There’s quite a debate going on in the U.S. Department of Defense about the future of UAVs. Pundits and many senior commanders see UAVs as much less useful in an environment of conventional rather than irregular warfare. That’s important because the army and marines are retraining their forces to handle conventional war, what the military calls “near-peer” (against someone who has similar weapons and abilities) combat. In near-peer operations there is little agreement on how effective UAVs will be.
At the same time the Department of Defense has done some work on defeating enemy reconnaissance UAVs and this influences the negative attitude towards UAVs in a near-peer battlefield. This is a prudent move, as the American success with UAVs has been noted and most major nations are acquiring them and plan to use them against any future foe. The Department of Defense study found that current American models (from the tiny Raven to the huge Global Hawk) when used as potential targets were all quite vulnerable. While the 2 kg (4.4 pound) Raven, with its 130cm (4.5 foot) wingspan, and 109cm (three foot) length made it a small target when flying at several hundred meters altitude, U.S. snipers found it could be consistently hit. In Iraq, very few enemy gunmen were good shots and Raven losses to bullets were few. The Afghans dida little better but not by much. Wind, equipment failure, and birds are still the biggest source of Raven losses.
The larger UAVs (Shadow, Predator, Reaper) are target practice for anti-aircraft missiles, although not usually the shoulder fired variety. Most large UAVs fly at 6,000 meters or more, while shoulder fired missiles can go no higher than 3,000 meters. But there are a growing number of vehicle mounted anti-aircraft missile systems available and these would quickly clear the skies of Predator class UAVs.
The Department of Defense is now quietly seeking electronic countermeasures that might be used by large UAVs to defeat guided missiles. At the same time, stealthier UAVs (RQ-170, Avenger) are being developed. Also at the same time, air force and navy researchers are seeking to increase American capabilities to detect and defeat enemy UAVs. That is being done quietly, since anything discovered in that effort could be used against American UAVs.
Against a well-equipped opponent able to knock down American UAVs the U.S. will have to rely more on space satellites (thus the great fear of Chinese attacks up there). Troops will have to learn how to cope with higher UAV losses and depend on things like one-use rockets equipped with cameras. Ironically, the smaller UAVs like Raven will become even more important because the micro-UAVs are much cheaper and built to take a beating (and be regularly lost and replaced). In the meantime, orders for the older UAVs (Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk) are being cut to provide money for new, more survivable, models.
Many ground combat commanders are not so sure that current UAVs will be as vulnerable as civilian analysts and non-combat commanders (who would like to get some of the money spent on UAVs for their own projects) believe. The combat commanders point out that before September 11, 2001 tanks were believed to be unsuitable for irregular warfare but were found to be quite useful in Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in the 1960s many pundits and uniformed experts believed the new helicopters (especially the UH-1) would be too vulnerable to be useful in the combat zone. The combat commanders argued otherwise and actual combat experience found that while the helicopters were indeed vulnerable, they were too useful to keep away from the battlefield. A lot of combat commanders believe that history is going to repeat itself, especially since the combat commanders know, and appreciate, how combat troops can quickly adapt to new conditions and will most likely develop new tactics for UAVs to minimize UAV vulnerability while still making use of UAVs, which have changed the way American ground troops fight in the last decade and how combat commanders run operations.