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How drones are changing warfare

Modern symmetrical warfare turns out to be something we never imagined. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has reverted to World War I standards of fighting in trenches, in which hundreds of thousands of troops stand off each against the other along a front line a thousand kilometres long. Each side is dug into trenches and fighting is undertaken by infantry. There is no such concept as “air superiority” because nobody is using aeroplanes, because modern ballistic missile technology has made aeroplanes so easy to shoot down. Nor are navies of much use anymore, because ballistic missiles and in particular armoured sea drones make them easy to sink. Above all, the advent of the drone - the unarmed aerial vehicle - has changed warfare and in some ways made it all much more simple.

The United States Armed Forces began using combat drones with their “Reaper Drone” model, a full-sized pilotless aircraft flown remotely from a considerable distance away from the target location. The remote pilot would sit in premises looking like a cockpit and operate a console that looked like a sophisticated flight simulator. To an extent the Reaper Drone concept remains a valuable one, because Reapers are capable of long ranges and can deliver heavy payloads over extended distances. However they are really a way of eliminating personal risk to pilots rather than a revolutionary transformation in the way wars are fought. By contrast the use of drones in the Russian invasion of Ukraine represents a dramatic change in military strategy. The real point about the small modern drones that are used in the current war is that they are so cheap, and they also have long ranges. Reaper Drones and similar full-size models of unmanned aeroplanes are expensive, whereas the Shaheed Iranian-made drone so commonly used by the Russians in Ukrainian theatre costs a mere US$20,000.

Consider the mathematics of this. A Shaheed drone is basically a flying high explosive warhead with wings and it is guided by a joystick and using GPS signals and mobile telephone masts. Shaheed drones can be sent in swarms, so that ten might be sent at once with a total price of US$200,000 compared to the US$1m that a Russian Kalibr cruise missile costs to deliver a single equivalent warhead. A swarm of Shaheed drones were used to attack Odessa the other night, when we were in the city. Of eight drones, seven were knocked out by air defences and then one was slammed by its controller into the nearest tall building which turned out to be a block of flats. The destruction wrought by the drone that impacted was militarily harmless but the next swarm of drones, which are presumably heading for Odessa port, might have more success in achieving a valuable Russian military objective.

The way you knock out drones before they reach their target varies from the sophisticated to the basic. The Shaheed drones fly at about 100 Knots from one mobile ‘phone mast to the next. So one thing you can do to derail them is to scramble the mobile ‘phone masts and the GPS satellite signals, so they fly off in the wrong direction and (you hope) land harmlessly in a field in the middle of nowhere. Because they fly relatively slowly, there is another simple method to neutralise them and that is to shoot them out of the sky. There are drone elimination units which consist of a truck with a giant halogen lamp shining into the sky to spot the drone, and then a general purpose machine gun mounted on the back of the truck to shoot it out of the sky. Of course you could use Patriot missiles or another surface-to-air missile system to remove attacking drones, but the cost of firing each such missile vastly exceeds the cost of the drone itself and therefore this is a very expensive option and only to be used as a last resort if it seems that a drone is likely to hit a valuable military target otherwise.

Then there are anti-personnel drones, which are even cheaper - perhaps as little as 500 Euros or less - and that can be made from plastic using 3D printers. These drones travel at perhaps 20 to 30 knots and they may be “kamikaze” (i.e. they spot a target using their cameras and then they just navigate towards the target and detonate the explosives they hold) or they may drop a small bomb on a specific enemy position such as an infantryman or unit. These anti-personnel drones are also being adapted to carry warheads that will destroy or disable tanks, armoured personnel carriers and other vehicles.

The existence of all these drones is the reason why tanks, vehicles and aircraft have become largely redundant and now troops sit in reinforced bunkers in trenches on the front line, trying to avoid drones. Aircraft with all their expensive avionics are now redundant, and even to an extent are missiles because drones are so much cheaper. Drones turn out to return us to the most primitive warfare conditions - trenches - because they are cost-effective and efficient in eliminating all other forms of warfare.


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