Drones have been part of the military inventory for decades, but the war in Ukraine has seen a massive escalation in their exploitation. Does this herald the start of a new era in modern warfare, and will the rapid development of AI lead to the inevitable dawn of drone wars?
Unmanned flight predates manned, but the limits of technology have – to date – made unmanned air vehicles (UAV) vulnerable and thus unsuitable for widespread military use.
However, the relatively benign air environment over Afghanistan led to the development of a new generation of loitering platforms – such as the US Reaper – that could fly for over 20 hours and provide live-streaming video to HQs the other side of the world.
Russia has used hundreds of drones to target Ukrainian cities and critical national infrastructure.
Missiles, each costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, fly fast, are hard to shoot down and carry a huge explosive payload.
But when supplies ran low, the Russians imported Shahid 136 UAVs from Iran. These UAVs are slow and vulnerable to small-arms fire but can be used as a swarm to overwhelm defences – and some get through.
The Ukrainians have also exploited UAVs to target Russian logistics hubs to great effect, most recently targeting a fuel storage facility on Crimea and another just east of the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to Russia.
However, the alleged drone attack on the Kremlin on Tuesday night looked extremely suspect – the Kremlin is a fortress, with multiple layers of air and land defences, and a slow-speed UAV should never have made it through.
Regardless, the incident demonstrated the broad utility of drones, both as a weapon of destruction, and of deception.
Smaller tactical drones have also proven invaluable in this conflict, particularly at the frontline.
As early as 1794, observation balloons were used as an aerial platform for gathering intelligence and spotting artillery, and in World War One, Royal Flying Corps aircraft took the opportunity to drop hand grenades on enemy trench positions.
More than a century later, small UAVs are also being used to fulfil the same role.
Surveillance technology has advanced apace – leveraging advances in the space and satellite markets – with sensors becoming lighter, more powerful and with reduced power requirements.
Small drones are quiet, cheap, easily reconfigurable, and can provide live-streamed video of enemy positions directly to artillery – like playing a card game when you can see what card the other side has in their hand.
As Russia counters one capability, so the Ukrainians adapt and innovate.
Technology – and its rapid exploitation – has provided Ukraine with an asymmetric advantage in this conflict.
Although the United States has the lead in high-end UAVs, the global leader in the mass market is China, and when coupled with the rapid advances in AI capability, UAVs look set to become a mass-market, high volume, cost-effective military capability.
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Conventional warfighting wisdom is that bigger is better – high-end tanks, aircraft and ships will prevail. However, the Ukraine conflict has demonstrated the huge warfighting potential of UAVs, where quantity has a quality all of its own.
A year ago, the UAV market was focused on domestic parcel deliveries, driverless cars and multi-UAV light shows.
However, the Ukraine conflict has showcased the dramatic potential of UAVs, which have yet to leverage rapid advances in AI.
The stage is set for a new generation of military capability – the drone wars – enabling low-budget decisive military effect, with profound implications for our international, and domestic, security.