July 8, 2024

Cost, Time, and Capability: A trilemma for UAS operators under the changing Character of war

High intensity kinetic exchange between peer competitors is now a reality of the ever-changing character of war. Long gone are the asymmetric conflicts that characterized the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Flashpoints such as Ukraine-Russia, Israel-Iran, or Taiwan-China showcase that the unipolar NATO moment is over. Indeed, US and Allied stakeholders are now tasked with countering adversaries that field a suite of sophisticated capabilities at scale. Allied forces are still engaged in low intensity counter-insurgency missions in the Global South per se. However, the challenges of contemporary high intensity warfare in primary regions of interest have serious defense economic implications on the strategic-operational level. In this way, paradoxically, the Allied and adversarial defense industrial bases remain asymmetrical, given an adversarial emphasis on attritability as opposed to survivability.

Unmanned systems

Although unmanned aerial systems (UAS) offer certain benefits compared to conventional aircraft, they cannot fully supplant a traditional manned air force. Typically smaller and with less firepower, UAS might lack effectiveness in certain operations. Moreover, UASs are susceptible to electronic interference and may be more susceptible to interception than manned aircraft. Choosing between UASs and traditional aircraft will hinge on mission specifics and resource availability. Often, a blend of both types of aircraft is utilized to optimize capabilities. UASs however, often have considerable defense industrial advantages that in turn have bearing on force composition.

The trilemma of cost, time, and capability

The defense industry is often caught in a trilemma when developing unmanned systems, having to balance three critical factors: cost, time, and capability. This trilemma suggests that optimizing for any two factors necessitates compromising on the third. Here, we will explore this trilemma in detail, using specific examples to illustrate how these trade-offs manifest in real-world defense procurement cases.

Understanding the trilemma

  1. Cost: This refers to the financial resources required to develop, produce, operate, and maintain unmanned systems. Lower costs are always desirable, but significant reductions often lead to compromises in capability or prolonged development timelines.
  2. Time: This represents the period required to bring a system from concept to deployment. Rapid development is often critical in responding to emergent threats but can lead to increased costs or reduced system capabilities.
  3. Capability: This encompasses the effectiveness, reliability, and technological sophistication of the unmanned system along with the range of mission areas it can cover. Highly capable systems can perform complex tasks and adapt to various operational scenarios but typically require more time and higher costs to develop.

Example 1: MQ-25 Stingray and MQ-4C Triton (US Navy and Air Force)

Time and Capability Over Cost: The MQ-25 Stingray, developed by Boeing, is an unmanned aerial refueling aircraft. The program prioritized delivering a highly capable system quickly to meet urgent operational needs, leading to increased costs. The MQ-25 aims to extend the range of carrier-based aircraft, a critical capability for the Navy. The first test flight was conducted in September 2019, with the focus on achieving operational capability by 2024. This fast-tracked development resulted in higher spending to ensure timely delivery and high performance.

The MQ-4C Triton, developed by Northrop Grumman, is an unmanned aerial vehicle designed for high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance missions. The program has emphasized delivering advanced capabilities quickly to enhance maritime surveillance and reconnaissance. Despite the high costs associated with its development, the Triton has prioritized timely deployment to address emerging threats and operational requirements.

The MQ-4C Triton achieved initial operational capability (IOC) in 2020, with a focus on integrating advanced sensor packages and communication systems to provide comprehensive maritime domain awareness. The accelerated development timeline and emphasis on sophisticated capabilities, such as multi-intelligence capabilities and the ability to operate in adverse weather conditions, have resulted in higher costs. However, the priority was on rapidly fielding a highly capable system to meet urgent operational needs.

Example 2: XQ-58A Valkyrie, Skyborg Program (US Air Force)

Cost and Time Over Capability: The XQ-58A Valkyrie is a low-cost unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) developed by Kratos Defense & Security Solutions. The project emphasized rapid development and cost-efficiency, leading to a compromise on advanced capabilities. Initial flight tests began in March 2019, and by December 2020, the Valkyrie had completed multiple successful test flights. This approach prioritized reduced cost and faster deployment, resulting in a capable but less sophisticated system compared to higher-end UASs.

