Photo by alxpin

Year of the drone

The changing face of war and security

Artillery Row

The Chinese New Year began on 1 February 2022. Just over three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine. This is a Year of the Tiger, which in the Chinese zodiac is often associated with conflict. Stalin, genocidal ruler of Eastern Europe, was a Tiger-man. An archduke died to an assassin’s bullet with all that followed in a Tiger year. Neville Chamberlain gambled and lost on trusting Hitler at Berchtesgaden under a different Tiger. Kennedy and Khrushchev came head-to-head over Cuba in the span of another striped cat. 

The twelve animals of the Chinese years are all land-based creatures, with the exception of the Dragon. Perhaps no surprise that Vladimir Putin and Boris Johnson, as well as Joe Stalin, were born under this sign. According to Chinese lore, their kind are unafraid of challenges, willing to take risks, aggressive and deaf to criticism. Vlodymyr Zelensky, by the way, is a snake: intelligent, wise and good at communication, according to the zodiac mantra. I don’t hold much with horoscopes, though, for you can see what you want in them. 

Perhaps the Chinese should change their zodiac signs. Although they do not have one, the calendar should be updated to include a bee with a sting. Not a queen or a worker bee, but a drone. For 2022 has certainly been the Year of the Drone. This year has seen more military drones flown for more hours, observing, tracking, photographing or killing more objects, than ever before. 

The term embraces all unpiloted aircraft. They are sometimes referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), UCAVs (the extra letter designating “combat”) or UAS (“S” for systems), which implies an array of eyes in the sky. Despite the “unmanned” label, there is always a pilot in the chain, just not onboard. For this reason, Britain’s RAF prefers to call them remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs). 

This reminds us that the technology has spread to land, sea and subsea craft. The US Army is experimenting with a remotely piloted tank, the Black Knight. The British army is testing unmanned logistics vehicles that can operate in driverless convoys; several navies are toying with crewless, armed patrol craft. Last week, the Royal Navy commissioned its first £15 million ghost submarine — the extra-large uncrewed underwater vehicle (XLUUV).

The crewless concept is far older than you might realise. It was in 1935 that aircraft manufacturer de Havilland unveiled its DH82 Queen Bee. Based on a Tiger Moth trainer, some 380 were equipped with radio-control gear that allowed it to be flown unmanned as a gunnery target aircraft. 

Private citizens even use the little airborne wizards to walk their dogs

Fast-forward to 1943, when the United States Army Air Corps came up with the idea of attack drones. Four-engined bombers — Flying Fortresses and Liberators — were stripped of all their defensive turrets, guns, ammunition, armour and bomb racks, which allowed double a normal bomb payload to be stuffed into the airframe. Piloted off the ground, their two-man crews later parachuted to safety, and the flying bomb was directed onto its target remotely by an accompanying mother ship. Operation Aphrodite saw fourteen missions, often of several aircraft, launched from East Anglia against German secret weapons bases and U-boat pens. Most failed with the loss of aircraft and pilots, including Lieutenant Joseph P. Kennedy, elder brother of a future US president. Yet, the idea stuck.

The advent of terrorist bombs which spread from Northern Ireland to the British mainland after 1969 saw the arrival of the remote-controlled “Wheelbarrow”. From 1972, this caterpillar-tracked robot trundled towards suspect car and parcel bombs, controlled by army bomb disposal teams. Via a command wire, nearby personnel watching on TV cameras were able to disarm the explosive devices. Though over 400 were destroyed in action, they are generally reckoned to have saved thousands of lives.

This is the nub of drones and all remotely piloted devices. Although they are controlled by humans, there is no one in the craft itself. Whilst the concept is nearly ninety years old, only recently has computerisation allowed the transmit-receive equipment to be lightweight and miniaturised, whilst satellite technology permits a global reach of thousands of miles. The drones flown over Afghanistan and Iraq were operated from Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, Nevada.

This is why politicians across the world have embraced the concept of the modern military drone. No lives are exposed to risk as the vehicle by land, sea or air goes about its task. Drone craft are cheaper than their manned alternatives, and they are lighter, eschewing the defensive armour needed to protect their onboard human operators. This means they are air portable, capable of being delivered, International Rescue-style, to anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat. Unlike the Hollywood world of the Terminator movies, modern drones do not currently possess Artificial Intelligence (AI), allowing them to deviate from their handlers’ controlling X-Box, though this may be on the distant horizon. Neither are they a fire-and-forget missile, like many of the projectiles Russia is launching at Ukraine.

