The U.S. government has provided substantial support to the Ukrainian military since the Russian invasion, including supplying Ukraine with sophisticated rocket systems, artillery pieces, surface-to-air missiles, and a host of other items . totaling billions of dollars. With the entry of the war in Ukraine a sustained phasethe United States should not only maintain this flow of aid to Ukraine, but also develop and provide new systems specifically tailored to the nature of the ongoing conflict.
In particular, the US military can design and manufacture low-cost suicide drones (also known as “vagrant munitions”) for transfer to the Ukrainian military. A suicide drone is a small drone that can be remotely controlled to crash into a target, giving precision strike capability to anyone who can launch such a drone. This could both support Ukrainian forces and be a valuable exercise for the US military’s own innovative capabilities.
The pursuit pictures provided by small drones in the Ukrainian zone suggest an exploitable problem with Russian electronic warfare capabilities. These small drones are remote controlled and the Russians do not seem to effectively jam or attack the drone controllers with artillery fire. This suggests a startling gap in Russian military operations, one which the Ukrainian military – with rapidly deployed foreign systems – should be able to exploit further.
The United States has already started to provide “low cost” Switchblade Drones— small suicide drones with an explosive payload. The payload in these drones is not much, roughly equivalent to a 40 millimeter (mm) grenade. The US Army has agreed to deliver 700 Switchblade 300s, which at a estimated at $6,000 each, represents an investment of over $4 million. The Switchblade itself is quite sophisticated: it is launched from a portable tube launcher and, after selecting a target, it flies into the target and explodes just before impact.
But the key aspect is that a small explosive warhead, barely 200 grams for a 40mm grenade (only 33% heavier than a baseball), is remarkably effective when combined with the precision of a drone. Consider a long range howitzer weapon and its crew. A 10-kilogram high-explosive artillery shell that lands 100 meters from the target will do less damage to personnel and equipment than a simple grenade fired by a drone to explode above the breech of the gun.
But “low cost” by US military standards is still too expensive to support Ukraine in a war where Russia is firing 60,000 artillery shells per day. The Ukrainian military needs systems that are actually inexpensive, not “low cost” by our standards. He needs suicide drones that cost $500, not $6,000.
Given the permissive environment of electronic warfare, it is reasonable to develop and mass deploy such inexpensive systems with a range of over 4 kilometers and a lethal payload equivalent to that of the Switchblade. A $10 million budget could then flood Ukraine with 19,000 easy-to-use suicide drones (at about $500/drone) and 1,000 ground stations (at about $500/station). Basically 10 times the drones for the same amount. Such a design need not depend on outside contractors, but could use internal US military expertise to design and build.
How to design such drones?
We start with a cell. The Switchblade uses a custom cell in order to be launched from a tube. But if operators are willing to toss the drone into the air by hand or use a giant rubber band, there are much cheaper alternatives.
The design would start with a mid-size airplane model, like this fixed-wing foam polypropylene ($200), which is made from the same material you find in car bumpers and can easily carry the payload of a grenade.
Such drones need power, but a rechargeable high capacity battery only costs $60. This should provide enough endurance for a half hour flight. It is then simply a matter of developing a control system. Later, low-cost autonomy could be added (something I’m working on myself in my new start-up). But if the United States wants to ship anything today, it should be purely human-controlled.
The components needed for human control already exist, like this long range receiver with basic stabilization ($40). Stabilization routines make the drone remarkably easy to fly, as it operates on the same “fly-by-wire” logic found in modern aircraft: instead of the inputs directly controlling the drone, it translates “pilot intent “. It also means that a loss of communication can put the drone into a mode where it just continues to fly in a straight line. If the operator lines up a drone on a stationary target, subsequent jamming from an adversary will not stop the drone’s impact. Thus, any jamming must be accomplished before the Operator lines up for an attack.
To complete the system, add a camera ($50) and a video transmitter ($50) – which allows the pilot to see from the drone’s perspective. Next, 3D print an internal frame and add the $10 servo (a small electrically driven motor) needed to arm the explosives. Hit the drone with a coat of sky blue spray paint, install the warhead and the drone is done. The total cost, excluding the warhead, should be around $500. Now all that is needed is a ground station to control the drone, which would include a standard hobby radio ($200), one transmitter module ($65), one video receiver ($90) and a battery charger ($70).
Such a system would require almost no training: the airframe is easy to assemble in the field (just attach the wings, pair the receiver, power the drone and arm the warhead); it is launched by hand; and stabilization routines in the receiver make flying easier. A few hours of training should be enough (especially given the video game reflexes of the modern generation). And existing drone simulation software can be modified to further improve training.
Initially, in the rush for field systems, it makes sense to use standard transmitters. But in the long term, this represents a vulnerability: a radio transmitter can be detected and targeted. Later revisions should make some changes. Fortunately, the design of the radios will make transmitter overhauls relatively easy, as the actual transmitter that broadcasts the controls is a separate component and can therefore be replaced without too much trouble.
When operationally improving the transmitter, instead of installing the transmitter module directly into the radio, it would be necessary to design and manufacture a relay module. It would consist of two pieces – one in the radio and one connected to the transmitter – connected by a long wire. This way, the soldier’s transmitter would be a significant distance from the drone itself, reducing the ability of a skilled adversary to direct an accurate shot at the transmitter.
Designing drone systems in this way is clearly not “military grade“engineering. Instead, it’s cheap and, frankly, janky engineering. But an enemy soldier is no less dead if the 200-gram explosive payload is delivered by something cobbled together on the market recreation rather than built through quality engineering.The goal is simply to efficiently deliver the payload to the target as cheaply as possible.
Who should design and build these systems?
Once military contractors are involved, the price multiplies exponentially. This would eliminate cost savings and likely increase time to market. Fortunately, however, the US military has the resources to design and build such drones in-house without the need to rely on contractor support.
For example, the Air Force has a series of innovation labs at bases across the country. One such lab at Travis Air Force Base, the Travis Spark Lab, has the necessary in-house resources and expertise, including experience with small drones and additive manufacturing. Additionally, military academies could use this as a drill for their senior engineering students, all of whom should be up to the task.
Provide this as a task to Travis staff and Air Force Academy cadets in Colorado Springs, give each team a $20,000 prepaid credit card to order the necessary gear, and they could probably fly in a week, refined in two, and shipping in three. Even better, it could be a contest: Four Teams (Travis, Colorado Springs, West Point Military Academy and Annapolis Naval Academy), Three Weeks, One Mission.
In the end, there would almost certainly be at least one if not four usable systems in the field.
Then, to continually refine the systems, the US would have to settle into a repeating design cycle, produce 500 and ship to Ukraine. This would not only serve to support Ukraine with a substantial number of otherwise unavailable precision assets, but it would also serve as a test and, hopefully, demonstration that the U.S. Army’s innovation labs have the capability, in internally, to deliver capabilities at a price no contractor could match.
All that remains is to monitor and improve the cells and electronics based on tests and feedback from Ukrainian customers. Changes may include encrypting transmitters to prevent hijacking, changing cells to deal with supply chain limitations, adding optional psychological effects (such as a version of a The Stuka Mermaid), the change from an integrated warhead to a design using a reloadable 40mm grenade launcher, or other changes based on customer demand.
The capability of these drones probably won’t last forever. If Russia is willing to deploy broad-spectrum electromagnetic (EM) jamming (which would most likely disrupt its own small drones), it can stop the attack. Fast EM triangulation could also identify emitters, although emitters would eventually have to be placed away from actual controllers using relay modules, which would largely negate the threat posed by EM triangulation. But until Russian forces build up their electronic warfare capabilities, they would face a swarm of light drones.