Skyfall Tactics: The Rising Menace of Kamikaze Drones in Modern Warfare

Combat drones have been appearing on battlefields for several years. For example, the U.S. military has been using Switchblade drones since at least 2011, when they proved to be an effective tool in Afghanistan. But it wasn’t until the war between Ukraine and the Russian Federation that the use of drones in such a large-scale conflict between two technologically advanced states became apparent. Thanks to this conflict, drones have gained a lot of international attention, and most advanced states believe that this is where the future of warfare lies, or at least part of it. These speculations are aided by the fact that since the start of the war in Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the use of drones has undergone a huge and rapid evolution. It is the use of drones and their rapid development that have completely changed how soldiers fight and plan their strategies.

The drone on the battlefield offers a wide variety of uses combined with its low cost. Among the uses of drones, suicide or kamikaze drones have just come to the fore. These inexpensive but highly effective killer drones can be used to take out entire tanks as well as specific individuals. The very purpose of this article is to analyze the whole situation surrounding kamikaze drones in today’s world. How exactly are they used? What is their future? And how can they possibly be defended against?

What exactly are kamikaze drones and how do we classify them?

Kamikaze drones are drones that explode on impact. NATO itself divides drones into three categories. So, class I drones, class II drones, class III drones. In the first category are kamikaze drones. These drones have a payload capacity of up to 150 kilograms (roughly 331 pounds) but are more likely to weigh around 10 to 15 kilograms. Thus, in this category from NATO, there are drones with small, mini, and micro sizes. Kamikaze drones are so-called loitering munitions. They are disposable munitions with great offensive potential. A loitering munition can fly over a target area until the time is right to eliminate the target. Loitering munitions play a large role in the Ukraine conflict but may have been observed on the battlefield before. Examples include Libya where the Turkish Kargu drone was used, or Nagorno-Karabakh with the presence of the Israeli Harop drone. Loitering munitions have been used by both sides in the war in Ukraine since the beginning of the invasion and were among the first supplies the US sent to Ukraine. As such, loitering munitions have a relatively long history.

The origins of loitering munitions can be seen in Israel’s Harpy system as far back as the 1980s to suppress enemy air power. In recent decades, the People’s Republic of China has shown great interest in loitering systems, even purchasing the Harpy system from Israel in 1994 and developing loitering munitions since then. Therefore, the war in Ukraine is an excellent environment for China to learn about these munitions. Along with China’s growing interest in this type of munition, other countries have also become more interested.

Use of kamikaze drones

It is easy to see on the internet how one kamikaze drone alone is capable of destroying an entire tank, but it can also target one specific individual and eliminate them with complete precision. The fighting between Ukraine and Russia has also shown that kamikaze drones, in conjunction with reconnaissance, are the perfect counter to artillery fire. Therefore, it is the use of drones that may decide which side wins the artillery duel. With these capabilities, entire strategies change. It is harder to concentrate troops in one place. They also have a significant advantage in gaining the element of surprise, and with them comes great offensive potential. The advantage of kamikaze drones and drones, in general, is the reduced risk of endangering the soldiers conducting the operation. Kamikaze drones may not come back, unlike aircraft, but there is generally less chance of losing manpower. This allows states with fewer human resources to make up the difference.

A major advantage of kamikaze drones that is gaining popularity is their cost. Compared to the rest of the warfare equipment, kamikaze drones are a cheap affair, just the ones made directly for kamikaze. In fact, in addition to drones directly designed for this purpose, Ukraine also uses a variety of commonly available commercial drones that it modifies for kamikaze purposes, such as the DJI Mavic 3. This type of drone is much smaller and faster than military drones, but its risks come with this. The DJI Mavic 3 has a much shorter range (about 30 km) and can only fly for about 46 minutes. Despite some downsides, the use of conventional drones for kamikaze has become an economically cheap force that has great combat power.

The big change in the form of kamikaze drones was when Ukraine learned to effectively use so-called first-person view drones. Immediately afterwards, several images of these drones destroying their targets with pinpoint accuracy began circulating on the internet. These drones are also among the original commercial drones adapted for kamikaze use. First-person drones are originally designed for racing for fun. For example, Ben Caves (the deputy director of defence and security at RAND Europe) believes that first-person drones are just the next step in where the evolution of combat drones will go. It is their intended use for racing purposes, combining speed with manoeuvrability, that gives them that edge on the battlefield.

The biggest problem is their range, which is only 5 kilometres. However, this disadvantage is outweighed by their manoeuvrability. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the next part of the development of future first-person kamikaze drones will try to solve their range limitation. The control of these drones is very simple. The pilot puts on goggles that allow him to see the image from the drone. This allows pilots to precisely operate the drones even in small or tight spaces. Some first-person view drones have also started to be used by the Russian Federation. However, Russian drones are much larger and cost many times more than their Ukrainian rivals.

 What is the defence against kamikaze drones?

