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News | July 5, 2024

Small, smart, many and cheaper: Competitive adaptation in modern warfare

By Atlantic Council Turkey Programs Defense Journal by Atlantic Council IN TURKEY

Defense Journal by Atlantic Council IN TURKEY (DJ): Dr. Hammes, you’ve been tracking and predicting developments in drones, unmanned systems, and the changing nature of combined arms warfare for over a decade now. Looking back, what has surprised you and what has confirmed your early surmises in recent years?

T. X. Hammes: From the beginning I expected that “small, smart, and many” could overcome “few and exquisite” by sheer numbers. The general trend has held, but what has surprised me—especially in Ukraine—has been how quickly users have adapted. For instance, Ukraine has employed carpenters to build drones made out of wood powered by outboard motors. It was undeterred by its lack of manufacturing facilities for advanced synthetic materials. These drones launch from a simple wheeled carriage but can achieve a range of 750 kilometers, and carry a fairly substantial payload. These very cheap systems are being used to attack oil facilities deep in Russia.

I suggested in 2016 that, in many cases, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) doesn’t necessarily have to deliver the explosive; it is enough to bring the detonator. Modern societies provide their own explosives and combustibles. Very small drones can do great damage by impacting with enough of a detonating charge to induce fuel, ammunition, or energy sources to explode. Large warheads are not required.

In 2016, the idea had little traction with senior [officers], but younger, field grade officers got it. Unfortunately, developing a concept and bending the procurement system are two very different things. We have the “iron triangle” of vested interests in procurement—defense contractors, the Pentagon, and Congress. Each is vested in keeping current systems and approaches for as long as possible. This is very difficult to change. Congressional reversal of the US Navy’s attempt to not refuel an aircraft carrier (the Harry S. Truman) in favor of devoting more resources to advanced strike capabilities is an example of this. There are thousands of jobs in congressional districts engaged in military production: the Joint Strike Fighter (F-35) involves production in forty-five of the fifty states. Couple these economic incentives with the fact that military officers are inherently conservative as a group, and you see resistance to real or rapid change.

As always, warfare will include the adaption, counteradaption and counter-counteradaption cycle. The Turkish Bayraktar drones were a shock early in the war in Ukraine, but the Russians gradually got an air defense system together and effectively neutralized the Bayraktar. Today, the Turks are developing jet stealth systems like the US Valkyrie XQ58A. I don’t know what the Turkish model will cost, but the Valkyrie is roughly $4 million apiece. The F-35 costs nearly $140 million each. With an expected operational lifespan of 8,000 hours, at $30,000 per flight hour, the lifetime operations and maintenance (O&M) cost can exceed $360 million per F-35. This gets to be real money over time. Further, with the current fleet-wide mission capable rate of just over 50 percent, you effectively need two aircraft (for $720 million) to ensure one mission-capable aircraft. Current full-mission capable rates on the F-35 are 28 percent, so we’re close to needing four to ensure one fully mission-capable aircraft. In essence you are spending $1.4 billion for each full mission-capable F-35. You can have hundreds of XQ58As at that price. And the world will know where the F-35s are (few in number, operating in a world with pervasive surveillance). Keep in mind, these figures cover only O&M costs for F-35s. They do not cover the cost of pilot or maintenance personnel and training pipelines. Nor do they cover the cost of large fixed air bases and air defense for the facilities required to operate F-35s. The Turks will likely develop an export version of their aircraft, and so we can see a world in which small, high-speed, deep-penetrating drones with a variety of onboard armaments and sensors will be available to almost anyone. Drones like these can operate up to 1,500 miles beyond launch points. And they do about the same as some of the advanced munitions fired by F-35s, such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, or JASSM, at $3 million a missile.

Read the Q&A with T.X. Hammer →