Aug 16, 2023
In July, former GoogleGOOG-1.8% boss Eric Schmidt wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal praising Ukraine’s use of small, improvised kamikaze drones and predicting a future where they replace other weapons. Schmidt does not come from the military world but from the Technosphere where high hopes are Silicon Valley rocket fuel and techno-optimism is a religion. But could an outsider to this field actually be right?
Schmidt’s pitch is simple but compelling: the FPV drones offer mass plus precision at low cost.“Deployed in volume, this first-person-view drone—invented for the sport of drone racing—is cheaper than a mortar round and more accurate than artillery fire,” wrote Schmidt. “Kamikaze drones cost around $400 and can carry up to 3 pounds of explosives.”
Schmidt suggests that similar systems might replace traditional platforms and deliver massed firepower at far lower cost than existing weapons. He is putting his money where his mouth is too, as Schmidt part of a group investing $10 million in a Ukrainian start-up accelerator specializing in drones.
Having seen previous supposed revolutions in military affairs fizzle out in the past three decades, those in the military sector might be excused their skepticism about the latest wonder-weapon, even if it does come with glowing reports from the battlefields of Ukraine.
Schmidt’s description of the kamikaze drone is essentially correct. Commonly known as FPV or First-Person View drones from the pilot’s use of video goggles to fly at speed, they are assembled from racing drone components. The most common types on both sides cost around $400, with prices ranging from $200 to $700. Powerful motors allow them to carry either a modified PG-7V (the warhead from an RPG-7) or a modified RKG-3 anti-tank hand grenade, but some can carry larger payloads of over 5 pounds. They have a range of about 6 miles depending on conditions; Ukrainian group Escadrone say their record hit was from 8 miles away.
Schmidt is also right when he says one costs less than a mortar bomb. The U.S. Army’s basic M889 81mm mortar round with an impact fuze costs $635 according to the 2024 ammunition budget figures. The fancier and deadlier M821, with an air-bursting proximity fuze, is over $1,000. Perhaps the real question should be not why drones are so cheap but why mortar bombs are so expensive. (PG-7Vs cost about $100).
The FPV is a home-made version of a military loitering munition. But military-grade anti-tank loitering munitions like the Israeli Hero-120 costs somewhere over $150k. Such munitions can only be used for high-value targets like tanks and other armored vehicles. FPVs are cheap enough to employ against trucks, vans and even individual soldiers (“You get an FPV, and you get an FPV…”). An FPV is also light enough for a team to carry several.
More Than A Poor Man’s Javelin
FPVs share some of the features of traditional anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), and have already been dubbed the ‘poor man’s Javelin.’ While it shares the ability to strike from long range with high precision , the FPV also adds extra twists. One is the ability to hit fast-moving targets. There are many videos of FPVs hitting vehicles speeding down roads, where the tactic is to fall in behind the vehicle and slowly overhaul it.Also unlike ATGMs they do not rely on line of sight. This means that an FPV operator can remain behind cover, and can engage targets which are also behind cover – hidden among buildings, behind a ridge, or in one case, sheltering in a tunnel under a bridge.The FPV may only carry a 4-pound warhead compared to 19 pounds for the Javelin. But the shoulder-launched NLAW also has a 4-pound warhead. Again numbers count. Ukrainian operators say that a single hit has a 70% chance of immobilizing a tank, after which it can be finished off at leisure by more FPVs or the even cheaper option of bomb-dropping quadcopters.In the future, militaries with limited finances may restrict themselves to a small number of expensive ATGMs for high-value targets and make up the difference with a huge quantity of low-cost FPVs.The hit rate of FPVs is certainly lower than an ATGM, but large numbers more than compensate. A force armed with numerous FPVs can take out far more vehicles than one armed with a few ATGMs.The U.S. Army is already bending towards this approach with the development of Low Altitude Stalking and Strike Ordnance, or LASSO, inspired by events in Ukraine. This will be a tube-launched, man-portable precision munition, guided by the operator with an optical /infrared sensor and able to destroy armored vehicles beyond line of sight. The biggest challenge will be keeping costs down to FPV-type levels, an area where the U.S. procurement system sometimes fails.
Taking On The Heavy Artillery
But, as Schmidt suggests, this may be a lot more than simply replacing an expensive guided weapon with larger numbers of cheaper guided weapons. It may also be that FPVs can muscle in on artillery. Just as ATGMs replaced the traditional anti-tank gun, FPVs might start to displace other artillery.
There is a close parallel here with air power. From late on in WWII, the standard attack method for heavy bombers was carpet bombing. Because they were not accurate to hit point targets, large formations of bombers covered entire areas in high explosive to ensure that the target was hit. This approach included not only the city-smashing thousand-bomber raids of WWII but also tactical bombing of enemy forces such as the ‘Arc Light’ raids in Vietnam.
Arc Light operations were carried out with B-52D Stratofortress bombers with a ‘Big Belly’ conversion enabling them to carry eighty-four 500-pound bombs internally plus another twenty-four on underwing pylons. This gave each aircraft a bombload of almost 60,000 pounds, and the bombers typically flew in groups of three, laying down a huge tonnage of bombs across a swathe of land. Such attacks were effective and could be carried out a few hundred yards from U.S. forces.