The majority of military drones operated by the UK and US are not armed. Just as the initial rationale for flying machines on the eve of the First World War was for observation and reconnaissance, so today’s generation of UAVs follow suit. I have long argued that unmanned flight today is where manned flight was a hundred years ago. When anti-drone protestors march, as they have done outside RAF airbases from which these devices are flown, such as Lossiemouth in Scotland and Waddington in Lincolnshire, they overlook this essential fact: most UAV use is passive, rather than aggressive.

In the wider world, aerial drones can be as large as a light aircraft or as small as the palm of your hand. Small, tactical drones, capable of peering round the corner in a city fight, are operated by every advanced army, where most combat troops are taught the basics of flying them. Over the counter, if our bank balance permits, you and I can buy anything from a small and inexpensive single-rotor device, to a large quadcopter with GPS and multiple camera arrays. News programmes and social media are replete with illustrations of modern drone use. We’ve all seen the evidence, from estate agents’ aerial views of houses for sale, to elevated versions of wedding photos. 

Our fire and rescue services use them to fight blazes in forests and tall buildings, with ever-greater precision. Thermal sensor drones now search for missing people in challenging terrain. Meteorologists use them to track storms and forecast weather. In Japanese cities, aerial drones have been used to transport blood plasma and human organs, avoiding dense traffic. Around the world, police forces operate them to monitor crowds and congested roads, or hunt for vehicles and criminals — all roles previously undertaken by far more expensive, manned fixed-wing and rotary aircraft. 

Customs authorities on tight budgets have improved their efficiency, saving money and personnel, by using UAVs to monitor more migrants, borders and coastlines than ever before. The craft have become a staple for TV news, especially sports coverage, and I regularly use them in documentaries about battlefields and military history. Cutting out manpower, drones are used to survey pipelines, electricity cables, inspect phone wires and undertake mapping or radar-archaeology. Farmers already deploy them to monitor crops, with automated fertilisation from the air a realisable future. 

Logistics companies have woken up to their potential for the delivery of anything from parcels to pizzas. Not just medicines and emergency supplies can be air-delivered, but any time- or temperature-sensitive goods. Last year, a twin-engine drone began carrying mail between Kirkwall and North Ronaldsay in the Orkney Islands. Private citizens have filmed themselves using drone-mounted leaf-blowers, made levitating Hallowe’en ghouls with them or even used the little airborne wizards to walk their dogs.

The genie is out of the bottle and will not be recorked

There will be those who instinctively shy away from such intrusive technology. The same was true with the advent of closed-circuit television. Yet this has proven such a major tool in tackling crime — the solution of every major incident these days seems to include camera footage — that few would argue for the retrograde step of banning CCTV cameras, of which it was estimated over one billion were in use worldwide in 2021. The same applies to drone activity. The genie is out of the bottle and will not be recorked. The major problem is not the use of drones, but the regulation of them, as civil law struggles to keep up with this unnerving new technology. In fact, despite public concerns over their widespread use, the worldwide consumer market continues to grow. 

In 2014, some 450,000 drones were bought by consumers. In 2015, this had jumped to two million and by the end of 2021, just under ten million. Currently, most of the world’s civilian-use UAVs originate in China. This worries Western nations who have no idea what backdoor technology may have been inserted into the craft. Last year drones were still dwarfed by other consumer must-have gizmos, however, including 218 million tablets, 34 million video game consoles and 11 million dashcams. 

By 2020, according to US figures, international demand for civilian drones reached $17 billion for the consumer market and $13 billion for commercial use. This was overshadowed by global military drone purchases topping $70 billion. One reason why drones are here to stay is that their design, assembly and training industries are already worth $100 billion. 

When I served in the Gulf War of 2003, the United States and its peers commanded almost exclusive use of armed UAVs. The arrival of new producers, relaxations of export restrictions and expansion of the commercial market has since resulted in widespread proliferation. This new sector is not dominated by expensive, sprawling mega-corporations like Lockheed-Martin, Boeing or Airbus. Any small country can afford to integrate drones into their arsenal, and most have. 

A recent example was the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Though the conflict was brief, it saw Turkish-supplied UAVs operated by Azerbaijan destroy vast amounts of military hardware within hours. According to the Dutch Oryx network of defence analysts, Armenia lost 844 T-72 tanks, armoured vehicles, artillery systems and trucks, mostly to drones. Whilst some Western observers rushed to predict the demise of tanks on the modern battlefield, we now know that it was the detection of targets beforehand by electronic means, and the destruction of local air defences, that enabled swarms of drones to destroy Armenia’s armoured units almost overnight.

