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Drones and the Close Battle

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

This year the Ukrainian MOD intends to procure 200,000 drones.1 That statement should make defence ministries pause and reflect.  It is not evident this is the case.  At the end of last year, the UK MOD announced a £129 million deal to procure just over 250 drones (mini- and medium UAS), effectively replacing capability lost with the end-of-service life of drones procured to support operations in Afghanistan.  The Ukrainian MOD is seeking to acquire such a large number of drones because around 10,000 are reportedly expended or lost every month.2  The recent UK procurement would last less than one day in Ukraine.  Or expressed another way, to match the Ukrainian procurement, the UK MOD would have to spend £103 billion on drones, or two-and-a-half defence budgets.  The Ukrainian MOD is not spending such a sum of money.  It has allocated 20 billion hryvnias, or roughly £400 million.3 This is still a large sum but not tens of billions.

So many drones can be procured ‘cheaply’ due to the remarkable ascent of the recreational drone on the battlefields of Ukraine.  The trend was already presaged in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War (Sept-Nov 2020).  Now it cannot be ignored.  This article attempts to explain the emergence of a technology that is changing the character of the close battle.  It focuses on one aspect of this phenomenon: the tactical, hand-held ‘kamikaze drone’.

‘Kamikaze drones’

The term ‘kamikaze drone’ (‘dronivkamikadze’) has been popularised.  These are effectively ‘flying IEDs’. Four broad categories of drones fall under this general term:

Loitering munitions:
Image: A switchblade 300 in flight.
Switchblade 300 in flight Source: U.S. Marine Corps/Lance Cpl. Tyler Forti

These are the original, true kamikaze drones.  The development of hand-held, tactical loitering munitions started in the early 2000s.  The systems were viewed as a special force capability.  They have since spread to conventional forces and are fielded or manufactured by around 30 countries. Leaders are the US, Israel and Turkey. Ukraine is known to have deployed Switchblade (US), Phoenix Ghost (US), ST-35 Silent Thunder (Ukrainian), Scalpel (Ukrainian), RAM II (Ukrainian), Warmate (Polish), and DefendTex D40 (Australian).

Hand-held quadcopters:

(‘wedding drones’, ‘commercial DJI copters’, or ‘Mavic-style drones’ after the popular Chinese make):  strictly, these are not kamikaze drones but rather recreational drones fitted with a device that allows the carriage and release of one or more grenades with good accuracy.  The intent is to recover the quadcopter, although hundreds are lost to electronic warfare (EW) defensive screens.

First Person View (FPV) drones:
Image: A Ukrainian Soldier stood in a field using a First Person View Drone.
FPV drones are controlled with Playstation-style consoles and goggles Source: Censor.NET

Also known as ‘racing drones’ due to their speed and agility, FPV drones are controlled by an operator wearing goggles (hence first person view) and a Playstation-style console.  FPV drones are fast becoming the most common (and crucially cheap) kamikaze drone on the battlefield.

 

 

 

Fixed-Wing mini-drones

Fixed-wing mini-drones are less common, overtaken by more popular and versatile quadcopter-design drones.  These are also strictly not kamikaze drones, as the intent is to recover the drone after it has dropped its ordnance.

Image: a fixed wing mini drone in flight.
A Ukrainian Karatel (‘Punisher’) built by UA Dynamics and armed with a rifle grenade Source: Censor.NET

Procurement and training

Ukraine has received loitering munitions from at least three foreign suppliers.  The US has been especially generous, shipping more than 800 systems (over 700 Switchblades and 121 Phoenix Ghosts).

A number of Ukrainian companies began manufacturing drones at the turn of 2014-2015.  Well-known brands include Athlon-Avia, Skyeton, DeViRo, Ukrspecssystems and UA Dynamics. The Dnipro-based DeViRo manufactures the RAM II kamikaze drone.  UA Dynamics makes Karatel (‘Punisher’).

The war has vastly expanded the production base. There are now around 30 companies in Ukraine mass-producing drones. Several tens of thousands of FPV drones are produced every month.  The production is responsive to unit demands, with drone operators telling the firms what frequencies they plan to work on, at what ranges, and with what munitions.

Ukrainian assembly of FPV drones remains 90% dependent on imported parts, with manufacturers mostly assembling the drones from Chinese components. The cost of a unit is $400-700. The number of Chinese suppliers of components for FPV drones now exceeds a hundred.  The key is diversification, as waiting times can exceed 30 days due to high demand.

Training on drones in the Ukrainian armed forces is delivered at the ‘Black Raven’ school. The basic course is called ‘Dead Orc’ and lasts three weeks.  Trainees complete a mandatory 30 hours in simulators before progressing to live flight training in environments reproducing battlefield conditions.  The military school is now supported by as many as 26 commercial trainers that offer five-day courses in quadcopters and FPV drones.

