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Countering tactical kamikaze drones – ideas urgently needed.

At the time of writing, the ZALA AERO-Kalashnikov Lancet loitering munition (‘kamikaze drone’) has damaged or destroyed 640 odd Ukrainian vehicles and systems on the front lines, with video evidence.  First Person View (FPV) drones are the second-biggest battlefield killer.  These have tallied over 840 ‘kills’, again with video evidence. Expressed another way – for a British reader – these two drone types would have written off an entire British Army heavy brigade combat team.

The time for complacency is over.  A new technology is emerging which is having as major an impact on the close battle as the machinegun one hundred years ago.

The Kremlin recognises the profound change that has taken place. From the beginning of the September term, Russian 10th-11th graders will be learning how to fly a drone and counteract enemy drones1. On 8 August, President Putin ordered the ramping up of drone production. First Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Belousov has reported that by 2024 Russia will be producing 18,000 large and medium-sized civilian drones annually, with drones weighing less than one kilogram, assembled in the tens of thousands.2 According to Kommersant (‘The Businessman’) the Russian civil state order for drones to 2030 will amount to $2.5 billion. The defence state order for drones is a classified number. It will be significantly greater.  This throws a challenge: how are we going to respond to these developments?

Lancet loitering munition    Source: ZALA-AERO Group

Lancets

Lancet was first presented at the Army-2019 Expo and adopted by the Russian Armed Forces in 2020.  Two variants are marketed: Lancet-1 and Lancet-33. Maximum flight time and range are reportedly in the order of 40 minutes, and up to 40 kilometres respectively.  Maximum speed is 300kph, when used in a diving capacity, and the drone can hover. There is a choice of three warheads: HE, HEAT4and reportedly thermobaric5. Warhead weight varies from 1-3 kilogrammes6. Lancet is a day-only weapon although upgrade with a night capability is being pursued. The price of the drone, according to Reuters , is $35,000.

There are three modes: operator command by TV signal; GPS-guidance; or pre-planned autonomous.  Daytime colour TV is overwhelmingly the most common form seen in the attack videos. If no target is found, the drone can be returned.

Controversially, Lancet is made from a range of Western components. Supply does not appear to have been affected by sanctions. Companies registered to the chief designer and owner’s children act as subsidiaries. These import the parts through third party intermediaries in countries such as Uzbekistan.  Critically, Lancet uses NVIDIA’s Jetson TX2 module for onboard control (target acquisition), and the Xilinx Zynq SoC module for programmable logic (image processing).

First Person View drones

FPV drones come in variety of types.  In common with Ukrainian production of FPV drones, the overwhelming majority of parts come from China.  This is proving the biggest obstacle to quick mass production, as demand outstrips supply.  RPG warheads are typically loaded on the drones.

The record of use of Lancet and FPV drones shows there has been an exponential rise in 2023.  Last year, there were just less than 100 Lancet attacks.  This year, to date, there have been five times as many.  In the case of FPV drones, there were just three attacks. Almost 500 have been recorded in 2023.

Lancet attacks (above) and FPV drone attacks (below) 2022-2023.  Current trends appear to show the FPV drone will become the biggest single battlefield killer by the end of the year.  Source: LostArmour

Lancets alone have accounted for over 250 towed and SP guns and 44 AD systems (including HVM Stormer).  This is the equivalent of the entire Royal Artillery and all 7 Air Defence Group.

Ukrainian counter-measures: nets and screens

Ukrainian vehicle and gun crews have been improvising protection from Lancets and FPV drones by erecting nets (including fishing nets extended between poles) and improvised mesh screens.

Improvised nets and screens to counter kamikaze drones   Source: Voennoye Obozreniye (Military Review)

There are no available metrics on the effectiveness of these improvised screens.  Factors determining their effectiveness would include the warhead type, the robustness of the screen, and the stand-off distance to the object the drone operator is attempting to hit.  There is limited visual evidence that screens can cause a Lancet to break up without detonating, as the example below shows.

This Ukrainian 2S1 was protected by what appears to be rolls of chain link fencing.  The Lancet broke up and did not detonate.  Source: Voennoye Obozreniye (Military Review)

Ukrainian counter-measures: ECM

The most effective counter-measure to tactical kamikaze drones is ECM.  In the case of Lancet, jamming is required of both the GPS and TV-command signal.  FPV drones only require jamming of the TV signal.

