Air Weapons: Swarms of Armed UAVs Doing the Most Damage


December 30, 2023: in Ukraine, swarms of FPV (First Person View) UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) 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. That is, 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. Ukraine seeks 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.

Earlier in 2023 Ukraine revealed that it planned to spend over half a billion dollars on UAVs but did not reveal the extent of their efforts to add more capabilities to commercial UAVs as well as the growing number of UAVs being manufactured by Ukrainian companies. Ukrainian developers and manufacturers are often small groups of civilian hobbyists that proved capable of creating new features for UAVs, both commercial and hobbyist-created models. The Russian invasion spurred a lot of innovation, mainly among Ukrainian developers. Among the items available to commercial customers are a lot of digital video camera items as well as lighter, miniaturized computer components that can be assembled and programmed by users to perform essential tasks, like using AI apps and data from onboard video cameras of enemy forces, even if they are camouflaged or in underground bunkers. Constant combat use of these systems enables developers to address shortcomings and continually improves the hardware and software carried on these hunter killer UAVs. Earlier in the war two UAVs were needed for this but now all that tech and weapons can be carried and used by one UAV. The Ukrainian military also holds competitions to find the most skilled UAV operators and honor them with promotions and more challenging assignments.

Wartime developers are able to improve their tech and hardware more rapidly because there is continuous feedback from users. Ukraine has an edge here because many of these developers are hobbyists who know little about peacetime development, its bureaucracy and counter-productive over-supervision. Ukrainian developers are often creating these new UAV techs for friends or family members who are now in the military and eager for whatever help they can get. The Ukrainian military sees this entrepreneurial spirit as an advantage, not some form of insubordination or recklessness the way the Russian military regards unauthorized innovations. Despite that, some Russian innovators have appeared and been allowed to work. Russian commanders and civilian officials are less willing than their Ukrainian counterparts to encourage individual initiatives. Another problem is that the economic sanctions have made it more difficult for Russians to obtain the commercial tech that Ukrainians still have access to and frequently use.

Such free access to Western and Chinese components means Ukraine can build very capable and lethal UAVs that are designed to carry out one or a small number of missions. That is why Ukraine and Russia are each losing thousands of UAVs a month. Cheap, useful, and expendable is now the rule with most battlefield UAVs.

This innovation explains the greater success of Ukrainian UAVs against Russian targets on the battlefield or deep inside Russia. Despite all the innovation, the majority of these UAVs are basically loitering munitions that can be sent out to areas where there is known or suspected enemy activity and kill it when they find it. In the past a separate surveillance UAV was needed to spot targets, usually enemy troops, and vehicles. These UAVs have video cameras and a link to operators who view the video on a tablet or via goggles containing small video screens while the operators have a form of handheld game controller to maneuver the UAV and select a target for the UAV to collide with and explode. The video comm link was a vulnerability the Russian exploited as they developed new types of electronic jammers that could disable these comm links. The new Ukrainian UAVs that combine finding and killing capabilities on one UAV that can also detect and destroy these Russian jammers, which are usually ground based and expensive.

Loitering munitions are a relatively new development and have one tremendous advantage over earlier forms of firepower. Compared to bullets or artillery shells, a single loitering munition is much more likely to hit a target. In wartime it takes hundreds of artillery shells to cause one casualty. For rifle and machine-gun bullets, the number of bullets fired per casualty caused can be up to 100,000. Loitering munitions are much more effective because the operator scans the terrain below looking for a target. When one is found, the loitering munition attacks and almost always kills or wounds at least one soldier. Loitering munitions can be lost to enemy action. While UAVs are small targets for riflemen or machine-gunners on the ground, they can be hit by ground fire. A more effective, and increasingly common way to defeat loitering munitions is EW, or Electronic Warfare, specifically electronic jamming of the munitions control signal. As is common in combat, a jammer is not always available when you need it.

In some ways, loitering munitions are not as useful as artillery or bullets. Many artillery shells and bullets are not fired at a specific target or with the intent of causing casualties. This is what happens with suppressive fire, artillery or rifle fire is directed at an area to discourage the enemy from entering or moving into position to fire at your troops. You can consider a loitering munition overhead as a form of suppressive fire on the troops below. In this respect loitering munitions do what snipers have been doing for over a century, forcing troops to stay out of sight or the enemy sniper will get you. This was common during World War I, when trench warfare made snipers useful for keeping enemy troops from observing the terrain between the trenches of opposing forces. In the 21st century more troops had access to affordable and very effective scopes for their rifles or even machine-guns. The American marines officially recognized this as a combat specialty and designated most snipers as scout-snipers' because their more useful skills involved observing as well as accurate shooting.

