How one-way attack drones challenge security norms in Ukraine – and beyond

September 18, 2023

By Dmytro Sochnyev

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 44 Issue 3 Autumn 2023

In 1849, citizens of Venice, under siege by a formidable Austrian army, observed an extraordinary sight: the launch of hundreds of uncrewed balloons laden with incendiary bombs and timed fuses. Although most balloons were blown off target by strong winds – some even back toward their launch sites – the Austrians had unknowingly experimented with an ancestor of the one-way attack (OWA) drone, an increasingly common weapon in contemporary arsenals.

Precision for pennies

Today’s OWA drones, also known as kamikaze or suicide drones, are uncrewed, expendable aircraft. Varying greatly in size, sophistication, and operation, they still share an objective: the remote and/or autonomous delivery of an integrated munition to a selected target. Dan Gettinger observed in a recent study, One-way attack drones: Loitering munitions of the past and present, that there are more than 180 OWA drone designs in development or active use.

An OWA drone is not a wonder weapon. It is outclassed in speed, range, precision, and payload by conventional ground- and air-launched missiles. Conventional artillery still delivers larger munitions in greater quantity for more effective fire support. Fixed-wing aircraft, both crewed and uncrewed, are reusable and offer better reconnaissance and coordination capabilities. Why then did now-retired United States Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. claim in 2021 that drones presented a “new and complex threat” to U.S. air superiority?

The threat lies in the economics. OWA drones provide reasonable strike capabilities for a fraction of the cost of conventional weapons systems and without the need for a robust industrial capacity, large defence budget, and extensive technical expertise. During the recent civil war in Yemen, Houthi rebels were able to sustain a strike campaign against targets in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states by using Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 and modified Qasef and Sammad drones. Joël Postma notes in “Drones over Nagorno-Karabakh: A glimpse of the future of war?” that Azerbaijan effectively employed Israeli-supplied Harop drones against Armenian logistics, convoys, and older air defence systems during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

OWA drones provide reasonable strike capabilities for a fraction of the cost of conventional weapons systems and without the need for a robust industrial capacity, large defence budget, and extensive technical expertise.

Now consumer drones are being modified for combat, allowing even poorly funded and trained groups to strike targets at range. Between 2015 and 2017, the Islamic State used converted quadcopters to carry out between 60 and 100 attacks a month on coalition forces in Syria. In 2018, opposition forces allegedly added a basic explosive and household parts to an off-the-shelf drone in an attempt to assassinate Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

From basements to battlefields

This democratization of drone procurement has reached new levels in the war in Ukraine. Burgeoning drone production lines, made up of volunteers operating in basements and warehouses, and supported by financial donations from home and abroad, help to supply frontline combat units on both sides. Ulrike Franke, senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, estimates that the Ukrainian armed forces alone are now expending more than 10,000 drones per month.

Channels on Telegram, a popular messaging app, publicly report on solutions to tactical obstacles, experiments with input materials, and mass production breakthroughs. One Russian volunteer assembly group claims that a drone with a three-kilogram payload and a range of between seven and nine kilometres should cost no more than $442 (U.S.). A pro-Ukrainian volunteer group recently uploaded a compilation of strikes on Russian armour conducted by six first-person view (FPV) attack drones. The group claimed that these FPV attack drones, which allow the pilot to see what the drone sees, cost $2,100 (U.S.) to prepare. What pilots of such drones see is often disseminated online in an unprecedented supply of wartime propaganda.

OWA drones thereby produce a “shot-exchange” deficit for defenders. FPV attack drones have been observed disabling and even destroying much more expensive Russian and Ukrainian armour and equipment. Targeted vehicle crews have sought to hide from the drones by employing a bizarre assortment of improvised cages and nets, with varying degrees of success. Ukrainian air defences have been forced to deploy expensive and scarce surface-to-air missiles against Shahed drones to prevent damage to critical infrastructure. Older cannon-based systems, like the German Gepard, are more effective, but their shorter range requires a density of coverage that is not always possible. What we are seeing is that, in at least some asymmetrical circumstances, the more poorly equipped adversary can overcome qualitative disadvantages in equipment and economy through the sheer quantity of cheap and expendable OWA drones.

Russian and Ukrainian militaries are now racing to develop electronic countermeasures to eliminate the drone advantage. Electronic warfare (EW) systems, such as special EW rifles that are directed at drones to jam their communications, have proven effective at a tactical level against commercial drones that don’t have protected electronics. In many instances, EW has succeeded in intercepting pilot information or hijacking drones.

For example, many Chinese DJI drones, the most common commercial drones in Ukraine, have specialized receivers that collect position and movement information on most DJI drones and their pilots. This AeroScope system was initially designed by DJI for use by law enforcement. As the DJI site states, “The data obtained allows AeroScope users to monitor drone activity in their airspace and work with law enforcement to identify violators.” However, in the current conflict in Ukraine, Ukrainian officials have complained that this feature has been used by Russians to reveal Ukrainian drone operators and target their positions.

Could the worst be yet to come?

The most terrifying chapter of OWA drone development could still lie ahead. If EW system proliferation prevents pilots from directly navigating guided OWA drones, militaries could employ drones with artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver the munition without human guidance. Several militaries are already experimenting with “drone swarms” that collaborate to determine, select, and engage targets autonomously.  

Indeed, pilot operators, which already represent a bottleneck in OWA drone deployment, could be eliminated altogether. An Australian AI company has already claimed to have developed AI that is “better than humans at identifying targets.” If arms manufacturers can produce enough autonomous drones, a future battlefield could be saturated with intelligent munitions that methodically eliminate targets. Human soldiers and civilians could be at the mercy of the targeting algorithms – a terrifying prospect far beyond what the Austrians envisioned in 1849.

Dmytro Sochnyev has a BA in International Relations from the University of Toronto and is currently working on a Master’s in International Affairs at the Hertie School in Berlin. He was a Ploughshares Peace Research intern in summer 2023.

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