January 28th, 2024. A small US outpost in the desert along the Jordan-Syria border called Tower 22 was attacked by a drone from an Iranian-backed militia group. At least 34 Americans were injured—3 troops died. As I write this, the US is conducting retaliatory strikes against targets in Iraq and Syria.
You’ve likely heard all of this from news outlets. Talking heads and ‘experts’ on social media have spared no time with opinions and play-by-play speculation. For professionals in national security, there is another story.
After generations of putting US troops in harm’s way across the globe, this small yet tragic event marked the first time in 70 years an American ground troop was killed by an aerial attack. Over 5 million US ground troops participated in operations in Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria—zero were ever killed by an aerial attack.
Until January 28th, 2024. Let that sink in.
Rewind 70 years, 9 months, and 14 days—back to the last time this happened.
On April 15th, 1953, a US Army position on Cho-do Island just off the North Korean coast was attacked, killing 2 troops and wounding 22 more. The mechanism of attack is the key lesson.
High-tech jet fighters, radar surveillance, radar-aimed air defenses, and robust electronic intelligence collection were no match…for a low-tech biplane built in the 1920s.
The Russian Po-2’s wood and fabric construction made it difficult to detect by radar, and nearly impossible to find when flying in the ground clutter at treetop altitudes. Even if detected, its 70 mph cruise speed proved too slow for jets to intercept (resulting in the only bi-plane with a jet-kill in history). Making things more difficult, the Po-2 attacked exclusively at night, often from a glide with their engine off.
These were the same equipment and tactics the all-female “Night Witches” used in World War II. In the Korean War, these attacks focused on troop tents and were so pervasive they were known as ‘Bedcheck Charlie.’
There are a few lessons to take from these two events.
The first is that high-tech doesn’t win and low-tech doesn’t lose—it’s all about the ‘right-tech.’
The second: As those in the profession of arms know, every technology and tactic has an offset—an asymmetry waiting to be found and exploited. Failing to continually evolve and adapt cedes time and advantage to be offset by others—a position of failure.
This is an infinite game. It has no end and doesn’t neatly fit into fiscal years, POM cycles, programs of record, or a line of congressional language in a bill.
Innovate or die is a common mantra in the startup world—in national security, it is literally the way of life.
In the case of Tower 22, this failure is a tragedy. The threat of low-cost drone attacks has been acknowledged and admired by the Pentagon for almost 20 years, but failure to field solutions has broken a streak that lasted 70 years, 9 months, and 14 days.
The question now: Will Congress and the Pentagon finally learn the right lessons from this tragedy?
On the Radar
The Merge’s Take: This has minimal reporting, so we wouldn’t place too much stock into this—yet. That said, it is well-known that Saudi Arabia is looking for a date to take to the 6th-gen dance. The oil-rich nation is trying to get into the 6th-gen GCAP program led by a UK-Italy-Japan consortium. The real thing to keep an eye on: If Saudi joins a 6th-gen program, by law, it forces the US into a discussion about Israel’s 6th-gen fighter future.
Lockheed Martin Ventures announced an investment in Meteomatics, a weather tech startup.
The Merge’s Take: Who said weather can’t be cool? Meteomatics uses weather drones to feed a larger dataset to operate one of the highest resolution weather models around—it forecasts weather street by street, updated every hour. If you’re wondering what Lockheed Ventures is—we interviewed the vice president running it back in episode 11 of our podcast.
The Merge’s Take: The announcement doesn’t explicitly say ‘Replicator,’ but this sounds exactly like one of the first tranches of capabilities in this Pentagon initiative. Assuming that, DIU is trying to field hundreds of drone boats in the next 18 months. It’s also eerily similar to the drone boats Ukraine has been using to sink Russian ships.
The Missile Defense Agency approved Northrop Grumman’s preliminary design review of its proposed Next Generation Interceptor (NGI) a year ahead of schedule. The other competitor is Lockheed Martin, who completed their PDR 3 months ago.
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