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Guest opinion: Drone wars expose America’s Achilles heel

By John Adams - | Jun 10, 2024

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John Adams

As the U.S. struggles to counter China’s dominance of mineral supply chains, Americans must recognize far more is at stake in this industrial arms race than just economic competitiveness.

Our national security hangs in the balance — and quite literally so do the lives of our sailors, soldiers and marines.

Consider the emergence of industrialized drone warfare in Ukraine. Drones, particularly small drones — not tanks or hypersonic missiles — have become decisive weapons.

The surge in small drones has turned the front lines into a no-man’s land for soldiers and vehicles alike. As one Ukrainian commander told The Washington Post, those who dare to move day or night under the prying eyes of enemy drones are hunted.

There’s a race happening between Ukraine and Russia to build vast drone fleets. Ukraine is trying to make more than a million drones this year to halt Russian advances and get back on the offensive.

Lightweight, cheap to manufacture and remotely guided for precision strikes, drones have upended the battlefield. Militaries around the world are taking note.

The Ukrainian military believes it has destroyed nearly 7,500 Russian tanks since February 2022, with drones playing a critical role.

Effective counters to the proliferation of drones are lacking. Drone swarms overwhelm anti-air missile batteries and exhaust precious munitions. Electronic warfare devices that scramble the feed from drones — and leave operators blind as they approach targets — are helpful. But the race is on to leapfrog that defense.

Both Ukraine and Russia are rushing to develop drones guided by artificial intelligence. These drones lock onto their targets without the need for communication with a remote pilot, making them impervious to efforts to scramble their feed.

Americans watched with horror when our troops were targeted with improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those cheap, deadly weapons now pale in comparison to the threat posed by industrialized drone warfare.

The race is on to develop countermeasures and ensure our armed forces aren’t left extraordinarily vulnerable when the next conflict arises.

A promising answer appears to be the introduction of energy weapons. One such system, the Epirus, can put out a directed field of energy that fries the electronics of incoming drones, sending them crashing to the ground. The system, which is already being tested with the Army and Navy, can be scaled up to protect ships, or down to far smaller sizes for hand-held use with individuals.

But directed energy systems like Epirus require unique materials. And for use away from the power sources of a ship, they require energy storage.

Here’s the unsettling bottom line: The supply of the very materials needed to build the nation’s most critical defense systems — from F-35 jets to next-generation directed-energy weapons — is dominated by Beijing.

Despite possessing vast domestic mineral resources, the U.S. is alarmingly dependent on mineral imports, notably from China.

China’s dominance of mineral supplies — from rare earth elements to lithium and graphite used in batteries and supercapacitors — is so complete that China is now a veritable OPEC of one. Moreover, the same constricted mineral supply chains can choke off vital U.S. research and development into the advanced weaponry that counters drone warfare.

Imagine a scenario where China simply cuts off its minerals supply — and the Pentagon can’t get the materials it needs to arm and protect our troops. That’s a vulnerability we can’t wait another moment to address.

The Department of Defense is working to boost domestic mineral production, providing grants to support promising projects. Funding has gone to rare earth, antimony and zinc projects. And most recently to South32’s Hermosa manganese project in Arizona. Combined with loan opportunities from the Department of Energy, there’s momentum to rebuild America’s mineral industrial base.

But all the incentives in the world will be toothless if we can’t permit mines and streamline a painfully slow permitting process.

Detangling our mineral security from China is an urgent task. And it’s one the Pentagon can’t tackle alone. We need an all-of-government effort to rapidly build secure mineral supply chains. As drone swarms fill the sky in Ukraine, we should require no other warning of how critical this effort has become.

John Adams, U.S. Army brigadier general (retired), is president of Guardian Six Consulting and a former deputy U.S. military representative to NATO’s Military Committee.

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