Air Weapons: Ukrainian Strategic Attack UAV


December 31, 2023: A Ukrainian firm recently revealed it had developed the AQ 400, a cheap, long range UAV that can make attacks over 700 kilometers into Russia while carrying 32 kg of explosives. Cut the range in half and 70 kg of explosives can be carried. Each AQ 400 costs $30,000. The airframe is made of plywood. Initial production is about a hundred a month. That will gradually increase to 500 and then 1,000 a month. AQ 400 can takeoff from short runways or via a catapult. It travels at 144 kilometers an hour and can stay in the air for six and a half hours. Large numbers of these UAVs entering Russia from many different sectors of the border complicate Russian efforts to detect or defend itself against these UAVs. The long range of these UAVs means there are many more targets to attack, and Russia cannot defend them all. The development of the AQ 400 is another example of the proliferation of UAVs used as long-range cruise missiles.

This is a trend that began over a century ago, during the 1914-18 World War I. That was when aircraft became a factor in military affairs. At first these new flying machines demonstrated their superior ability to see what the enemy was up to. Most of the use of air power at the beginning was about reconnaissance, and preventing the enemy from seeing what you were doing. Between the world wars, the idea of using air power as an offensive weapon developed. This proved to be more of a factor at sea than on land, where reconnaissance was still the most useful service air forces provided. Strategic bombing was greatly misunderstood by air forces during, and after, World War II. Tactical bombing and strafing was more useful because the fighter-bombers were providing reconnaissance while they were attacking the enemy opposing friendly ground troops.

The U.S. Air Force, however, was not a big fan of tac air or tactical air power, because they believed they could be more decisive with strategic bombing. The problem with World War II strategic bombing was that it was a blunt instrument. A lot of damage was inflicted, but it was, for all practical purposes, random. So, while millions of German and Japanese workers were diverted because they were dead or had to deal with damage to homes and businesses from the war effort by the bombing, there was no decisive effect, as the air force generals intended. This was because of a problem the air force had then and continues to have. It's called BDA or Bomb Damage Assessment. This is the business of figuring out what to bomb, and what the impact on the enemy is after you bomb. The U.S. did a thorough survey of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan, right after World War II. It was discovered that the impact of the bombing was far different from what BDA during the war had indicated. But that was largely ignored because, right after the war, it was believed bombing with conventional bombs had become obsolete. Nuclear bombs had made strategic airpower decisive because pinpoint accuracy was no longer a factor.

But during the Korean war (1950-53), it was realized that no one really wanted to use nuclear weapons again, especially if the other side had them. Thus, nuclear weapons became a threat, while conventional bombs were again the weapon of choice. But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991) and Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003) and Lebanon (2006) demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets. The U.S. Army and Air Force have developed special equipment and tactics to have teams of Special Forces troops on the ground to do this sort of thing. That's why air power was so successful in Afghanistan in 2001.

A major breakthrough was the development of cheap smart guided bombs. Guided bombs were first developed during World War II and were quite useful for hitting targets at sea and on land. These were radio-controlled bombs that required an operator using a joystick to guide the bomb to a distant target while the controlling aircraft was out of range of defending anti-aircraft fire. The Germans were the first to use them in 1943, when they sank an Italian battleship with one. By 1945, American radio controlled bombs were taking down bridges in Asia and sinking Japanese ships in the Pacific. Because of the belief that nuclear weapons made conventional weapons obsolete, research on smart bombs stopped until the late 1950s when everyone came to their senses. By 1965 the U.S. Air Force had a laser guided bomb in service and was using it to take out heavily defended targets in North Vietnam. These were targets, like bridges, that had resisted numerous attacks with unguided bombs because of substantial anti-aircraft defenses. The first laser-guided bombs cost over a million dollars each and, by 1991, the price had come down to under $100,000. That was still a hundred times the cost of a dumb, or unguided bomb.

