Lancet: Russian kamikaze drone identifies its own targets

The Lancet, weighing approximately 11.3 kilograms, has the ability to neutralize tanks, artillery pieces and various vehicles at a distance of up to 48.3 kilometers.

In recent assessments, the Russian Lancet munition has been noted to have incorporated an advanced “targeting” capability. Interpretation of this feature varies: some argue that it makes it easier for the operator to lock on to a previously identified target, while others argue that it gives the drone the ability to select and attack targets autonomously.

The Lancet, weighing approximately 11.3 kilograms, has the ability to neutralize tanks, artillery pieces and various vehicles at a distance of up to 48.3 kilometers. This innovation in their aiming system marked a significant advance, although its presence was not maintained in subsequent visual records. One particular incident, where the targeting system shifted its focus from a vehicle to a pile of debris, could have prompted its review.

ZALA, the company behind the Lancet, has made notable adjustments. Recent reports indicate the return of this targeting functionality, now with enhanced intelligence, potentially anticipating a new era in the conduct of AI-assisted hostilities.

A New Era in Warfare: Advances from Lancet Intelligence

Lancet: Russian kamikaze drone identifies its own targets
Lancet

Recent posts on the LostArmour website, dedicated to documenting attacks with the Lancet through military Telegram channels, reveal an updated version of the system. In these, instead of the indication “target lock” in Russian, the specific name of the vehicle is displayed on the screen. Although the images presented are brief, close attention is required to discern certain details, suggesting an advanced automatic target identification mechanism.

Zak Kallenborn, affiliated with the CSIS Strategic Technology Program, suggests that “machine learning (ML) classification appears to be the most plausible explanation.” The nature of the classification, however, raises questions, possibly designed to confirm accuracy to the operator.

The revamped interface also includes a red + marker when identifying a target, along with new symbologies. Among the identified targets were the 2S1 Gvozdika 122mm self-propelled gun, the 2A65 “Msta-B” 152mm self-propelled howitzer and, in one notable case, a Leopard 2 tank selected from several T-72s lined up. Curiously, one of the attacks targeted an American M109 Paladin, indicating the Lancet’s ability to recognize and attack equipment supplied by third nations.

The Lancet attack sequence follows an established pattern: initially viewing the target from a reconnaissance drone, followed by the perspective of the Lancet approaching, and finally returning to the reconnaissance drone to assess the impact of the attack. This shows that the Lancet does not operate independently.

All the videos that exhibit this new identification functionality come from the same batch of 21 attacks, released simultaneously and originating from a common source.

Russian special operations: Lancet Vanguard in Ukraine.

The visual records of the attacks carried out by the Lancet were extracted from a nine-minute compilation released through Rybar’s Telegram channel on February 27. This audiovisual document demonstrates the operation of Russian special forces units in Ukrainian territory, not limited to the Chernihiv and Sumy areas but extending along the entire front line, with incursions even in the Odesa region.

Among the variety of content, brief segments dedicated to the Lancet attacks are interspersed with sequences of war confrontations in forested areas and ambushes of Ukrainian troops in vehicles, including graphic records of casualties. The exclusive presence of Lancets in these operations stands out, devices valued at approximately $35,000 each, leaving aside smaller versions of drones.

This strategic choice underlines the confidence of the Russian special forces in the Lancets for assaulting armored vehicles, obviating the use of conventional anti-tank systems. The nature of these attacks, characterized by their discretion as they leave no visible trace of launch, is aligned with the doctrine of operating behind enemy lines, allowing hostile actions from considerable distances without revealing the position of origin.

The implementation of advanced technology for target identification further strengthens the effectiveness of these missions. This capability speeds up and ensures target confirmation with greater efficiency than human intervention and guarantees the operation of the system even when communication with the operator is lost due to interference.

However, this technology appears limited to the identification of military vehicles, with no evidence of attacks against civilian targets such as trucks, infrastructure or non-combatant personnel.

Curiously, the systems do not recognize Vampiro-type vehicles, possibly due to their recent incorporation and scarcity, which would imply their absence in the database used for automatic identification.

Lancet’s real capacity, under examination

As we evaluate the functionality and effectiveness of the Lancet drone based on reports from Russian sources, it is crucial to approach this data with a level of skepticism. The Rybar Telegram channel, known for its direct connection to the Russian Ministry of Defense and the FSB intelligence service, may not provide a complete or accurate picture of the Lancet’s operability.

The sample of 21 successful cases does not necessarily reflect all launches, leaving the system’s accuracy rate unknown, as well as the number of drones that may have erred on their course towards unintentional targets such as rocks or vegetation.

However, these reports suggest that Russia has managed to deploy drone technology capable of specifically identifying and targeting certain types of vehicles on the battlefield. Samuel Bendett, renowned expert on Russian drones and advisor to the CNA and CNAS, points out that, if confirmed, this would represent the materialization of capabilities previously announced by the Russian military, which were expected to be implemented in the Ukrainian context.

Contrary to the perception of drones operating completely autonomously in detecting and attacking targets, the strategy employed by the Lancet appears to remain unchanged: initial target detection is performed by reconnaissance drone operators, and only then is the Lancet directed toward the target.

The jamming functionality serves more as a targeting mechanism in the terminal phase of the attack rather than a stand-alone search and destroy. Despite this, Bendett cautions against the difficulty of accurately assessing the functioning of these capabilities based solely on public statements.

“Considering the Ministry of Defense’s continued claims regarding the integration of artificial intelligence into drones, it is plausible that this technology is being developed and, to some extent, already in use,” concludes Bendett. The operational reality of the Lancet, framed within these technological innovations, suggests a step forward in the field of autonomous warfare, although still subject to verification and detailed analysis.

Autonomous munitions: Beyond Russia’s borders

Lancet: Russian kamikaze drone identifies its own targets
Lancet destroys a Ukrainian MiG-29

The revolution in autonomous munitions capability is not limited exclusively to Russia. In recent years, AeroVironment, the company behind the innovative Switchblade series of loitering munitions, has made significant progress.

In January 2023, Brett Hush, vice president of tactical mission systems at AeroVironment, shared with DefenseOne that the company has demonstrated to the US Department of Defense its ability to identify up to 32 types of tanks autonomously. However, he stressed that, under current Pentagon guidelines, fully autonomous attacks remain outside the permitted limits.

Wahid Nawabi, CEO of AeroVironment, in statements to the AP agency last year, stated that the technology necessary to execute fully autonomous missions with the Switchblade already exists, anticipating a change in the policy that regulates the use of autonomous weapons without human intervention within of the next three years.

In parallel, drone developers in Ukraine are moving towards adopting similar capabilities. The Saker, a drone with autonomous attack capability, has already been deployed in small-scale operations.

A recent analysis by the British defense think tank RUSI suggests that success in the Ukraine conflict could tilt towards the side that manages to deploy a large arsenal of autonomous drones. This study warns that Western efforts should focus on strengthening Ukrainian capacity in this matter.

The report highlights the potential consequences of allowing Russia to gain superiority through the mass use of inexpensive “slaughterbot” drones equipped with artificial intelligence for battlefield targeting.

According to RUSI, a Russian advantage in this area would condemn Ukraine to the conflict and would imply moral complicity on the part of Western positions if they do not act against this threat.

This dynamic shows an arms race centered on artificial intelligence, whose effects will resonate well beyond European borders, marking a before and after in the conception and execution of modern war.