In armies with a lot of well-trained troops, about ten percent are designated and equipped to be snipers or sharpshooters. The latter is a soldier with a talent for accurate shooting but is not trained and equipped as a sniper. Professional soldiers in general are more likely to use individual, well aimed shots versus automatic fire, also known as spray and pray that you hit something.

You can see how this works in Ukraine, where the Ukrainian troops are better trained in the accurate use of rifle fire. It was Ukrainian troops who frequently used commercial quadcopters equipped with grenade or small bomb carry and release mechanisms. The Ukrainian soldiers often bought commercial UAVs for this and spent hours at a time sending out their quadcopter to search for targets. The quadcopter would have to frequently land to recharge. That demonstrates another 21st century development; the proliferation of electronic devices an infantryman can and often will take with him into combat.

NATO nations learned from these Ukrainian experiences and have sent Ukraine what the Ukrainian say they need. For example, a month after the Russians invaded, the United States agreed to send Ukraine a large quantity of weapons, many of them specifically requested. One of these was called Phoenix Ghost, a system that was rapidly developed and built in the United States by Aevex Aerospace for the U.S. Air Force from specifications supplied by Ukraine. The air force revealed that the Phoenix Ghost UAV was a project already in development before the Russians invaded. Ukrainians had already developed and built some innovative new weapons or modifications for existing ones the Americans were working on. The air force does not develop ground-based loitering munitions but does develop ones carried by aircraft. The Ukrainians made some suggestions which were included in the existing air force design and that resulted in the Phoenix Ghost, which went into production and combat in Ukraine quickly.

In other words, Phoenix Ghost is a bespoke custom made to user specifications, developed and manufactured in record time. The primary new feature of this loitering munition was its longer six hour flight endurance. The U.S. sent Ukraine over 1,200 of these loitering munitions in the first year of the war. For a long time, all the public knew about Phoenix Ghost was that it was similar to the American Switchblade loitering munition that was also being sent to Ukraine. The input from Ukrainian engineers was essential because many of the most effective Soviet-era weapons engineers were Ukrainian. That meant Ukraine had a tradition of pragmatic and innovative weapons development that was mobilized after the 2014 Russian seizure of Crimea and part of Donbas. The capabilities of the Ukrainian engineers were not exactly a state secret, just not newsworthy. Foreigners familiar with weapons development knew about the Ukrainian skills and those who visited Ukraine for whatever reason, like American and other NATO military advisors, got a closer look at what those Ukrainian engineers, as well as civilian hobbyists, could do.

Those skills became even more important after the invasion began and suddenly engineers and scientists in other fields began applying their skills to rapidly develop new weapons and equipment to protect Ukraine from the Russians. After the invasion began the capabilities of the Ukrainian engineers became part of the reporting on how the Ukrainians stopped and turned back the Russian attack. That enabled the Ukrainian proposal for Phoenix Ghost to be taken seriously and rapidly implemented. The Ukrainian specified COTS or Commercial Off the Shelf components and kept in touch via the high-speed Internet links provided by Starlink. The rumors of Phoenix Ghost indicate it is an improvement over Switchblade and mainly meant to be a more effective loitering munition. The Russians eventually experienced what the Ghost could do by examining the damage and reports from their troops.

Aevex Aerospace, the firm that developed and built Phoenix Ghost is itself a recent development, founded in 2017 and specializing in projects very similar to the Phoenix Ghost. Another American firm, AeroVironment, developed the Switchblade loitering munition and similar systems. Aevex is similar to AeroVironment, which has been around since 1971 and created many innovative commercial and military UAV designs.

Switchblade is little-known to the general public but extremely popular with American troops fighting in small units, especially in remote areas. Switchblade was first revealed in 2005 and the Ukrainians received over a hundred of the Switchblade 300 plus some of the larger Switchblade 600s, which appears to be closer in weight-class and performance as Phoenix Ghost.

Switchblade 300 is a small UAV fired from its storage container. Switchblade was sent to Afghanistan in 2009 for secret field testing. This was very successful, and the troops demanded more, and more, and more. Switchblade completed development later in 2009 and was initially thought useful only for special operations troops. In 2011, after a year of successful field testing, the army ordered over a hundred Switchblades for troop use and since then has ordered a lot more.

