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FPV drones are defining the battlefield

At the end of January 2024 a Russian company from 33rd Motor Rifle Regiment 1 set off to attack in the area of Novomikhailovka, South-West of Donetsk City. The company comprised three T-72s leading one BMP-1 and seven MT-LBs (catastrophic attrition means the Russian Army now uses the MT-LB utility tracked vehicle as an APC).  After leaving a hard-topped road the sub-unit fanned out to attack from the line of march across open fields. It didn’t get too far.  The company was not stopped by mines or other engineering obstacles.  Nor was it stopped by artillery or rocket fire.  There were no anti-tank engagements and no Ukrainian tanks deployed to counter-attack.  In fact, none of the elements of a defensive battle studied by a British Army cadet at Sandhurst, or student at the Defence College at Shrivenham, were present.   The company was stopped by $500 FPV drones loaded with explosive charges.   All but one vehicle were damaged or destroyed and the survivors fled on foot.

The Russian company attack launched at Novomikhailovka on 30 January, defeated by FPV drones. Source: Censor.net

The price of such inability to learn is the death of people,’ lamented the prominent Russian military blogger ‘Rybar’, ‘the loss out of the blue of a heap of equipment for which industry works in three shifts, as well as landscapes of burning columns.’ This article is about the developing story of ‘the most important component of the battlefield’ – the first person view (FPV) drone.

Intensity of attacks

In 2022, only a handful of FPV-drone attacks were recorded. The Ukrainian Army was the first to appreciate the potential of FPV drones (as opposed to the Mavik-style drones that were becoming ubiquitous).  By the summer of 2023, the Russian Army began to use FPV drones in greater numbers.  Since that period, attacks have grown exponentially on both sides.

Russian FPV-drone attacks June 2022 – Feb 2024 Source: LostArmour

In total, there have been 3,917 Russian attacks (with video evidence) as at 8 February.  About half hit. Roughly 12% result in destruction of the target (479 targets) and 15% in damage (594 targets).  Around 20% miss or are inconclusive. Ukrainian use is ahead but the Russian Army is catching up.

Setting aside the attrition – tactical drones of all types, with artillery, have become the biggest battlefield killers – their presence has radically altered the close battle. Both sides are now locked in a stalemate where any movement is quickly detected and threats neutralised by drones.

What is being targeted?

Analysis of what is being attacked shows clear differences in the targeting strategies of Ukrainian and Russian drone pilots.  The Ukrainians mainly attack high-value target platforms, such as tanks, SP guns, EW systems, air defence systems, and logistic stores.  The Russians overwhelmingly use FPV drones to support attacks on Ukrainian ‘positions’ – the trench lines and strong points.  Both sides have actually been attacking trenches regularly, with important implications for the design of trenches. Building overhead cover is no longer sufficient; a trench must be at least L-shaped because skilful drone pilots are flying the drones into the trenches.

The Russians are overwhelmingly attacking positions with drones; the Ukrainians target vehicles Source: Tocnhyi.info

 

Where are the attacks taking place?

With geo-location, open-source monitoring of drone attacks offers insights into where the fighting occurs (much as NASA FIRMS data unintentionally but usefully records heavy artillery or rocket fire as ‘heat anomalies’).  Tocnhyi.info January 2024 heat maps (shown below) reveal how the most active areas for drone attacks were the Krynky bridgehead in the west and the Avdiivka-Marinka sectors in the east.  At the former, Ukrainian defenders on the Dnipro right bank (at a higher elevation than the left bank) are using drones and artillery to keep a much larger Russian force at bay at the 36th Separate Marine Brigade bridgehead.

Open-source monitoring of drone attacks can offer useful insights into the fighting. Source: Tocnhyi.info

Innovation and democratisation

Over 200 firms are involved in drone production in Ukraine. More than 60 drone types have been developed and fielded, which is, in some respects, an unhelpful ‘menagerie of drones’. Commercial training providers have sprung up, and drone ‘shock companies’ have been raised.  Crowd-funding initiatives such as Wild Hornets have proved successful.  Ukrainian citizens are being encouraged to build ‘kitchen drones’. At the other end of the scale, drones are becoming more advanced with better anti-jamming capabilities and sensors.

The democratisation of defence procurement: Ukrainian citizens are encouraged to build ‘kitchen drones’.

It’s about drones and EW

The war has shown that tactical drones are only half the capability.  The other is Electronic Warfare (EW).  The British Army is currently standing up a Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities (CEMA) Group.2  Three EW procurement programmes have been announced.3  The author has had industry involvement in two.  The programmes view EW through a traditional threat framework; none address the emergence of the tactical drone.  Current EW and drone training do not reflect the modern battlefield i.e. the war in Ukraine.  A future British Army EW detachment must co-locate with the future FPV drone detachments.  The two capabilities work together, assessing the electromagnetic landscape, creating corridors for deploying friendly drones, and blocking areas to deny enemy drone threats.

It is a skilled cat-and-mouse game.  It should be a sobering thought that no extant British Army doctrine or other pamphlet describes this reality. Steps to start to address the shortfalls have not yet been taken.

It’s just too easy (and cheap) Source: Business Insider

The Defence Equipment Plan 2023-2033

At the end of November 2022, the UK MOD published a 65-page glossy ‘Defence Equipment Plan 2023-2033’.  The Plan attracted commentary as well a report from the National Audit Office that concluded the Plan was ‘unaffordable, with forecast costs exceeding its current budget by £16.9 billion.’ In the ‘Army’ section, the statement was made, ‘Army Command plan to spend £40.6 billion in the Equipment Plan over the next ten years.’ General areas of spend were listed.

If the reader were to enquire of the Plan – what funding is there for what General Zaluzhny recently described 4 as ‘perhaps the number one priority…cheap, modern and highly effective unmanned vehicles? – he or she would be unable to glean an answer.  At the time of drafting, as far as can be determined, the UK MOD has no stated plans or funding to procure and field ‘the most important component on the battlefield’ – FPV drones.

Also by the author on the same subject:

https://wavellroom.com/2023/12/15/creating-a-british-army-of-drones/

https://wavellroom.com/2023/10/13/countering-tactical-kamikaze-drones-ideas-urgently-needed/

https://wavellroom.com/2023/08/02/drones-and-the-close-battle/

Recommended:

The Economist: ‘How cheap drones are transforming warfare in Ukraine: First Person View drones have achieved near mythical status on the front lines’, 6 Feb 2024

(For the Russian view) армейский стандарт (‘Army Standard’) magazine: ‘SVO and the revolution in military affairs: New weapons change the nature of combat and force tactics textbooks to be rewritten’.5

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. 20th Guards Motor Rifle Division, Southern Military District (YuVO)
  2. Comprising 13, 14 and 21 Signals Regiments, all eventually based at Innsworth
  3. CORNERSTONE, POYNTING and CRENIC, valued at roughly £500 million
  4. ON THE MODERN DESIGN OF MILITARY OPERATIONS IN THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR:IN THE FIGHT FOR THE INITIATIVE
  5. https://armystandard.ru/news/2024129114-TnO1s.html

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