How the Army Out-Innovated the Islamic State’s Drones

A few short years ago, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s improvised attack drones were widely believed to be a threat so grave they could become strategically significant as the “next improvised explosive device.” Terrorist groups have weaponized commercial drones for high-profile attacks around the world from Venezuela to Yemen, but ISIL’s drone program stood out for its large scale and impact on major combat operations. In its heyday in 2017, ISIL launched 60 to 100 drone attacks per month across Syria and northern Iraq. The group flew a combination of modified commercial drones, most often Chinese-made DJI Phantom quadcopters, and bespoke drones manufactured in its own workshops. These improvised weapons were grimly effective, destroying at least 56 Iraqi military vehicles and killing or wounding more than 100 Iraqi soldiers.

American forces serving in Iraq also engaged ISIL drones hundreds of times from 2016 to 2018, but compared to Iraqi security forces, they suffered much less: As of the publication of this article, no U.S. troops have been killed by ISIL drones directly. Overall, U.S. forces “had an overwhelming success rate in either repelling, shooting down, or chasing away the majority of [ISIL drones] in Iraq and Syria [from 2016 to 2018] before they could harm our personnel or do any damage to equipment or infrastructure,” according to a Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson. A key reason for this success is that, years before American forces encountered enemy small drones on the battlefield, the U.S. Army’s emerging threat experts in the Asymmetric Warfare Group had identified drones as a viable threat and deployed counter-drone training, technology, and tactics to Army units in combat. The Army’s largely successful efforts to defeat ISIL’s improvised attack drones are an important case study in how to use rapid observation, experimentation, and collaboration to change the Army in order to defeat enemies who will continue to exploit open technological innovation and devise innovative asymmetric weapons and tactics.

Between Innovation and Adaptation

The Asymmetric Warfare Group was one of many organizations that helped the U.S. Army consistently out-innovate ISIL’s drone program, using methods which have historically been neglected in the military innovation literature. The scholarly literature makes a distinction between institutional military innovation and operational, field-driven military adaptation. Military innovation is largely a peacetime process of institutional actors aiming to prepare for future warfare. Adaptation emerges in a bottom-up manner from the battlefield as units in contact with the enemy seek to close the gap between the war they prepared for and the one they encounter. Accounts of military adaptation highlight the importance of field observation, testing, and prototyping, but have little to say about the role of institutional actors in enabling or enhancing adaptation at the lowest level. While these methods have lurked in the background of important historical case studies, they have been neglected in major studies of military innovation, which focus much more heavily on the institutional and bureaucratic battles that stifle some innovations and enable others.

In the past, this separation between innovation and adaptation was enforced by geographical and technological limitations. Getting the best intelligence on recent enemy tactics and field innovations back to scientists and inventors back home was simply too difficult, and the time elapsed between home efforts and battlefield implementation too long. But treating innovation and adaptation as two separate things ignores the organizations that can connect between the operational and institutional force, driving change across the larger military in ways not predicted by the scholarship on either innovation or adaptation. In part due to the same technological changes which have enabled long-distance collaboration on innovation in other contexts, alongside changes to rapid acquisitions processes made during the “Global War on Terror,” U.S. forces can now, if enabled by senior leaders, increasingly build connections, share data, and rapidly iterate new tactics and technologies in ways that blur traditional distinctions between the operational and institutional force; the battlefield and the home front; and top-down innovation and bottom-up adaptation.

At the forefront of this revolution have been a small network of organizations tasked with making the U.S. military more adaptable, innovative, and prepared for unexpected challenges — including the rise of lethal terrorist drones.

