Wars change warfare. In 1914, the only tanks were for storage. When Nazi Panzers burst into Poland 25 years later, no one knew if it was possible to engineer an atomic bomb. The US military entered Afghanistan – and began what was to become its most significant engagement since the Cold War – without a single armed drone in its arsenal.

As is now well known, through the course of the two-decade conflict in Afghanistan, the US pioneered the use of UAVs for targeted killings and air support. In doing so, it created a tool as impactful as the tank – and disrupted the paradigm brought about by nuclear weapons. As Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Mark Mazzetti writes in The Way of the Knife, “In the first half of the past century, tanks and planes transformed how the world fought its battles. The fifty years that followed were dominated by nuclear warheads and ICBMs, weapons of such horrible power that they gave birth to new doctrines to keep countries from ever using them. The advent of the armed drone upended this calculus: War was possible exactly because it seemed so free of risk.”

Mazzetti’s book was published in 2012, back when armed UAVs were still a relatively exclusive technology that only the US and some of its closest allies used to plan and launch more difficult – and allegedly more accurate – strikes against high-value targets. Since then, however, cheap hobbyist drones, more sophisticated equivalents to US UAVs and ‘loitering munitions’ that fly straight into their targets have empowered armed forces all over the planet. In 2014, Russian drones spotted for artillery during the annexation of Crimea; now Ukraine is using Turkish UAVs to attack Russian-backed separatists in the region. The rush to minimise risk has created new challenges for everyone.

“Just like with any weapon system, all sides are trying to exploit the potential of drones,” says retired Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former commander of the US Army in Europe. “The thing that is most remarkable, in my view, is the fact that it doesn’t have to be the US Air Force, or the Royal Air Force, or the German Luftwaffe that does it. Any knucklehead can weaponise these things.”

Indeed, particularly since the 2016–17 Battle of Mosul in Iraq, insurgents have used high street and handmade drones to remotely deliver explosives to otherwise protected targets, with one attack in 2017 – recorded and published online – killing the commander of an Iraqi Abrams tank. Knuckleheadedness notwithstanding, these militants had a sound tactical idea. Up to that point, the increase in the 21st century US military’s drone stocks had been mirrored by drastic cuts to the short-range air defence capacity it needed to shoot down enemy equivalents. That trend began with the fall of the Soviet Union, but as late as 2004, there were still 26 short-range air defence (SHORAD) battalions in the US Army. By the time of the Battle of Mosul, there were just nine – and seven of those were in the National Guard.

In a few short years, the executors of the war on terror had gone from relying on their unique drone capabilities to conduct new kinds of low-risk operations to sheltering from lethal Christmas presents. “We were even at the point of putting soldiers up in the turret of a vehicle with a shotgun if one of these little quadcopters was around, to be able to knock it down,” recalls Hodges. “You don’t want to waste a Stinger missile on a cheap drone, so you’re looking for kinetic solutions.” And that’s when the drones have been spotted. Many are small and stealthy enough to evade human eyes and traditional radar, particularly in complex battlefield scenarios. In fact, drones are now so ubiquitous, and so difficult to deal with, that this year marine corps general Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, warned the House Armed Services Committee that, “for the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority”. The battlefield has turned upside-down.

War always changes

Before the Battle of Mosul was done, and with developing Russian and Chinese capabilities front of mind, the US Army fast-tracked a plan to address its SHORAD shortfall, publishing requirements for new ‘Manoeuvre SHORAD’ (M-SHORAD) equipment and announcing plans to quadruple its total SHORAD force. The first of 144 8×8 M-SHORAD Strykers, which are fitted with a 30mm autocannon, a 7.62mm machine gun and a launcher capable of firing either Hellfire or Stinger missiles, as well as on-board sensors for tracking aerial threats, were deployed in September 2021. In the meantime, startling video dispatches from ‘the first true drone war’ had begun appearing online.

“We were even at the point of putting soldiers up in the turret of the vehicle with a shotgun if one of these little quadcopters was around.”

Lieutenant General Ben Hodges


The number of 8×8 M-SHORAD Strykers that were deployed by the US Army in 2021.

