In July, Ukrainian soldiers took to social media to voice complaints about training they received from US Army personnel in Germany. Chief among their criticisms was the seeming ignorance of commercial drone use on the battlefield. One soldier wrote, “The Americans have not participated in a serious war for a while now. Their army does not even have an analogue of the Chinese Mavik 3, it was a shock for us.” He added, “The concept of Maviks and the use of civilian copters is simply not even in their plans. Of course, they study our war, but they are still surprised that we use it this way.”

Given that the Ukrainian military is locked in daily ground combat with one of the US Army’s most serious competitors, these criticisms should be particularly concerning to military leaders. Since then, additional complaints have trickled out in mainstream reports. A recent MWI article tells of Ukrainian soldiers describing the Army’s response to new threats and innovations as “lacking urgency due to a ‘business as usual’ attitude.”

Ukrainian soldiers are right to highlight a serious gap in current US Army equipment, tactics, and training. When it comes to small unmanned aircraft systems (sUAS) for reconnaissance and strike at the squad to battalion level, the United States is behind the curve, partly due to self-imposed bureaucracy and institutional inertia. Meanwhile, US adversaries are gaining invaluable operational experience with these same technologies.

To fill this gap and begin the widespread experimentation that will be essential for driving the adaptation of combined arms tactics and future procurement programs, the US Army should introduce expendable off-the-shelf commercial drones to operational units as soon as possible. The Army should leverage the innovative and can-do spirit of its soldiers to close this dangerous small drone gap. To take advantage of this opportunity, it must specifically encourage experimentation and remove bureaucratic and cultural barriers that might prevent bottom-up innovation driven by junior leaders.

Small Drones in Recent Combined Arms Operations

In the Army’s five-tier unmanned aircraft classification model, sUAS fall into Group 1 and Group 2. These platforms are actively changing the modern battlefield and shaping conflicts in Ukraine, Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Middle East. The distinction between reconnaissance drone and loitering munition is rapidly becoming moot. Ukrainian and Russian forces have used small drones to spot targets for artillery, kill tanks, attack fortified positions, provide reconnaissance for infantry assaults, and more. Although the best-suited role and full impact of these weapons is hotly debated among defense analysts, it is clear that sUAS and loitering munitions could fundamentally alter future combined arms operations. Ukrainian officers have argued this exact point when challenged on their lack of progress in successive counteroffensives.

Ukraine and Russia are now engaged in a drone arms race in which they are rapidly developing and mass producing new systems in the hope of gaining a technological edge along the stagnant battlelines of eastern Ukraine. Both sides have been forced to adapt their drone technologies and tactics in the wake of battlefield developments. To feed this race, they are buying and producing sUAS in immense numbers, consuming as many as ten thousand drones per month. Both Ukraine and Russia lean heavily on China for smaller drones, and the Chinese military has also been studying the impact of these systems on modern warfare.

Put simply, the Russian military (and, less problematically, the Ukrainian military) has a two-year jump on NATO and the US Army when it comes to buying, manufacturing, fielding, employing, and evolving sUAS for ground combat. One could identify myriad reasons for American and European sluggishness, but given the availability of drones on the commercial market, institutional inertia and military bureaucracy no doubt play a role.

If the Army is to remain prepared for tomorrow’s battlefield, wherever it may be, then it needs to be experimenting with fielding and employing expendable sUAS and loitering munitions today. Of course the Army should, as senior leaders promise, learn lessons from Ukraine and other cases in Gaza or Nagorno-Karabakh, but it cannot afford to just observe the use of these technologies while it waits years for its own procurement programs to mature. These nations’ military forces are set up differently than the US Army, and it is incumbent upon the Army to experiment with these technologies in its own formations as soon as possible. Conceptual and organizational innovation takes time, and a business-as-usual attitude will leave the Army behind its competitors.

To be clear, it remains to be seen if Ukraine, Russia, or others have found the best ways to utilize small drones in modern warfare, or how relevant lessons from positional warfare in Ukraine are to future combined arms operations. That said, large portions of Russian and Ukrainian combat formations have been experimenting with these technologies for over two years. The Army must be clear-eyed about the operational experience that these militaries are rapidly gaining with sUAS. The Army appears to be waking up to the urgent need for counter-sUAS technologies, but this is just one piece of the sUAS puzzle. It still lacks a widespread, expendable drone capability in most of its combat formations.

Army leadership will surely argue that the service is working to close the sUAS experimentation gap with efforts like the Short Range Reconnaissance program, which fielded the RQ-28A to the sUAS schoolhouse and some units in recent months. While the RQ-28A appears a very capable platform, the program took three years to deliver and costs over $20,000 per drone. Tranche 2 of the SRR program is expected to see the unit cost rise to over $120,000. At these prices, it is unlikely to be experimented with as a truly expendable platform across the Army’s numerous formations. The Pentagon is moving forward with its Replicator initiative to field large quantities of inexpensive autonomous systems in the next 18–24 months, but it remains unclear if (or how) this will impact Army maneuver units.

Filling the sUAS Experimentation Gap

How can the United States remain abreast of its competitors in the sUAS arms race? The Army should immediately put off-the-shelf drones in the hands of its junior leaders and empower them to rigorously test these capabilities. To do so requires three initial steps.