The Asymmetric Warfare Group’s Share of the Task

The Asymmetric Warfare Group is a unique organization whose mission is to help other units and Army institutions defeat emerging asymmetric threats. The group was originally established as part of the Army’s Counter-IED Task Force during the Iraq War in 2006, but from the beginning, it was also tasked to “look over the next hilltop” and predict future threats. With this spirit in mind, in 2008 the group commander directed his internal “red team” to incorporate dreamed-up emerging threats into a training exercise called “In the Wind.” Inspired by Hamas’ use of drones, the red team modified small commercial drones to deliver dummy munitions for the exercise. While the drones available at the time were much less reliable than those available today, they proved devastatingly effective: the “blue” forces in the exercise were shocked by their initial encounters with the drones and unable to defeat them. After the exercise, the Asymmetric Warfare Group established its group to counter small drones, to monitor commercial drone development and continue experimenting with their military use. At the time U.S. forces had not encountered improvised attack drones, but some insurgent groups had used small drones for reconnaissance against U.S. forces. The working group focused on raising awareness of the threat and ensuring that U.S. forces could identify enemy reconnaissance drones. The Asymmetric Warfare Group began training units in drone recognition before they deployed overseas and published the Army’s first drone recognition guide in 2011.

In 2014, Asymmetric Warfare Group personnel advising American forces in Iraq on improvised threats assessed that ISIL’s drone program was growing fast. ISIL propaganda videos even featured footage from reconnaissance drones. This renewed concern that terrorist drones could soon strike U.S. forces. The Asymmetric Warfare Group began assessing what ISIL was likely to do with drones — and what it could do that would be the most dangerous. The group determined that most of ISIL’s drones were what the Defense Department defines as “Group 1” and “Group 2” small drones: systems that weigh less than 55 pounds, fly below 3,500 feet, and typically rely on civilian navigation systems. The fact that these drones were “low, slow, and small” posed a challenge, as most short-range air defense systems were not designed to defeat these aircraft. The group began training units already in Iraq on basic drone countermeasures, releasing its first counter-drone guide in November 2014, and publishing a handbook on ISIL drone tactics and basic countermeasures in January 2015.

Back in the United States, the Asymmetric Warfare Group began experimenting with arming commercial drones to determine their capabilities. One experimental exercise in January 2015 pitted a force of American light infantry against a fleet of mock armed drones at the Asymmetric Warfare Training Center located at Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia. The exercise found that American maneuver units were unprepared to face small drones, and marked the unit’s first efforts to evaluate drone countermeasures, ranging from electronic warfare to physical attack. The Asymmetric Warfare Group also purchased the same commercial drones used by ISIL for experiments with live explosives. From February to May 2015, group members conducted a series of exercises called “Threat Evolution” at Fort A.P. Hill that tested how modifications, primarily improvised munitions delivery systems, altered the capabilities and airworthiness of commercial drones — basically, how strapping additional weight on or modifying the controls of a drone changes how it flies. At about the same time ISIL’s drone makers were experimenting with dropping grenades from small drones in Syria, the Asymmetric Warfare Group’s fabricators were doing the exact same thing in Virginia, and taking careful notes on the capabilities and limitations of the systems. “Threat Evolution” included everything from bombing vehicles and mock human targets with live improvised attack drones to ramming unmodified drones into military vehicles.

All the information gleaned from these experiments was shared with units in combat in Iraq, through constant communications and the regular rotation of group personnel between experimenting in the United States and advising forward-deployed units. In May 2015, the Asymmetric Warfare Group convinced Army leaders to let them repurpose part of the counter-IED training complex used to train soldiers staging in Kuwait as a counter-small drones lane, training more than 200 soldiers a week to identify and defeat small drones, using the same drones ISIL employed, before they moved into Iraq. Group operational advisors also accompanied Army units into combat and helped them establish their counter-drone defenses, sometimes participating in combat engagements with drones.