Elsewhere, in Libya, Iraq, Nigeria and beyond, UAVs have been deployed by state forces, local insurgents, criminal gangs and terrorist groups. The latter have modified simple leisure drones to carry and drop hand grenades. Drug and people smugglers have begun to use them on land and sea to scout for law enforcement opponents. The most striking example of drone use is in the ongoing Ukraine war. Here, it is vital to understand what they achieve and how, on both sides, for vast unmanned aerial fleets are the future of state-versus-state conflicts.

Ukraine started the war with very few of her own UAVs but has deployed anything up to 6,000 off-the-shelf civilian drones for observation and reconnaissance purposes. They are built and operated by Ukraine’s generation of young gamers. A handful of other countries have also provided Ukraine with unmanned aerial systems, including reconnaissance drones from Poland and logistics craft from the UK. The most publicised early imports into Kyiv’s drone arsenal was the Turkish TB2 Bayraktar. 

These were the craft Azerbaijan used with great effect in 2020. Capable of surveillance and reconnaissance as well as attack, they can strike targets and return for re-use. Much social media footage showed them annihilating valuable Russian hardware during the early days of the invasion. As the advance stumbled and Russian air defences thickened, the slow, noisy, Cessna-sized drones were easily spotted on radar and destroyed. By June, the armed Bayraktars were being withdrawn and used for long-distance surveillance missions.

America has sent Ukraine hundreds of tiny, tactical Switchblade attack drones. The smaller models fly for 15 minutes and reach out to 10km. They are launched from a tube like a mortar round. In the nose are cameras which scan the battlefield, sending video back to an operator controlling it from a tablet. Once the Switchblade finds its target, the operator orders it to dive bomb in a one-way, kamikaze attack. 

Russia, too, has imported large numbers of foreign-manufactured UAVs, chiefly from Iran. The latter country denied all knowledge, until confronted with pieces of its downed drones. Then Iranian leaders admitted they “had shipped a small number of unmanned aircraft to Russia before the war”, but Western experts assess that several hundred Shahed 136s have been launched against Ukraine’s cities. They are unmistakable, with a delta wing shape and a nose section containing up to 50 kilograms of explosives. 

In contrast to the Bayraktars, these are suicide drones, designed to strike their targets and explode. Slow and vulnerable to interception, Shaheds are launched from trucks in swarms, on the basis that some will overcome Ukraine’s defences and get through. Crowdfunding in neighbouring countries has raised money to purchase air defence artillery specifically for use against them. Nevertheless, five waves, involving hundreds of these killers, were launched in October and November against Ukrainian infrastructure targets. 

Whilst the physical damage done to Ukraine’s schools, hospitals, power stations and houses is often low, the cost to morale is high. In war, just as in every other facet of life, accountants are employed to ensure that state money is used in the most efficient way. As I reported last week, Kyiv is now using German-made IRIS-T surface-to-air missiles to intercept the drones. With an average Iranian drone costing about $20,000, but interceptor missiles priced at $430,000, the cost-benefit analysis of drones versus the defending systems is in favour of the Shaheds. 

Ukraine today is a 21st century version of the Spanish Civil War

Thus, the carnage will probably continue for as long as Russia can buy from Iran, her domestic drone industry having collapsed under sanctions. Eventually, Iran’s will as well, for some of the Shahed’s microprocessors and chips have been identified as coming from the USA and are now embargoed. 

In many ways, what is taking place in Ukraine today is a 21st century version of the Spanish Civil War. In the 1936–39 conflict, outside actors, notably Germany, Italy and the USSR, deployed and tested their military hardware. Ostensibly for the benefit of Spain, these nations refined and improved their weapons for the world war which lay just around the corner. 

Currently, Ukraine and Russia are still learning how to integrate their drone fleets, of both commercial and military origin and often acquired from abroad. They use them for tactical and operational planning, including long and short range attacks. So far, Ukraine has probably used these new tools better, eliminating many Russian artillery batteries and armoured units and sinking Russia’s Black Sea flagship, the Moskva

The fighting is far from over, but a high proportion of combat on both sides has been influenced by drone activity. This will continue unabated, despite the falls in winter temperature. Whoever triumphs (and the smart money is still with Ukraine), unmanned systems will comprise many of the seeds of victory. The armed forces of the world are watching, spellbound, as the Year of the Drone unfolds. 

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