Small Drones & Loitering Munitions in Ukraine - The terrifying rise of cheap precision

Small Drones & Loitering Munitions in Ukraine -  The terrifying rise of cheap precision

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Talking about military technology, there's a tendency to focus on the big ticket items. Tanks make for pretty dramatic news footage. And after the news coverage of the last few weeks I'd be surprised if there was an American or European left who wasn't at least vaguely aware of what an F-16 was. Fighter jets and expensive platforms have a way of capturing the popular imagination.

Even when talking about cheaper systems like drones, in the context of the Ukraine War, the face of the drone war has become the Bayraktar TB2. This is a system that sprang to fame early in the war, and which I've covered extensively in the past. And yet so many of the images that have come out of Ukraine have been of advanced expensive armoured vehicles, tanks, APCs and IFVs, military showpieces that may have rolled down Red Square in previous years, being harassed and sometimes knocked out by $3,000 hobby drones that someone strapped a grenade to.

The usage of these small drones has evolved rapidly, and they've been adopted on a lavish scale. And it's that combination of rapid improvement, massive adoption, and incredible affordability that makes this video one of the most terrifying I've ever done. Because while the TB2 might win headlines, it's these smaller systems that might ultimately prove more disruptive.

Because when precision costs less than an artillery shell, and requires little more than a smartphone and an Amazon Prime account, there's no more room for business as usual. So today I'm going to have a look at these smaller unmanned aerial systems and drones, and talk a little bit about how they've been used. That's a story that doesn't actually start in Ukraine, it arguably starts even earlier. So I'll be looking at both Syria and the war in the Donbas.

Then I'll zoom in for a much closer look at the systems and the tactics that have been deployed in Ukraine. And at a closely related but somewhat distinct set of systems, the loitering munition, aka the "kamikaze drone". Because it's me, I'll pair that with a discussion of logistics and where the supply of these drones is coming from for both sides. Then having terrified everyone with an image of weaponised drones costing less than a new gaming PC, I'll talk a little bit about the counters to these systems that have been deployed in Ukraine. And then immediately undermine any sense of comfort you might feel by talking about additional drone developments in terms of technology and tactics around the world, and what lessons militaries and governments might be taking from them.

It should go without saying I won't be covering anything that hasn't been published in open source. Nor will I be going into detail on particularly sensitive topics. So with those caveats out of the way, let me welcome back a sponsor. And so today I'd like to welcome back returning sponsor Blinkist. Blinkist is an app that takes more than 5,500 non-fiction works and distils them down so that you can read or listen to them in 15 to 20 minutes.

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How heavy they are, how far they can fly, what is their control system, is it line of sight or over the horizon, and how are they intended to be used. And that classification system is absolutely necessary. Because otherwise when the military says it wants to buy drones you don't know if you're talking about the kind of thing that can survey the entire territory of South Korea in a day, the way the US RQ-4 can, or a flying selfie camera that you confiscated from a school student. And if you work in procurement, you're going to want to avoid getting the prices mixed up between those two extremes, lest you find yourself at the front of the news cycle for all the wrong reasons. At the upper end of the food chain you've got what NATO would classify as Class III unmanned aerial systems.

These are the big boys, the high-end systems that might cost as much as some manned aircraft. Now even within this class you've got some variety. You've got some of your strike and combat systems like the MQ-9 Reaper. You've got your High Altitude, Long Endurance systems like the RQ-4, the Global Hawk, that I've got there on screen. And your Medium Altitude Long Endurance systems like the Israeli Heron.

The point is this category is filled with a diverse variety of unmanned aerial systems. Really, they can come in all sorts of unique shapes and sizes. Likely completely unrelated and unique: American MQ-9 Reaper and Chinese Wing Loong drone that you see on screen now. But if you're looking for some basic characteristics, here they are. These are relatively large systems, they're going to be flying from a runway, they are going to fly at relatively high altitude. They're going to have a control system so that you can interact with them beyond online of sight, so well over the horizon.

And they're generally going to be controlled by higher echelons. Important people get to decide where these drones fly. No matter what Call of Duty taught you, Private Conscriptovic does not in fact get direct control of a Reaper just because he hit a kill streak. Now if you knock very roughly a zero off the price, you end up in Class II and the realm of tactical fixed-wing drones. These things are generally going to fly at much lower altitude, they might have long endurance, but their range from the control station is going to be limited. And because they're cheaper, you might be able to trust them to comparatively lower echelons.

Based on its control scheme and maximum altitude, this is where you would probably put the TB2 drone, which compared to the MQ-9 from before is absolutely a bargain option. But also still far too large and far too expensive to be covered in this episode. No, we're interested today in systems so affordable you could buy them with the national equivalent of a millennial's budget. So today we're really interested in Class I unmanned aerial systems. And at this point we're skipping things like runways for most of the designs.

The Russian Orlan-10 which you see on screen is launched with a catapult and then recovered using a parachute. While at the smallest end of the spectrum, when you start talking about mini and micro-drones that could be operated at a platoon or a squad level, a lot of those are going to be rotor designs. Or they're going to be light enough to hand launch using something like a mobile catapult. Which is a good thing, because while infantrymen are perfectly happy to carry a lot of weight around, no one's found a way to carry a mobile runway.

