Raising an Army of Drones

This series—featuring scholars from the Futures Lab, the International Security Program, and across CSIS—explores emerging challenges and opportunities that NATO is likely to confront after its 75th anniversary.

In the future, NATO members will adapt to demographic changes and shifting social attitudes toward service by integrating unmanned systems into legacy combat formations. New drone armies will stand watch on the frontier with Russia.

The Russian military—despite its struggles along the twenty-first century trenches of eastern Ukraine—is growing. Senior German general officers estimate that Moscow could be in a position to attack NATO, whether in the Baltics or the high north, in just five years. According to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Christopher Cavoli, NATO needs to be prepared for war against Russia for years to come. Russia’s race to reconstitute its armed forces and use military coercion to compel European states creates a need for NATO members to raise new armies. This process will have to grapple with demographic change and shifting social attitudes toward war while embracing the opportunities on display in Ukraine for using drones to stall an invasion.

Raising armies to meet the challenge requires seeing military power in the context of larger webs of relations. War, politics, and society are intertwined. The rise of the modern state is a tale told as much by technology and battle as it is changing social currents. Military technology and changing tactics led to the creation of larger armies, starting with the Hundred Years’ War and accelerating after the Thirty Years’ War. Each of these changes saw new capabilities create entirely new combat formations. According to Charles Tilly, war made states and states made war, implying that a need to mobilize resources to meet the demands of external struggle is tied to larger social and political trends. These trends continue to shape how any country mobilizes forces.

Today, three of the major challenges associated with raising armies across NATO are hollow forces, demographics, and changing attitudes toward war. Across Europe, states took advantage of the post–Cold War peace dividend to reduce defense budgets, sunset conscription, and shrink the size of their militaries. For example, in 1996 Germany had 1 million people in its armed forces. Today that number is just 400,000. This trend played out in multiple countries across the continent. Defense budgets declined in parallel and have only just started to increase following the war in Ukraine. Europe has topline combat formations, but they are small and lack the stockpiles to support protracted conflict.

Second, Europe is aging, with more than a fifth of the population over 65, creating larger burdens on social safety nets. The guns vs. butter debate has become the guns vs. Depends (i.e., adult diapers) dilemma. Fertility rates are critically low, making this trend likely to continue absent even higher migration levels. 

The net result: unless more NATO member states find ways to offer migrants a pathway to citizenship for service, similar to existing programs in France and the United States, they will struggle to expand the ranks of their militaries. To date, laws to open the German military to foreign nationals seeking citizenship have stalled.

Second, there are changing attitudes toward military service that make it difficult to attract volunteers. Latvian president Edgars Rinkevics summed it up best when he told the Financial Times in March that “nobody wants to fight . . . but the problem is that nobody wants to be invaded as well.” The trend extends beyond Europe. There is a similar recruitment crisis in Australia and the United States as well.

The net result: unless NATO member states can change prevailing Gen Z attitudes toward military service, they will struggle to fill the ranks of new formations required to deter Russia. In all likelihood, changing public attitudes toward military service will be harder than absorbing migrant communities. And both will require money that is hard to come by due to the increasing costs of paying for an aging population.

Therefore, NATO should start rethinking the design of its combat formations to take advantage of the drone revolution underway in Ukraine. By some estimates, Ukraine produces 3,000 first-person-view drones a day, backed by a cluster of tech startups and volunteers. The Ukrainian military has, against all odds, found ways to conduct a Jeune École–style campaign to deny the Black Sea to Russia. Ukraine is showing the continued importance of capital-labor substitution in modern war and replacing people with machines to defend its sovereignty.

There are three ways NATO can fast-track helping its member states raise armies of drones akin to the steppe battlefields in Ukraine. First, NATO should create experimental test beds and conduct campaign analysis in support of new battle group designs. Using existing training areas, NATO could invite a mix of startups and large defense firms to test capability while military planners use the tests to imagine new formations, a model similar to the invention of air cavalry used in the 1962 Howze Board. These experiments will provide blueprints for new formations that member states can mobilize to defend the alliance.

Second, NATO should expand Standardization Agreement standards for interoperability to include new concepts like the modular open systems approach to support compute-intense tasks like sensor fusion and AI-enabled analysis. This concept should embrace an open-source architecture to make it easier for NATO to dynamically organize large, unmanned forces. There will still be humans in the loop and even mechanics on the ground to support new battle groups, but code will be king and enable new tactics.

Third, there will be a need to develop new concepts of operations for using an army of drones to defend NATO’s flanks. NATO should reinvigorate concept development and link it to experimentation. Imagine an MQ-9 unmanned aircraft providing targeting support for 3D printed air-launched effects swarming alongside loitering munitions fired from unmanned ground vehicles to attack Russian air defenses protecting an advancing armored column. NATO can use a mix of its schools, task forces, and battle groups to encourage bottom-up concept development, including testing new formations in head-to-head simulated combat via networks like Fight Club. The best concepts to emerge could be tested in an iterated manner alongside the experimentation force described above to enable rapid prototyping and fielding.

New armies of drones could help NATO overcome barriers to growing its military. Robots don’t need pensions or collect disability. They also are increasingly cheap compared to human labor, especially when paired with formations made up of trained operators and mechanics. These new battle groups have the potential to extend the reach and combat power of NATO member states without triggering a social backlash. When paired with a culture of experimentation and innovation, armies of drones also have the potential to trigger a new military revolution that reestablishes peace on the continent.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow for Futures Lab in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and the Petersen Chair of Emerging Technology and professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps University School of Advanced Warfighting.

Benjamin Jensen
Senior Fellow, Futures Lab, International Security Program
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