The B-52 is still in service, and now carries 32 GBU-39 Small Diameter Bombs (SDBs) internally. The 250-pound class SDB is half the size of the Vietnam-era weapons, but the B-52 can release them singly and hit individual targets with GPS precision from 40 miles away. While carpet bombing has a low chance of hitting any given target, precision bombing has a very high probability of a kill. The B-2 can in theory carry 192 such weapons. The issue becomes one of whether enough targets can be located to justify such an arsenal on a mission. Carpet bombing, where hundreds of bombs were needed per target, has been entirely replaced with more effective precision strikes.
Artillery is still more in the carpet-bombing mode, with tables dictating how many rounds need to be lobbed into a given area to achieve a specific effect (typically ‘suppression’). Entire batteries of guns fire together without aiming at specific targets. Both sides in the Ukraine conflict still use old Soviet era artillery firing tables which say that a battery of enemy self-propelled artillery required 450 122mm shells to suppress, and an individual target such as an ATGM in the open requires 100 rounds.
In the U.S. Army this approach has been somewhat superseded with precision rounds like the M982 Excalibur guided 155mm artillery round and GMLRS guided rockets fired by HIMARS and other launcher which both, like the SDB, benefit from satellite guidance and reliably strike to within a few metres of the aim point.
However, these guided rounds are costly and so in short supply. An unguided 155mm round costs a couple of thousand dollars or so, a single Excalibur round costs over $87k. It might take a dozen shells to do the same job as one guided round, but they are still more cost-effective. Further, the precision round must be given exact target co-ordinates when it is fired. Get the location slightly wrong and the expensive round is wasted, whereas an unguided barrage which covers an area can tolerate greater aiming errors.
FPVs overcome these problems. The cheap FPV drone costs no more than an artillery shell, and unlike Excalibur, it is guided to the point of impact and the operator has a camera to see the target’s current location. This means it can be used in a dynamic situation where the target location is uncertain.
Also, the shell is only part of the cost. 155mm shells may be cheap, but the M109 Paladin that fires them currently costs about $14m. An army that cannot afford this type of hardware can still afford a few thousand FPVs, and will get a decent amount of firepower for the money.
Artillery is frequently used for suppressive fire: where the enemy’s location is not known exactly, shells are rained down on the general area to keep their heads down during an advance. FPVs can carry out their own reconnaissance. If the approximate location is known, FPVs can sweep up and down an area to locate and destroy enemy positions. There are also some reports from Ukraine that the noise of FPV rotors overhead has a suppressive effect—troops immediately freeze and stop firing so they cannot be spotted.
Current FPVs have a shorter range and carry a smaller payload than a 155mm shell, which can reach 23 miles with a 100-pound warhead. But longer range FPVs, especially when provided with fixed wings, are technically straightforward (watch this space for news), with larger units like the Russian Lancet having a 25-mile range. The FPVs warhead can take on the vast majority of artillery targets from tanks, personnel carriers and self-propelled guns to personnel and entrenched positions. The key to the latter is precision: the ability to fly inside trenches and even into bunkers makes FPVs effective where an artillery barrage might have even a prolonged artillery barrage would have little effect.
Critics might say that there are well-protected targets that even larger FPVs could not damage. This is true, but then equally there are targets which require something more than 155mm artillery. There is a reason why the Air Force still has 2,000-pound laser guided bombs and even 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrators to tackle the heaviest bunkers. One FPV size will not fit all, but it could deal with the majority of targets.
Like current artillery, FPVs would work in conjunction with other weapons to ensure that the full range of battlefield targets could be addressed. Those other weapons might be current systems like air-delivered SDBs, or ground launched GMLRS or larger but still low-cost loitering munitions resembling cruise missiles.
In addition, FPVs are just part of a suite of drone weapons, including increasingly capable ‘heavy bomber’ multicopters and long-range strike drones capable of reaching Moscow. The future force will be an assortment of drones of various shapes and sizes, with FPVs or something like them as the tip of the spear.
A Billy Mitchell Moment?
Schmidt may seem over-enthusiastic, but no more so than Billy Mitchell was about airpower a century ago. Then Assistant Chief of the U.S. military’s new Air Service, Mitchell infuriated the Navy in 1921 by suggesting that bombers could sink battleships, and pointing out that a thousand bombers could be built for the cost of one battleship.
After attempts to dismiss him failed, and in the teeth of Navy opposition, Mitchell assembled a test squadron and carried out a series of exercises. First they sank a captured German destroyer, then a cruiser, and finally the battleship Ostfriesland. The U.S. Navy reluctantly expanded its budget for naval air power, but few believed that small, flimsy aircraft with their short range were any sort of rival to mighty armored battleships.
It was not until WWII, some twenty years later, that the Navy were forced to admit Mitchell was right. Again and again battleships were sunk by carrier-based aircraft long before they could reach the enemy fleet. It was finally obvious that the day of the big guns was over.
The war in Ukraine, might just be another Billy Mitchell moment as we see small, flimsy, short-ranged FPVs knock out expensive heavy tanks, again and again. Russia is hurrying to field its own FPV drones in quantity, but has paid a high price for the lesson. The rest of the world can learn for free.
The suggestion that cheap, effective FPVs are the future of warfare may seem optimistic. But sometimes the optimists are right.