Success with armed drones comes from numbers and domestic production, not small US contracts

Drone warfare requires lots of different drones & live local production lines to make replacements fast.

Written by

Michael Shoebridge

Australia’s Department of Defence has found a way to buy a small number of small Switchblade armed drones from a US company.  In the world of drone warfare, our military will need many different types of drone and they will use and lose lots of them in any credible conflict.

Local production is the key way of resupplying our military with these essential consumables of conflict, because other suppliers, even our most trusted partners, will meet their own needs first.

These are the lesson of recent wars from Ukraine to the Red Sea and even in 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia

So, spending some of the $56bn annual defence budget on Australian-made drones instead of ordering a small number of this US-made weapon would show Australia’s Defence bureaucracy was learning and equipping our military effectively.

The American-made Switchblade 300 is a tube-launched loitering munitions system with a range of about 10kms. It was designed in 2011 and has been used by the Ukrainian military since 2022.

Believe it or not, this is the first armed drone to be bought by Defence. We are among the last sophisticated defence forces to adopt these weapons. That makes this a welcome development, but not a Neil Armstrong moment.  Instead of a giant leap for mankind, it’s a very small step for Australia’s defence force.

Defence planners may be beginning to admit that any military must have drones in its order of battle, be able to use them, lose them and get more to continue the fight.  Not only that, militaries also need to be able to defend against an enemy equipped with lots of them.

Unfortunately, the announcement shows Defence is still treating drones like its approach to big systems like fighter jets, armoured vehicles, ship and submarines.  It’s taking a very long time to carefully examine a small number of options and then choosing ‘the best’ against detailed requirements developed by staff at Defence HQ.  After years of deep thinking, we get a contact with a well-established supplier to the US military for a small number of one short range drone.

Success in the world of drones and warfare looks entirely different. Ukraine’s defence industry this year aims to produce 1,000 different kinds of drones – aerial ones, armed and surveillance types, land, sea and undersea types.  It plans to make one million different actual units of these different types. And Russia is desperately trying to do the same. 

The counter drone world requires the same diversity, variation and numbers.  That’s because one weapon – even ‘the best’ drone – is a much easier problem for an enemy to defeat than 100 or 1,000 different types, all with different electronic signatures, capabilities and ways of operating. 

The Ukrainians are confusing and complicating the larger Russian military’s decision making. Just when the Russians work out how to handle a particular drone, 8 others wreak a different kind of havoc. For those who say there’s nothing for navies or air forces to learn from the land war in Ukraine, in the Black Sea the Ukrainians are sinking Russian naval ships with surface and aerial drones and missiles, showing you don’t need a navy to defeat a navy.

Like the Houthis – and the Azerbaijaniis before both – the Ukrainians know that you need to have a flow of drones to replace the ones you use and lose. Here in Australia, we seem fixated on the now vanished peacetime era where a small number of ‘warstocks’ were bought, stored and cared for lovingly. This leaves us with no clear idea of how our military will have enough of anything if a war starts and the military uses and loses the small stocks at hand.

The other reason the Ukrainians are putting so much effort into making drones locally is that relying on US or European suppliers is risky.  At times US politics has held up resupply, and you can be assured if the US military needs supplies for its own wars, then everyone else will be at the back of the queue. 

Customers for the US produced Patriot missile defence systems found this out recently when the Biden Administration told allies and partners with orders for these missiles that they’d have to wait, because the US government has chosen to supply Ukraine first before meeting these contractual orders from others. 

The same prioritisation will happen when the US military demands first call on limited US production – for everything from drones, to expensive missiles, torpedoes and parts for big US systems like the F35 and Super hornets.

Australia has multiple medium and small companies that are making – and selling internationally – armed and unarmed drones that fly, move on land, or operate on or under the sea.

The Defence bureaucracy will only show they are responding to events in the real world when they place contracts with Australian companies to create active local production lines supported by local engineering capability that can modify and enhance those drones in response to the ADF’s needs.

We did that with electronic warfare (another area where Australian industry has world-leading capability) in response to IED attacks in Afghanistan. We need the same agile, domestic industry base for drones and counter-drone systems.

Defence should stop their default approach of buying from US catalogues after the US military has made all the decisions.  Volume and diversity can come from our creative local companies – and we know the ADF will be their priority in a time of conflict.

A final point: the Switchblade’s 10 km range implies a plan to get our Defence Force close to an enemy force. Looking at a map, how the government intends to do that is a mystery not explained in the latest National Defence policy statement.

Defence has a plan to make the Army amphibious but nothing explains how our force is supposed to “close with the enemy” after as yet unbuilt ships deposit a force somewhere in the Indo-Pacific.

A version of this article was first published in The Australian.