Systems in these categories are going to fly low, they are going to fly slow. But they are also going to be cheap and portable enough that they can be widely issued. And in this category, alongside dedicated military systems, you also find those civilian drones bought off the shelf and pushed into military service.

And so to make things easier in this presentation, where we're mostly talking about the small and cheap stuff, I'm going to steal a trick from the Joint Air Power Competence Centre's report on countering unmanned aircraft systems. When we're talking about expensive, advanced, purpose-built military systems like the Bayraktar TB2, I'm going to call that a UAS. When I'm talking about a $3,000 off-the-shelf drone that someone bought off Amazon Prime and strapped a 40mm grenade to, that's a drone. Those aren't formal definitions, it's just useful shorthand, and the focus of this video is going to be on those drones and loitering munitions.

So before we jump into some of the innovative ways drones have been used in Ukraine, I thought it'd be worth quickly turning the clock back to the 2010s. Because a lot of the things we're starting to see now we've already seen in the past, in Syria, Iraq, or the long series of skirmishes in the Donbas from 2014 onwards. They say that necessity is the mother of all invention. And the long and desperate fighting, and associated human tragedy, of the Syrian Civil War and also the fighting in Iraq against Isis certainly gave rise to an awful lot of necessity.

These are after all, conflicts that included a lot of non-state actors, and state actors with limited supplies of ordnance. The Syrian Civil War for example gave us the horrifying sight of Assad forces basically filling barrels full of explosives and rolling them out the back of helicopters. Not because a barrel is a superior weapon system to something like a JDAM, but because barrels were cheap and available.

If I ever do a dedicated video on the Syrian Civil War, be prepared to see some incredible improvisation. We're talking about people making ammunition out of propane tanks, or employing slingshots and catapults as delivery mechanisms. And as you can probably imagine, many of the non-state actors involved didn't exactly have the benefit of a thriving military aviation sector. And so improvisation and off-the-shelf systems were the order of the day.

And while Syria was becoming the drone warfare lab for the Russians, the fighting in the Donbas was where Ukraine's learnings were taking place. And the story of Ukrainian drone operations in the Donbas between 2014 and 2022 is not some uninterrupted stream of wins and victories. The Ukrainian Army of 2014 had very limited drone capabilities. A lot of the doctrinal, tactical and technical development work had to be done by volunteers and NGOs, with perhaps the most famous being Aerorozvidka. Which basically translates simply to "aerial reconnaissance".

And even with these units involved, many Ukrainian drone deployments ended in embarrassing and sometimes high-profile failure. There were occasions on which Ukrainian drone operators were tracked to their point of operation and engaged by Russian forces. On other occasions Russian electronic warfare crews won some major victories, hijacking or downing drones en masse. And so while videos of the current conflict might look like anyone could pick up a drone and be effective on the Ukrainian battlefield, the reality is it took years of iteration to get to that point. Technical modifications and changes to tactics were necessary to decrease the impact of Russian electronic warfare and reduce system losses. And sometimes entirely new systems had to be developed from scratch.

The R-18, which you can see there on screen, is a result of that development process. It's a home-grown Ukrainian design with 8 rotors so that it can get back to base even if it takes damage to one or more of them. It has thermal optics available to it and a greater payload capacity. The intention was to build a platform that was much more capable of doing reconnaissance and strike missions, while at the same time also being more survivable and still affordable. My point is that a lot of what we see in Ukraine today isn't spontaneous. It's not a result of a lot of nerds going and grabbing drones off the shelf in February 2022, going to war and being massively effective.

It's a result of years of technical and tactical development. As with so many things in life, it takes an awful lot of hard work to make something look easy. Which brings us to the present, or the war that began in February 2022. And what I thought I'd do was split this up into the systems that are being deployed, just for a little bit of background, and then an examination of how they're being used.

And given the fact there are dozens and dozens of types of drones in use in Ukraine, what I've done is grouped them together into a couple of shorthand categories. The first are your cheap quad-rotor type designs. These are usually off-the-shelf civilian technology that have been provided by volunteers or by government to front-line units, and they are being used for either reconnaissance or strike missions. Colloquially you'll often see these referred to as "Mavics", because the DJI Mavic 2 and 3 are some of the most common models in Ukrainian and Russian service. The jury is still out on whether or not the pronunciation should be changed to "mavich" while in Slavic service. In terms of defining characteristics, these things are light, relatively simple to operate, incredibly cheap, and available on the open market.

A quick search on Amazon for example, showed me that I could purchase a DJI Mavic 3 Classic for under 3,000 Aussie dollars. Which literally puts it in the same price category as some unguided artillery shells. For that price you get roughly 45 minutes of flying time, a controller that almost anyone can use, and a relatively basic but still very useful camera suite. And given that affordability, these things have been provided by volunteers and other organisations en masse. They've been modified in Ukraine by both sides for a range of purposes, including dropping small munitions. And while they have a range of drawbacks,

including unmodified DJI drones being vulnerable to the Aeroscope system (which we'll talk about later) and relatively limited payload capacity, we need to keep going back to that thing where these things are very, very cheap, and available literally off the shelf online. It means volunteers can deliver them by the truckload, and troops can afford to use them in a way that risks them being destroyed. Add a zero to the price tag and you're in the category of thermal and heavier drone systems. A lot of these are still off-the-shelf technology, they are still things that you can order online in many cases, or hack together in a workshop. But they add a variety of other features including (as the name would suggest), thermal optics to enable them to operate at night. As well as, at least in some cases, greater size and with that greater size increased carrying capacity.