Ukrainian company Piranya-Tech has developed an ECM module ‘Piranha’ for individual vehicles to create a protective bubble (the problem with anti-drone guns is range and you have to point the device which can be impractical at an object travelling at 100-200kph).  The power output of ‘Piranha’ is 150-250 W. It is claimed this creates a protective field with a radius of 700 meters.

Other boxes, believed to contain AliExpress GPS jammers that anybody with a credit card can buy, have also been spotted on Ukrainian vehicles.  There is no certain information on the effectiveness of Ukrainian ECM against Lancet or FPV drones. Both sides are enjoying some success downing each other’s drones of all types, but equally, kamikaze drones are getting through the ECM screens.  At a recent meeting of Ukrainian companies offering potential ECM solutions, an experienced Ukrainian drone operator asked how many would be prepared to stand under their ECM bubbles while he attacked them with an FPV drone.  None agreed.

Ukrainian counter-measures: decoys

The Ukrainian armed forces have deployed decoys in limited numbers and with some success. Ukrainian firm Metinvest has recently produced (free of cost) around 250 highly realistic metal decoys of towed guns.  Metal construction is part of the deception: in daylight, warmed metal will contrast against the cooler background creating a realistic thermal signature.

Vehicle decoys, such as the example below, can also fool drone operators.

This decoy of an SP gun was attacked by a Lancet  Source: Censor.net

Ukrainian counter-measures: keep your distance

A tactical counter-measure (employed by both sides) is the withdrawal of platforms and systems from the frontline i.e. 10-15km where they are at least out of range to FPV drones.  This has created an inverted frontline. Units in contact are now dug-in infantry with their supporting organic weapons such as mortars and anti-tank missiles; drone operators; and the ECM detachments seeking to disrupt or down the other’s drones.  Communications are constantly degraded by the saturation of jamming systems.

Self-evidently, such an abnormal frontline is the opposite of manoeuvre warfare.  Neither side is daring to manoeuvre, except in very favourable circumstances, because the cost is too high.  ‘Going over the top’ has become prohibitive in lives and materiel.

Can you shoot them down?

Lancet and FPV drones are exceedingly difficult to shoot down.  The window of opportunity to engage is fleeting; they travel too fast; and in the case of FPV drones, they are too small.  Innovative sights such SMASH, produced by the Israeli firm Smart Shooter, would unlikely cope with such targets.

There are examples of downed Lancets.  The method used to down the drones is not clear and image proof remains uncommon. In one week in July, the Ukrainian armed forces claimed to ‘shoot down’ 34 Lancets, but it is unclear whether ‘shoot down’ meant ‘downed’, probably by ECM. According to Ukrainian AirUnit company which is working on an autonomous FPV drone project, the effectiveness of the Russian Lancet drones is approximately 25%-30%. This is a good success rate and superior to typical numbers quoted for FPV drones which can be as low as one in ten (commonly because the TV signal is lost in dead ground).

A Lancet reportedly downed by air defence in Kherson region.  The drone has no obvious strike marks so it is more probable ECM caused the loss of this example.  Source:Censor.net

Concluding thoughts

The emergence of the kamikaze drone in the close battle cannot be ignored.  Artillery and rocket fire remains the biggest killer of soldiers, but the drones have now become the biggest killer of vehicles and systems.  The scale of damage and destruction these are wreaking is enormous.  The graph lines all trend upwards.  As a matter of urgency, a Ministry-led working group, with industry and Army participation, should be convened to address how this threat may be countered.

Cover image – A Russian FPV drone with RPG warhead: note the initiator added to the nose of the warhead to ensure detonation.  Source: Fondsk.ru

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. The resumption of Soviet-style military training for school children will include: Drill, Tactics, Weapon Training, Fundamentals of Technical Training and Communications (including drones), Engineering, Radiation, Chemical and Biological Protection, First Aid, General Military Regulations, and Fundamentals of the Security of Military Service
  2. As ever, Russian claims on production outputs should be treated with caution.
  3. Russian nomenclature: Izdeliya-51:‘Item-51’ and Izdeliya-52:‘Item-52’. Reportedly, there is now a four-launch tube, heavier, Izdeliya-53 variant with longer range and endurance.
  4. The standard Russian cumulative charge KZ-6 which can penetrate 215mm of armour
  5. This may be misreporting of a HE-Frag charge.
  6. The Izdeliya-53 variant has a 5kg warhead.

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