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America no longer has a monopoly on deadly drones

The deaths of three US service members in Jordan show how a symbol of American omnipotence has become a major vulnerability.

A drone perched on top of a large billboard over a crowd of people.
Iranians walk past a Shahed 129 drone displayed during celebrations in Tehran to mark the 37th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on February 11, 2016.
Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
Joshua Keating is a senior correspondent at Vox covering foreign policy and world news with a focus on the future of international conflict. He is the author of the 2018 book, Invisible Countries: Journeys to the Edge of Nationhood, an exploration of border conflicts, unrecognized countries, and changes to the world map.

The US military has gotten used to owning the skies. American air superiority in recent conflicts has been so complete that no US ground troops have been killed by an enemy aircraft since the Korean War, which ended more than 70 years ago.

Depending on your definition of “aircraft,” however, that may have changed on Sunday, when three US troops were killed in a drone strike on a US base in Jordan near the Syrian border. More than 40 service members were injured in the strike, according to the Pentagon. The Islamic Resistance in Iraq, an umbrella group of militias backed by the government of Iran that oppose both the US’s presence in the region and its support for Israel, took responsibility for the attack. Tehran has denied involvement, but deputy Pentagon press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters on Monday that “we know that Iran is behind it.” President Joe Biden vowed to “hold all those responsible to account at a time and in a manner of our choosing,” and a number of GOP lawmakers have called for direct strikes against Iran in retaliation.

Singh did not specify the exact weapon used but described it as a “one-way-attack unmanned aerial system,” meaning it was designed to crash into its target and explode. This indicates it may be similar to the so-called “kamikaze drones” that Iran has supplied in large numbers to the Russian military for use in Ukraine. The drone reportedly struck near the troops’ sleeping quarters, accounting for the high number of casualties. A report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the militia drone may have evaded air defense systems because it was mistaken for a US drone that was due to return to base at the same time.

The attack is far from the first of its kind — since Hamas’s October 7 attacks on Israel, Iran-backed groups have targeted US troops more than 150 times with drones, rockets, and missiles, causing dozens of injuries, most of them traumatic brain injuries.

But Sunday’s attack marked the first fatalities among US troops in the burgeoning regional conflict. And at least according to publicly available information, the three troops who died also appear to be the first US service members ever killed by an enemy drone. (Two US troops were killed by friendly fire in a Predator drone strike in Afghanistan in 2011; a US contractor in Syria was killed in a drone strike in March 2023.)

Yet Paul Lushenko, a US Army lieutenant colonel and expert on drone warfare who teaches at the US Army War College, told Vox that a fatal enemy drone strike on US troops “wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. All militaries, the United States included, are vulnerable to these capabilities.”

The Jordan attack is one of the most dramatic signs yet of a shift in the role drones are playing on battlefields around the world, and a sign of their impact on the global balance of power.

The second drone age

In the decade or so following its first combat drone strike of the war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001, the US enjoyed a near monopoly on this technology. The US military, the CIA, and a few select allies used drones to hunt or monitor terrorists and insurgents outside officially declared battlefields, and to provide air support to ground troops in the war on terror.

As drone expert and director of the tech policy institute at Cornell University James Rogers has written, “UAS [unmanned aerial systems] like the Predator, Reaper and unarmed Global Hawk became symbolic of a post-9/11 period where military robotics surged forward to become the spearhead of American and allied force deployment.”

In this period, the debate around drones focused mainly on the ethics and legality of a tool the US could use to strike virtually anywhere with minimal risk to its own soldiers. By the time of the Obama administration, the main worry was that the US had become overreliant on a tool that, in the words of former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, rendered warfare “bloodless, painless, and odorless” to the American public. The idea that such a weapon could be turned against US forces was not on the agenda.

But the world of drone warfare has since democratized. In 2010, around 60 countries had some sort of military drone in their arsenals. By 2020, it was up to 102, according to a report from Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone. Forty of those countries had or were in the process of acquiring drones that could launch deadly attacks, as opposed to surveillance drones. The numbers have almost certainly grown since then.