If you're looking for examples, an off-the-shelf one might be the DJI M30T, with the "T" standing for thermal. That'll set you back about 14,000 American, but gives you ordinary optics, thermal optics and a laser rangefinder. Jeez, I'm sure the manufacturer must be shocked that these things are being used for military purposes. Who would ever want access to a flying laser rangefinder and a thermal camera on the modern battlefield? A little dearer would be something like the Ukrainian home-grown R-18 drone.

These things you can't buy off the shelf, but the concept is basically the same. It's a larger drone, the price given by the manufacturers is about 45,000 US dollars. But in exchange for that sticker price it's much more well-adapted for military purposes. It has the extra rotors for survivability, it's got a good optics suite, and it's capable of carrying, importantly, a much higher payload.

Instead of carrying a single small makeshift explosive, one of these might easily carry, and has been seen carrying, 3 anti-tank grenades. And whereas foreign companies may put restrictions against military use in their terms of service or their export agreements, I suspect the equivalent Ukrainian contracts actively encourage it. Next up are loitering munitions, which are sometimes also called "kamikaze drones". Now these systems feature an integrated warhead, so they're going to be destroyed when they hit their target. Their ultimate objective is to ram head first into something the operator doesn't want to be there anymore.

How they get to that point varies weapon to weapon. If you're talking about something larger like the Iranian Shaheds in Russian service, those are just going to proceed to a pre-programmed target and ram nose first into that objective. Other systems are designed to loiter, hence the name. They might circle in an area waiting for an operator to identify a target, designate that either with the system itself or with another drone. At which point the loitering munition will be tasked against that target, engage it and hopefully destroy it.

Unsurprisingly, you can't buy ready-made loitering munitions off Amazon Prime, these are military products. And even the American second amendment doesn't stretch as far as privately-owned long-range precision-guided munitions. Although terrifyingly enough, while you can't buy your own ready-made loitering munition, the Ukraine War is proving that you can sort of build your own. And that's where the final category of drones comes in, FPVs.

FPV stands for First Person View, and it really describes the control scheme of a drone rather than the drone itself. Whereas most quad-rotor drones will be controlled with a tablet, a smartphone, or a controller and a screen, FPVs usually involve a headset which the user wears, and a secondary controller, which gives the user a first person view basically looking forward from the drone in question. A lot of these are civilian racing drones, so they are small, light, designed to go fast. Given the difference in control scheme and performance characteristics, they're generally considered harder to fly than ordinary quad-rotors, but they do have performance characteristics for a particular task. And so what we have seen the Ukrainians in particular do is sling a warhead underneath an FPV, and then have the drone operator pilot them into a target. That warhead might be a grenade, something custom built, or the explosive section off an RPG-7.

The result is that the pilot is able to manually pilot a warhead into a particular target. Essentially filling some of the role that would normally be filled by a dedicated loitering munition. And such is the success of this technology, that we have seen Ukrainian ministries ordering more and more of these devices in recent months. But that's starting to touch on issues of utilisation efficacy, which is really the next section, so maybe it's time to move on.

The key point is that FPVs are essentially racing drones where the finish line is an opposing armoured vehicle, and the prize for winning is arguably national survival. Which brings us to the discussion of how these systems are being used, and how effective they ultimately are. And because it's me, we have to get some caveats in first before that discussion. The first thing to say in reference to the fog of war is that drone footage of this war is everywhere, it's one of the very public faces of this conflict.

Wherever a drone goes it's usually recording, which means if it accomplishes something there's likely to be footage. And both sides have been making use of drone footage to its utmost for propaganda purposes. And that includes every dodgy trick in the book. Sudden and dramatic cuts in the editing in order to make the footage deceptive.

Mislabelling or reposting old footage as footage from more recent events. Or in the most brazen cases, taking footage posted by the other side and reposting it, claiming it's your own. Given the fact that both sides are using many of the same vehicle designs, all it sometimes takes to turn a field of destroyed Russian vehicles into destroyed Ukrainian vehicles is an alteration to the subtitles and video description. The second and very important point to be aware of is publication bias. Drone footage is usually released by drone operators. And drone operators in military service don't get to release footage just because they believe in the free exchange of information, but because that release has a purpose.

That means what you get to see is a small subset of all the footage that is taken. And if you think about the kind of things that are likely to be excluded from the footage that's released, failed attacks are probably the first things that come to mind. By specifically asking around, I've been able to find more examples of footage of failed attacks, but for the most part the things you see in the public domain are all successes.

Just like those fake sports betting or stock picking gurus, who post only images of the bets where they win big, and never the tips that result in users being wiped out, when you look at the footage coming from drone operators you are really usually only seeing the "W"s, not the "L"s. It's not so much a war journal as a war Instagram feed, carefully curated to give a particular image. But on the flip side, you're sometimes not seeing the most impressive wins out there for reasons of security and secrecy. Tactics, techniques and technology are all sensitive, the more the enemy knows about them, the easier they can be countered. And so if there is a system or a technique that is working particularly well, expect to see zero video evidence of it in action.

