The use of drones has increased dramatically in the Ukraine war. Will this be the beginning of a new age in modern warfare and will AI’s rapid development lead to drone wars?
Unmanned flight predates that of manned aircraft, but technology limitations have made unmanned aircraft (UAV) unsuitable for military use.
The relatively benign air conditions over Afghanistan prompted the development of new loitering platforms, such as the US Reaper. These platforms could fly up to 20 hours while streaming live video to headquarters on the other side.
Russia used hundreds of drones in order to target Ukrainian city centers and national infrastructure.
Each missile costs hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions, is fast and hard to shoot, and carries a large explosive payload.
When supplies were low, however, the Russians imported Shahid UAVs from Iran. They are vulnerable to small arms fire, but they can be used in swarms to overwhelm defences.
Ukrainians also use UAVs for great effect to target Russian logistic hubs. Most recently, they targeted a fuel storage site on Crimea as well as another one just east of Kerch Bridge connecting Crimea with Russia.
The alleged attack on the Kremlin Tuesday night was extremely suspicious – it is a fortress with multiple layers air and land defenses and a UAV at a low speed should not have been able to get through.
The incident showed the wide range of uses of drones as weapons of destruction and deception.
In this conflict, smaller tactical drones proved to be invaluable. This is especially true at the front lines.
In 1794, the Royal Flying Corps used observation balloons to gather intelligence and spot artillery. During World War One they also dropped hand grenades into enemy trenches.
Small UAVs have been used for the same purpose since more than a hundred years ago.
The surveillance technology has evolved rapidly, leveraging the advances made in satellite and space markets. Sensors are becoming lighter and more powerful with reduced power needs.
Small drones can be configured easily, are cheap and quiet. They can also stream live video to artillery, like a game of cards where you can see the card in the opponent’s hand.
Ukraine adapts and innovates as Russia counters a capability.
The rapid use of technology by Ukraine has given it an advantage in the conflict.
UAVs are a cost-effective, mass-market military capability that will be available in large numbers. The United States may lead the world in high-end UAVs but China is the leader on the mass market.
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The conventional wisdom in warfighting is that larger is better. High-end tanks and aircraft will win. The Ukraine conflict, however, has shown the enormous warfighting power of UAVs.
The UAV market was dominated by domestic parcel delivery, driverless cars, and multi-UAV shows a year ago.
The Ukraine conflict has shown the potential of UAVs that have not yet been able to take advantage of rapid AI advances.
The drone wars are a new military capability that can have a decisive effect on our security, both domestically and internationally, at surprisingly low cost.