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Short Read

Creating a British ‘Army of Drones’

Experimental Feature: Audio Read Version

‘The drone front is a key factor in modern warfare… we need to prepare for changes in warfare – the war of drones. This is the main lesson for me in this offensive in the south.’

Yuriy Butusov, Editor-in-Chief Цензор.НЕТ

In his seminal The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: 1848 -1918, A.J.P. Taylor wrote of the First World War, ‘The machine-gun and the spade changed the course of European history.’ Perhaps a future historian of the Russo-Ukrainian War will write the sentence: ‘The tactical drone and spade changed the course of land warfare.’

In one week last month, according to Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov,1 FPV and Mavic-style drones accounted for a quarter of all damaged and destroyed Russian equipment including 42% of tanks and 47% of armoured vehicles.  Between 9 September and 16 October 2023, a new record was set: 428 units of Russian equipment were hit including 75 tanks, 88 APCs, 52 SP guns and 101 artillery pieces. In total, over the last four months, Ukrainian drone pilots have hit 1,882 targets.

Russian statistics are equally arresting (all with video evidence; these are not inflated claims). In 2022, there were just three recorded Russian FPV drone attacks.  By the third week of November 2023, the 2,000 mark was passed. The ZALA AERO-Kalashnikov Lancet loitering munition has been used to strike 770-odd Ukrainian vehicles and systems. For context, Ukraine has lost around 4,600 vehicles according to the Oryx database.

By this winter, when natural cover disappears, these cheap recreational drones will be decimating the armies in the field.  ‘We have reached a kind of dead end,’ separatist leader Khodakosky has lamented in a recent Telegram post, ‘when cheap ammunition destroys what a whole industry worked on.’ A revolution is taking place in the close battle.

The significance of what is happening has not been lost on the combatants. The Ukrainian state budget for the purchase of UAVs in 2023 will amount to UAH 40 billion ($1.1 billion).  For the first time, the Russian State Duma will be approving drone production as a line item in the annual state budget. Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov told the Duma: ‘Over 60 billion roubles [$60 million] are earmarked for a new national project on developing our drone base. The task is for 41% of all drones by 2025 to have the ‘Made in Russia’ label.’ The civil state order for drones to 2030 will amount to $2.5 billion. The defence state order for drones is a classified number and will be greater. US Deputy Secretary of Defence Kathleen Hicks has recently announced the Replicator programme. The intent is to put ‘‘multiple thousands’ of unmanned systems in the hands of warfighters in 18 to 24 months.’  Drone wars have arrived.  The person that does not understand this, Yuriy Butusov writes, ‘simply does not understand the nature of modern warfare.’

This article offers a blueprint for the creation of a British ‘Army of Drones’.

Drone types

Three tactical drone types have emerged from the war.  Chinese DJI Mavic-style drones remain the most common and popular.  They are easy to learn, boast a good camera, and are versatile.  They can be used both for spotting and dropping ordnance with great accuracy (numerous YouTube videos showing grenades dropped through open tank hatches testify to the accuracy).

FPV (First Person View) Drones have been the revelation of the war.  These are the ‘fighter pilots’ of the drone world but require greater skill to use successfully and rely on cross-cueing due to the analogue TV camera-view.

Fixed-wing drones boast greater range, heavier payloads, and good cameras,

Training courses and content

Over 30 drone training providers have emerged in Ukraine, in addition to the official armed forces UAV academy.  Commercial courses to achieve basic competency as a drone pilot are as short as one week.  Experienced judgement indicates it takes 2-3 months to become truly competent, including operational experience.    Simulation training (more than 20 hours) is mixed with practical training.  Drone ‘obstacle courses’ are used to hone pilot schools.  ECM awareness and route planning are essential aspects of course content.

In the first 10 months of operation, the Ukrainian ‘Army of Drones’ programme has established a training programme for 10,000 drone pilots.  The breakdown is:

  • 7,600 Mavic-style drone pilots
  • 2,000 FPV drone pilots
  • 400 fixed-wing drone pilots

Aptitude matters.  The qualities needed are patience, dexterity and communication skills.  Again, experienced Ukrainian judgement suggests that out of every 100 drone pilots, 3-4 have the aptitude to become skilled FPV drone operators.  Selection tests may be required to identity individuals with the aptitude to control an FPV drone.

Lance Corporal Kai Webb, from ITDU (Infantry Trials and Development Unit) operates the AtlasPro drones using the AtlasStation touchscreen. Photo: MOD.
Lance Corporal Kai Webb, from ITDU (Infantry Trials and Development Unit) operates the AtlasPro drone using the AtlasStation touchscreen tablet during a demonstration to showcase the capability of autonomous drones and Robotic Platoon Vehicles (RPVs) on Salisbury Plain Training Area.
The MoD’s Future Capability Group (FCG) have been demonstrating ‘operating swarming UAS systems.’
It is the first time a military operator has flown a swarming system which is a significant achievement for the future capability group and the Army.
A swarm is comprised of one operator controlling 4-6 UAS which demonstrates a real step forward in technology and reduction of manpower. Instead of having one operator per drone you now require less operators who can control many drones.