To illustrate the point, let me ask you a question. The US has included more than 1,800 Phoenix Ghost loitering munitions in its announced aid packages, and 700+ Switchblade 300s. How many confirmed images or videos have you seen online of the Phoenix Ghost? Google it, have a look, you'll find news stories using artists impressions, or images of people operating entirely different drones. There's an Insider article there about the Phoenix Ghost, and the picture is of a bloody DJI quad rotor. So when you're talking about the sample of footage that we're interpreting, it's actually even more narrow than just the Ws.

It is things that are impressive enough to have propaganda value, but not so impressive or sensitive or secret that they give away valuable information. But still there is an enormous volume of footage out there, more of it is posted every single day. It's one of the reasons I get particularly annoyed when I see individuals post insultingly low casualty estimates for the Russian Army for example. The footage that is out there tells a different story.

But in relation to that footage I'm going to make a quick warning. People who are doing open source intelligence work often consume a lot of this material, and it is good in general if you are watching videos on the internet and you want to check what you're being told, you want to verify things for yourself, you want to go back and check the primary sources. But I would strongly advise viewer discretion before you go off and start looking at some of these drone attack videos.

This can be very powerful, impactful, personal material. It's going to impact different people in different ways, but remember modern optics are pretty good, the zoom can be pretty tight. And so if you want to sleep soundly at night, you might want to look elsewhere. I obviously won't be including anything confronting in this presentation, but just a warning if you want to go off looking on your own. Alright, warnings given and caveats in place, let's talk about how these drones are being used in Ukraine. And the easy answer is that it'll probably take less time to describe the way drones aren't being used than the ways they are.

One Ukrainian I spoke to described the battlefield as so drone infested that it's become hard to tell which side individual drones are on. There are still specialised drone units, but at the same time I'm told every self-respecting Ukrainian company has a drone team now. And while larger drones like the Russian Orlan are easier to identify, and given their size and capabilities more likely to merit something like a MANPADS in order to bring down, that Mavics are so cheap and so common that units might restrict themselves to small arms and handheld jammers in order to bring them down. And given the sheer number in the air and the difficulty of identifying friend from foe, the decision of whether or not to take down a drone often ends up being based on suspicion. Where is it hovering and what positions does it appear to be observing? If the answer is a little too suspicious, well then the jammers come out. Although even that is only likely to provide temporary relief, because there's usually plenty more where that came from.

In terms of employment the most basic, the most important, the default role for the use of drones on the battlefield remains reconnaissance. And in this role even a very, very basic drone has massive advantages over a human scout. For one thing, the optics on a drone have zoom functionality without needing binoculars.

The recording system on a drone is more reliable than human memory. Even the most athletic scouts have difficulty jumping 1-200 metres in the air to get a bird's-eye view. And human scouts tend to complain a lot more when they're sent on what are basically suicide missions.

And so drones take on both a proactive and a reactive reconnaissance role. A unit preparing to launch an attack might send up several birds in order to try and pick out enemy positions and plan their assault. On the flip side a unit that suddenly finds itself under attack might launch its drones in order to get a better bird's-eye view of the attackers.

And for night operations in particular, thermal drones come into their own with their ability to spot targets through even some concealment. Now obviously drones aren't perfect at reconnaissance or without limitations. They are vulnerable to electronic warfare which we'll talk about later.

They're hard to see against the sky a lot of the time, but many of them are quite noisy. And it probably won't surprise you to know that most civilian drone makers neglect to include armour plating in their designs. So they are very vulnerable if anything should hit them. But there's plenty of evidence of these drones making their way relatively close to opposing positions and bringing back valuable intelligence. If the quintessential challenge is, as the Duke of Wellington said, finding out what is on the other side of that hill, well, drones offer a cheap, affordable, low-risk mechanism for doing so. The second role it's worth mentioning is spotting for and correcting artillery fire.

And I'd argue that this is probably far more important than the direct strike role that we'll talk about in a moment, and which gets all of the attention. In this respect drones are essentially augmenting, or even replacing, the role of the human forward observer. They can fly up into the sky, use their optics to spot targets. If they have on-board computers and laser range-finders they can get the coordinates of that particular location, and that can be used by artillery to then engage the target. If the artillery rounds are off target, well, the drone provides instant feedback which allows the artillery to adjust and put the next volley of shells (hopefully) on the target.

Now in order to make best use of this information, proper networking and communications are really valuable. Which is why systems like GIS Arta come into it in terms of really explaining some of the efficacy of Ukrainian artillery. But given the sensitivity of those systems, I'm just going to sort of gloss over them for the moment. Another thing that drone-spotted artillery allows is in some cases artillery can basically be their own spotters. An artillery battery, or even an individual artillery piece, that has a drone as part of the unit might be able to spot targets itself, in the absence of any designations from elsewhere, out to distances of 10 or 15 kilometres.

That may not be a particularly common practice, but drones do make it possible. And a drone that can fly 15 kilometres certainly gives you a better self-spotting distance than putting Steve on the roof with a pair of binoculars. And there are other reasons that this mission, as opposed to the direct strike mission, probably deserves a lot more attention. Drones that are doing artillery spotting don't have to get as close to their targets as those that are trying to bomb them directly, which makes it easier to keep the drone survivable.

