Editorial: Game Changers

Aug. 1, 2019

In shooting down a Navy BAMS drone, maybe Iran’s Revolutionary Guard did the US a favor? Photo: Bob Brown/Northrop Grumman

The surface-to-air missile that destroyed a US Navy drone in June heightened tensions with Iran and throughout the region. More importantly, however, it blew a hole in the notion that US aircraft designed to operate in permissive airspace—airspace absent advanced surface-to-air missile (SAM) threats—can operate with impunity anyplace and anytime.

Let that be a wake-up call. Maybe Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps did the US a favor.

Iran shot down an unarmed, remotely piloted US Navy Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) aircraft, a variant of the Air Force Global Hawk with the wingspan of a Boeing 737 and a body about the size of a V-22, equipped with cameras and other intelligence-gathering sensors. Operating in international airspace at an altitude of around 50,000 feet, it posed no direct threat to Iran.

The IRGC shot it down anyway.

This raises critical issues of security policy, strategy, and equipment.

Without a clear policy for how the US responds to attacks on unmanned aircraft, the United States came within a hair’s breadth of launching a retaliatory strike that might have killed dozens. Applying the principal of proportionality to call off that counterattack leaves open the question of how future attacks will be interpreted in Washington. Did Iran get one free shot, and after that no more? Does every challenger get equal treatment? The failure to be clear risks a de facto open season on unarmed, unmanned aircraft operating in international airspace.

Strategically, one of America’s asymmetric advantages is its superior situational awareness, made possible by a combination of air-, cyber-, sea-, and space-based intelligence assets. Failure to protect those assets, particularly those that are unmanned, risks ceding that advantage to smaller adversaries. To deter foes, they must see that the cost of attacking an American ISR asset is greater than the benefit.

These threats are not limited to ISR aircraft. Whether Iran took down the MQ-4C with a home-built Khordad 3 missile fired from a mobile launcher, as it claimed, or was using some other system does not matter so much as what they proved they could do: Intercept a reasonably fast aircraft operating at a reasonably high altitude. Sure, the RQ-4 is slower than an F-16 or F/A-18, but if they can shoot down one, they can learn to shoot down the other. It’s just a matter of time.

Houthi rebels in Yemen shot down a US MQ-9 in June; while Iran probably contributed to that attack, it is a further demonstration of the vulnerability of unprotected/undefended ISR systems. If there is no consequence to shooting down uninhabited surveillance systems, what is next? US surveillance satellites

That Iran could successfully shoot down the Navy drone demonstrates the increasingly sophisticated integrated air defense systems US forces will encounter, not just among peer competitors but among middle-weight regional powers and, as demonstrated by the Houthis, by insurgent threats, as well.

The US must answer the growing threat of advanced integrated air defense systems. To preserve ISR superiority, the US must counter surface-to-air and anti-space threats through a combination of stealth and jamming for airborne assets and increased numbers of satellites in low-Earth orbit protected by space-based defenses.

On the low end, large numbers of inexpensive drones operating in coordination with one another could overwhelm these emerging threats with sheer numbers. Instead of tracking one big, slow-moving, nonstealthy drone following a predictable flight pattern, the US could deploy a cloud full of smaller drones autonomously operating in concert with one another. Iran could expect to shoot down some of them, but couldn’t keep up with the volume.

On the high end, the US must continue to invest in stealth, speed, and jamming technologies that can overcome proliferating air defenses. Compared to a BAMS drone, the F-35A is like a mosquito, practically invisible to a SAM site, and its inherent ISR capabilities mean it can vacuum up information as it races, unobserved, overhead. Sustained investment in the F-35, the B-21 bomber, and Next Generation Air Dominance systems are all essential. These aircraft are more than fighters and bombers; each will be a highly effective multi-sensor ISR platform, as well.

To complement those manned systems, the Air Force must also invest in unmanned low-observable aircraft and in advanced automated self-protection systems to neutralize enemy air defenses. Equipping some ISR aircraft with electronic self-protection would raise the bar for emboldened adversaries.

Finally, in space, the shrinking size of satellites and the declining cost of their deployment is already making commercial constellations of compact, low-Earth-orbit satellites for earth observation a reality. These constellations will present challenges to those seeking to counter US assets in space. As with a cloud of drones, constellations of hundreds of ISR satellites presents a much more complicated problem set to those seeking to counter US superiority in space.

China might be able to take out dozens or more, but it is a significantly more difficult challenge to take out a whole constellation. Meanwhile, technology now exists that brings the cost and feasibility of deploying lasers in space to defend those satellites into reality.

The United States placed its bets long ago on having a technologically superior force with the best training, education, and discipline in the world. But the latter three matter little if the first of these priorities falls into decline. America’s rivals are catching up.

Two decades of shrinking force structure and delayed investment have starved US air and space forces of the resources needed to maintain technological superiority. It’s time to reverse the trend.