While Switchblade was developed for the army, the marines apparently noted the success that soldiers and Special Operations Command or SOCOM had with this system and ordered them as well. Switchblade was very popular with troops in Afghanistan and with SOCOM in all sorts of places they won’t discuss in detail. Switchblade is still used, and thousands have been ordered and many of them used. There have been several upgrades. The original 2009 Switchblade was a lightweight and expendable (used only once) UAV that could also be equipped with explosives. The Switchblade is launched from its shipping and storage tube, at which point wings flip out, a battery-powered propeller starts spinning and a vidcam begins broadcasting images to the controller. The Switchblade is operated using the same controller as the larger two kg Raven UAV. A complete Switchblade system, missile, container, and controller weighs 5.5 kg.

Moving up to a kilometer a minute, the original Switchblade could stay in the air for 20-40 minutes, depending on whether or not it was armed with explosives. Switchblade can operate up to ten kilometers from the operator. The armed version can be flown to a target and detonated, having about the same explosive effect as a hand grenade. Thus, Switchblade enables ground troops to get at an enemy taking cover in a hard to see location.

Technically a guided missile, the use of Switchblade as a reconnaissance tool encouraged developers to refer to it as a UAV. But because of the warhead option, and its slow speed, Switchblade also functions like a rather small cruise missile. The troops were particularly enthusiastic about the armed version because it allowed them to take out snipers more quickly or a few enemy gunmen in a compound full of civilians.

Switchblade has been so successful that the army ordered several upgrades, and the updated original Switchblade was renamed Switchblade 300. The new version appeared in 2016. It is heavier at 2.7 kg with 15 minutes endurance and a 10-kilometer range. The sensor has night vision and is stabilized. The 300 can lock onto a target and track it. The 300 comes with optional accessories, like a six-pack launcher that is used as part of base defense. This was first used for base protection in 2019 and proved effective. One or more of these six packs are placed near the base perimeter with power maintained by a solar panel. The base security commander can order a Switchblade launched from the six-pack and then control it in search for potential targets. Switchblade 300 is also capable of being used from a helicopter or larger UAV and controlled from the helicopter or by the operator of the larger UAV, like the 4.5-ton Reaper.

The fact that there were American troops operating in combat zones justified development and production of new tech like loitering munitions. In 2020 AeroVironment, the company that developed the unlikely, but popular, Switchblade loitering munition, introduced a third version; Switchblade 600. While the original Switchblade weighed one kilogram, the latest Switchblade is twenty times heavier at 23 kg, can stay in the air for 40 minutes and be controlled up to 80 kilometers from the operator. Top speed is 180 kilometers an hour and more economical cruise speed is closer to 150 kilometers an hour. The heavier warhead can destroy most tanks, although some modern tank designs include protection from top attack.

Switchblade 600 was requested by the U.S. Army for longer range surveillance missions and the option to hit specific small targets, like a building or enemy position. Unlike the earlier Switchblades, the 600 uses a tablet controller with more options, including manipulating the more powerful vidcam. Video transmitted back to the operator can be saved and passed on. The operator also has a wave off feature in which a quick tap on the controller screen can cause the 600 to abort an attack and be available for another try. The 600 can also be programmed to carry out a mission without operator control. This means there is no control signal for enemy electronic warning systems to detect or jam. In this case when time is up, 600 self-destructs. The 600 can be carried into a remote area and used quickly. Its most likely use in the Ukraine is against the locomotives of Russian military supply and troop transport trains operating near the border or inside Ukraine.

The U.S. Navy also requested a version of Switchblade, for reconnaissance only, that is launched from ships or submerged at periscope depth submarines. In this case the sub would have a communications mast on the surface to receive data from what is now called the Blackwing. This version is a little heavier, at 1.8 kg. The size of the Blackwing is designed to fit into existing navy countermeasure launchers. Without a warhead, Blackwing has endurance of about an hour and uses encrypted digital communications compatible with current navy systems. When released from a submarine countermeasures launcher, the Blackwing container pops to the surface and the Blackwing is ejected into flight like the other Switchblades. The U.S. Navy has bought at least 150 Blackwings, starting in 2016. Armed versions of Blackwing are available but these have shorter endurance. For subs, reconnaissance is the most important item.