An infantryman might be able to hit a drone using their AK if it's hovering 80 metres in the air over one of their vehicles. But they're going to struggle if the thing is a kilometre away. It's also attractive from an engineering perspective, because it means you don't have to put the payload, namely the shell, on the vehicle itself.

Payload is heavy, it requires additional power, it imposes weight and range restrictions and it increases cost. So if you can just have the drone find the target and artillery somewhere else stock the shells and deliver those shells to the identified target, well, that saves weight on the drone itself. And as an approach, the evidence is that this works relatively well.

If you look at the recent battles around Kherson or around Vuhledar, then drone-spotted artillery fire is a constant feature. Meanwhile on the Russian side, some of their systems like Krasnopol (which is a guided artillery shell) require laser designation - usually from a drone - in order to function at all. A usage that we've seen less of, but some evidence of, is direct control and coordination of small units during operations. We have evidence for example, of Ukrainian Special Operations forces cooperating during night operations with a thermal viewing drone overhead. The drone operator spots potential targets and recommends courses of action.

Again, because in terms of visibility being 80 metres up in the air is a huge advantage. Similarly, we have plenty of testimony from the fighting around Bakhmut to suggest that Wagner offensives in particular would be closely monitored by drone operators, who would issue directions to the troops engaged in the attack, and also call in artillery and fires to support those movements. Now I do want to be careful with my observations here, I imagine there's a number of infantrymen out there that would be a little bit nervous in fact if the lieutenant had access to a drone and was able to with a sky-eyes view micromanage every member of the platoon. But as a concept to improve situational awareness and coordination at the small unit level, this seems to an outsider like it might have merit as a concept. Plus it might save you some casualties if every time you come to a corner you can send the drone around first, rather than having Private Conscriptovic stick his head out. And then there's the role that dominates all of the discussions and so much of the combat footage that comes out, the direct strike role.

This is where the drone itself is launching an attack on enemy personnel, or enemy infrastructure and equipment. In most cases this means modifying a drone to carry a grenade or something on the underside, and dropping that grenade on a target. Giving this sort of role its other colloquial name, "drone dropping". Now obviously in the case of mostly civilian drones, grenade attacks was not on their intended list of hobby functions. And as a result, drones have to be modified to be used in this role.

There are a range of both hardware and software modifications that usually need to be made for this role, usually leveraging advantages in things like 3D printing in order to operationalise. Unsurprisingly, I will be going into exactly zero detail of how these modifications are done. But the end result is usually a drone carrying a small payload that can be anything from a small improvised explosive to, in the case of the R-18, 3 anti-tank grenades. Then the basic idea is that like some dystopian video game, you pilot the drone out over a target, release the munitions, and job done.

Now the efficacy of these drone attacks are a matter of immense debate. On balance much more footage of successful drone attacks seems to come out of the Ukrainian side as opposed to the Russians, and therefore as you can imagine, views are often divided on national lines. On one hand there are those that argue these attacks are primarily for propaganda purposes, that they have no real military utility. And they usually suggest that by pointing out that many of the attacks seem to be on vehicles that are already abandoned. The idea then is that the Ukrainians are just going out and bombing vehicles that are already destroyed in order to create good propaganda footage.

On the other hand there are those who probably want to cancel the B-21 Raider program in order to equip the US military with 20 million Mavic quad rotors. That side will often argue things like the attacks on expensive vehicles like tanks seem to be very, very, very effective. And infantry seem incapable of shooting down drones, even when the drones get relatively close. As always it seems, annoyingly enough I'm going to position myself somewhere in the middle.

Regarding attacks on seemingly un-crewed vehicles, I think it's wrong to suggest these are just propaganda. There's plenty of reasons a drone might want to attack a vehicle that isn't currently crewed and moving. On one hand tanks aren't crewed at all times, crews can't live inside the tank. I dare anybody who has ever been inside a T-72 to suggest that you could live there for any sustained duration of time.

Crews need to sleep, crews need to eat, crews need to relieve themselves. Crews need to do maintenance or report to their superiors. During those times, especially at night, a tank is not going to be crewed, it's not going to be moving and it might be a perfectly good target for a drone attack. And even if a vehicle is abandoned, there's plenty of reasons a drone might want to attack it anyway. If a tank runs into an anti-tank mine for example and throws a track, the crew might abandon the vehicle and move back to safety.

If the Ukrainians disable a Russian vehicle with artillery or a landmine behind Russian positions, they're not going to be able to go out and recover that vehicle. But they're also not going to want the Russians to be able to recover that vehicle, pull it back to a depot and put it back into service. And so if you can't recover a vehicle, you're probably going to want to keep hitting it until it burns or is obviously unusable.

And if you're talking about cost-effective ways to do that, well, having a drone fly over and drop a grenade down an open hatch to cook off the vehicle is a pretty cost-effective and safe way to do it. You don't have to waste a Javelin or an Excalibur round, a grenade and a drone will do the job. And so while some of these shots are probably taken for propaganda purposes, there's also a lot of conceivable military utility in attacking a vehicle that isn't crewed and moving. And I don't think these videos are evidence that drones are useless in the attack role.

But similarly the videos that are out there of drones knocking out tanks with dropped munitions, doesn't mean we should replace all of the Javelins and anti-tank missile systems with hobby drones and grenades. The big points here are publication bias and target selection bias. It may be that a lot of the time a drone-drop munition doesn't actually disable or do serious damage to a tank. I've seen some videos of tanks shrugging off those explosions.