Training soldiers already deployed in the Middle East was only a stop-gap solution, however. The Asymmetric Warfare Group’s role is not to train the entire Army, but to identify new asymmetric threats and mitigation measures and then disseminate that knowledge across the Army through a Training and Doctrine Command process called “integration,” whereby lessons learned modify and reshape doctrine, tactics, and other military capabilities. As part of its integration efforts, in November 2015, the Asymmetric Warfare Group provided small commercial drones to the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California, and the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Polk, Louisiana, allowing all Army units to be evaluated on their ability to counter drones before deploying overseas. This ensured that all U.S. Army units would receive at least some counter-drone training before deploying. The Asymmetric Warfare Group also began to advise the opposing forces at the training centers on how to realistically employ drones like terrorists, and assisted them in gaining clearance to operate non-standard aircraft.

The Asymmetric Warfare Group also continued to work with other institutional partners, including the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force and the Joint Improvised Threat-Defeat Organization. In order to get counter-drone material solutions into the field, these organizations worked closely to evaluate counter-drone systems and field them to operational units. Together, they found that, because of the variety of small drones on the battlefield at the time, no one counter-drone system was enough: Instead, units had to build a layered defense in depth, which incorporated a variety of integrated systems to detect, identify, track, disrupt, and eventually defeat small drones. Almost all of these systems were non-standard commercial systems, making connecting and layering them exceptionally complicated. Operational advisors mastered the art of connecting and de-conflicting military air defense radars, commercial jammers and modified lethal air defense systems — none of which were designed to communicate with each other — to sequentially sense, jam, and if necessary destroy small drones as they approached U.S. forces. Because operational advisors accompanied units into combat, they were uniquely able to determine how these systems performed in battle and share that information with the Army’s materiel specialists. The Asymmetric Warfare Group also collaborated with the Army Fires Center of Excellence, which was tasked with coordinating all Army counter-drone efforts in 2015 as part its air defense portfolio. Those early experiments convinced the Fires Center to prioritize defeating the low, slow, and small Group 1 and 2 drones rather than larger drones. The Asymmetric Warfare Group also helped the Fires Center write the Army first official doctrine for counter-drone operations, which was published in 2017 and drew heavily on earlier Group products.

These combined efforts allowed the Army to out-innovate ISIL’s drone program. Long before ISIL’s drones inflicted their first casualties in late 2016, American forces had learned to search the skies for the threat. In fact, by the end of 2015, almost all American soldiers deploying to Iraq had been trained on drone recognition, most had received some basic training on drone defeat, and some had been armed with commercially available counter-drone systems. This training significantly reduced the likelihood that American soldiers would be shocked the first time they saw a small drone in action. Just as importantly, it minimized the risk they would be caught unaware while ISIL drones spied on them. The Army’s efforts had robbed ISIL’s drones of the element of surprise, one of the key advantages of any new weapons system. In hundreds of engagements since 2015, the Army’s rapidly developed counter-drone capabilities have proven successful in protecting U.S. troops.

Lessons for the Next “Next IED”

Terrorist drones will not be the last innovative asymmetric weapon the Army must adapt to counter. These principles, derived from the fight against ISIL drones, will apply to the next effort to change the Army as much as this one:

You have not defeated an improvised threat until you can defeat it cheaply.

A loss-exchange ratio, sometimes called a kill ratio, is a measure of how many resources a force expends in order to defeat an enemy resource in combat. From the beginning, the Asymmetric Warfare Group sought to identify efficient and affordable counter-drone solutions. As Training and Doctrine Command’s Gen. David Perkins put it in 2017, defeating $200 drones with $3 million missiles may be effective, but it is not sustainable. The Army quickly achieved a sustainable loss-exchange ratio against ISIL’s small drones by employing relatively cheap commercial systems and exploiting the fact that it simply had more resources than ISIL, meaning a sustainable loss-exchange ratio was still quite high. This precipitated ISIL’s shift to larger, more durable and more expensive, improvised Group 3 drones in 2016 and 2017, after which ISIL’s territorial losses rendered its drone program unsustainable.

Disable the enemy’s hand, not just his weapon.