The Skyborg program, initiated in 2019, aims to develop a family of AI-driven unmanned combat aerial vehicles. The emphasis has been on rapid development and cost control to quickly deploy systems that augment human pilots. Initial operational tests began in 2021, and by 2023, several prototype drones were being tested. The focus on quick development and lower costs led to a trade-off in terms of the cutting-edge capabilities of the initial prototypes, which are designed to be expendable and affordable.

Example 3: Upgrading the RQ-4 Global Hawk and MQ-9 Reaper (US Air Force)

Capability and Cost Over Time: The RQ-4 Global Hawk, a high-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system, has undergone several upgrades in the past five years. These upgrades, which began around 2019, included enhancements to its sensors and communication systems to improve ISR capabilities. While these upgrades have improved the system’s capabilities and long-term cost-efficiency, they have resulted in extended development timelines due to the complexity of integrating advanced technologies.

The MQ-9 Reaper, a versatile hunter-killer and surveillance UAS, has received significant upgrades to enhance its capabilities. From 2019 onwards, improvements such as advanced targeting systems, extended endurance, and enhanced communication suites have been implemented. These upgrades required substantial investment and extended development periods, with the goal of significantly enhancing operational capabilities while managing long-term costs.

Attritability vs survivability

In response to the above trilemma, the concepts of attritability and survivability represent contrasting approaches to achieving operational effectiveness in the face of adversary threats. While both attributes are essential considerations in defense planning, they present distinct trade-offs within the trilemma framework.

On the one hand, attritability refers to the ability of a force to absorb losses on the system level and continue to function effectively in combat scenarios without impeding on the operator’s strategic-operational objectives. Systems designed for attritability prioritize quantity over individual survivability, aiming to overwhelm adversaries through sheer numbers. On the other hand, survivability pertains to a system’s ability to withstand enemy attacks and maintain operational capability in hostile environments. Survivable systems prioritize quality over quantity, focusing on advanced technologies and defensive measures to minimize the likelihood of being destroyed or incapacitated.

Attritable systems are generally less expensive to produce and deploy compared to highly survivable platforms. By prioritizing cost-efficiency, defense planners can allocate resources to mass-produce attritable systems, ensuring a robust and persistent presence on the battlefield without exceeding budgetary constraints. The emphasis on attritability often leads to shorter development cycles and quicker deployment timelines. These systems can be rapidly fielded to respond to emergent threats or operational requirements, enhancing military agility and responsiveness. Attritable systems contribute to operational resilience by absorbing losses without significantly degrading overall mission effectiveness. The ability to sustain operations despite casualties allows military forces to maintain pressure on adversaries and achieve strategic objectives.

Survivable systems typically require significant investment in advanced technologies and defensive measures, resulting in higher development and production costs. This investment is justified by the system’s enhanced ability to operate in contested environments and survive enemy attacks. Developing survivable systems often involves prolonged development cycles due to the complexity of integrating advanced technologies and conducting rigorous testing. Despite the longer timelines, the resulting systems offer superior protection and resilience against adversary threats. Survivable systems contribute to enhanced operational effectiveness by minimizing the risk of mission failure due to enemy actions.
These systems can operate in high-threat environments with reduced vulnerability, allowing military forces to execute missions with greater confidence and success rates.

Balancing attritability and survivability

Conventional wisdom holds that achieving the right balance between attritability and survivability is essential for optimizing defense capabilities within the trilemma framework. While attritable systems offer cost-effective solutions for maintaining a persistent presence and absorbing losses in combat, survivable systems provide critical protection and resilience in high-threat environments. A balanced integrated force structure that incorporates both attritable and survivable systems allows military forces to leverage the respective strengths of each approach. Attritable systems can be employed for tasks where quantity and rapid deployment are paramount, while survivable systems are reserved for missions requiring enhanced protection and resilience.

