Beginning of the drone wars? How the Ukraine conflict set the stage for new military capabilities | world news
Drones have been part of the military inventory for decades, but the war in Ukraine has led to a massive escalation in their exploitation. Does this herald the beginning of a new era in modern warfare, and will the rapid development of AI lead to the inevitable dawn of drone warfare?
Unmanned flights predate manned ones, but the limitations of the technology to date have left unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) vulnerable and therefore unsuitable for widespread military use.
However, the relatively favorable air environment over Afghanistan led to the development of a new generation of loitering platforms – like the US Reaper – that could fly over 20 hours and deliver live streaming video to headquarters on the other side of the world.
Russia used hundreds of drones for targeting Ukrainian Cities and critical national infrastructure.
Missiles, costing hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars each, fly fast, are difficult to launch, and carry huge explosive payloads.
But when supplies ran out, the Russians imported Shahid 136 UAVs from Iran. These UAVs are slow and vulnerable to small arms fire, but can be deployed in a swarm to overwhelm defenses – and some get through.
Ukrainians have also exploited UAVs to attack Russian logistics centers to great effect, most recently a fuel depot in Crimea and another just east of the Kerch Bridge, which connects Crimea to Russia.
However, the alleged drone attack on the Kremlin on Tuesday evening looked extremely suspicious – the Kremlin is a fortress with multiple layers of air and land defenses, and a slow-speed UAV should never have gotten through.
Regardless, the incident demonstrated the broad utility of drones, both as a weapon of destruction and deception.
Smaller tactical drones have also proved invaluable in this conflict, especially on the frontlines.
As early as 1794, observation balloons were being used as an aerial platform for gathering intelligence and detecting artillery, and during the First World War aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps took the opportunity to drop hand grenades at enemy trenches.
More than a century later, small UAVs are also being used to fulfill the same role.
Surveillance technology has evolved rapidly – taking advantage of advances in the space and satellite markets – with sensors becoming lighter, more powerful and with lower power requirements.
Small drones are quiet, cheap, easily reconfigurable, and can provide live streaming video of enemy positions directly to the artillery – like a deck of cards when you can see which card the other side is holding.
Just as Russia counters an ability, Ukrainians adapt and innovate.
Technology – and its rapid adoption – has given Ukraine an asymmetric advantage in this conflict.
Although the United States leads the way in high-end UAVs, China is the global mass-market leader, and coupled with the rapid advances in AI capability, UAVs are likely to become a mass-market, high-volume, cost-effective military capability.
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Conventional wisdom of war is that bigger is better – high-end tanks, planes and ships will prevail. However, the Ukraine conflict has shown the enormous combat potential of UAVs, where quantity has a quality all its own.
A year ago, the UAV market focused on domestic parcel delivery, driverless cars, and multi-UAV light shows.
However, the Ukraine conflict has shown the dramatic potential of UAVs, which have yet to capitalize on rapid advances in AI.
The stage is set for a new generation of military capabilities—drone warfare—that enable critical, low-budget military effects with profound implications for our international and domestic security.