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Drone technology is reinventing warfare

Ukrainian soldiers have used drones to great effect. Credit: Getty

September 29, 2023 - 1:00pm

From the armchairs of western Europe, the war in Ukraine looks remarkably static. Frontlines have barely shifted this summer, despite the Ukrainian counter-offensive.

One might even see the situation as a reversion to the trench warfare of the¬†First World War, however that would be a misleading impression. While the Russians are relying on long defensive lines to cling on to stolen territory, what’s happening on the ground ‚ÄĒ or, rather, above it ‚ÄĒ amounts to a reinvention of war.

In an important piece for the Wall Street Journal, Yaroslav Trofimov reports on the impact that drones are having in Ukraine.

A quote from a senior officer in the Ukraine military intelligence service makes the new reality clear: ‚ÄúToday, a column of tanks or a column of advancing troops can be discovered in three to five minutes and hit in another three minutes. The survivability on the move is no more than 10 minutes‚ÄĚ.

Another Trofimov interviewee ‚ÄĒ a retired US army officer now advising the Ukrainians ‚ÄĒ sums up the consequences: ‚ÄúThe days of massed armored assaults, taking many kilometers of ground at a time, like we did in 2003 in Iraq‚ÄĒ that stuff is gone‚Ķ‚Ä̬†

Of course, warfare has always been subject to technological developments and counter-developments. They don’t call it the arms race for nothing. But occasionally a new class of weapon is so disruptive that it transforms warfare completely. The most obvious example is the invention of firearms which eventually displaced medieval weaponry.¬†

At the moment, one might assume that drones are just an addition to the theatre of war. Except that’s probably what they thought about firearms in the the 16th century when “pike and shot” formations ‚ÄĒ composed of pikemen and musketmen ‚ÄĒ were often deployed. But by the end of the 17th century, all that remained of the older weapons was the blade on a bayonet.

In the case of drones, we should expect a faster transition.

Firstly, they’re relatively simple and therefore cheap. A small drone costs just a few hundred dollars, which is a mere fraction what an artillery shell costs. And yet drones can take out artillery pieces, tanks or even aircraft. The asymmetric economics would suggest that drones are going to win out.

Secondly, the application of artificial intelligence to drones provides the potential for turning a simple weapon into a sophisticated one. It also allows the coordination of drone swarms, turning a small weapon into a big one.

Thirdly, drones ‚ÄĒ being both cheap and unmanned ‚ÄĒ are dispensable. As well as being good for kamikaze missions, this means that the generation times for drone models are much shorter than for larger, longer-lived bits of kit, from armoured vehicles to warships. As a result drones can out-evolve them. In Ukraine, we can see the evolution of drone warfare in real time.

Elsewhere in the world one has to ask whether the pace of military change is already influencing geopolitical calculations. For instance, from Beijing‚Äôs point of view, Taiwan ‚ÄĒ with its advanced manufacturing capability ‚ÄĒ must look like a giant launchpad for millions of drones. Any invasion plans from the mainland may soon be rendered obsolete.¬†

Whether that prompts Xi Jinping to press forward or hold back remains to be seen, but drone technology is rapidly redrawing the line between calculated risk and pointless sacrifice. Indeed, every nation needs to rethink its defence policy, including our own. The next time that British taxpayers are asked to shell out for the latest military hardware we need ask just how long it’s likely to last on a drone-filled battlefield. Furthermore, should the drones be sent in our direction, we need to know what exactly is going stop them.


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

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Haotian 0
Haotian 0
9 months ago

No, the development of drone warfare does not make it misleading to see the trench warfare as similar to World War One, because WW1 also saw the development of a revolutionary aerial weapon, the military plane.
The similarities are uncomfortably strong to a war that sacrificed a generation for scraps of mud, which had no obvious endgame, and which was prolonged for years of futility until, at last, there was a ‘decisive’ result that led to cascading catastrophes of unimagined horror. As Zelensky put it, “it’s WW1 with drones”.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
9 months ago

Another step in the age-old strategy of attack and defence. David’s slingshot defeats the mighty warrior in his million-dollar tank armour, or in his treble-sonic plane.
Drones cannot recapture territory. And what after the drones have killed all the soldiers? Will robot factories continue to produce them and the soul of AI operate them?
The way that this Russo-Ukraine war is unlike the Great War is in the one great unmentionable. Over long periods between 1914 and 1918 there were attempts, chiefly by the American president, Woodrow Wilson, to end the fighting through negotiations. Wilson’s aim was a peace without victory so that resentments could not be created that led to another war.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
9 months ago

Why the downvotes? This is historically correct. Read ‚ÄúThe Road less travelled ‚Äú by Zelikow. The relevance to today is that ‚Äúmen of principle‚ÄĚ who saw WW1 as a black and white struggle took power in winter 1916/17 in both Britain and Germany, displaced the pragmatists and nixed the peace moves. Another 10m died in WW1 by 1918 and the ‚Äúvictory‚ÄĚ created the resentments that led to WW2 – another 50m – and caused the Russian revolution – another 50m + . If the downvotes reflect disgust at pragmatism and an insistence on ‚Äúprinciple‚ÄĚ then those so voting should think at what price – and who pays – seeing events in simplistic black and white terms can come.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
9 months ago

The drone has undoubtedly increased the effectiveness of artillery, whilst reducing that of armour. However, we’re in the very early stages of the development of drone warfare right now and it will be interesting to see how the field evolves.

Air defences certainly have proven to be capable of shooting down drones, the problem seems to be the vast disparity in the cost of the drones and cost of the air defence systems, though Electronic Warfare systems may fare better in this regard.

Perhaps, just as in WW1, when the first planes were also originally used for artillery spotting, prompting the emergence of the fighter aircraft, we will soon see a range of cost effective air superiority drones hunting each other in a miniaturised battle for air supremacy?

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
9 months ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Of course.

William Brand
William Brand
9 months ago

Drones have an Achiles heal. They are subject to jamming. The central AI can be hacked. Another fact is that a ruler does not need political support if an AI will obey the code word even if no human would. At Ten amin square Tank Man would have been killed if a drone was driving the tank.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
9 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

The key point is the jamming. It will force a move to autonomous drones with AI. A few software errors and one will be in Terminator territory.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
9 months ago
Reply to  William Brand

Their other achilles heel is that they are highly impressionable and can easily fall prey to ‘honeytraps’ (female drones wearing lipstick)

Matt M
Matt M
9 months ago

If I were a foreign power looking to attack Britain, a swarm of exploding drones sent in among our offshore windfarms would be my first move. 40% of domestic electricity generation destroyed!

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

You don’t need to do it because very few are actually connected to anything.

D Walsh
D Walsh
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

If i were a foreign power looking to attack Britain, I would look at ways of giving money to both the Tory party and Labour

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
9 months ago
Reply to  Matt M

40%?