Defence against kamikaze drones is a very complex question. Various techniques for defending against drones are currently being developed in the same way that drones themselves are being developed. The strength of kamikaze drones often lies in their numbers, especially when attacking larger targets. It is because of this complexity, however, that there are several different ways to defend against drones. As a first option, we can give air defence systems that could be effective in the future, but most air defence systems are currently unable to detect kamikaze drones in time, or even at all. Yet such systems exist. For example, one of the air defence systems proven to be effective against drones is the modern version of Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target, Patriot for short. That is why right at the beginning of the war in Ukraine, these advanced air defense systems were high on the list of needed equipment for Ukraine.

The problem with air defence systems arises when drones attack in large numbers. The air defense system is not able to shoot down all the drones in time and it only takes a few drones to do a lot of damage. Another problem associated with air defence systems is the cost of the missiles that are launched at the drones. The cost of a single missile is many times higher than the cost of a drone and this method of defence appears to be very expensive(4,1 million dollars for one missile from Patriot). Yet air defence systems are not the only way to protect against kamikaze drones. Besides air defence systems, the next logical way to defend against drones is jamming. Therefore, they are currently trying to find as many different ways of jamming drones as possible. The United States and Izreal are reportedly working extensively on drone jammers, which they then send to Ukraine. The problem with drone jammers is their small range, which is only a few kilometres. That is why drone jammers are effective in protecting specific important locations rather than being deployed across the entire front. A rather interesting solution has been come up with by the Russian Federation army, which has started to mount drone signal jammers on its tanks. These jammers are rather simply attached by wires and powered by a bezine motor.

These devices jam the signal on multiple wavelengths to make sure that the drone can’t get to them. This is a creative attempt to reduce the number of drone losses. In terms of other creative solutions to defend against kamikaze drones, the Russian Federation military deployed an unconventionally protected tank in metal to the front. This defence was immediately nicknamed the shed, so in the future, it may pose a threat to Ukrainian defenders. The shed-protected tank did indeed withstand kamikaze drone attacks and complete the task. This is the first time this method of defence has appeared on the front and its actual effectiveness can only be speculated upon. The use of so-called pursuer drones is emerging as a possible solution to the problems with air defence systems. The use of pursuers drones means sending a swarm of drones to catch up with the drones that have overrun the air defence systems and stop them before they reach their target. This method could be revolutionary in the future, but at the moment only simulation tests have been conducted.

Ethics of kamikaze use

The rapid development of kamikaze drone technology is causing its rapid proliferation among militaries around the world. However, with this comes the question of when kamikaze drones will fall into the hands of terrorist groups and turn them against civilian populations with infrastructure. Not to mention their ability to kill political targets. From the previous section of the text, it appears that there is not yet a 100% defence against kamikaze drones even on the battlefield, let alone in normal cities. It is believed that kamikaze drones will become a new type of IED (Improvised Explosive Device) in the future. Kamikaze drones have a great psychological impact. In a war environment, intimidating the enemy is a great advantage, but this fear can easily be transferred to the civilian population. A sense of great danger that you can’t even see coming. It can eventually spread throughout the population. Kamikaze drones are likely to take their autonomy from AI in the future. This raises the question of held responsibility for attacks, especially if they are wrong. On the other hand, at the moment, drone attacks are accurate and allow for effective target elimination without high collateral damage.

Expected future developments

As I have already mentioned with first-person drones, the first development will be to increase their range. However, first-person drones in particular may also become a good platform for the use of AI in the future. In the future, there will most certainly be AI-controlled drone swarms, which is only a matter of years before that fully happens. It is in this regard that a lot of people are concerned that decisions will no longer be made by humans, but by AI on its own. Since the war in Ukraine began, drones have become more dangerous, but also more stealthy. We can just expect this trend to continue in the further development of drones. In the future, we can also expect something like assassination drones, which will be directly designed to eliminate specific people, with minimal collateral damage.

With kamikaze drones, it is a great evolution in warfare strategies, yet it is not a revolution. Of course, strategies have to adapt and adjust to kamikaze drones, but the whole thing doesn’t change. Still, the fact is that kamikaze drones are building into a truly dangerous force nowadays, with great potential for the future. At the moment, the development of kamikaze drones and even defences against them is a very intense matter, which will certainly continue to be pursued in the years to come. However, with such rapid developments, there are also concerns. When will AI take full control of drones and to what extent will it make decisions on its own? Unfortunately, these debates currently have no clear answer. It is true that with the rise of kamikaze drones, the threat to civilians is also increasing. As far as defence is concerned, the emphasis should be on a cheaper method of defence than the air defence systems currently in place. This method is certainly very costly in the long term and is not even 100% effective. The ideal way forward, therefore, seems to be jamming, where the emphasis should be on expanding the area of jamming.

 

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Source of the picture: Serial production of FPV drones | Hero of Ukraine (heroesukraine.org)

 

Written by Jan Šenfeld

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