Conversely, tailoring defense solutions to specific mission requirements enables defense planners to prioritize either attritability or survivability based on operational needs. This approach ensures that resources are allocated efficiently to achieve optimal outcomes across a range of mission scenarios. What is more, advancements in technology, such as modular design, artificial intelligence, predictive maintenance, and additive manufacturing, offer opportunities to enhance both attritability and survivability simultaneously. Integrating these technologies into defense systems enables more cost-effective production, streamlined maintenance, rapid adaptation, and enhanced protection against evolving threats. However, a crucial caveat is in order: The specifics of these evolving threats necessitate a departure from the above-detailed conventional logic. What does this entail?

The new threat environment

The strategic landscape of modern warfare is witnessing a significant shift as NATO and its adversaries adopt contrasting approaches to unmanned systems and force composition at large. In short, the above-detailed balance is shifting to attritability among NATO’s adversaries. While NATO continues to prioritize highly sophisticated and survivable platforms, adversaries are increasingly deploying attritable and often expendable (one-time use / disposable) systems. This strategic defense industrial asymmetry has profound implications for military operations and underscores the need for NATO to reassess its approach to unmanned systems to maintain strategic relevance and operational effectiveness.

Developments in unmanned technology now enable NATO’s adversaries to successfully navigate the cost-time-capability trilemma, thereby seriously challenging the Allied defense ecosystem and changing the overall strategic dynamics of great power competition.

Case study 1: Iran’s Shahed drones
Iranian-made Shahed 131/136 suicide drones have become a major menace on Ukrainian battlefields, highlighting a growing threat to Western interests. These cost-effective and precise UASs initially gained global notoriety after being deployed in Ukraine, having previously wreaked havoc in the Middle East. Notably, in September 2019, swarms of these UASs inflicted heavy damage on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. The debris analysis revealed an unknown delta wing UAS, indicating Iran’s advanced and covert UAS program. This marked a significant scale-up in Iran’s unmanned capabilities.

The Shahed 131/136’s origins are veiled in secrecy, reflecting Iran’s strategic intent. Since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Iran has been developing UASs, often showcasing them in military parades. However, the delta wing UAS used in the 2019 Saudi attacks had not been publicly displayed before. The Mashregh News Agency in 2014 described a UAS called ‘Touphan’ capable of suicide missions, with a delta wing design similar to those used in 2019. Although the ‘Touphan’ had a reported speed of 250 km/hr and an endurance of one hour, the UASs used in 2019 flew much farther, indicating significant enhancements.

Iran likely maintained secrecy around the Shahed UASs to preserve a strategic surprise element. This also allowed Iran to support Houthi insurgents in Yemen covertly, bypassing UN sanctions and maintaining plausible deniability. The Shahed 136 UAS again gained attention in late July 2021 when it struck the oil tanker Mercer Street, killing its Romanian captain and British bodyguard. This incident showcased the UAS’s ability to hit moving targets, although no sensors were found among the wreckage, leaving some mystery about the method used.

In September 2021, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett disclosed the existence of the Shahed 136, linking it to the 2019 Saudi attacks. Iran finally unveiled the Shahed 136 during the Great Prophet 17 drills in December 2021, demonstrating its precision and long-range capabilities. The Shahed 136 is a larger version of the Shahed 131, designed to extend its range to between 1,350 and 1,500 km, aligning with Iran’s aim to target Israel.

HESA Aircraft Industries and the Shahed Aviation Industries Research Centre (SAIRS) are the main producers of these UASs. Their design emphasizes simplicity and cost-effectiveness, with airframes made from carbon fiber and honeycomb, and engines that are reverse-engineered civilian motorbike models. The avionics are largely commercial-grade, using GPS and GLONASS navigation systems available on the global market. The Shahed 136 carries a 20 to 40 kg warhead, while the Shahed 131 carries 10 to 20 kg.