But what incentive is there for an operator to publish a video that clearly shows their attack achieving very, very little? Unless they obviously hit some optics or do some damage, why would they put that video on the internet? I mean, I could make myself look like the best basketball player in history if you let me film myself making 300 attempts at 3 point throws from halfway, and then only publish the ones where I actually make the shot. I'm not saying these successful attacks don't happen, we see them. I just question how representative the sample of what we see actually is. And a similar issue helps explain the misconception that drones are super survivable. I often see comments on these drone-drop videos basically saying, "How on earth did they not notice the drone and shoot it down?" Well the obvious answer is that if they did notice the drone and shoot it down, then you wouldn't have a video, now would you? It's survivorship bias, pure and simple. Just like those successful entrepreneurs who pull themselves up by their bootstraps and make millions, and as a result argue that everyone can do it miss the fact that, well, all the people who don't make it don't get interviewed and get to make those statements.

We don't often get to see the video evidence accompanying a drone's demise. In reality, and we'll get to this later on, gunfire paired with thermal optics can actually be really dangerous to these sorts of drones. But if a unit is poorly trained and poorly equipped, well then the 'copters can do their work. My core point is that the video evidence makes these drone drops look easy. It makes the humans and the vehicles being attacked by the drones look helpless, it looks like something any hobbyist with a little bit of video game experience, a knock-off Xbox controller and a hobby drone could do.

But interviews and commentary from both sides suggests that's not the case. On the Russian side for example, Mers, who's a volunteer who helps supply, among other things, drones to troops fighting for the so-called DPR and LPR, complains that Ukrainian drone attacks work because the Ukrainians have spent years developing the tactics and the system for launching those attacks. And then complains bitterly that on the Russian side a decision was made, presumably at some high command level, to take the DJI drones that volunteers had carefully gathered the money to purchase and use them for bombing attacks instead of reconnaissance or artillery spotting. And because the order had come down from General Oligarkov or whoever, everyone rushes to immediately take the drones that have been purchased and launch little grenade dropping attacks instead, without proper tactics, without proper reconnaissance. And as a result, they do very minimal damage and the Ukrainians, "jam these Mavics and shoot them down for their own pleasure."

Meanwhile more of the complexities and challenges are noted by experts on the Ukrainian side. They stress the need for proper training and for proper planning. An incorrectly chosen attack route they say can be fatal, while a bad pilot might lose a drone even without taking off. They also note that electronic warfare is a massive danger, and so operations that aren't properly coordinated with friendly electronic warfare officers can run into serious fratricide problems. In short, quad-rotor drones with 40mm grenades are not some magical "I win" button. They require training, they require tactics, and they don't outright replace other weapon systems.

If drones could just destroy all the tanks, then Ukraine wouldn't be asking for more tanks. But when this tactic does work it can be terrifying and effective. There's some pretty confronting Russian testimonials out there of what happens when these drone attacks are properly executed. One testimony for example described a situation where the Ukrainians would identify a vulnerable unit, a unit without much anti-air capability, not supported by electronic warfare. And sent out a cluster of drones, 6 to 8 of them, in order to monitor that location at all times.

Artillery would be called in on roads and ingress points to force the infantry there to shelter in buildings or trenches. And then the drones would just maintain a constant vigil. It was remarked that normally individuals could move around positions relatively safely. No one was going to drop artillery fire on one soldier moving from position to position. So someone filling up the squad's water bottles was unlikely to result in someone calling fire for effect and dropping 155. But whereas one soldier won't merit artillery fire, they absolutely will merit drone-drop grenades.

And as a result troops stop moving around as much from position to position. Slowly, as the testimony describes it, that lack of movement becomes fatal. Batteries begin to run out, canteens empty, troops eventually need to move one way or the other. Morale plummets until eventually in the case cited, the unit abandons the position.

The drone as such is a weapon of fear as much as it is of attack. It puts troops on edge, it makes them feel like they're always being watched, and like death might come from above at any moment. It freezes them in their positions and frays at their nerves.

Now so far there are only a few anecdotal accounts of those sort of tactics being used. And it seems like the sort of attack that would at once take a highly skilled unit to execute, and be most effectively targeted against under-trained or under-equipped units. But it does point to some of the terrifying potential that these systems have. Now mostly I've talked about Ukrainian drone usage, what about the Russians? Here our base of evidence is obviously more limited, but I've put together some points based on what we have read. Now the first thing to say is it's not like Russia doesn't know how to operate drones. I mentioned at the start all the lessons that they learned from their deployments in Syria.

That said, a common complaint that I've seen time and time again, is the lessons from Syria weren't brought home and applied across all units and across all fronts. In February 2022 the Russians have a considerable advantage over the Ukrainians in their number of purpose-built military drones. But there are many accounts of a significant deficit of smaller (often ex-civilian) drones being used at the lower unit level. There were not reportedly enough drones to give all units the reconnaissance and target designation capabilities that they really wanted. And systems weren't really set up to enable information from drone operators to rapidly get to the point where it could be actioned with a fire mission or tactical decision making.

But the idea that Russia wasn't using drones, or that they weren't learning, those seemed to be patently false. For one thing, we were seeing drone-designated precision strikes from the first days of the war. Russia's Krasnopol round doesn't work without designation, often from a drone. The issue was available quantity and how they were being used, not that the Russians didn't understand what a drone was.

