Killer drones pioneered in Ukraine are the weapons of the future

A recent report highlights how, in a single week of autumn combat, Ukrainian drones contributed to the neutralization of 75 Russian tanks and 101 heavy artillery pieces, among other targets.

The emergence of high-precision weapons in contemporary theaters of operations dates back more than half a century, marking their debut in Vietnam. Since then, the drive to achieve higher levels of accuracy and destructive potential has driven the costs of these tools of war to astronomical figures.

Artillery projectiles guided by global positioning systems ( GPS ) in the United States reach prices of up to $100,000 per unit. This high investment has resulted in limited availability of smart weaponry, a situation that left European nations at a disadvantage during the conflict in Libya in 2011.

Israel, prioritizing the preservation of its arsenal over minimizing collateral damage, has chosen to use conventional bombs in Gaza. However, the question arises: Is it possible to combine precision with massiveness?

In an unprecedented turn in military history, the answer to this question is being outlined on the Ukrainian fronts. Our weekly coverage highlights the emergence of first-person view ( FPV ) drones that are redefining combat dynamics when modified from commercial models and equipped with explosive charges.

These devices, characterized by their economic accessibility and infiltration capacity, represent a growing threat to both infantry and armored units, being capable of penetrating defenses and executing attacks with devastating precision.

The prevalence of FPV drones and their aquatic equivalents is on the rise, with more than 3,000 attacks recorded in January. In a strategic move, Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, established the Unmanned Systems Force, which is focused exclusively on unmanned aerial warfare.

Looking ahead to 2024, Ukraine is on track to assemble between one and two million drones, a figure that could surprisingly balance the decline in the country’s ammunition consumption, attributed to the reluctance of certain sectors of the US Congress to supply the necessary war resources.

Drones on the battlefield: Beyond innovation

The drone, far from being considered a prodigious artifact, is positioned at the epicenter of significant trends in the field of modern warfare. This evolution signals a shift towards weapons of smaller size, reduced cost and expendable nature; an increase in the incorporation of consumer technologies into military service; and progress towards autonomy in conflict scenarios.

This panorama suggests that the adoption of drone technology will quickly transcend the military ranks, permeating insurgent groups, terrorist networks and criminal factions, evolving not at the pace of the financial cycles of the defense sector but with the speed characteristic of the consumer technology industry.

The revolutionary simplicity of FPV drones, arising from the evolution of competition quadcopters and assembled from standard components, makes them possible to acquire for just a few hundred dollars. Despite its limitations in terms of range, carrying capacity, and vulnerability to adverse weather conditions, its ability to inflict damage is undeniable.

A recent report highlights how, in a single week of autumn combat, Ukrainian drones contributed to the neutralization of 75 Russian tanks and 101 heavy artillery pieces, among other targets. While Russia also has FPV drones, its strategy focuses mainly on attacking defensive positions and military personnel, evidencing how these devices make it difficult for both parties to carry out offensive operations.

The increase in the proliferation of drones, both on the Ukrainian and Russian sides, illustrates a second current: the inspiration and adaptation of mass consumption technology. This trend is not limited to the Ukrainian context. In  Myanmar, for example, rebel groups have managed to overcome state forces thanks to the use of 3D printers to manufacture essential components and assemble structures in small-scale workshops.

This phenomenon anticipates that criminal and terrorist organizations will probably soon adopt and adapt these technologies for their purposes, marking a new era in asymmetric warfare and global security challenges.

Democratization of military technology: A new paradigm

The emergence of a “democratization” in the precision arsenal reflects a paradigmatic change in contemporary warfare. The Houthis ‘ use in Yemen of affordable Iranian guidance kits to assemble anti-ship missiles demonstrates how lethal weaponry can be manufactured and deployed at a fraction of the traditional cost, posing a significant threat to shipping in the Red Sea.

Iran, for its part, has shown that a diversified arsenal of long-range attack drones and ballistic missiles can exert a geopolitical influence disproportionate to their production cost. Although it is anticipated that counter-jamming technologies may increase the operational costs of drones, their cost-effectiveness in terms of strategic impact will continue to be advantageous.

This revolution is supported by advances in consumer technology, which accelerates innovation and expands capabilities with each new product cycle. This phenomenon introduces ethical dilemmas and challenges related to technological obsolescence, complicating the implementation of exhaustive testing under the standards required by Western countries in peacetime and by the Geneva Conventions.

The move towards autonomy marks the final frontier in this evolution. FPV drone operation , currently limited by the availability of expert pilots and vulnerabilities to interference, is in the process of being transformed by the development of autonomous navigation systems and target recognition algorithms. Artificial intelligence, already present in commercial drones, is advancing by leaps and bounds, promising a future where autonomy extends to a wide spectrum of weapons.

Battlefield autonomy is not a new concept, having been present in high-end munitions and cruise missiles for decades. However, the accessibility of low-cost microchips and software is opening the door to the integration of advanced intelligence into millions of lower-cost munitions, saturating conflict scenarios with previously unattainable capabilities.

The mastery of large-scale autonomy by one of the contenders in Ukraine could mean a temporary but critical advantage in terms of firepower, setting a precedent for the future of conventional and asymmetric warfare.

Western adaptation to the new age of weaponry

Western nations are in a process of late adjustment to the lessons emerging from modern battlefields. The conclusion is clear: cheap and simple weapons solutions are not intended to replace elite military platforms but rather to complement them.

In response to this reality, the  Pentagon has initiated Operation “Replicator”, an ambitious project that seeks the mass production of low-cost drones and munitions designed to be deployed against China’s vast military machine.  Europe, for its part, is even further behind in this adaptive process.

With growing conviction among its political and military leaders about the possibility of a new major European conflict before the end of the decade, an urgent increase in investment in low-cost drones is imperative. Furthermore, the proliferation of drones implies the need for equally ubiquitous defense systems, both in conflict zones and in territories at peace.

The evolution of intelligent drones raises fundamental questions about the nature of modern warfare and the human ability to maintain control over the battlefield. With the increase in the number of drones, the possibility of forming swarms that operate in a self-coordinated manner becomes a palpable reality. This autonomy presents significant challenges for human oversight, complicating the understanding and authorization of their actions in real-time.

The United States and its allies face the challenge of adapting to a landscape where the improvement and dispersion of military capabilities occur at an accelerated pace and on a more extensive basis than ever before. The sky over Ukraine, saturated with disposable weapons that combine precision and destructive power, serves as a premonition.

The massification of unmanned combat aircraft is redefining the dynamics between humans and technology in the context of war, marking the beginning of an era where technological superiority could dictate the terms of war.