Drones Becoming Special Operations Forces’ Indispensible Tools of War

By Grace V. Jean
It has been one of the hallmark traits of U.S. special operations forces: They take existing technology and use it in new and creative ways.

A case in point is the way they employ unmanned systems.

In 2003 in Iraq, naval special warfare commanders grabbed a Marine Corps’ drone called the FQM-151 Pointer, developed in 1986 by AeroVironment for use by ground units, and updated it for a Sea, Air, Land (SEAL) team that needed eyes in the sky as it approached Baghdad.

“If something like Pointer had never been tried, who knows where [unmanned aerial systems] would be now,” said Cmdr. Robert Witzleb, director of technical special reconnaissance at Naval Special Warfare Command.

Special operators continue to drive innovation through their unique employment of semi-autonomous vehicles, and increasingly are setting standards and goals for future generations of UAS users, said a military robotics expert.

They manage to take technology that “big Army, Navy, or Air Force, for whatever reason, were not going to utilize” and apply it to their specific missions, said P.W. Singer, a senior fellow and director of the 21st Century Defense Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington.

Special operations forces are expected to continue to push the technology envelope in unmanned systems, Singer said. Drones are rapidly evolving from airplane-like dimensions to supersized airships with wings the length of football fields and tiny robots that look and fly like birds and insects. Systems are gaining greater intelligence and autonomy. As the physical systems transform, they will be employed in new mission areas, including transportation, cargo delivery and medical evacuation, he said.

“We’re just at the start of it,” Singer said. “It’s the different users coming up with ways of using them that the original designers probably never planned.”

Rather than waiting for protracted multi-year defense programs to produce some quantity of systems five or seven years down the road, special operations units historically have been more inspired to try the “80-percent solution,” Singer said.

Unmanned systems are tools that special operators will use in “greater and greater numbers,” much in the same way that a policeman partners with a K-9 dog, said Singer. “The team together is way better than each on its own.”

National Defense looks at some of the new ways special operators are using unmanned aerial systems.

Marine Special Operators Rely Heavily on Hand-Launched Drones

Aerial Drones Going Mainstream In Naval Special Warfare

Army Special Forces Gear Up For Gray Eagle

iPads, iPhones Driving Special Operator Demand for Improved Connectivity

Topics: Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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