Over the past two months the war in Ukraine has entered a new phase of tactics and use of evolving military technology. Both sides have suddenly turned to the extensive use of drones. What are they? Why and where are they being used? Is there a consequence for future conflicts around the world? This article seeks to answer those questions.
What are drones and how did they get that name?
In 1935, the British modified a number of aircraft types to fit remote controls so they could be used as aerial targets for training. One of them was the DH82B – Queen Bee. They became known colloquially as drones. The word originally described a male honeybee with its roots in Old English and proto-German as “dran”.
When I worked in aviation research and development at Farnborough, they were called Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) and the research was aimed at replacement for current, sophisticated combat aircraft. That development is ongoing. In recent years, simple drones are available as Christmas presents. Slightly more sophisticated ones are available for airborne photography and police surveillance. There is a growing need for regulation of their use, especially in the vicinity of airports. It was inevitable that evolution of cheap drones would continue.
Why and where are they being used in Ukraine?
For Close Air Support in Ukraine, the Russians have used the SU-25 Frogfoot aircraft that first entered service in 1978. It flies low and slow to attack land targets but is vulnerable to manned portable air defence systems. The Ukrainians have been slowly decimating them. Desperate that his “special military operation” is not going well, Putin turned to Iran to supply him with 1,700 of their Shahed -136 airborne drones with a range of 1,500 miles and an explosive warhead of 80 pounds for a price of $20,000 each. He has used them kamikaze style to attack Ukrainian electricity distribution infrastructure, causing 30% loss of power stations during 400 strikes in just 12 days in mid-October. His aim is to terrorise the Ukrainian people as winter arrives. An act described by Ursula von der Leyen as “Critical infrastructure is the new frontier of warfare.”
Airborne drones in other conflicts
Iran also has another model called Mojaher and has sold drones to Ethiopia, Sudan, Tajikistan and Venezuela. It is a profitable way of advancing their geopolitical ambitions but will proliferate their use globally.
Turkey has also sold TB2 drones to Ukraine, Israel and the UAE. The manufacturer, Baykar Technologies, has supplied drones for use in Syria; Libya, by Azerbaijan in Armenia, Ethiopia against Tigray and by themselves against the Kurds. Baykar were given a $105M government loan and their founder is married to the youngest daughter of President Erdogan.
Russia is also developing airborne drones by manufacturer Kronstadt Group with models ZALA and Kalashnikov KCB, a loitering drone with a small warhead. In 2017, nine countries were developing or manufacturing 26 types of loitering drones. There are now 24 countries and over 100 different models
Proliferation of cheap, mass-produced drones will cause more civilian harm and violation of humanitarian laws by regimes who don’t respect such laws.
But are they just confined to airborne drones? Before I address that, may I indulge you in a short science fiction story set in 2030?
Maritime Warfare in 2030: imagine this
It is 11 August 2030. Tension between Russia and the West has increased with significant movement of Russian forces aggressively intimidating NATO forces. Dangerous encounters took place in and around the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap close to Norway’s North Cape. A NATO maritime task force, formed around the British aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, was despatched to deter the Russian Northern Fleet from attempting an invasion of Norway. Unfortunately, many of the ships lacked the latest, critical offensive and defensive weapon systems. In the wake of COVID-19, European defence budgets had been savagely slashed with equipment programmes cancelled.
War had begun. HMS Queen Elizabeth suffered a major cyber-attack simultaneously with an attack by a swarm of smart, lethal drones. Each one was programmed to seek out a vital part of the ship’s defences to attack. At the same time, US and European reconnaissance and GPS satellites were blinded and then destroyed. The NATO fleet commander on board Queen Elizabeth lost all situational awareness. The attack drone swarm split up to attack specific operational systems, even causing the ship to stall as the engines were thrown into reverse.
Two Russian submarines then each fired a Zircon hypersonic anti-ship missile that came in behind another swarm of drones. The pride of the Royal Navy was crippled, rapidly took on water and sank. Her powerful complement of aircraft never even got off her decks.
Uncrewed Surface Vessel (USV) drones
That story didn’t come from my imagination. It is a quote, précised by me from the book “Future War and the Defence of Europe” ISBN 978-0-19-88583-5 published by Oxford University Press eight months before Putin invaded Ukraine.