Debris from these UASs, found in both Saudi Arabia and Ukraine, often contain components of Western origin. This underscores Iran’s capability to bypass export controls like the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Wassenar Arrangement as well as US sanctions. Many components found in downed Shahed UASs in Ukraine are reportedly from the US, prompting an executive investigation.

Reports of Russia’s intention to purchase Iranian UASs emerged in July 2021, confirmed by their appearance in Ukraine in September, 2022. Among them were the Shahed 131 and 136, rebranded as Geran 1 and 2 by the Russians. These UASs have been heavily used to target Ukrainian infrastructure, causing significant damage despite a high interception rate by Ukrainian forces.

Although many Shahed UASs are intercepted, their low cost and sheer numbers ensure that enough get through to cause substantial damage. The persistent threat they pose underscores the need for improved defensive measures. The Shahed 131/136 represents a significant leap in the democratization of precision warfare. By leveraging low-cost commercial and dual-use technologies, these UASs challenge Western defense systems, necessitating new strategies to counter them effectively.

In conclusion, the Shahed 131/136 UASs highlight the blend of precision and affordability, reshaping the strategic landscape. Their battlefield effectiveness demands enhanced defensive strategies to mitigate their impact. The conflict in Ukraine underscores the significant threat these UASs pose, prompting a reevaluation of defense mechanisms against such innovative and low-cost threats.

The Shahed-136 and 131 suicide drones represent a culmination of Iran’s efforts to reconcile the cost-time-capability trilemma in defense acquisition while prioritizing attritability over survivability in asymmetric warfare scenarios. Their development reflects Iran’s strategic imperatives and the evolving nature of modern conflict, where agility, innovation, and asymmetric capabilities play pivotal roles in shaping the battlefield landscape. As the above case study showcases, the Shahed doesn’t merely allow Iran and its partners to successfully navigate the trilemma, but also to find a way out of it altogether. By achieving their tactical-operational objectives via overwhelming enemy air defenses with sheer volume, Iran attains its capability requirements at scale quickly and for relatively cheap.

Implications for NATO and Allied Forces

The emergence of attritable systems such as the Shahed 131/136 presents a pressing challenge for NATO and allied forces. These systems highlight the necessity for NATO to reassess its strategic priorities and procurement processes to ensure that it can effectively counter the increasing deployment of low-cost, high-impact unmanned systems by adversaries. For instance, a Shahed unit’s cost is nebulous, but estimated in the $10-20,000 range. A Patriot battery costs around $500m. Three batteries are required to defend a city. Each PAC-3 MSE missile costs north of $4.5m, and at any incoming threat two of these are fired. The cost imbalance compounds rather quickly, exposing vulnerabilities and insufficiencies across the Allied defense industrial base.

To maintain strategic relevance and operational effectiveness, NATO must explore innovative approaches that incorporate both attritability and survivability within the broader defense architecture. The following points roughly correspond with the calls for action outlined in the 2022 US National Defense Strategy and in the 2024 National Defense Industrial Strategy and diagnose specific capability requirements and mission area vulnerabilities below the strategic level.

Future Trends and Considerations

As the character of warfare continues to evolve, the cost-time-capability trilemma will remain a central challenge for defense planners. Several emerging trends and considerations will shape the future of unmanned systems and their role in military operations.

