President Donald Trump wants the Pentagon to start sweating the small stuff. Specifically, small unmanned aerial systems, broadly referred to as drones, and likely, more narrowly, the category of quadcopters.
Built by commercial and military providers alike, small drones are cheap, ubiquitous, and mostly made abroad. But a letter, sent this week from the White House to the House Committee on Financial Services and the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, notifies the committee chairs that the Pentagon will start doing more to acquire small drones.
“I transmit herewith notice of a shortfall in the defense industrial base relating to production capability for small unmanned aerial systems and of action to remedy that shortfall,” reads the letter. “The Department of Defense will take actions to develop and purchase equipment and materials needed for creating, maintaining, protecting, and expanding production capability for small unmanned aerial systems.”
The letter concludes “These proposed initiatives are essential to the national defense.”
This is not the first time the Trump administration has identified, and moved to address, a shortfall in the defense industrial base. In Oct. 2018, the Pentagon rolled out a long-promised report on the health of the industrial base, warning of “domestic extinction” for several key suppliers.
That report pledged to use all available legislative tools to try and address those gaps, including investing cash into struggling companies through the Defense Production Act, the law invoked by Trump this week. Earlier this year, the White House sent out a similar warning on sonobuoys, a key tool for the U.S. and its partners to track submarines.
The roughly 300 weak spots in the industrial base identified in that report report are a mix of sole-source suppliers who could disappear from the market; suppliers that have already decided to leave the defense market; and suppliers that are foreign-owned and could potentially pull the plug in a critical situation. Based on the U.S. drone market, the latter seems to be the issue here.
On first glance, it may sound surprising that there is a shortfall of drone manufacturers in the United States. After all, there have been decades of drone procurement and a fleet stretching from palm-sized Black Hornets to massive Global Hawks, it may sound a little surprising to find a shortfall in the drones on hand.
But the problem here is one of incorrect abundances. Built for the commercial and hobbyist market, retail quadcopters are priced between a few hundred and the low thousands of dollars, can carry a range of existing affordable commercial sensors, and are already in use with many military units as a cheap scout or inspection tool. The major limitation is that very little of the hobbyist quadcopter market is based in the United States, and both the Pentagon and Congress have expressed concerns about the data security of drones that receive software updates from and can transmit cloud data to servers in China.
Creating a new quadcopter, at similar price points and built to the data security needs of a military customer, likely requires direct intervention from the Pentagon itself. Given a choice between commercial off the shelf and made in the USA, the letter suggests military investment prioritize the latter.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.