In May, it was reported eight new ‘UAV strike companies’ had been raised and trained in preparation for the counter-offensive. These were equipped with over 3,000 drones, including FPV drones, although it is believed about 10,000 kamikaze drones were used at the front in May.

Under the ‘Drone Army’ programme announced on 15 June (a joint project of the Ministry of Defence, the State Special Communications organisation, and the Ministry of Digital Transformation), an ambitious goal has been set to train 10,000 drone operators (7,600 quadcopter operators, 2,000 FPV drone pilots, and 400 fixed-wing drone operators).

Image: A Russian T-72b tank with Ad Hoc anti drone upgrades.
Fear of kamikaze drones: this is a nearly unrecognisable T-72B. The crew has covered the top surfaces with a variety of home-made screens and defences to thwart aerial attack. Source: Vestnik

The impact on the battlefield

Anyone following the abundant daily publication of frontline YouTube videos will have noticed the proliferation of videos showing kamikaze drone attacks.  The accuracy and relentlessness of the attacks are striking.

This author has seen grenades dropped from a height on a Russian soldier’s head  and on the chest of another, with inevitable outcomes. He has seen kamikaze drones chasing sprinting soldiers (you cannot outrun a drone) and drop through the entrance ways of trenches. Troops caught in the open are easy prey.  In one night in March, drone operators from 36th Separate Marine Brigade caught six separate groups of Russian soldiers trying to use the cover of night to advance.  Dozens were killed, wounded or scattered by devices hovering above them that they could not even see.

Unless a vehicle is concealed (under hard cover), it is vulnerable to attack.  The most diligent camouflage cannot hide a vehicle from a determined drone operator. Ukrainian drone operators will attack any target but especially prioritise tanks, APCs, artillery and rocket systems, EW systems and air defence systems.  There are scores of videos showing grenades dropped through the open hatches of tanks. In one night in March, the SBU4 ‘White Wolves’ destroyed ten Russian tanks, but tallies of 2-3 tanks per day are not uncommon.

New orders of battle needed?

The Ukrainian MOD is creating ‘an army of drones’ with the intent that each unit be supported by ‘UAV strike companies’.  Can we then give ourselves permission to speculate how a British Army infantry or armour/cavalry unit may be organised in a future of proliferating and cheap mini-drones?

  • Why can a mortar platoon not be dual-roled as an attack quadcopters platoon? Ukrainian forces are using quadcopters to drop grenades. The difference, obviously, is area fire (a mortar salvo) versus precise fire (a grenade dropped precisely on a target).  Both are valid dependent on the target and desired effect.
  • Why can a sniper platoon not be dual-roled as a loitering munitions platoon? Sniper pairs spot targets at extended ranges.  These can be too distant for a guaranteed hit with a sniper rifle but comfortably in range of a hand-held loitering munition.  A loitering munition is just another form of sniping, but at longer ranges and with a ‘bigger bullet’.
  • Why can an anti-tank platoon not also be dual-roled as a loitering munitions platoon? On Operation HERRICK, soldiers joked about how they were ‘throwing a Porsche’ at the Taliban when they engaged with a Javelin missile (each costing £76,000 at the time).  Cheaper option loitering munitions today sell at $6,000.  FPV drones cost a few hundred dollars.
  • Why can infantry reconnaissance/ISTAR platoons and armoured/cavalry regiment reconnaissance/ISTAR troops not be armed with a mix of loitering munitions and quadcopters? These sub-units spot enemy at far ranges.  Why not engage?
  • Why can an infantry company – armoured, mechanised or light – not include a loitering munitions/quadcopters fire support section or platoon?
  • Why can Reservist quadcopter and FPV drone detachments not be raised? The Ukrainian armed forces are being supported by a small army of civilian volunteers with a talent for employing hand-held drones for reconnaissance and attack purposes.
  • Why can British firms not be challenged to produce cheap, disposable quadcopters and FPV drones for reconnaissance or attack purposes? (The recently published French ‘Loi de programmation militaire 2024-2030’ states an ambition to procure 3,000 drones).

‘Innovation’ and ‘experimentation’ are two themes in the UK MOD’s July 2021 ‘Defence in a Competitive Age’ policy paper.

Let’s do it then.

Sergio Miller

Sergio Miller is a retired British Army Intelligence Corps officer.  He was a regular contributor and book reviewer for British Army Review.  He is the author of a two-part history of the Vietnam War (Osprey/Bloomsbury) and is currently drafting a history of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Footnotes

  1. Realistically, this goal will not be achieved, not least because of production constraints and worldwide demand for drones ($17 billion market in 2017, last available data).
  2. RUSI, Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year, Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, May 2023, p4
  3. As noted, it is unlikely this sum will be spent because demand far outstrips supply.
  4. Ukrainian Security Service

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