However, in 1991 it was noted that the smart bombs were doing a disproportionate amount of damage. Later in the 1990s, the GPS guided bomb was developed. This was a major breakthrough. The GPS guided bomb was much cheaper costing about $25,000 each. This was actually a guidance kit attached to a dumb bomb. But the GPS bomb did not need someone to shine a laser on the target for the bomb to home in on. You could do without the laser by entering GPS coordinates into the bomb guidance system and then dropping the bomb. Mist, rain, and sandstorms could interfere with lasers, but nothing stopped a GPS bomb.

Air power was, for once, really all powerful. There were still BDA problems, but now the air force was more enthusiastic about putting small teams of elite troops on the ground, who could be defended by GPS guided bombs, and eyeball exactly what damage the bombs were causing. That actually happened in Afghanistan, where more than one Special Forces team defeated much larger enemy forces, by calling in GPS guided bombs. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force and naval air realized that no one had successfully challenged them for control of the air in over half a century. The downside of this is that there has not been a new American fighter ace, or someone who has shot down at least five aircraft in over thirty years. American fighters, and their pilots, remain the best in the world. That's not preordained, or an accident, it's the result of a lot of hard work, willingness to learn from mistakes, and enormous quantities of money.

Air power still has its limitations, something the professionals understand, but the rest of us don't. This was demonstrated in Lebanon in the Hezbollah war of 2006. Everyone, except the people running the Israeli air force, expected Israeli air power to shut down Hezbollah and the Hezbollah rockets being fired into northern Israel. The Israeli air force spent most of their time taking out economic targets, as they knew that most of the Hezbollah rockets had been hidden in places the Israelis were unaware of. They knew this because they had been watching for six years as Hezbollah hid their 12,000 or so rockets in hundreds of locations under schools, homes and mosques, in caves or just about anywhere throughout southern and central Lebanon. The Israelis had tried bombing suspected rocket locations many times since the Iranians sent large quantities of these rockets to southern Lebanon after 2000 when the Israelis abandoned their security zone in southern Lebanon, in return for a peace deal that was supposed to disarm Hezbollah.

Israeli air attacks before 2006 had failed, and the Israelis knew the only way to hunt down the Hezbollah rocket caches was to send ground troops in. But the Israeli government did not want to risk hundreds or thousands of dead Israeli troops in a ground campaign with Hezbollah. Israeli voters would not stand for this. Israel tolerated thousands of Hezbollah rockets falling on northern Israel. That's because the rockets were mostly 122mm, unguided models and only had a range of twenty kilometers. It took about a hundred of these rockets, plus a few larger ones, to kill one Israeli. The Israelis used mostly smart bombs in Lebanon, so they almost always hit what they were aimed at and caused about one civilian death for every 5-10 bombs or missiles used. Because the Israeli air force is superior to that of any of its neighbors, most Arab nations are investing heavily in missiles. Israel has defenses like Arrow and Patriot PAC-3 missiles against the larger, guided, ballistic missiles. But unguided rockets are such an ineffective weapon that it really doesn't pay to employ an expensive system to knock them down, so Israel developed an inexpensive system called Iron Dome to shoot down such rockets. The critical innovation of Iron Dome is software which computes the trajectory of unguided rockets and only fires its Tamir interceptor missiles at rockets which might land near something worth defending. That is about 1 in 5 of all such rockets fired so far, and Tamirs have a 90 percent interception rate against those. Tamir launchers can be overwhelmed by mass attacks, which only Iranian ally Hezbollah can do, so Israel is developing an Iron Beam laser weapons to add to Tamir.

Meanwhile aerial warfare power continues to evolve, as unmanned, and often robotic, aircraft are replacing those with crews. UAVs have been around for over half a century as cruise missiles, and in that time, they have become a lot cheaper, reliable, and capable. UAVs now do most of the reconnaissance work and will begin replacing fighters and bombers in the next decade or so. Without being recognized as such, smart bombs and UAVs are the most revolutionary developments in air power since World War II. Air power will never be the same because of these two innovations the current extensive use of UAVs demonstrates this evolution in action.




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