Psychological outlook is also important: the aim is to kill or maim an enemy whose expressions, on occasions, you can see the instant before death.  Killing someone with an FPV drone is not like launching a Hellfire from a Predator-B. You are personally and deliberately taking life.  ‘The best drone commander,’ Yuriy Butusov observes, ‘is the one who kills more and corrects more.’  Rules of Engagement and the application of the Laws of Armed Conflict will need to be rigorous. Is it lawful to drop another grenade on a wounded enemy waving at you to stop?  There are numerous YouTube videos showing this scenario.

Qualification as a drone pilot should be recognised formally on systems such as Joint Personnel Administration (JPA).

Annual competency and currency tests could be supplemented by annual range training as well as inter-unit competitions.  Tactical drones naturally lend themselves to agility competitions (flying a drone over an obstacle course) as well as accuracy competitions (dropping dummy ordnance on different targets, static and moving).  An Army champion drone pilot could be recognised as today Bisley champion shots are recognised.

Unit scales

Mavic-style drones, FPV drones and loitering munitions are creating a revolution in the close battle precisely because they are so cheap.  10,000s are affordable and indeed demanded.  It cannot be repeated too many times: recreational toys costing $500-1000 are damaging and destroying kit worth tens of millions of dollars that take years to develop and manufacture.  They have become the majority cause of destruction in the close battle. 2 The cost in soldiers’ lives is precisely zero. It is difficult to think of a comparable situation in the history of modern warfare.

Image; Snipers using Drones
A sniper from D Coy, 1st Bn The Mercian Regiment (1 MERC), eFP Battlegroup deploys a drone to get ‘eyes on’ during an initial recce and obstacle crossing during training at Tapa Camp, Estonia.
ENHANCED FORWARD PRESENCE (EFP)
The 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw set the conditions for the establishment of an enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security.

The Ukrainian experience suggests an infantry battalion should be scaled to hold several hundred tactical drones with associated ordnance.  The line companies, recce (ISTAR) platoon, anti-tank platoon, mortar platoon and snipers would hold individual scales and drone types according to roles (recce, strike, MFC target acquisition, and fire control).  Armoured Cavalry and Light Cavalry regiments could similarly be scaled to hold hundreds of drones.  Royal Artillery scales within the two UAV regiments and 5 (STA) Regiment RA would require consideration to accommodate existing roles and capabilities.

Industry needs to be engaged.  Today, in Ukraine, 230 companies have become involved in the mass production of tactical drones.  With incentives and support there are no reasons why a comparable industry could not flourish in the UK. Scientific support will be required: drone wars are a contest of constantly evolving measures and counter-measures.

Doctrine and tactics

Doctrine and new concepts need to be drafted.  As with any new capability these would likely evolve with experience.

Tactical drones would need to be integrated with the newly-established 1st Deep Recce Strike (DRS) Brigade Combat Team ‘recce-strike complex’ (described in British Army Review 183, Summer Edition).  The three Deep Recce Strike Battlegroups would likely lead. The use of drones by Royal Engineer sub-units would only be limited by imagination. 6 Battalion REME would be instrumental to maintaining the capability. Integration with 1st Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Group would also be necessary.  Intelligence Corps ‘Information Manoeuvre Groups’ could dual-role as drone detachments collecting and not just processing intelligence.  Tactical drones have an obvious place in 16 Air Assault Brigade, 3 Commando Brigade and Special Forces.  Reservists could prove a valuable pool of drone pilots.

Persistent presence, cross-cueing of sensors and good communications are the keys to successful tactical drone operations.  The British Army got terribly good at this in the latter years of Operation HERRICK and could do so again.

Concluding thoughts

It is not often a revolution in warfare is experienced.  The tank broke the deadlock of trench warfare.  Sagger anti-tank missiles (‘suitcase missiles’) caused a shock in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.  The majesty of American forces in Gulf War I showed that the Revolution in Military Affairs was more than just a phrase.  Other armed forces have been trying to catch up ever since.  And today, in a most-unexpected way – albeit the 2020 Second Nagorno-Karabakh War served as warning – another revolution is taking place.  It is time to catch up in drone wars.

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 ministry is instrumental in the ‘Army of Drones; programme.
  2. But ‘90% of injuries and deaths on the frontline are from shrapnel’.  Artillery remains the biggest killer and cause of wounding of soldiers.  Russian Deputy Labour Minister Alexei Vovchenko recently reported that 54% of the Russian wounded are amputees, a reflection of shrapnel wounds. https://censor.net/ua/resonance/3446806/pilot_fpvdroniv_na_pozyvnyyi_djokonda_my_mojemo_za_den_znyschyty_abo_urazyty_trychotyry_tanky_pislya     and   https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2023/10/17/half-of-russian-soldiers-wounded-in-ukraine-require-amputation-official-a82798

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