SIMI VALLEY, Calif. — The Pentagon’s acquisition chief says that the need for drone defenses resembles that for 155mm artillery shells, which are in high demand amid wars in Ukraine and Gaza.
“The production for counter-UAS [has] to go through the roof,” said Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Bill LaPlante at a panel during the Reagan National Defense Forum here. “It’s like where we were about a year ago when we said 155 is going to have to go to 100,000 a month.”
LaPlante’s comments follow a recent visit to Aerovironment, a defense tech company that makes the Switchblade loitering munition being used Ukraine and reportedly requested by Israel — both wars that have influenced the urgency with which the Defense Department is pushing for advanced capabilities.
The Pentagon has made fielding such systems of its own the target of multiple initiatives, from the rapid acquisition effort Replicator to the tech-focused pillar of AUKUS. In the meantime, the U.S. has seen the effect of these types of drones being used against it. Since mid-October, U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria have come under regular attack from Iranian-backed militia groups, many of whom are firing drone salvos.
Pentagon officials like himself and Heidi Shyu, Under Secretary for Research and Enginerring, have been calling companies that manufacture systems including loitering munitions and counter-UAS capabilities, Laplante said. In these talks, they show industry the chart of 155 production over time and ask similar questions to that of the artillery ramp-up: How many systems can you produce at your max and what do you need to reach it?
“The industrial base has to be able to produce these at high numbers,” he said.
Notwithstanding, the Pentagon hasn’t yet assessed the number of counter-UAS systems it will need, LaPlante said, noting that will take further study. He estimates it will need to be in the thousands.
“When you think of the problem that way, it changes your mentality because then you say, well how much is each one going to cost,” LaPlante said. “You have to realize that whatever you have to do has to be something that can be afforded.”
The problem isn’t only affordability. It’s also funding.
Much of the Pentagon’s money in these programs is reserved for research, development, testing and evaluation, LaPlante said. Moving that money more into production will be necessary to building such systems at scale and bulking up the industrial base supporting them.
Without a full-year appropriation passed by Congress, production increases of this sort will be difficult. In an interview with Defense News, Radha Plumb, the Pentagon’s No. 2 acquisition official, said that investments in counter-UAS systems planned by her office for FY24 have already been affected by continuing resolutions and could get caught in a “domino effect” of delays.
“It’s not the industrial base’s fault,” LaPlante said, of the limited capacity for drones and drone defenses. “The market has not demanded of them because we’ve not demanded it.”
Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.