David Hambling Contributor
I’m a South London-based technology journalist, consultant and author.
Mar 24, 2023
Russian social media on the Ukraine war is buzzing with fear of an imminent attack by thousands of small kamikaze drones that could overwhelm their front lines.
Posts by a blogger using the handle Russian Engineerusually get a few thousand views, but one of his latest entries has now been seen 1.9 million times. Ukrainian military and political observer Alexei Arestovich says they are preparing a drone offensive, and in January Ukrainian General Command announced the formation of new tactical drone assault units. Russian Engineer has put these together with information from other sources to predict an onslaught of miniature attack drones.
“Recently, it has become known that, in terms of drones, buyers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine have bought up almost the entire market of FPV drone components in China, according to indirect estimates, by 50-100 thousand units,” writes Russian Engineer. “They have already trained more than a thousand operators of these models. They make them into kamikaze with a shaped charge warhead from RPG RPG +0.5%-7, or with a fragmentation grenade. And they have accumulated all this before the offensive.”
FPV racing drones fitted with RPG warheads used by[+]UKRAINIAN MOD
Racing drones, also known as FPV or First Person View drones, are smaller than standard quadcopters but have powerful motors giving speeds of 120 mph or more. They lack the sophisticated electronics for steady hover and smooth flight for good camerawork. Instead they are designed for high-speed, seat-of-the-pants flying around demanding courses, piloted using video goggles. Drone racing is a popular sport in many countries.
The powerful motors mean that, at some loss of speed and endurance, an FPV drone can carry a heavy payload, including an anti-tank RPG warhead or RKG-3 grenade, though it may need extra batteries. While this arrangement may not look airworthy, FPV drones are lethally effective weapons.
Ukrainian forces carried out their first improvised FPV drone attack in July, with the quadcopter diving through an open doorway into a building occupied by Russian troops before exploding.
Since then, FPV attacks have proliferated, with numerous videos of strikes on trenches, tanks, personnel carriers and other targets. One compilation video shows a series of FPV drones diving into the open hatches of Russian tanks; another shows a Russian tank sheltering under a bridge before FPV drones stalk and strike. The success rate is usually quoted at something over 50%.
The key point about the FPV attack drones is that, compared to other guided weapons and loitering munitions, they are cheap and easily available. In a previous blog post, Russian Engineer listed the components needed to assemble an FPV attack drone, with a total cost of $355, or $421 with digital communications rather than analog. Others quote similar prices in the range of hundreds of dollars depending on the exact specification – notably less than the $2,000+ price tag for a Mavic 3 Proquadcopter.
Many Ukrainian groups have been raising funds to build large numbers of such drones, like internet provocateurs NAFO, who are collecting funds for 240 attack drones for $700 each, and activist Serhii Sternenko, who is funding 500 drones at $350 apiece. Russian forces have also been using such drones, but complain about the difficulties with bureaucracy and lack of official support.
While there are certainly hundreds or even thousands of FPV attack drones in play, 50,000 would mean attacks on an unprecedented scale. As Russian Engineer notes, the need for one operator per drone, and the fact that there are only so many control channels available, means that there would only be a few drones per kilometer of front at a time – but waves of them could keep coming until they destroyed every target.
Russian Engineer ponders how to counter the kamikazes. Radio jamming is the obvious methods, but this has so far not been effective against FPV drones.
“Our EW [Electronic Warfare] installations have many drawbacks – there are not many of them, they are large, and are in themselves interesting targets. You need a lot of small EW installations so that they are everywhere,” writes Russian Engineer, noting that this would take time and money, which the Russians do not have. He also mentions the shortage of portable anti-drone guns which also jam the drones’ control signals.
Something more basic might be necessary.
“According to the feedback from the fighters, a shotgun helps specifically against such FPV, specifically the Saiga-12,” writes Russian Engineer. “They fly at low altitudes, and a good shooter may well shoot down this drone.”
The Saiga-12 is a Russian military shotgun, a semi-automatic 12-gauge design based on the Kalashnikov AK design. While a shooter with a steady nerve and good aim might be able to hit a small FPV drone coming in at 100 mph, this is a game where anything less than a perfect score is likely to mean instant death. No images of drones brought down by shotgun have yet appeared.
(The need for one controller per drone will limit the number of drones in each wave. This limit will end when Ukraine starts using swarming drones, which work together so one operator controls a whole swarm.)
Russian Engineer also talks about the value of camouflage and protective bunkers, and the limited range of the FPV drones – he suggests 5 kilometers – which means that equipment pulled back far enough from the front line should be safe. In a follow-up postthis morning Russian Engineer mentions that he has received a number of suggestions which he will be passing on to the military.
Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian drones and adviser to both the CNA and CNAS think tanks, says it is hard to assess Russian Engineers’ specific claim about 50-100,000 drones, but the threat is real enough.
“Everyone is assembling these FPVs at a fast pace now,” Bendett told me. “But even if the threat is in many thousands it sounds legitimate.”
Bendett says tackling so many incoming drones would require an integrated CUAS or counter-uncrewed aerial system defense. This would typically involve sensors to detect drones, command and control, and a variety of means to bring them down from jammers to missiles to automatic cannon.
“This CUAS approach must be a military-wide concept if it were to work as described by the Russian Engineer – which isn’t likely in the Russian military in the short-term, given where they are now in defending against such FPV drones,” says Bendett.
Russian Engineer thinks the mass drone attack will be a one-off, and, as he sees it, Ukraine’s last chance to force negotiations before it crumbles (a view unlikely to be shared with observers outside Russia). However, the racing drone industry produces something like 100,000 FPV drones a month, which would cost something like $50 million in total. The last batch of military equipment alone from the U.S. was valued at $400m so hundreds of thousands more FPVs are affordable and probably available.
Whether or not the mass attack envisaged by Russian Engineer materializes, one thing is clear. A lot more Russians are going to be targeted by ‘toy’ drones packed with explosives in the coming months.
Author of ‘Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world,’ following cutting-edge military technology in general and robotic systems in particular. New time-travel adventure ‘City of Sorcerers’ out now in paperback and Kindle.
Well, be it as it may, the ruskie solution will be a poor one. The shotgun depicted in the image above will indeed put the user in a suicide mission mode. Such a short shotgun barrel gives the shooter a few disadvantages, the most important ones being lower power and poorer accuracy. But, I don’t mind anything that will endanger a cockroach. Not at all.
Interesting title of his book, I may have to get ahold of a copy.
I found one of his older articles interesting also discussing cardboard drones from Australia.