Ukrainian and Russian heavy armor, including their better tanks, are facing a growing threat: FPV drones.
These cheap hobby drones run for a few hundred dollars but are hunting tanks worth millions.
The growing presence of these drones on the battlefield speaks to an evolution in modern warfare.
Cheap hobby drones rigged with a variety of explosives are wreaking havoc on expensive tanks and armored vehicles, as well as other weapons and even supply systems, on the battlefields in Ukraine, and it's a development that will likely have far-reaching implications.
This week, a video emerged of first-person-view (FPV) drones slamming into what appeared to be a Russian T-90M, an advanced Russian tank worth as much as $4.5 million by some estimates — significantly more than the price of the drones, likely only a few hundred dollars apiece.
—OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) August 7, 2023
Drone videos like the one above are becoming very common. Footage like this comes out almost daily, highlighting how prominent this capability has become. Drone targets include not just tanks, but also troop transport vehicles, infantry fighting vehicles, and supply and ammunition trucks.
That these drones are a pervasive threat stands in stark contrast to the notable absence of combat aviation over the same areas due to the high risk of manned jets being shot down.
—OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) August 4, 2023
The cost of a single FPV drone, like the ones being used in these strikes, tends to be around $400 to $500, or roughly the cost of a new Playstation.
Rigged with explosives, these cheap drones can damage combat systems and paralyze key logistics and supply operations behind the front lines, imposing far greater costs on the enemy.
—OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) August 7, 2023
"The whole point is cost," Samuel Bendett, a Russia defense and technology expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Insider. "These are extremely cost effective."
What are FPV drones?
The FPV drones that are being used in combat in the war in Ukraine are basically amateur loitering munitions, and they can pack a punch. Many of the drones have five- to nine-inch frames and carry a payload weighing between 0.5 and three kilograms.
The unmanned systems are modified high-speed hobby racing drones that are assembled with parts sourced from China and other affiliated markets and armed with a makeshift warhead made using plastic explosives or a rocket-propelled anti-tank grenade.
Operators wear special goggles, which offer a first-person perspective of the battlefield, and use a remote control to pilot these unmanned aerial vehicles.
Though the drones themselves are one-way drones that explode on impact, the operator systems are reusable, and a single operator might ultimately pilot numerous drones over the course of a battle, making these troops high-priority targets far more valuable than the actual drones.
Where are they coming from?
The one-way FPV drones being used by both the Ukrainians and the Russians are largely coming through companies and volunteer operations, though only one side has government support.
In the case of the Ukrainians, there's more top-level support, but for the Russians, it's significantly more piecemeal and the defense ministry has yet to throw its weight behind these operations, despite pressure.
Ukraine has effectively crowdsourced and crowdfunded an "Army of Drones," and non-profit operations like Escadrone have been, per technology journalist David Hambling, turning out as many as 1,500 FPV drones a month to keep pace with soaring demand.
The cost of each of Escadrone's Pegasus drones, top speeds for which are about 60 mph, ranges from just $341 to $462. For comparison, a loitering munition built to military specifications, like the US-provided Switchblade, can run anywhere between $60,000 and $80,000.
On the Ukrainian side, there's "better organization between the government, the volunteers and the military," Bendett said. "There's better cooperation, there's better integration, there's better communication on what's needed. That's still largely missing on the Russian side right now."
For Russian forces, FPV drones are the product of multiple organizations funded through private donations.
Russian organizations include Sudoplatov, DroneZ, and Project Archangel, among others. Some operations are making thousands of these drones while others are only producing hundreds and have not yet been able to scale up.
—Samuel Bendett (@sambendett) August 4, 2023
These Russian efforts, Bendett said, are regularly "calling on the defense industrial sector in their country to invest in the products, to scale up these products of their enterprises, and to flood the Russian forces with tens of thousands of these drones on a monthly basis to meet the challenge. And that hasn't been happening yet."
—Samuel Bendett (@sambendett) May 6, 2023
Instead, individual units are putting in orders for FPV drones, and these outfits are doing what they can to meet the demand.
The delivery process aside, though, both the Russians and Ukrainians are becoming increasingly effective at integrating FPV drones into their combat operations, changing the way this war is being fought. The Ukrainians, however, seem to have a noticeable edge in drone operations, experts say.
—СБ України (@ServiceSsu) July 29, 2023
Unmanned systems have become an integral part of the war, and as drone technology expert Steve Wright recently told Newsweek, at the moment, there really isn't "any doubt that Ukraine is winning the drone conflict."
Ukrainian forces have been using drones to conduct reconnaissance and surveillance, to coordinate and correct indirect artillery fire, to drop grenades on vehicles and ground troops, remotely detonate mines and vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, and to strike targets.
Exploding FPV drones are just one of many types of unmanned systems in this war, but they're proving to be a substantial threat for both sides.
Can they be beat?
Unmanned aerial vehicles are vulnerable to a wide range of different countermeasures, especially electronic warfare and jamming, and the FPV drones are no different.
A report from the Royal United Services Institute's Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds, both land warfare experts who interviewed Ukrainian service members, revealed in May that Ukrainian forces were losing as many as 10,000 drones every month. It is unclear if or how the FPV drones factored into this figure.
The RUSI report said that along the front line, which spans hundreds of miles, Russia has a major electronic warfare system about every six miles or so, in part to neutralize Ukrainian drones by breaking or blocking the data communications that link them to their operator.
Electronic warfare can have an effect on FPV drones, as can the rough cope cages some armored-vehicle crews have welded on their tanks and fighting vehicles to shield it from the exploding FPV drones, though not always.
—OSINTtechnical (@Osinttechnical) July 5, 2023
The crude cages highlight the desperation emerging in response to a growing threat that first appeared last year but has become one of the Ukraine conflict's signature and ever-present weapons.
—Rob Lee (@RALee85) June 29, 2023
Drones are also susceptible to air defenses, but the cost of a missile intercept compared to the cost of the drone is wildly disproportionate.
Drone operators, who have typically gone through extensive training, are more valuable from a targeting perspective, and as a Ukrainian engineer told PBS Newshour earlier this year, it is not uncommon for drone operators to hunt each other.
"The operators are the most valuable thing here because an experienced operator who survives can pilot multiple FPV drones against targets," Bendett said, adding that "both sides are prioritizing going after the operator."
That said, there continue to be innovations in the field aimed at disrupting the FPV drones, including systems that could potentially be incorporated into the defense of armored vehicles, but it's unclear how far along these projects are at the moment.
—Samuel Bendett (@sambendett) August 6, 2023
"There's a lot of experimentation on both sides about what could potentially be effective," he explained. "But, you know, the solutions are not sort of widespread, or the solutions haven't been introduced at scale enough to actually counter these technologies."
So for now, these systems remain a deadly threat.
The FPV drones are cheap, they are plentiful, and, as Bendett told Insider, "it's a devastating weapon because it can fly low above ground at high speed, which means it won't be noticed until it's too late."
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