Similarly, we've seen some signs of learning and adaptation. Obviously Wagner for example, has closely integrated smaller drones into their assault and reconnaissance tactics. And there are some reports, although they are still very anecdotal, of mobilised personnel in Russia practicing drone operation as part of their training. But what I and many others are still pretty blind on, is just how far those changes have permeated throughout the Russian military.

The Russian military is also dealing with some organisational barriers in this regard. Units for example complain that they have difficulty moving drones purchased by volunteers across borders, even internal ones. And reports on the recent restrictions on the use of personal electronic devices like smartphones and tablets requires further investigation. On one hand Russia is clearly trying to reduce instances of troops being located or information leaking because troops have mobile phones and tablets and internet access.

But on the other, there are complaints that those restrictions will make it more difficult to use off-the-shelf drones that often rely on those devices as a controller interface mechanism. But whereas Russian drone usage has suffered from some barriers, their use of loitering munitions has been on a much larger scale than the Ukrainians and scored some notable successes. At the battlefield level there's been extensive employment of loitering munitions like the Lancet series. These are loitering munitions with 30 to 40 minute endurance and 1 to 3 kilogram payloads, that basically operate in coordination with a spotting drone. A spotting drone will locate a high value target like an artillery piece or a self-propelled gun, and direct a loitering munition to attack that target. Now on one hand the system has a mixed record, we have videos of them missing.

We have videos of the warhead being too small to cause significant damage. And we have some images of the system being foiled by incredibly high-tech Ukrainian defensive systems known as nets. But these systems are also responsible for a lot of kills on high value Ukrainian hardware, M777 artillery pieces, self-propelled guns, anti-aircraft installations, all being particularly notable. Given the value of those systems, it cannot be dismissed as a threat. Then there's the much [larger] Shahed 136 from Iran.

This thing is being used primarily as a strategic weapon. Technically speaking it's not particularly complex, it's a simple propeller motor, a warhead, and a basic guidance package. The result is it's a cheap system that'll never hit a moving target, but against a critical piece of civilian infrastructure, like an energy transformer, it's very dangerous. And while it is noisy and slow and flies at low altitude, it is as I said very, very cheap. Which means it has a major shot exchange problem associated, it often costs more to shoot this thing down than it costs to build.

Which means as a result, despite it being a pretty cheap system, the Ukrainians have had to put a lot of effort into countering this thing lest it drain their more advanced and more capable ground-based air defences. On the Ukrainian side there's really no equivalent to the 136. It's mostly short-range tactical loitering munitions. Some have come in from abroad, we have video of the Polish Warmate system and the American Switchblade 300s. The Switchblade's a very light system.

It's essentially designed for taking out personnel in the open, and has been compared, rather I think fairly, to a shotgun with wings. The Ukrainians have augmented their imported systems with their own FPV, so their modified civilian racing drones. And there's some quite dramatic footage out there of those being used in attacks. What the Ukrainians don't have in large numbers, barring a few indigenous designs like Punisher, is an option that allows them to attack hardened targets, or targets well behind the lines. Whether they get more of those in the future, well, time will tell.

Now in terms of supply and logistics, unsurprisingly things are a lot simpler with these weapon systems than they are with more complex ones like tanks or jets. Both sides for example, place a heavy emphasis on the role of volunteer organisations and NGOs to ensure a good supply of drones to the front line. I mean, you're looking at an image of a Ukrainian wearing a New York Yankees hat, with a cat on his lap, with a bunch of drones in the background that are going to be delivered to the front line. That's 21st century warfare right there. These volunteer systems often operate partially in parallel with official structures, depending on the system. And they thrive both on close relationships with government and on the fact that in Ukraine in particular, it's become relatively common for those that are working and earning an income to donate a significant portion of their income to support these efforts.

This structure also highlights why export controls can be so hard to make work for products like this. If DJI in China says, as they have said, that they didn't intend for their products to be used in war and they don't want to ship them to war zones, well, there's very little they can do if the drones get shipped to Europe, and then they get shipped from European countries to Poland. And from there you know the end of the story, Poland would never ever, ever allow people to drive truckloads of drones across their border into Ukraine. Now in the past firms have used geofencing to preclude their drones being used in places like Syria, but in Ukraine that doesn't seem to have had much of an impact.

Then there's the question of conversion and domestic production. I've talked before about how Ukraine's defence industry is obviously under immense pressure. Large facilities, heavy equipment, those things are hard to conceal.

It's hard to have a secret tank plant, it's not particularly mobile. And if it is discovered, well then it's going to be vulnerable to Russian cruise missile attack. Little drone workshops however, those can be dispersed.

You don't need particularly many staff members operating in each of them. They can operate out of small warehouses, it's software, 3D printers and relatively limited machine tooling. It's an industry that makes full advantage of the fact that there's a lot of trained, educated, technically competent people who are now engaged in supporting the war effort. And then what can't be made or modified at home has to be brought in from abroad, and both sides are still dependent on foreign supply. Russia's domestic drones use imported components, the Shaheds come from Iran, the DJI drones come from China.

