Low-cost drone swarms are changing warfare and offer new ways for the United States to help its partners and allies globally. From Ukraine to Taiwan, these systems provide defenders cheap ways of generating mass, denying terrain and imposing costs on attacking states. The United States can take advantage of this trend, even in a constrained budgetary environment, by exporting the knowledge and electronics partners need to scale up production of these systems.

Put simply: Helping free societies build swarms of low-cost drones can play a central role in retooling foreign military assistance for a new era of strategic competition.

In September 2023, Ukraine revealed the Magura V5 unmanned surface vehicle at an international arms expo. Within three months, the swarming attack drone disabled a large Russian landing ship used to transport soldiers and equipment. Two months later, six of the low-cost networked drone boats sank a Russian missile boat in the Black Sea. Each drone can deliver a 320-kilogram explosive within a 450-nautical-mile range. New systems like this are a critical component of what Ukraine needs to win the maritime fight in the Black Sea.

The same story is playing out in the skies above Ukraine and increasingly deep inside Russia. In late 2023, Ukrainian engineers unveiled the mass-produced long-range Cobra drone, which uses riveted steel and salvaged electronics and motors to deliver a 16-kilogram payload to targets as far as 300 kilometers away at a price of only $3,500 per drone.

Just as impressive, the U-26 Bober loitering munition has a range exceeding 700 kilometers and uses a unique duck shape to avoid radar detection. It was produced using crowdsourced funds and has been used to strike targets deep inside Russia. The estimated cost per Bober is $108,000.

There is a critical component linking both the Magura drone boats and long-range attack UAVs like Cobra: the electronic components and software required to build and operate mesh networked attack drones. Unmanned aerial vehicles all require servo motors, flight controllers and increasingly software-defined radios. Payloads can change based on the mission, but these components are a constant. Even the body of the drone itself can change based on what materials are readily available and produce the required performance.

The war in Ukraine has seen variants using everything from wood, carbon fiber and foam to cardboard. Cheap materials and readily available component parts and technical blue prints unleash the power of additive manufacturing and DIY crowdsourcing.

Made with cardboard, wooden dowels and rubber bands, this disposable drone adds another flexible option to militaries around the world, including Ukraine.

This revolution requires the United States to rethink elements of its legacy approach to security cooperation and foreign military sales. Too often, major weapon systems are either too costly, too few or too escalatory to send to partners. This debate is on display across Europe as countries grabble with what they can and cannot send to Ukraine due to fears about empty bins and inventories required to support future major contingencies. It is even on display with weapons as simple and plentiful as artillery shells. And there are often unnecessary escalation concerns placed on certain systems from MQ-9 drones to Taurus cruise missiles that further complicate political support for military exports.

Instead of just sending weapons, the United States should start stockpiling and sending core component parts its allies can use to assemble their own drone swarms. First, the export restrictions would be easier to overcome, reducing the time it takes to help a friend in need. Second, the costs would be lower and ensure partners are part of the solution. Third, and most important, the approach would build an indigenous cadre of drone experts, thus accelerating military innovation and adaption. This approach could be a test case for recent calls to adapt security cooperation for the 21st century, including updating export policies governing unmanned systems.

This logic extends beyond Ukraine. If the United States is worried about Chinese military action in the near future against Taiwan and the Philippines, then it should unleash this new vision for the arsenal of democracy in support of these front-line democratic countries.

New defense programs could combine what worked in Ukraine with local knowledge networks and readily available materials. It could even include adapting existing initiatives like the Pacific Deterrence Initiative to launch programs for training partners — including the ranks of women increasingly joining the Filipino and Taiwanese militaries — on building and operating drone swarms. China can produce more naval ships than the United States and its partners, but it cannot match a democratic society open to all citizens creating new attack drones. In the 21st century, Rosie the Riveter also knows python coding and 3D-printed attack drones.

The original arsenal of democracy kept allies and partners in the war against authoritarian regimes by supplying military equipment. This model should evolve and unlock more creative, asymmetric approaches to unleash indigenous swarms in defense of front-line democracies. The future is already here. The question is how best to align resources and policies to the new character of war.

Benjamin Jensen is a senior fellow focused on wargaming and strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. His professional experience includes stints with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, the U.S. Army and NATO.

More In Opinion