  • Enhancing Defensive Measures
    Given the persistent threat posed by attritable UASs like the Shahed 131/136, NATO and allied forces must prioritize the development and deployment of advanced defensive systems. This includes enhancing radar and sensor capabilities to detect and track small, low-flying UASs more effectively. Additionally, integrating directed-energy weapons, such as high-energy lasers and microwave systems, can provide rapid and precise countermeasures against UAS swarms. These technologies offer a cost-effective solution to neutralize multiple UASs simultaneously without
    the need for expensive interceptor missiles. Cost effectiveness in this case denotes lower cost per kill, while the platform’s production itself may be more costly.
  • Adopting a Layered Defense Strategy
    A layered defense strategy, combining kinetic and non-kinetic solutions, can enhance the overall effectiveness of NATO’s air defense systems. This approach involves deploying a mix of short, medium, and long-range air defense systems, complemented by electronic warfare capabilities to disrupt UAS command and control links. By creating multiple layers of defense, NATO can increase the likelihood of intercepting and neutralizing UAS threats before they reach their targets.
  • Leveraging AI and Machine Learning
    Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies can play a crucial role in enhancing the detection, identification, and tracking of UAS threats. AI-driven systems can analyze vast amounts of data from various sensors to identify patterns and predict UAS behavior, enabling faster and more accurate threat assessment. Furthermore, AI can optimize the deployment of defensive measures, ensuring that resources are allocated efficiently to counter the most imminent threats.
  • Strengthening Supply Chain Security
    The widespread use of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) components in attritable UASs like the Shahed 131/136 underscores the importance of securing defense supply chains. NATO and allied forces must work to strengthen export controls and implement stricter regulations to prevent adversaries from acquiring critical technologies. Additionally, investing in the development of indigenous technologies and fostering collaboration with trusted partners can reduce dependence on foreign components and enhance supply chain resilience.
  • Autonomous Systems and Human-Machine Teaming
    The development of fully autonomous systems and the integration of human-machine teaming concepts will revolutionize military operations. Autonomous systems can operate independently or in coordination with manned platforms, enhancing operational flexibility and effectiveness. Human-machine teaming allows for the optimal allocation of tasks, with humans focusing on strategic decision-making while autonomous systems handle routine or high-risk missions. This synergy can address the trilemma by leveraging the strengths of both human and machine capabilities
  • Modular and Reconfigurable Systems
    Modular and reconfigurable unmanned systems offer a promising solution to the trilemma by providing flexibility and adaptability. These systems can be quickly reconfigured with different payloads or mission-specific modules, allowing for rapid adaptation to changing operational requirements. Modular designs also facilitate easier and cost-effective upgrades, extending the service life of unmanned systems and enhancing their overall value.
  • Collaborative Swarming Technologies
    Collaborative swarming technologies, where multiple UASs work together to achieve a common objective, represent a significant advancement in unmanned warfare. Swarms can perform complex tasks such as reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and precision strikes with high levels of coordination and efficiency. This approach leverages the cost and time advantages of attritable systems while enhancing their overall capability through collaborative behavior.

Case study 2: The US DoD’s Replicator Drone Program

In response to the evolving character of warfare and the increasing emphasis on attritable platforms, the Pentagon has launched the Replicator drone program. This initiative aims to leverage advanced technologies to develop a new generation of unmanned systems that can be rapidly deployed, cost-effective, and capable of operating in highly contested environments.

Overview of the Replicator Program

The Replicator program, initiated by the US Department of Defense (DoD), seeks to create a fleet of low-cost, expendable drones that can be produced in large quantities and deployed quickly to meet emerging threats. The program’s name reflects its goal of replicating advanced capabilities across a large number of platforms, creating a swarm-like effect that can overwhelm adversary defenses.

Balancing the Trilemma:

Cost: One of the primary objectives of the Replicator program is to reduce the cost of unmanned systems. By utilizing commercial off-the-shelf components and advanced manufacturing techniques such as additive manufacturing, the program aims to produce drones that are affordable and expendable. This cost-efficiency allows the DoD to deploy large numbers of drones without straining the defense budget.

Time: The Replicator program emphasizes rapid development and deployment. By streamlining the design and production processes, the DoD aims to bring new drones from concept to deployment in a matter of months rather than years. This rapid timeline is essential for addressing emerging threats and maintaining a technological edge over adversaries.

Capability: Despite their low cost and rapid development, Replicator drones are designed to be highly capable. They are equipped with advanced sensors, autonomous navigation systems, and the ability to operate in swarms. These capabilities enable the drones to perform a variety of tasks, including surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare, and precision strikes.

