Ukrainian soldiers during a UAV control training session in Donetsk in August. Photo: Anadolu

Hamas’s attack on Israel and the war in Ukraine showed that cheap UAVs have become one of the most effective weapons to deal with tanks.

On October 8, Hamas forces released a video of a small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) using a PG-7VR warhead to disable a modern Merkava Mark 4M main battle tank deployed by Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip.

What has happened in the past few months on the Ukrainian battlefield also shows that first-person view UAVs (FPVs) are becoming the most effective weapon to deal with expensive tanks.

“The FPV UAV has become our main anti-tank weapon. It can destroy even the T-90, one of Russia’s most modern tanks,” said Lieutenant Yuri Filatov, the Lu’s UAV commander. 3rd Independent Shock Group of Ukraine said.

FPV UAV is a weapon that can be controlled remotely with a handle and a head-mounted device, giving the user a realistic perspective like sitting in the cockpit. They are made from cheap components and can be assembled right on the battlefield. Their operating range is about 15 km, depending on the payload size.

While Hamas’s UAVs are mainly used to drop bullets, FPV UAVs act as disposable suicide weapons. They use different types of explosives depending on the target.

Explosive fragmentation bullets are used to attack infantry, while RPG warheads are used to destroy combat vehicles. Thermobaric explosives will be highly effective, with the target being a narrow space like a trench.

Filatov said his team once disabled 4 Russian tanks in one day using FPV UAVs. Operating this weapon from a safe distance also helps them reduce manpower losses. “The more UAVs we use, the fewer people we lose,” the Ukrainian commander said.

Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov announced in early October that the country’s UAVs had destroyed a “record” number of 220 Russian weapons in the previous week, including 55 tanks.

According to military experts, the strength of UAVs is their superior economic efficiency compared to the targets they destroy. A UAV used by Ukrainian forces costs only about 400-500 USD but can destroy enemy assets worth millions of dollars.

“They can attack targets accurately, which was previously the task of expensive guided weapons. Instead of firing anti-tank missiles worth tens of thousands of dollars, now they just need to use Using a UAV is much cheaper,” said Samuel Bendett, a UAV expert at the US-based Center for Naval Analysis (CNA).

According to Bennett, UAV raid tactics can also have a “major psychological impact” on enemy soldiers because it is almost impossible for them to know where they will attack. That is why soldiers on the battlefield must now be more careful when moving, as well as reconsider positions considered safe from the constant danger of this weapon.

Trenches and foxholes were previously considered relatively safe places to hide from artillery shells. But now, with UAVs that can hover overhead and accurately drop grenades into bunkers, these hiding places are no longer safe.

This is also the reason why Russia and Ukraine regularly post videos of successful UAV raids, to increase the psychological pressure on enemy soldiers, Bennett said.

However, the strategy of using UAVs also has some disadvantages. First-person UAV operators must have good operating skills, which may require several weeks of training.

The target strike rate of remote-controlled UAVs is also not high because they may suffer from signal interference or dead batteries. Current low-cost UAVs mainly use unencrypted signals, so the enemy can block data collection and promptly alert their side to take countermeasures.

UAVs - the top threat to tanks

Ukrainian soldiers inspect a destroyed Russian tank in Zaporizhzhia on July 21. Photo: Reuters

Compared to Ukraine, Russia is said to have the upper hand in the UAV war in terms of numbers. Deputy commander of the 80th Independent Assault Brigade of Ukraine, who carries the call sign “Swift,” said that Russia uses up to two FPV UAVs to attack one target and low-value targets. Shows that Moscow seems to own a large number of UAVs in storage.

Ukrainian officials are aware of this and are looking for a way to fix it. In July, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal announced allocating a budget equivalent to 1.1 billion USD to invest in the UAV field.

Minister Fedorov also said in September that Ukraine had trained over 10,000 unmanned equipment control experts this year in preparation for “a new phase of hostilities.”

Meanwhile, a leaked document in August said that Russia is stepping up domestic UAV production and plans to build a total of 6,000 units by the summer of 2025, including new variants of the Shahed 136 produced by Iran. Moscow is also actively improving current UAV lines, such as the Lancet, which appears to have nearly doubled its operating range.