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 warfare?
Unmanned flight predates manned flight, but the limitations of the technology have – to date – made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) vulnerable and therefore 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 American Reaper – which could fly for more than 20 hours and provide live video. direct to HQs on the other side of the world.
Russia used hundreds of drones to target Ukrainian cities and critical national infrastructure.
The missiles, which each cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, fly fast, are difficult to shoot down and carry a huge explosive payload.
But when supplies ran out, the Russians imported Shahid 136 drones from Iran. These drones are slow and vulnerable to small arms fire, but can be used as a swarm to overwhelm defenses – and some get through.
The Ukrainians have also operated drones to successfully target Russian logistics hubs, most recently targeting a fuel storage facility in Crimea and another just east of the Kerch Bridge linking Crimea to Russia.
However, the alleged drone attack on the Kremlin Tuesday night looked extremely suspicious – the Kremlin is a fortress, with multiple layers of air and ground defenses, and a slow speed UAV should never have passed.
Either way, the incident demonstrated the great utility of drones, both as a weapon of destruction and deception.
Smaller tactical drones have also proven invaluable in this conflict, especially on the front line.
As early as 1794, observation balloons were used as an aerial platform for gathering intelligence and scouting artillery, and during the First World War Royal Flying Corps planes took the opportunity to drop hand grenades on enemy trench positions.
More than a century later, small drones are also being used to fulfill the same role.
Surveillance technology has advanced rapidly – taking advantage of 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 deliver live video of enemy positions directly to artillery – like playing a card game when you can see what card the other side has in hand.
As Russia thwarts a capability, the Ukrainians adapt and innovate.
The technology – and its rapid exploitation – has provided Ukraine with an asymmetric advantage in this conflict.
Although the United States leads in high-end UAVs, the global mass-market leader is China, and when coupled with rapid advances in AI capability, UAVs look set to become a mass market, high volume and profitable. military capability.
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The conventional wisdom of warfare is that bigger is better – tanks, planes, and high-end ships will prevail. However, the conflict in Ukraine demonstrated the enormous combat potential of drones, where quantity has a quality of its own.
A year ago, the drone market was focused on nationwide package deliveries, driverless cars and multi-drone light shows.
However, the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the spectacular potential of drones, which have yet to take advantage of rapid advances in AI.
The stage is set for a new generation of military capabilities – drone warfare – enabling decisive military effect on a low budget, with profound implications for our international and national security.