FORT McCOY, Wis. –
It was the early hours of Sept. 14, 2019, when a swarm of small drones left two Saudi oil facilities in ruins. The aftermath was caught on film from several angles, and captured a near biblical sight: giant pillars of flame and smoke, like a burning sword extended from the earth and stretched toward the heavens.
Analysis by the Saudi government suggested the unmanned aerial intruders were built with inexpensive parts, some of which anyone could buy at a store. One estimate gave a price tag of $15,000 or less. And so it was, that in a matter of minutes, a handful of cheap drones reduced global oil production by 5 percent.
The drone attack made its rotation through headlines, but the world soon moved on. For those paying attention to the rapidly evolving capabilities of drone warfare, however, the recent attack indicated the threat was real and getting worse.
"That is the largest, fastest growing, most dangerous emerging threat in the battlefield, from our perspective," explained Lt. Col. Tim Paterson, a drone and electronic warfare planning officer for the U.S. Army Reserve’s 86th Training Division. In addition to several years of aviation experience, the Osh Kosh, Wisconsin native said he was also an airspace manager.
Paterson claimed drones made from common parts are what worry him the most.
"What we're talking about here, are commercial off the shelf drones--your non-standard drones," Paterson said. "We're just really concerned, because your average Soldier isn't dialed in to this threat."
Along with several others at the 86th TD, Paterson has helped put together a new program that combines classroom training and field exercises requiring Soldiers to respond to real drones. The program has been incorporated into the 86th's Warrior Exercise (WAREX) platform, one of the major training events conducted by the division and based out of Fort McCoy, Wisconsin.
Throughout the summer, 6,000 Soldiers will set up small bases across the sleepy woodland hills of Wisconsin and conduct operations as though they were participating in a real-life overseas conflict. In addition to being attacked by fellow Soldiers dressed as insurgents, drones are making their appearance for the first time.
Paterson said the flying troublemakers will perform everything from surveillance of the bases to propaganda leaflet drops, and even simulated bomblets. The goal of the training is to show Soldiers they can be attacked by drones anywhere: in their tents, on guard duty, and even during convoy operations.
One of the chief planners for WAREX, Major Jacob Spriggs, 1st Operations Brigade, 86th TD, said the U.S. military must adapt to the new threat drones present to troops.
"The look of surprise and consternation on a Soldier's face as one of these things comes down over him as he's driving that convoy ... it's that lightbulb," said Spriggs. "It's like, 'What the heck is that thing doing here?'"
Unlike the larger predator drones seen on television, these are small helicopter-like vehicles no bigger than a basketball. The drones sound like an angry swarm of bees and could be seen swooping and strafing over Soldiers throughout the exercise.
In one convoy lane, a group of five Humvees encountered visible landmines laced across the road. After the vehicles backed off, one of the truck's gunners noticed a little brown drone had appeared above the tree line. The buzzing nuisance then began dancing in front of the convoy. The gunner responded by opening fire.
Distracted with shooting, he failed to notice someone had just tossed chemical weapons at his truck.
"If the enemy would do it, we would do it," explained BJ Kauffman, one of the four civilian pilots contracted for WAREX by the 86th.
"Just in the few days we've been doing this, we have seen [Soldiers] adapting," Kauffman said. "Honestly, it's kind of frustrating to see because it makes us work harder, but it's satisfying because they're doing the right thing, and they're learning as they go."
While Soldiers are busy training at Fort McCoy, others are already confronting the real consequences of drone warfare.
“What was ironic is, during our June exercise there were nine separate drone attacks in Iraq,” said Paterson. “So as we were just launching our program trying to educate Soldiers, there were nine kamikaze drones.”
Paterson also emphasized that drones can represent a near peer threat as well. “We’re coming out of the Iraq-Afghanistan concept … it’s important to realize that what we have, our potential enemies have--to include drones.”
Drones in the hands of an advanced military have proven to be devastating. In 2017, a Ukrainian ammunition depot near the town of Balakliya erupted into a massive explosion, causing 20,000 people to evacuate the area. Stray missiles and bombs from the facility flew across the countryside, sometimes landing in homes. Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service suggested the culprit was a single Russian drone armed with an incendiary grenade.
As the prevalence of drones on the battlefield grows, more units like the 86th TD are including scenarios to address the threat.
“Drones are here and they’re here to stay,” Kauffman explained. “They’re going to keep evolving, and that’s why we’re here: to make the threat known.”