Breaking Defense

While two decades of drone strikes couldn’t defeat the Taliban, six weeks of them was all Azerbaijan needed to win a decisive victory over Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. According to Dutch warfare research group Oryx, which records visually confirmed losses, Armenia lost 222 tanks; 58 armoured fighting vehicles; and 540 trucks, vehicles, and jeeps. Azerbaijan, meanwhile, lost just 36 tanks; 14 armoured fighting vehicles; and 31 other land vehicles. That’s despite the fact that Gustav Gressel, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes the Armenian Army “had better officers, more motivated soldiers, and a more agile leadership”. If only they were fighting a different war. Every previous conflict had gone Armenia’s way, but this time Azerbaijan had fully integrated Turkish and Israeli drones into its strategy, using them to discover, isolate and destroy enemy positions, clearing the way both for larger missiles and ground forces.

As a result of the Azerbaijani victory, by the time the first M-SHORAD Strykers reached battalions in Germany, some commentators were openly suggesting that drones were doing for tanks what the machine gun did to cavalry.

“Particularly in the UK, you started hearing people saying things like, ‘Well, that’s the end of tanks’,” Hodges sighs. He’s an infantry man, rather than a tank commander, but finds this response troubling – not to mention “naive and uninformed” – all the same. In the UK at least, thinking about Nagorno-Karabakh was coloured by the ongoing Integrated Review into defence spending, which was expected to call for a reduction in tank numbers.

“That’s exactly what’s come to pass,” explains Hodges, whose opinion on Armenian capabilities diverges from Gressel’s in a couple of key areas. “But my point is, we all wish that we could fight an enemy like Armenia that was totally unprepared, untrained, undisciplined and sitting out in the wide open. Of course they got crushed.

The Azeris were better prepared: they had a concept, and they had integrated this technology from Turkey. I would not take from that that nobody wants to be anywhere close to a tank anymore. It’s not true. There will always be a need for protected mobile firepower. Maybe it’ll be unmanned so that you don’t need all the steel of the turret to protect humans; or you’ll have to protect its signature – you get smarter about not parking it behind a little berm in the middle of a giant field.”

Unlike Armenia’s tanks, the US Army’s M-SHORAD Strykers are purpose-built for its new multi-domain battle doctrine, which calls for widely dispersed units able to exploit tactical advantages and avoid counter attacks through continual movement. The question isn’t just where you park, but whether you do so at all. And with air superiority no longer a given, every unit needs to be able to protect itself from the full range of enemy threats.

In that sense, M-SHORAD systems are a crucial enabling technology. “I’m so happy that the army has moved forward with this – a capability that protects formations, convoys and facilities,” says Hodges. “M-SHORAD is a component of integrated air and missile defence, whether you’re talking about a formation that’s on the move, or if you’re trying to protect a Patriot battery that’s set up to protect an airfield, where the enemy is going to use drones to come in and try and take out sensors and radar before they launch a big bullet.”

No guarantees

Even so, Hodges stresses that technologies don’t win conflicts. “There’s no silver bullet, no one system by itself,” he says. “Even the invention of the aeroplane, or the rocket engine, or the rifle or machine gun by themselves did not change warfare. It was the side that was quickest in integrating them effectively that was able to get an advantage.”

Drones are a significant step forward in what Hodges calls “potential capability”, and M-SHORAD systems are a valuable way to counter them, but neither is foolproof. Tellingly, the US has even considered mothballing its RQ-40 Global Hawk RPAs in favour of more traditional manned spy aircraft. On the other side, reports suggest that dozens of Russian Pantsir vehicles, which, like the M-SHORAD Strykers, combine multiple ground to air weapons with armour, radar and manoeuvrability, have been destroyed by Turkish-made drones across the Middle East. A number of these vehicles seem to have positioned themselves as lone missile defence batteries, but they’re far from alone in misunderstanding how to deal with UAV threats. In the immediate aftermath of Nagorno-Karabakh, Gressel warned that European militaries were no better prepared for anti-drone warfare than Armenia’s.

The first M-SHORAD Strykers were sent to Germany to help change that, and others equipped with directed laser weapons, which have long fascinated the Pentagon, are expected to deploy from 2022. It’s not enough. “You’ll never have enough air defence of any type to protect against all the different threats out there,” notes Hodges. “Commanders will always have to go through an analysis of what’s the highest priority for protection, what’s the most likely to be hit, and what are the passive measures you can take.” With drone swarms massing over the horizon, it’s new thinking as much as new technology that will keep ground forces safe.