Air Weapons: Game of Drones


June 7, 2024: This is an update on the many ways UAVs (Unmanned aerial Vehicles) and USVs (Unmanned Surface Vessels) have unexpectedly revolutionized warfare. These systems are evidence that Combat robots have sneaked into the military, without many people in, or out of, uniform paying a lot of attention. That's still the case, especially because the media and even many senior military and political leaders don’t fully understand the technology nor how it is implemented. One example of this confusion can be seen with the constant reference to UAVs as drones or robots. They are neither, they are simply remotely controlled aircraft, something that’s been around for over half a century. But these UAVs are being given more and more robotic (operating autonomously) capabilities. This isn’t new either, as torpedoes have had this ability for over 60 years and missiles for over 50 years.

Swarms of FPV (First Person View) UAVs are revolutionizing how wars are fought. There are few methods to defeat UAV attacks. The primary defensive measure is electronic jamming of the control signal between the UAV operator and the UAV. Jamming is of limited effectiveness because active jammers are easy targets for UAVs programmed to detect, home in on and destroy jammers. Depending on how they are programmed, UAVs will either land if jammed or return to where they were launched.

Despite those defensive measures, and the small explosive payload UAVs carry, about half the armored vehicles damaged or destroyed in Ukraine were done in by armed UAVs. Training of UAV operators is critical as it takes over a hundred hours of operating UAVs to gain a minimal skill level. Female soldiers can excel as UAV operators while mostly avoiding the battlefield risk of death or injury. Unlike pilots of combat aircraft, UAV operators are much less likely to be put out of action by death, injury, or capture. UAV operators are relatively close to the front lines and exposed to some risk, but not nearly as much as pilots. Such reduced casualties shorten the learning curve for UAV operators and make them more dangerous faster compared to infantry whose effective combat lifetime is much shorter.

UAV warfare is increasingly common and dominating some combat zones. Tactics and techniques are also evolving as Ukraine and Russia both experiment with new tactics, techniques, and UAV designs. Both nations are also increasing production of UAVs and the number of trained operators. Both Russia and Ukraine realize that UAVs provide unprecedented surveillance of the battlefield, but not all of it. That requires more UAVs and operators. One solution for this shortcoming is operator software that enables one operator to control several UAVs. The number one operator can handle simultaneously depends on operator experience. That cannot be manufactured but must be developed. Whoever can obtain the most trained operators has an advantage.

All these UAV developments make combat more dangerous for the troops on the ground. UAVs not only keep an eye on enemy troops but are always ready to go in and put them out of action, as in dead or wounded. Troops are still fighting each other on the ground, but now they have to worry about constant surveillance and attacks from the growing number of UAVs hovering over the battlefield. In addition to operators there are the UAV maintainers, who repair damaged or otherwise disabled UAVs and service those needing a battery recharge or simply a fresh battery.

Ukraine’s military has established a UAV Academy to train UAV operators in basic and advanced skills. There are courses for commanders on how best to manage and use UAVs. This is essential because now Ukrainian infantry battalions have nearly as many UAVs as troops. The American military likes to call this a force multiplier. This means a battalion with lots of UAVs is more effective, and lethal, than a battalion without so many UAVs. The Ukrainian military is the first to go so far in this direction and appear to be benefitting from the massive use of UAVs. Other nations are closely following this development and preparing to adopt what works for Ukraine. Russia is more conservative in how they deal with this, even though they are also using massive numbers of UAVs. There are already dozens of Ukrainian companies offering training for UAV operators and the Ukrainian military uses the services of these firms. In 2023 Ukraine sought to have more than 10,000 trained operators as quickly as possible. UAV operators specialize. Most learn to operate quadcopters while a large minority learn how to operate FPV UAVs, and a smaller number learn how to operate fixed wing UAVs. Ukraine has found that the most difficult operators to recruit and train are those for FPV UAVs. The Ukrainian military considers UAV operators as a separate military specialty like infantryman, artillerymen, or radar operator.

In early 2024 Ukraine created a new branch of their military, the UAV Force. This is in addition to the Ukrainian Air Force and its manned aircraft. The UAV Force does not control the UAVs Ukrainian forces use regularly but will contribute to developing new UAV models and organizing mass production for those new models that are successful. UAVs have been an unexpected development that had a huge impact on how battles in Ukraine's current war are fought. UAVs were successful because they were cheap, easily modified, and expendable.

Early on both Russian and Ukrainian forces were using cheap, at about $500 each, quadcopter UAVs controlled by soldiers a kilometer or more away using FPV goggles to see what the day/night video camera on the UAV can see. Adding night vision at least doubles the cost for each UAV, so not all of them have that capability. Each of these UAVs carries half a kilogram of explosives, so it can instantly turn the UAV into a flying bomb that can fly into a target and detonate. This was an awesome and debilitating weapon when used in large numbers over the combat zone. If a target isn’t moving or requires more explosive power that the UAVs can supply, one of the UAV operators can call in artillery, rocket, or missile fire, or even an airstrike. Larger, fixed wing UAVs are used for long range, often over a thousand kilometers, operations against targets deep inside Russia. Since 2022 the use of UAVs by both sides has escalated and so far, several hundred thousand UAVs have been put to work providing surveillance and attack services for both sides. Ukraine plans to produce over a million UAVs in 2024. The Ukrainians consider drones another form of ammunition that is cheaper, smarter and far more effective and lethal than guided missiles or GPS guided artillery shells.

