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NATO warfare: Drones vs. jets in the future of air power

June 12, 2023

NATO's Air Defender exercise using traditional fighter jets contrasts with new tactics in aerial combat. Drones may turn out to be a cheaper and more efficient option, but Germany remains skeptical.

Mechanics working on the fighter drone MQ-9 Reaper Creech Air Force Base (USA) in 2017
Drones are unlikely to replace fighter jets in the immediate future, experts sayImage: Staff Sgt. N.B./dpa/picture alliance

People in parts of Germany shouldn't be surprised if they hear sonic booms in the coming days. NATO's Air Defender, a multinational show of aerial force initiated by Germany in 2018, looks to improve the coordinated defense of Euro-Atlantic territory and serve as a measure of deterrence against would-be aggressors like Russia.

The high-altitude and resource-intensive war game, which puts together an array of expensive, sophisticated assets meant to successfully carry out complex air operations, stands in stark contrast to the actual war unfolding just a couple of land borders away.

In Ukraine, small and cheap drones have been outfitted with grenades to drop onto enemy forces below, reminiscent of the earliest use of airborne attacks, when World War I pilots would tip explosives out of their slow-moving biplanes by hand.

Other drones go on one-way suicide missions, which can be difficult to defeat both from the ground and in the air.

"This war looks the way it does because neither side can establish air superiority," Torben Schütz, an associate fellow in security and defense at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told DW.

A residential building in Voronesh with a hole in its side after being hit by a drone
Since Russia began its attack on Ukraine, cities have been attacked by dronesImage: Yevgeny Sudakov/TASS/IMAGO

Ukraine: Case study and warning

Ukraine's air force was small and old to begin with, and the country's air defense relies on the weapons its partners are willing to deliver. Russia's air force is fearsome on paper but has failed to make the most of its technical and numerical advantages. Russia can still lob high-speed missiles from afar, but both sides have resorted to off-the-shelf solutions that can appear more improvised than strategic.

The war in Ukraine has Western war planners wondering how much it reflects the future of conflict and also how to avoid a scenario where superior training and technology are made moot by swarms of readily available, low-flying objects — not to mention cyber attacks and electronic jamming.

Overwhelming air power is central to US and allied war strategy, and air superiority was always all but guaranteed. Rivals lacked advanced air defense, and top-tier planes with well-trained pilots, to contest the skies.

That kind of dominance in a future conflict may not be as assured. A "peer opponent" could match NATO hardware and operations, Schütz said, who calls himself a "drone skeptic." It's all the more reason, he added, to "practice interoperability, to practice the stationing of NATO assets in Germany, to get the procedures right."

Otherwise, the US and its allies could find their billions of dollars worth of high-tech air power ineffective.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius in Mali's UN Camp Castor, a UN drone in the foreground
In the past, Germany has been hesitant when it comes to military drones, but its Heron reconnaissance drones can also be armedImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Aligning tools, strategy, and policy

A German air force spokesperson told DW that defending against the likes of drones is possible "with a variety of layers," from short-to-long range. Dealing with low-altitude attacks is foremost the responsibility of ground forces.

Though it has fought less effectively than anticipated, Russia's war doctrine has brought to the fore concerns about a mismatch between threats and the resources available to confront them. Shortly after the invasion, Germany promised to boost its air-defense capabilities — both for its own territory and Europe's more broadly.

Doing so would require a huge surge in deployed military hardware.

"We did not have adequate, integrated air and missile defense against any threat," Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (ret.), who commanded NATO land forces in Europe, told DW. "My anxiety was based purely on the fact that we had so few assets," such as Patriot missile batteries.

"After I saw that the Russians were willing to use, liberally, multi-million-dollar weapons against apartment buildings, I was like, 'Oh my gosh, we are really unprepared for a serious air and missile attack,'" he added.

The United States cannot fight wars without allies like Germany, Hodges said. Training together, therefore, is a way not only for allies to prepare for war but also to understand each other's legal and operational limits.

South Korean Air Force F-35 fighter jets and U.S. Air Force F-16 fighter jets fly over South Korea during the joint air drills in 2022
Fighter jets are more powerful than drones, allowing them to deliver bigger payloads, and are less susceptible to cyber attacksImage: South Korean Defense Ministry/UPI Photo/IMAGO

A human-machine force

"Specifically about artificial intelligence and about armed drones — not every country in Europe is keen to or has the policies in place that would allow that," he said.

Germany has been hesitant to incorporate drones, especially armed ones, into its military. On the other end of the aerial spectrum, it operates an aging fleet of combat aircraft. Of the €100 billion ($108 billion) in supplemental defense spending, more than €8 billion ($8.6 billion) has been set aside to purchase up to 35 F-35 aircraft — the US-made stealth jet capable of carrying nuclear weapons.

Proponents of traditional air power argue drone technology still can't beat human flight. Planes are more powerful, allowing them to deliver bigger payloads, and are less susceptible to the kinds of cyber attacks and electronic jamming that could knock a drone out of the sky.

Next-generation air combat operations may link piloted and autonomous units. The Future Combat Air System, a German-French venture under the auspices of Airbus, a European aircraft manufacturer, looks to do exactly that.

Given the pace of technology and differences in battle-readiness, it is advisable to avoid drawing "hasty conclusions for our own forces (NATO) from past and current conflicts," such as in Ukraine and Syria and between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Lt. Col. Torben Arnold, told DW.

For the German military officer, who is a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, lessons learned "do not transfer on a one-to-one basis."

Even with the advent of AI, he added, drones don't make fighter jets obsolete. At least, he said, "not yet."

Germany hosts NATO's Air Defender 23 exercise

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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