And as well as civilian drones Ukraine has received a dizzying array, usually in small quantities but a dizzying array nonetheless, of Western UAVs. The WB FlyEyes from Poland, a variety of systems from the UK. Little mini Black Hornets that we'll talk about later on from Denmark and the UK. Mini Bayraktars from Turkey, Portuguese drones, unspecified recon UAVs from Germany, the list goes on. In short, it's a bizarre and fragmented supply system that's probably only going to get weirder as the war goes on.

But given a lot of the products involved are dual-use civilian in nature, I doubt either side is going to become particularly supply constrained as long as the money is there. And as long as DJI doesn't wonder why everyone in Warsaw suddenly became a drone enthusiast. So that's the first terrifying part of this presentation. Drones are incredibly cheap, accessible, and can attack you almost any time, anywhere.

And so it's time to turn to the question of how are they being countered, and how effective are they really? The first thing to say is that most drones are shot down, these are not survivable systems. RUSI suggested about 90% of these drones are lost. The average lifespan of something like a Mavic is described as about 3 missions, whereas a specialised Ukrainian unit flying a larger R-18 estimates that about 10 missions is a good baseline. In this way, these sort of drones are probably closer to munitions like shells or missiles, than they are to an expensive platform like a piloted aircraft. They are cheap and they have a lifespan, they should be used accordingly.

As one piece of Ukrainian commentary noted, if a drone only lasts 10 missions, but it costs 45,000 dollars and it destroys 10 armoured vehicles during those sorties, then it has more than paid for itself. But the loss rates highlight the need for the resupply of drones to be treated more like the supply of ammunition than the replacement of damaged and destroyed vehicles. One observation that's made by RUSI and which accords with commentary by both Russian and Ukrainian commentators is that electronic warfare is the most efficient counter to these systems.

And that electronic protection and attack mechanisms should be available at all force echelons. What that basically means is that everyone should have a way to jam drones and prevent themselves being jammed. As you might expect from a piece of technology that might only cost a few thousand dollars, a little DJI quad rotor is not a particularly intelligent machine. The right jamming equipment, be that handheld jammers or something heavier, can force drones to land, or in some cases hijack them and make them change sides. And indeed electronic warfare is so dangerous to these drones that both sides emphasise the need to coordinate between those launching and operating the drones, and those running the electronic warfare units.

Otherwise fratricidal jamming, where your own side ends up jamming your drones, forcing them to land or preventing them being recovered, well, that can really happen. And reports of fratricidal jamming on the Russian side are particularly common. That said, electronic warfare isn't perfect. While your average quad rotor if it's detected is going to have between zero and no chance of successfully surviving a coordinated electronic warfare attack, you can design systems that are designed to operate autonomously in a high jamming, spectrum denied environment. They may not be able to talk to their operator while they are jammed, but they can carry on their mission. And so sometimes you just need to shoot the things down, preferably without using a missile that costs you hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The Saudis might have the money necessary to fire Patriot interceptors at quad rotors, but Ukraine isn't quite that lucky. And so funnily enough, in response to this brand-new 21st century threat we've seen a bunch of 20th century solutions come out and prove relatively effective. Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns like the German Gepard for example, have been highlighted as one pretty effective solution. The Gepard system had actually been retired by the German military. And a gun-only system isn't going to do particularly well against jets that are flying higher and faster than ever before.

But against Russian and Iranian drones and loitering munitions flying slowly and at low altitude, well, the Gepards had a great time. Its sensors can spot them relatively easily, and a short burst of proximity detonating 35mm ammunition is a heck of a lot cheaper than firing an anti-aircraft missile. And compared to some of the other equipment that's being sent to help deal with drones, well, the Gepard is actually pretty top shelf.

The popular imagination tends to associate both NATO and NATO aid to Ukraine with higher tech and modern systems, HIMARS, Javelin missiles, main battle tanks. But dig through the list of donated weapons and there's some truly ancient crap in there as well. Lithuania for example recently sent Ukraine a number of Bofors L/70 40mm guns.

The gun began the design process in 1946, and was directly related to the L/60 version from World War Two. If you took anti-aircraft crews from the Second World War and gave them an L/70, they'd figure it out pretty damn quickly. With the right ammo and sensors, this is a great way to shoot down Shahed drones. And the Lithuanians certainly aren't alone, the Finnish and the Poles have both sent ancient Soviet-era anti-aircraft guns. The Dutch are funding 100 vehicles that are basically a pickup truck with a giant machine gun rig on the back.

And America has sent hundreds of heavy machine guns with thermal optics. The idea being that while a drone might be hard to spot with the unaided eye, a thermal sight will make it pop up quite visibly up against the backdrop of the night sky. And so you've got the Ukrainians rolling out 1940s solutions to 2020s problems.

And this really only scratches the surface of all the solutions that have been put together. Mobile units for example, with MANPADS can rush to areas where incoming drones are expected. If you are a well-equipped unit that might be an American-built Avenger.

If you're a unit with less budget, well it might just be Pavel and his mates, a couple of Stingers, and either some quad bikes or a pickup truck. When all else fails, there's always the option of attacking the pilot of the drone rather than the drone itself. JAPCC calls out the possibility of attacking ground control stations or communication equipment. And in Ukraine in the past it was noted that the usage of DJI drones in particular by Ukrainians was considered dangerous.

With one of the reasons being the presence

2023-02-16 22:03

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