Switchblade is not a unique concept, as these loitering munitions have been around for decades. What Switchblade provided was a design that met the needs of combat troops, especially special operations personnel or small groups of Ukrainians seeking to halt Russian supply trucks. Since Switchblade entered service and its popularity became widely known, similar systems have appeared, trying to provide features that Switchblade lacked but the troops would appreciate.

Ukraine had already developed loitering munitions of its own, but these are not as efficient as Switchblade. The Ukrainians ended up developing and building many different loitering munitions, a process that continues. At the same time Ukrainian neighbor and ally Poland also developed the Warmate loitering munition and sent them off to Ukraine. Warmate is a 5.3 kg conventional UAV that carries 1.4 kg of explosives. Warmate has an endurance of 70 minutes and top speed of 150 kilometers an hour and can be controlled 15 kilometers from the operator. While portable, Warmate requires five minutes to assemble and needs a road or catapult device to be launched.

Ukraine developed its own loitering munitions early on. For example, Silent Thunder showed up in 2019. This is a 9.5 kg UAV with a variety of different 3.5 kg warheads. It takes fifteen minutes to prepare Silent Thunder for use and it has a flight duration of 60 minutes and top speed of 150 kilometers an hour. It can be controlled up to 30 kilometers from the operator. Silent Thunder is reusable if no warhead is carried. Silent Thunder is complex to use and that limits its effectiveness.

Israel is another country that is constantly attacked and always has troops in action. In 2019 an Israeli firm introduced the Firefly, a loitering munition UAV, which is portable enough for infantry to carry and continually reuse. There is also the option to replace one of the two batteries with an explosive warhead and turn Firefly into a guided weapon. Another major advantage of Firefly is that it operates like a helicopter, not a fixed-wing aircraft. Being able to hover is a major advantage for loitering munitions used by infantry. Firefly seems to have addressed all or most of the user criticisms of earlier lightweight loitering munition systems.

Firefly was developed by Rafael, the same firm that developed and built the Spike family of ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles). Much of the tech in Firefly was based on what is already used in Spike systems. In particular, Firefly has a guidance system that can track and attack a moving target. This can be critical for infantry using such a weapon because these targets are elusive in the first place and, without a UAV, the infantry would not have spotted dangers like snipers or moving troops at all.

Firefly is a dual rotor miniature helicopter and those dual on top of each other rotors make it stable in winds that would make a similar-sized fixed-wing or quad-copter UAV unusable. The 0.4 kg warhead replaces the second battery to halve the normal 30 minutes of flight time. The operator uses a small tablet device that is mostly a touch screen and a Firefly controller. Firefly can be controlled up to 500 meters in a built-up or forested area or up to 1,500 meters in line-of-sight as in between Firefly and operator mode. Firefly returns to the operator and explosives are deactivated if the control signal is lost. The operator can press an icon on the screen to get Firefly to return immediately, abort an attack or carry out a high speed 19 meters a second attack on a target. The target can be moving, as in a sniper changing firing positions out of sight of the operator. This is accomplished using the ability of the Firefly guidance system to remember the shape of a target and follow it. The Firefly warhead would be most often used against troublesome targets like snipers or hidden machine-guns. Even without the warhead Firefly would be able to locate such lethal adversaries and enable the infantry to avoid them. Firefly can also be launched and operated from a moving vehicle.

The big advantage Firefly has over similar loitering munitions like the 40mm Pike and GLAUS, as well as Switchblade, is reusability. Carry one Firefly and just use it as a UAV for a dozen or more times. The relative simplicity of Firefly compared to Switchblade, and to similar designs like GLAUS and Pike based on 40mm grenade shells, makes it a better system that is also cheaper when you consider the reusability.

Russia is also using its new Zala loitering munition in Ukraine. Zala carries a two kg explosive charge. Zala is a delta shaped 1.2 meter wingspan UAV that carries a vidcam and explosives. It can locate targets and immediately attack them. Zala is carried and launched from a catapult on a truck. Endurance is 30 minutes and top speed is 130 kilometers an hour. Zala has been available since 2017 and has apparently been tested in Syria. With the recent history of loitering munitions, the appearance of Phoenix Ghost and many other new similar weapons is not surprising. As the Israelis have discovered, when you are facing constant threat of attack, innovative and rapidly developed weapons are a necessity.




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