Technological Innovations

The Replicator program leverages several cutting-edge technologies to achieve its objectives:
Additive Manufacturing: By using 3D printing and other additive manufacturing techniques, the program can produce complex drone components quickly and at a lower cost. This technology also allows for rapid prototyping and iterative design improvements.

Artificial Intelligence: AI plays a crucial role in the Replicator drones, enabling autonomous navigation, target identification, and decision-making. The use of AI allows the drones to operate with minimal human intervention, increasing their effectiveness and reducing the burden on human operators.

Swarming Technology: The ability to operate in swarms is a key feature of the Replicator drones. Swarming technology allows multiple drones to coordinate their actions, share information, and execute complex missions collaboratively. This capability enhances the overall effectiveness of the drone fleet and complicates enemy defenses.
Strategic Implications

The Replicator program represents a significant shift in the US military’s approach to unmanned systems, emphasizing attritability and rapid deployment over traditional survivability and high cost. This shift reflects the changing character of warfare, where the ability to field large numbers of capable but expendable systems can provide a strategic advantage.

Operational Flexibility: The low cost and rapid production of Replicator drones provide the US military with greater operational flexibility. These drones can be deployed in large numbers to overwhelm enemy defenses, conduct persistent surveillance, and execute precision strikes without the risk of significant financial loss.

Resilience: The attritable nature of Replicator drones enhances the resilience of US military operations. Even if large numbers of drones are lost in combat, their low cost and quick production ensure that replacements can be rapidly fielded, maintaining the operational tempo and pressure on adversaries.

Technological Edge: By incorporating advanced technologies such as AI and swarming, the Replicator program ensures that the US military maintains a technological edge over adversaries. These capabilities enable the drones to perform complex missions autonomously and adapt to dynamic battlefield conditions.

Strategic Deterrence: The ability to deploy large numbers of capable drones serves as a strategic deterrent, complicating adversaries’ planning and reducing their confidence in achieving air superiority. The presence of a robust and adaptable drone fleet can dissuade adversaries from engaging in aggressive actions.

Challenges and Future Directions

While the Replicator program holds great promise, it also faces several challenges:

Integration: Integrating a large number of autonomous drones into existing military operations requires significant adjustments in command and control structures, as well as coordination with manned systems.

Cybersecurity: The reliance on AI and networked systems makes Replicator drones vulnerable to cyber attacks. Ensuring robust cybersecurity measures is essential to protect these systems from adversary interference.

Regulatory Hurdles: The rapid development and deployment of new drone technologies may encounter regulatory and policy challenges, both domestically and internationally. Navigating these hurdles is crucial for the program’s success.

CONOPS: While the new underlying technologies and systems are being developed, parallel doctrinal innovation must also take place in order to integrate Replicator into force structure and modern informationized joint operations.

The Replicator drone program exemplifies the Pentagon’s response to the changing character of war, prioritizing attritability and rapid deployment to maintain a strategic edge. By balancing cost, time, and capability, the program aims to create a fleet of advanced, expendable drones that can operate effectively in contested environments, providing the US military with greater flexibility, resilience, and deterrence capabilities. As the program evolves, it will play a critical role in shaping the future of unmanned warfare and the broader defense strategy of the United States.

While incomplete, Replicator may well become a potent US response to expendable, affordable drones swarming the modern battlefield. That said, a shift towards attritability should not be limited to select platforms but be seen as a way out of the cost-time-capability trilemma across capabilities, platform classes, and mission areas. The Shahed drone family encapsulates suicide drones as an emerging threat on the tactical-operational level. But the real emerging threat strategically speaking is attritability itself, which permeates through the character of warfighting at large. The Turkish defense contractor Baykar Defense is a prime example of this paradigm when it comes to affordable and capable drones beyond the loitering munition platform class.

