After 40 years of safe skies, US special operators have to worry about threats from above, SOCOM commander says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands next to an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy with an Iranian-made Shahed-136 drone on October 27.Screenshot/President of Ukraine official website
  • The widespread use of drones in Ukraine underscores their rapid development as battlefield tools.

  • The US military has been paying close attention to how drones have been used in recent conflicts.

  • US officials say the spread of drones means US troops need to get used to facing threats from above.

The times are changing on the battlefield, and that's especially true for US special operators, who now have to account for threats that didn't exist a few years or even a months ago.

Like the rest of the US military, US Special Operations Command has been paying very close attention to the innovations on the battlefield in Ukraine.

One of the most interesting but also concerning developments has to do with drones. Both Moscow and Kyiv have drones in the skies over Ukraine, dropping improvised munitions on soldiers, guiding artillery fire, identifying enemy formations, and taking out armored vehicles.

A Ukrainian soldier holds a drone
A Ukrainian soldier launches a reconnaissance drone in the Kyiv region on August 2.AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky

Ukraine's military claims to have shot down over 1,000 Russian drones, but unmanned aerial systems continue to proliferate. Russia has invested heavily in loitering munitions, buying Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones and using them widely against civilian infrastructure, capturing international attention.

Ukraine is also using its fair share of unmanned aerial systems. Its military and public have shown an enviable ability to adapt to the war and devise solutions that are within their limited means in order to deal with the much bigger Russian military.

Ukrainian civilians and troops have used commercial drones for military purposes, including kinetic strikes and intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance operations.

The US special-operations community is paying close attention to these developments and is incorporating lessons from the ground in Ukraine in preparation for the next fight.

Special operators vs. drones

Iraq drone ISIS
A member of the Iraqi federal police with a destroyed drone used by ISIS in Mosul in March 2017.REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

The US military, particularly its special-operations community, has been using drones for years, but US special operators are used to operating in an environment in where they have complete air superiority, meaning that nothing from the sky can pose a threat to them.

That superiority couldn't last forever, and its erosion became apparent during the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in the late 2010s.

This summer, the outgoing commander of SOCOM, Gen. Richard Clarke, talked about the drone problem and how the special-operations community is addressing it.

At the Aspen Security Conference in July, Clarke said that during his nearly four decades in the Army, he had "never had to look up" when operating on the ground, whether that was in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria.

Syrian rebel fighter with camera drone in Homs
A Syrian rebel operates a DJI Phantom 4 camera drone near a rebel-held town in Homs in April 2017.MAHMOUD TAHA/AFP via Getty Images

"I never had to look up because the US always maintained air superiority and our forces were protected because we had air cover," Clarke said. "But now with everything from quad-copters that very small up to very large unmanned aerial vehicles, we won't always have that luxury."

In the decades following the Korean War, no US ground troops were killed by enemy air attack and US aircraft were rarely shot down, but US commanders have warned that their aerial advantage is unlikely to continue.

In an interview with Joint Forces Quarterly earlier this year, Clarke likened drones to improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, which insurgents were able to build on a large scale to target US troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

Drones "are the IEDs of the future," Clark said in the interview. "Everyone remembers 2003-2004 when the number one killer of our forces was IEDs — first in Iraq, and then it transitioned into Afghanistan. Now, an IED has wings and it can move. The wire that connected that IED or the remote device is now harder to defeat."

Getting 'left of launch'

Syria special forces Kurdish Raqqa
A Western special forces member supporting US-backed Kurdish-Arab forces carries a drone on the frontline north of Raqa in Syria in November 2016.DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Generally, US special operators can take out unmanned aerial systems in two ways.

The first is with old-fashioned kinetic action, using small-arms fire or anti-aircraft missiles to shoot it down. The second is with electronic warfare, jamming the drone's flight controls so that it is unable to perform its mission.

Clarke said SOCOM is interested in another way to disrupt enemy drones — by preventing enemies from getting them in the first place.

In addition to developing ways to counter unmanned aircraft in the air, SOCOM is "looking where we can be 'left of launch' to disrupt supply chains, transportation, [and] development before it's too late," Clarke, who retired from the military in August, told Joint Forces Quarterly.

At the conference in July, Clarke said that there are opportunities for SOCOM, the Pentagon, and US intelligence agencies to work together to try to stop adversary drones before they launch.

US soldiers during an unmanned aerial system exercise at Erbil
US soldiers during an unmanned aerial system exercise at Erbil Air Base in Iraq in April 2020.US Army/Spc. Angel Ruszkiewicz

"What are those supply chains and what are the intel and what are the norms of behavior for countries that are going to use these drones?" Clarke said.

That kind of intervention could be tough, as adversaries are developing resilient supply chains. Iran continues to develop missiles and drones despite tight US sanctions. Russia, facing increasingly strict Western sanctions, is likely to do the same, and China has invested heavily in own military capabilities.

Moreover, an effort like Clarke described would require a combined interagency effort that would likely focus more countering adversaries through intelligence efforts rather than through military action.

But drones are here to stay, and while the threat they pose to US forces is "the current problem," Clarke said in July, there also needs to be attention to "what's going to come home to roost."

"Some of these technologies could be used by our adversaries on our near abroad or even into our homeland," Clarke said.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at the Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

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