In the 1997 movie Starship Troopers, a drill sergeant teaches a skeptical recruit a lesson about the resilient value of knives on a futuristic atomic push-button battlefield by throwing a knife into the recruit’s hand, pinning it to a wall. “The enemy cannot push a button,” the drill sergeant explains, “if you disable his hand.” The point is that even the most formidable remotely operated weapons system relies on humans to build, sustain, launch and (for now) command it. America’s offensive efforts to systematically kill ISIL’s most skilled drone builders, trainers, and operators were an essential corollary to defensive efforts to prevent these systems from killing American troops. If anything, the makers of improvised weapons are more vulnerable to efforts to attack their network than traditional defense industries, because they rely on fabricators with artisanal knowledge that they cannot easily replace when they are removed. Put another way, the most vulnerable part of an improvised weapon system is often the human specialists in its supply chain.

Materiel is not capability.

Analysts often exaggerate the effectiveness of hypothetical weaponized commercial systems. Once exposed to friction of war, these systems are often much less capable than predicted. Small drones turned out to have many vulnerabilities: Most analysts initially overrated the airworthiness of the systems in poor weather and underrated their vulnerability to electronic attack. Analysts also underrated how effective existing air defense technology, once modified, would be against small drones. The Asymmetric Warfare Group’s analysis focused not just on developing technical countermeasures but on modifying tactics to maximize disruption of the enemy’s kill chain at every point. Indeed, the effectiveness of Group 1 and Group 2 drones turned out to rely largely on surprise and bewilderment. Focusing on disrupting capabilities instead of just technologies is critical to maintaining a sustainable loss-exchange ratio. While it made sense to buy some technology to defeat drone systems, as discussed above, it was ultimately more efficient to go on the offensive against the drone capability as a whole.

Experimental technical intelligence works.

The only way Asymmetric Warfare Group identified the actual capabilities of small drones was by experimenting with them, both in laboratory environments in America and in combat in Iraq. The findings of these experiments helped justify deploying American counter-drone systems to Iraq before terrorist drones became a lethal threat and likely saved American lives. All intelligence has a speculative aspect because decision-makers need information about the future, not the past, but technical intelligence about weapons often limits itself to providing dry but verifiable technical details about systems that already exist. This approach will always fail when facing adaptive enemies in an open-source world. We need more experiments with hypothetical weapons systems.

The fundamentals of reconnaissance apply.

Army doctrine directs scouts to “gain and maintain contact with the enemy.” The Asymmetric Warfare Group remained in contact with the evolving small drone threat by regularly deploying advisors around the globe. In total, the group’s operational advisors have observed drones and counter-drone operations in over 30 countries on four continents and continue to share the data it gathers with Army leaders and the new Joint Counter-Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Office. In addition to the data gleaned from experiments, these in-person observations were critical to helping the Asymmetric Warfare Group understand the drone threat.

The End of the Beginning

The Asymmetric Warfare Group will case its colors next year and transfer its responsibility for innovating to counter emerging asymmetric threats to other Army organizations. This mission should endure because it will be critical on future battlefields. There is every reason to think that improvised attacks drones will remain a persistent problem, and only become more capable. The daunting task ahead does not diminish the fact that ISIL’s small Group 1 and 2 drones failed to successfully strike U.S. ground forces despite hundreds of attempts. The Army’s rapid fielding of counter-small drone capabilities, which was sparked in part by the proactive threat assessments of the Asymmetric Warfare Group, is a remarkable case study of successful military innovation. The academic literature on military innovation has tended to focus on the high end: the adoption of major new weapons systems, technologies, force structures, or doctrines. Both academics and policymakers should consider the role of experimentation, problem-solving, prototyping, diffusing knowledge and scaling up solutions in warfare. Anticipating and disrupting capabilities, even high-tech ones, is critical to building asymmetric advantages against peer competitors. On future battlefields, the Army will have to not just out-fight, but also out-think and out-innovate its enemies.

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