Recent conflicts such as the war in Ukraine and the 2020 war in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrate the growing importance of unmanned aerial vehicles. UAVs are a constant threat on the modern battlefield. These platforms conduct reconnaissance, attack ground targets, and perform as loitering munitions. They range from low-cost commercial, off-the-shelf devices to defense industry products such as the Iranian Shahed-131. By some estimates, UAVs are so prolific that the Ukrainian military alone loses over ten thousand platforms per month. Some Ukrainian forces report that it is not unusual to have twenty or more overflights per day by hostile drones. The availability and capabilities of these platforms make the battlefield dangerous in an entirely new way.

Naturally, there have been attempts to defeat this new threat. Some resort to traditional antiaircraft systems, such as ZU-23-2 antiaircraft guns, small arms, or surface-to-air missiles. These approaches are sometimes effective but are not ideal. Hitting a very small, fast target with relatively larger-caliber rounds is challenging. Alternatively, expending many thousands (if not millions) of dollars on each missile to eliminate an inexpensive UAV is an economically losing affair. Other means to defeat this growing threat include devices that use the electromagnetic spectrum. This can vary from jamming systems (GPS denial, communications link denial) to directed-energy weapons such as lasers and microwaves. Though effective at times, these devices come with trade-offs such as interference with friendly systems and the loud invitation to opposing artillery once the signals are detected. No matter the defense mechanism chosen, there just are not enough systems to provide sufficient protection against swarms of UAVs. Air defenses are typically fielded in just enough quantities to defend high-value targets and not much else. The average grunt on the battlefield is left victim to the terror in the skies. The solution for this dilemma is to take the next step in UAV evolution: air superiority drones.

A Page from History

To clearly see why air superiority UAVs (or fighter UAVs) are the natural next step, one only needs to examine the relatively recent history of powered flight in combat. Shortly after the Wright brothers succeeded in demonstrating that powered flight was feasible, the militaries of the world began research into the use of this new technology in combat. Developing aircraft, pilots, and supply chains to make systems at scale became priorities for many nations.

The first step in the combat application of powered flight was for reconnaissance. This was an obvious mission for aircraft as balloons had already demonstrated their value as signaling and targeting platforms in previous conflicts, including the American Civil War. In the prewar years of 1911–1914, developing aircraft to conduct reconnaissance was important. As World War I began, the value of the airplane to detect enemy movements, guide artillery fire, and perform other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions became clear. The traditional scout (cavalry) had lost its value as trench warfare became prevalent. Other means of reconnaissance were needed.

It wasn’t very long into the war before ambitious pilots began to extend their mission sets into ground attack roles. Despite the lack of specifically developed bombers, pilots began to use aircraft to attack ground targets using items ranging from hand-dropped flechettes to grenades to small-caliber shells. This soon led to ground attack roles being deliberately incorporated into military air operations. Due to the exposure of ground forces to aerial reconnaissance platforms and burgeoning ground-attack systems, air defense mechanisms became an important developmental area. Of course, ground-based systems (antiaircraft weapons) were a component of this new defensive technology. In parallel, development of fighter aircraft whose purpose was to defeat enemy aircraft occurred. This began initially with crew members simply carrying small arms and then evolved to integrated automatic weapons. Instead of relying solely on ground defenses, militaries realized the value of air-based defenses against aerial threats. From those days forward, a key component of powered air combat systems were the air superiority fighters whose mission was to defeat enemy aircraft while in flight.

UAVs in modern combat have followed a similar trajectory as manned, powered aircraft. First were the intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones. Then came the ground-attack systems. Given this path and the inability of ground-based systems to defend the skies against the swarms of UAVs, the next logical step is the fighter UAV. This need was demonstrated by the first recorded air-to-air engagement by a Ukrainian drone and Ukrainian research into fighter drone development.

Developing the UAV Fighter Squadron

Research into autonomous fighter aircraft is not new. Systems are already being experimented on, such as autonomous wingmen and the Air Combat Evolution AI for autonomous fighter aircraft. However, all of these efforts are focused on large, expensive platforms that attack and defend against traditional jet aircraft found in modern air forces. Certainly, these systems will be useful in future conflicts and they have an important role against traditional and future air war threats. However, they will not solve the issues found at the lowest levels on the modern battlefield.

What militaries need quickly are small, cheap (a.k.a. disposable) platforms that can defend against the numerous commercial, off-the-shelf UAVs that cloud the battlefield. Ahead of the military in this area is the Aerial Sports League’s Drone Combat Games, which pits two small UAVs against each other in a fight to the death. Small companies are also emerging in this field to fill the gap with products such as the DroneHunter F700. Whatever the development path is, there are important features required for these systems to be successful.

The first and probably most important aspect of air superiority drones is that they must be inexpensive and practically disposable. Militaries cannot afford in quantity traditionally priced aircraft when the threat is cheap and effective. Defense in this manner may be temporarily feasible but will not be successful over the course of long conflicts as resources will limit availability. Low cost will also help ensure that the lowest-level units can receive defensive capability that was previously only available to protect more valuable assets.

Next, these fighter systems will require significant autonomy. At a minimum, they should be able to fly patrol patterns without user intervention, detect threat aircraft, calculate intercept courses, and communicate intelligence data to relevant systems all at the speed of modern technology. Ideally, these aircraft would also be able to cooperate with other fighter UAVs to deconflict targets, identify priority targets, and engage threats automatically. Given that the threat is similarly unmanned, the ethics and challenges associated with autonomous targeting should be less difficult to overcome. Mistakes made in the destruction of unmanned drones should not be a major ethical or legal concern. Overall, these aircraft should be as simple to use as commercial UAVs that automate many flight tasks. Common user interfaces (e.g., smartphone, tablet) for these UAVs should prevail and point-and-click route setting utilized. Soldiers should not require days and weeks of training to use these systems.

The last challenge for the development of small UAV fighters (and other UAVs) is integration into the battlefield environment. These systems should not be owned by the traditional air superiority services, but possessed by any ground unit that requires UAV defenses. Given the presence of other aerial platforms, airspace management will become more challenging especially as new aircraft owners will exist who aren’t part of existing airspace planning efforts. To achieve the density and effectiveness of the fighter UAV while maintaining the safety of other aircraft, rules on airspace use will need to be developed. Whether it’s deconfliction by altitude, time, or location, new rules will need to provide some organization to the skies. These rules will protect by design the other airspace users as the air superiority UAVs are expendable. Additionally, fighter UAVs should be incorporated into the overall air defense common operational picture. Air defenders should know where systems are located and what their capabilities are to synchronize defenses to their best potential. This will help to protect friendly ground forces from this evolving threat.

UAVs from small to large have altered the modern battlefield and the airspace above it. What was once the domain of air combat services is now an open melee of aircraft. Air defenses have not evolved quickly enough to defeat this new threat and where they have grown, they are proving insufficient. The time has come for air-to-air combat UAVs to be developed and fielded. For the US military to be prepared, it must combat UAV threats not with Cold War technology but instead with modern UAV technology.

Retired Lieutenant Colonel Paul Maxwell is the deputy director of the Army Cyber Institute at the United States Military Academy. He was a cyber and armor branch officer during his twenty-four years of service. He holds a PhD in electrical engineering from Colorado State University.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Senior Airman Caleb Pavao, US Air Force