It envisaged high-tech airborne drones, but is there a place for USV drones to attack enemy ships? There are recent reports of Russian warships being sunk in Sevastopol, Crimea. Despite suggestions that British Special Forces may have assisted, Russia has reported that USVs were involved.
Also, there are reports that a previously unidentified USV was found on Omega Bay beach close to Sevastopol and only 150nm from the Ukrainian coast. It identifies the USV to be kayak sized, have a single motor driving a steerable water jet and with a FLIR (forward looking infra-red), camera and bow sensors enabling it to find and ram a ship to detonate itself. A simultaneous UAV drone attack to distract attention may have also taken place. The Russian ships hit were, possibly, their Black Sea flagship Admiral Makarov and a mine countermeasures vessel.
We may now expect to see the re-building of the Ukrainian Navy with the recent US supply of six Defiant 40FB 40 ft patrol boats with a speed of 40 knots.
Sabotage and protection of undersea infrastructure
Sabotage of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea recently focussed attention on the importance of protecting undersea infrastructure. It has not been possible to identify the perpetrators of this act but gas pipelines are a small element of undersea infrastructure. There are also electrical supply cables, acoustic sensors (eg in the Greenland-Iceland-UK gap) and 1.3M kilometres of telecoms cables around the world carrying 95% of global internet traffic.
Russia is known to have a major interest in this infrastructure, especially in the Arctic and Northern waters. They have a separate department of their Ministry of Defence, the Deep Sea Research directorate known as
GUGI that uses covert undersea drones, mothership and mini submarines.
The Russian Northern Fleet also now has a large, unique submarine Belgorod (K-329). She is around 178 meters (583 ft) long, 15 meters (50 ft) wide and in the region of 30,000 tons. This makes it by far the largest built anywhere in the world since the famous Typhoon class. She is armed with the Poseidon strategic weapon that is also unique. Described by the US Navy as an ‘Intercontinental Nuclear-Powered Nuclear-Armed Autonomous Torpedo’, it combines incredible range with hard-to-kill performance. There is a concern that, with current weapons, it is effectively unstoppable once launched. It is believed not to be ready for deployment yet.
Launched in 2019, Belgorod was formally commissioned on July 8 2022. She was observed in the Barents Sea in late September. However, Belgorod has another important capability as well as carrying Poseidon. She can act as a mother submarine (‘host platform’) for special deep-diving midget submarines which operate on the sea floor. Russia has a fleet of these mother submarines for seabed warfare or interference with undersea infrastructure.
Meanwhile, China is also developing a capability to intercept telecom cables in the Indo-Pacific region to tap the information they carry in Chinese shore-based hubs.
Unmanned, autonomous vehicles with artificial intelligence – or drones – will proliferate in all environments in both sophisticated and relatively cheap forms. Research and development of military drones will spin off new technology to civil applications to avoid placing human operators in a hazardous environment. For example, inspection and repair of undersea cables.
In the military field, UK is already supplying undersea drones to Ukraine and training personnel to help detect Russian mines in the waters off its coast.
At the Conservative Party Conference, Defence Minister Ben Wallace announced that the UK will procure two new Multi-Role Ocean Survey Ships [MROSS]. They will be fitted with advanced sensors and carry a number of remotely operated and autonomous drones for data collection and have a crew of 15.
To note is that the UK has also awarded Italian company Leonardo a £60M four-year contract to design an unmanned, 3-tonne helicopter demonstrator to assist Merlin ASW helicopters in dropping a field of sonobuoys for submarine detection. The project is called Proteus and first flight is scheduled in 2025.
But those are reactive measures. What must Europe do to catch up on emerging threats? It has to grip emerging technologies, such as nano-technology and artificial intelligence (AI), that have military applications. The first step is to get the UK back into the EU Horizon scientific research programmes to pool our talents in the development of these for cyber warfare. Europe, including the UK, then needs to promote public-private partnership in critical technologies for a coherent R&D and military procurement strategy. This leads to an integrated European security and defence force plan for the future. Its primary focus should be how best to integrate emerging technologies with existing, legacy platforms. Only then does HMS Queen Elizabeth stand a chance of surviving the scenario in my story of 2030.