Case study 3: Baykar Defense and the Bayraktar TB-2
The evolution of drone warfare has accelerated due to the entry of new participants, driving advancements in drone technology over the past decade. Notably, Turkish armed drones have gained prominence as one of the most sought-after UASs globally. Among these, the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAS Bayraktar TB-2 drone, manufactured by Baykar Defense, has seen extensive exportation to 24 countries. While the Turkish government hasn’t officially disclosed these destinations, reports suggest a broad range including Qatar, Libya, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and many others. With diverse military applications such as surveillance, reconnaissance, target identification, and attack capabilities, the TB-2 is versatile, except for logistics and resupply functions.

Baykar, a Turkish defense company specializing in UASs, notably produced 200 Bayraktar TB-2s in 2022, with plans to increase production to 500 TB-2s and 40 next-generation Bayraktar Akinci drones by 2023. Despite their proven effectiveness, the unit cost of TB-2 drones remains relatively low at an estimated $5 million, offering countries with limited financial resources a cost-effective route to bolstering their air power capabilities compared to older models like the US-made MQ-9 Reapers, which cost $14 million each in 2008.

This case study delves into the vulnerabilities of Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drones that necessitate improvement. Additionally, it explores whether deploying these drones in fragile regions may exacerbate the use of force, leading to heightened instability and civilian casualties. Finally, it underscores the importance of Turkey adhering to international regulations on armed drones.

Enhancing the TB-2’s Combat Capabilities:

While the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 has proven its efficacy on the battlefield, it remains susceptible to exploitable vulnerabilities. Military strategists must carefully consider factors such as susceptibility to electronic warfare, GPS jamming, and air defense systems. Addressing these weaknesses proactively can optimize the TB-2’s effectiveness while minimizing the risk of loss or damage.

Communication Link Interception: TB-2s rely on a communication link between a remote pilot and the aircraft for control and data transfer. Intercepting this link grants attackers control over the UAS or disrupts communication, potentially causing malfunction or crashes.

GPS Spoofing: Relying on GPS for navigation and guidance, TB-2s are vulnerable to spoofed signals, leading to misdirection or crashes into unintended targets.

Physical Damage: Environmental factors like high winds or lightning, as well as deliberate attacks with firearms or explosives, can damage or destroy TB-2s.

Cyberattacks and weak encryption: TB-2s are susceptible to cyberattacks such as malware or denial-of-service attacks, enabling attackers to seize control or disrupt communication. Although TB-2s use encryption to secure communication links, weak encryption can be exploited by attackers to intercept and decode communication. Launching cyberattacks against TB-2 control systems or communication links can grant control to adversaries, disrupt missions, or steal sensitive data.

Limited Autonomy: TB-2s’ reliance on remote pilots for control exposes them to social engineering attacks or attacks on control stations.
In theaters where aerospace isn’t controlled by allied air forces, TB-2s face additional vulnerabilities:

Countermeasures and EW: Adversaries can deploy countermeasures to jam or disrupt TB-2 communication links, GPS signals, or radar detection, causing loss of control or deviation from the intended course. Adversaries can also use electronic warfare to jam or disrupt TB-2 communication links, GPS signals, or other electronic systems.

Air Defense Systems: Deployment of anti-aircraft missiles or fighter aircraft can engage TB-2s, detectable via radar or other sensors.
To mitigate these vulnerabilities, controlling aerospace over the theater is imperative. Additionally, employing advanced anti-jamming technologies, stealthy flight profiles, and coordination with ground-based air defense systems can enhance security. Utilizing multiple UASs provides redundancy and resiliency against countermeasures and attacks.

TB-2 deployment to date:

Armed drones often lower the threshold for the use of force, leading decision-makers to resort to lethal force more readily. The proliferation of Turkish armed drones in various regions has sparked debates over their implications. For instance, while African states use Turkish armed drones for domestic repression, governments like Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan intend to deploy them in intra-state conflicts.