A major limitation to the expansion of UAV operations was the need for trained UAV operators. These operators need over a hundred hours of training before they are able to start operating these UAVs, and another hundred hours of actual use before they are able to make the most out of the system. These small UAVs are difficult to shoot down until they get close to the ground and the shooter is close enough, as in less than a few hundred meters, away to successfully target a UAV with a bullet or two and bring it down. Troops are rarely in position to do this, so most of these UAVs are able to complete their mission, whether it is a one-way attack or a reconnaissance and surveillance mission. The recon missions are usually survivable and enable the UAV to be reused. All these UAVs are constantly performing surveillance, which means that both sides commit enough UAVs to maintain constant surveillance over a portion of the front line, to a depth, into enemy territory, of at least a few kilometers. This massive use of FPV-armed UAVs has revolutionized warfare in Ukraine and both sides are producing as many as they can. Military observers from other countries are reporting that warfare has undergone a fundamental change because of the widespread use of UAVs in Ukraine. Many armed forces at peace are reluctant to change, despite the evidence from Ukraine that any future war will provide the more prolific user of UAVs with a significant edge in combat.

These drone have also revolutionized naval warfare. In early 2024 Ukraine built 35 Sea Baby USVs. These are made of a material that is nearly invisible to radar. Each can carry up to 850 kg of explosives. Less explosives can be carried if you want the Sea Baby to travel farther. With a full load of explosives, it can reach targets up to 1,000 kilometers distant. Top speed is 90 kilometers an hour but more economical, in terms of fuel use, cruise speed is about half the top speed. That means it would take the Sea Baby about twenty hours to travel a thousand kilometers. That is a one way trip to a target, like a naval base or any ships docked at the base which is then attacked. Sea Baby navigates using several devices including GPS, INS, and short range sensors to detect and avoid obstacles. These sensors can also be programmed to identify and attack a specific target like a ship or other naval base facility. Sea Baby can also be equipped with short range weapons like explosive rockets that can hit targets a thousand meters distant with thermobaric/fuel air warheads. When used to launch rocket attacks, the Sea Baby can escape and return to a Ukrainian base for reuse. Some Sea Baby’s are equipped with video cameras to carry out reconnaissance and surveillance missions. In this case, communications equipment must be carried to transmit video or individual digital photos back to the Ukrainian base. The Ukrainians have been very imaginative and flexible in their use of these unmanned seagoing vessels.

Ukrainian USVs have been quite successful in attacking and sinking or disabling Russian navy ships. So far there have been over a dozen attacks which resulted in damage to 12 ships and the sinking of a cruiser, two small landing ships and one missile corvette. The longest range raids have been against targets in Kerch Strait and the more distant Russian naval base at Novorossiysk.

Ukrainian USV operations in the Black Sea forced the Russian Black Sea Fleet to withdraw to the eastern shore of the Black Sea. Sevastopol was no longer a safe place to be, and Russian ships could no longer launch their Kalibr cruise missiles without moving closer to Ukrainian territory and risking attack by Ukrainian USVs. The presence and aggressive use of the USVs means that Ukraine’s grain corridor has been kept open despite Russia’s threats to interfere. Beyond symbolic significance, the corridor holds critical economic importance for Ukraine and is expected to contribute 5-7 percent to GDP growth in 2024 because of the grain shipments.

The aggressive and successful use of Ukrainian USVs against the Russian Black Sea fleet was unprecedented in the history of naval warfare. Not only were these USVs tactically successful but financially as well. For example, new frigates cost about $1.5 billion each. That much money can also pay for 5,000 such USVs. Destroyers cost twice as much. The frigates and destroyers are high seas ships and can travel all over the world. The USVs operate in coastal waters although some of the larger USVs can operate up to a thousand kilometers from where they were launched. These USVs carry video cameras and satellite-based communications systems to collect information and, in peacetime, do so without fear of attack. Severe storms are another matter, but any storm damage will be broadcast as it is happening, at least until the video cameras or communications equipment is disabled.

Commercial cargo ships can carry hundreds of armed UAVs equipped with satellite communications so operators anywhere in the world can control them. These USVs can be unloaded at sea and sent to carry out attacks on targets in the area or move to a nearby harbor and remain tied to a dock until needed. The only maintenance is keeping the USV batteries charged. These USVs are a radical new weapon for naval warfare and the war at sea will never be the same because of the success of Ukrainian USVs in their victorious war against the Russian Black Sea Fleet.

Nations with major warship fleets, like the U.S. and China, have much to fear from this new development of weaponized seagoing USVs. These USVs are difficult to spot visually, especially at night. Sonar can detect them, and autocannon equipped ship systems, like Phalanx, can be adapted to accurately target and destroy USVs. Since the United States provides most of the military aid to Ukraine, they can get some cooperation from the Ukrainians that will help American warships and those of other NATO nations develop weapons and tactics to deal with USVs. The Russians were taken by surprise when their Black Sea Fleet was attacked by USVs. In less than a year, most of the Black Sea Fleet warships were destroyed or severely damaged by USVs. Because of the USVs, Ukraine, which does not have a conventional navy, now controls most of the Black Sea.




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