups, collectively dubbed the ‘Axis of Resistance.’ These attacks might not have been proven to be fatal, but the gruesome fact remains that 170 US soldiers have been injured in the process.
It is to be noted that Iran is a leading manufacturer of kamikaze drones of many varieties, like the Shahed-136 and 131, which often use rocket boosters for launch. And Iran supplies them in good numbers to its regional proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Houthi rebels in Yemen. They have also been shared with Russia’s military in the war in Ukraine.
Obviously, there is now systematic pressure on the US military establishment (and the same is true in other countries as well) to devise and develop more effective anti-drone capabilities. The task is challenging, though. Because, for these cheap drones, one cannot ideally afford highly expensive countermeasures like using Patriot air defense missile batteries ($3-4 million per missile).
Secondly, the evolution of artificial intelligence (AI) is making drones more and more potent with each passing day. AI is making data and sensor fusion analysis of drones significantly more effective, allowing complex algorithms and machine learning to create a far better understanding of the drone’s surrounding environment.
It is said to be improving the communication systems and cybersecurity of critical data obtained, interpreted, analyzed, and transmitted by drones.
AI has facilitated what is called “swarm intelligence.” It allows drones to function in a coordinated and coherent manner in a “swarm,” which enables the military to launch a barrage of drones that can overwhelm the enemy and perform tactical and strategically important military tasks, thus further increasing a drone’s individual usefulness.
AI is also enabling drones to become “autonomous.” Once an imaginary concept, AI has made it possible to have a new way of warfare by using drones that are “killer robots,” which can be ground-based, air-based, or water-based. They are fully armed and are used for tracking enemy forces, observing behavior, and gathering crucial information.
This explains why a recent survey shows military drones now dominating the global drone market with a major revenue share of 48.6% and rotary blade drones leading the technology segment with a share of 62.4%. Security and law enforcement are driving growth in the end-use industry segment, accounting for a significant revenue share of 26.4%.
The global drone market was estimated to be worth USD 34.5 billion by the end of 2023 and is expected to witness substantial growth, reaching USD 101.1 billion by 2032. The market is poised for a remarkable surge, with a projected Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 12.7% during the forecast period from 2023 to 2032.
Geopolitically speaking, this survey also reveals that the Indo-Pacific region leads the market with a major revenue share of 39.6%. The region’s robust manufacturing capabilities have made it a key producer of drones, catering to both domestic and global demand. Its diverse industries, from agriculture to construction, benefit from the versatile applications of drones.
In addition, “favorable regulatory environments and government support in countries like China have encouraged drone innovation and adoption. Moreover, the region’s vast population presents a significant consumer market for consumer drones.
As the Asia Pacific region continues to invest in drone technology and applications, it cements its position as a leader in the global drone market.
“However, the North American region is expected to grow at the fastest CAGR throughout the forecast period. The substantial investment in research and development of cutting-edge drone technologies is expected to drive the growth of the North American region during the forecast period“, the survey predicts. That effectively means that the US will become the market leader.
Another survey by “Fact. MR Research” says likewise that the adoption of target drone technology is significantly driven by military forces engaging in extensive combat training and technology testing.
“Worldwide naval forces are actively developing and deploying countermeasure technology, conducting training exercises that involve various target products, including moving aerial targets. This increased adoption is expected to have contributed to the target drone market capturing a substantial 64.2% market share in 2023 within the military sector”.
According to this survey, the market’s key players included AeroTargets International LLC, China’s military UAV, Denel Dynamics, Embention, Airbus, Griffon Aerospace, Kadet Defense Systems, Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc., L3Harris Technologies, Inc, Leonardo S.p.A, MSP, Northrop, Grumman, QinetiQ, Sistemas de Control Remoto, Target Arm Inc., and UAV Navigation SL.
Thus, the inescapable conclusion is that while consumer and commercial drones have substantial applications, the vital role of military drones in safeguarding national interests and security elevates them to the leading segment.
Military drones are proving to be indispensable for reconnaissance, surveillance, and tactical operations, offering a strategic advantage in modern warfare. Their versatility, range, and advanced capabilities have made them critical assets for defense forces everywhere.
- Author and veteran journalist Prakash Nanda is Chairman of the Editorial Board – EurAsian Times and has commented on politics, foreign policy, and strategic affairs for nearly three decades. A former National Fellow of the Indian Council for Historical Research and recipient of the Seoul Peace Prize Scholarship, he is also a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.
- CONTACT: prakash.nanda (at) hotmail.com
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