In conflict zones like Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine, TB-2s were deployed against forces primarily armed with Russian weapons. Despite sophisticated Russian air defense systems, TB-2s emerged as formidable due to their advanced technology, small radar cross-section, electronic countermeasures, and high maneuverability. However, they remain vulnerable to advanced air defense systems like the S-400, Triumf, and Pantsir-S1 possessed by Russia. The success of TB-2s is also attributed to their weapons, the MAM-L and MAM-C smart munitions developed by Roketsan, which provide precision-strike capability while minimizing collateral damage.

While TB-2 drones offer significant military advantages, continual efforts to address vulnerabilities and comply with international regulations are essential. Adaptive strategies are necessary to maximize effectiveness while mitigating risks in evolving conflict zones.

As showcased, effectively relying on low-cost, semi-autonomous, and attritable solutions isn’t limited to suicide drones at all. In fact, since the resounding success of the MALE Bayraktar TB-2, Baykar has been pushing the development and deployment of the heavier and more sophisticated HALE Akinci and Kizilelma at accelerated rates as well.

A number of caveats are once again in order:

Firstly, the track record of medium powers in the Middle East (NATO Ally Turkey and NATO adversary Iran) shows that it is possible and effective to deploy attritable unmanned solutions across system classes. Theoretically, US and Allied defense industrial base would have the macroeconomic leverage to output such capabilities at an order of magnitude larger scale. Such adjustments are necessary and urgent. However, coming back to the earlier point on force composition, such systems cannot fully replace the sophisticated and survivable multirole C2 and ISR functions as the F-35 or the NGAD. These cutting edge capabilities remain integral to penetrating saturated A2/AD operational environments in the Taiwan Strait and to cultivate NATO’s own A2/AD in Europe.

Secondly, attritable unmanned systems deployment shouldn’t be limited to the air domain either. In light of Anduril Industries’ recent securing of the USAF’s CCA tender, it is worth enumerating their assortment of various smart, attritable, and autonomous solutions across the air, land, sea, and cyber domains. Leveraging expertise in artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, and sensor fusion, Anduril is revolutionizing defense capabilities across various domains, including border security, intelligence gathering, and military operations. Their flagship products, such as the Lattice AI platform and the Ghost and Fury UASs (Unmanned Aerial System), enable real-time situational awareness and decision-making, empowering military and law enforcement personnel with the tools they need to stay ahead of evolving threats. Today, no discussion on unmanned systems is complete without mention of Anduril, and the
myriad defense contractors being founded in their vein to disrupt the traditional DoD monopsony on defense procurement.

The challenge of balancing cost, time, and capability is pressing for operators of UASs in today’s battlefield. Various UAS examples highlight different strategies in tackling this challenge. The strategic landscape of warfare is evolving rapidly, with adversaries increasingly relying on attritable systems to achieve their goals.

To effectively counter these emerging threats, NATO and allied forces must urgently adopt innovative strategies. Rather than striving for a balanced force composition, there’s a pressing need to prioritize attritable platforms en masse. This approach involves striking a delicate balance between attritability and survivability, enhancing defensive measures, capitalizing on emerging technologies, and harnessing the largest wave of US (re)industrialization since the Gilded Age.

It’s imperative to swiftly embrace a multi-faceted approach that emphasizes modularity, attritability, and collaborative behaviors in unmanned systems. As the nature of warfare continues to evolve, maintaining a dynamic and adaptable defense posture is crucial for ensuring operational success and retaining a strategic advantage on the battlefield.

In fact, there is a compelling case to be made that a shift to attritability over survivability across the board would truly put the ball in the West’s court vis-à-vis their revisionist adversaries. By stripping defense economic competition of deadweight and harnessing expendable platforms at scale, the West (given sufficient defense industrial and macroeconomic reorganization) could leverage its superior macroeconomic position, which made the US and Allies a world hegemon in the first place.



Global A&D

Adam Meszaros
Analyst London
Craig Belanger
Senior Partner & Co-Founder Boston
Joe Giandomenico
Principal Boston
Anirudh Suneel
Principal London
Ben Osterholtz
Manager Boston
Jerry Spruill
Senior Advisor, Aerospace & Defense Palm Coast
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