First, the Army should provide multiple combat units with large quantities of off-the-shelf commercial drones. This means skipping technology demonstrations, specially designed tests with contractor support, and major fielding events. Instead, it should purchase a variety of existing inexpensive sUAS with differing capabilities and put them in the hands of junior leaders. Rather than betting on top-down innovation from the sUAS program office and schoolhouse, let platoon and squad leaders determine how these systems can help them complete their training cycles. From reconnaissance platoons to infantry squads, mortar platoons, fire support teams, and artillery batteries, the Army should field these cheap drones to multiple elements of combined arms formations. Widespread distribution would allow units to use ongoing training events to determine what functions sUAS can best serve, what elements and echelons to integrate them with, and what tactics, techniques, and procedures work best. After a unit has experimented with these technologies in a cycle of live fires or a combat training center rotation, feedback from its soldiers could be formalized into standard operating procedures by the battalion or brigade staff and sent to schoolhouses to shape future training and doctrine.

These inexpensive drones need not do everything or satisfy traditional Army requirements—they only need to be something soldiers can experiment with today. Thermal cameras, hardened datalinks, and autopilot features are important in future sUAS programs, but soldiers need drones to test and develop tactics, techniques, and procedures now. Additional capabilities or payloads could be simulated in training exercises. This bottom-up approach has the added benefit of utilizing operational units to identify the right capability sets and requirements for future procurement programs, much like successful initiatives in US Special Operations Command. There are numerous drone vendors that the Department of Defense has vetted and cleared. For example, Skydio, who manufactures the RQ-28A, previously sold a commercial model starting at just over $1,000. At that price, the Army could purchase over forty thousand drones for the cost of a single Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon missile.

A low price point is essential to enabling the second step required to fill the Army’s sUAS experimentation gap: clearing regulation, bureaucracy, and risk avoidance, all of which inhibits rigorous experimentation by junior leaders. Removing barriers begins by ensuring these drones are considered truly expendable. They must not be classified as sensitive items or stored in arms rooms, and commanders and soldiers should not be held accountable for their loss or damage. Rather, it should be expected that these drones will be lost or destroyed during training. Soldiers should not hesitate to test them in all weather conditions, around indirect fire, and over impact zones. As commercial products, these drones would contain no sensitive technology to recover.

Of course, commanders will have to mitigate some risk, such as those presented by flying sUAS in the same airspace as helicopters. Other safety regulations should be altered or waived. Army leaders using local regulations as an excuse for prohibiting Ukrainian soldiers from flying drones while training at US bases in Germany is unacceptable. If the Army can fly AH-64s, fire artillery, and conduct close air support training at these bases, then surely senior leaders can make arrangements to fly quadcopters at low altitudes without forcing units to navigate a bureaucratic maze.

Finally, the Army should use ongoing experimentation to develop and field a modular drone assembled from commercially available parts to all active brigade combat teams within five years. Testing of off-the-shelf models should drive the requirements for these systems. Like the commercial variants adopted in the interim, these systems should be modular and must remain expendable. Drone technology is moving quickly, and the Army cannot afford to be stuck with sUAS that are not easily upgradeable, interchangeable, or expendable. In this regard, the Army appears to be on track with its Short Range Reconnaissance and Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance programs. As it purchases these systems, any kinetic platform should be accompanied by inert training variants to ensure that soldiers can continue to train with them without burdensome safety and property regulations.

To accompany drone experimentation, the Army should also bring 3D printing capability to the brigade level. Ukrainian forces have pioneered all types of harnesses to enable commercial drones to carry payloads. Given the opportunity and impetus, US soldiers may shock their commanders with creative solutions for problems that arise during sUAS testing and fielding. 3D printing equipment would also help units in other ways, such as fashioning small replacement parts for other equipment. The Army can support innovative soldiers by giving them printing capabilities and establishing a repository for designs and solutions to be shared between units.

The US Army fancies itself an innovative organization whose asymmetric advantage against China and Russia remains “its leaders and soldiers.” I have witnessed this to be true, but these same adversaries are surging ahead in the realm of sUAS while the United States moves at a relatively glacial pace. Other Army modernization priorities such as long-range precision fires or future vertical lift may necessitate more top-down technological innovation and contractor support, but sUAS does not. Instead of empowering its greatest asset—a specialist or lieutenant interested in drone racing or 3D printing—the Army impedes them with archaic procurement processes and risk-averse regulation. Critics of this approach will surely cite scores of reasons why the recommendations in this article are ill-advised or impossible to implement. They should consider that Russia has developed and fielded these technologies under one of the most restrictive sanction regimes in recent history. Surely, the US Army can muster its vast resources and talent to close this important innovation gap. Some units, such as the 82nd Airborne, are ahead of the curve and working to address this issue already. The Army should support these units and help spread their successes to other formations.

With experimentation, the Army may find that sUAS technologies do not impact American combined arms operations in the ways that many currently argue. This is an acceptable outcome, but this experimentation and determination must happen now, before soldiers’ lives hang in the balance. The Army cannot afford to slow roll innovation in the time before it goes to battle with an adversary who has been refining its sUAS capabilities for years.

Tyler Hacker is a research fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, where his work focuses on long-range strike, future operational concepts, and great power conflict. He previously served as a field artillery officer in the United States Army.

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: Sgt. Marita Schwab, US Army