The US is no longer the world’s top exporter of military drones — China, whose drones have been used in Yemen, Myanmar, and Ethiopia, has supplanted it. Russia, Israel, Iran, and Turkey are major exporters as well. Turkey’s flagship Bayraktar TB2 drone was so popular in the early days of the Ukraine war that it inspired a viral folk song.

Often the drones that are most effective in today’s wars are not the most advanced systems like the Predator and Reaper but cheap, replaceable models. These include the Iranian-supplied Shahed “kamikaze” drones that Russia has used in massive quantities to target Ukrainian cities as well as off-the-shelf consumer quadcopters that have been adapted for military use.

The perception of drones’ role has also shifted. Until recently, they were thought of as a weapon states used against terrorists outside traditional war zones. Now, in conflicts like the recent civil wars in Libya and Ethiopia and the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, they’ve been used by conventional armies on the battlefield. In Ukraine, the use of surveillance drones to spot enemy troop movements and guide artillery fire has been so effective that Ukraine’s top military commander says they’ve made ground maneuvers basically impossible for both sides and contributed to the war’s current stalemate.

Beyond the battlefields, cheap but lethal drones are turning up everywhere from Mexican drug cartel hits to presidential assassination attempts in Venezuela. Rebels in Myanmar have started producing them with 3D printers.

The shift has been so pronounced that Chris Woods, an investigative journalist and co-founder of the drone strike monitoring site Airwars, has said that “we are now clearly within the second drone age, that is, the age of proliferation.”

Weapon of the weak

According to one US Air Force study, the first recorded successful use of a combat drone by a “violent non-state actor” came in 2013, when Hezbollah, the Iran-backed Lebanese militant group, carried out a strike on rebels in Syria.

Since then, the use of drones by these groups has become a defining feature of warfare in the region. ISIS used swarms of cheap drones to great effect, including an incident in 2016 that became known as the “day of the drones,” when it targeted Iraqi forces with more than 70 of them during the Battle of Mosul. The drones were $2,000 off-the-shelf quadcopters that ISIS had adapted to fire explosives.

Iran, meanwhile, has been steadily increasing drone exports to its proxy groups throughout the region. And perhaps no group has used drones to greater effect than Yemen’s Houthis, who carried out an audacious drone attack on Saudi Aramco facilities in 2019 that temporarily knocked about 6 percent of the world’s oil supply offline. Since the war in Gaza began, the Houthis have used drones in many of their attacks on shipping in the Red Sea. Hamas has also built up a sizable drone arsenal, which it used to disable Israeli surveillance systems during the October 7 attacks.

In a 2022 interview with the Financial Times, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US forces in the Middle East, said that because of the proliferation of cheap “Costco drones” in the hands of militant groups, “air superiority is something that we no longer have all the time.” He predicted that drone warfare would lead to a new “IED moment” for the US, referring to the improvised explosive devices that killed more than 2,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Unfriendly skies

Drones are a tough problem for the US to innovate its way out of, given the fact that, for non-state militias, their advantage is in how low-tech they are. In 2017, a US general told reporters about a US ally, likely Israel, that had fired a $3 million Patriot missile against a quadcopter “that cost 200 bucks from Amazon.com.” That’s not really an effective use of resources, and militant groups have become adept at using swarms of cheap drones to overwhelm air defenses. More recently, the Pentagon has taken something of an “if you can’t beat them, join them” attitude, announcing a program known as “Replicator” last year that aims to develop swarms of small “attritable” drones for use in a potential conflict with China.

Lushenko argues that, rather than focusing on shooting down drones on their way to their targets, US policy should focusing on dismantling and disrupting the networks and supply chains that allow these drones, and the components used to make them, to proliferate. (It’s akin to disrupting drug kingpins rather than trying to bust dealers on the street.) But he acknowledges that this is a “tough proposition that will take a lot of coordination and a lot of in-the-trenches, bureaucratic work.”

Most of all, Lushenko says, “we have to recognize that this is the new normal.” Unfortunately, that means the deadly attack in Jordan is unlikely to be the last of its kind.

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