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The staggering implications of AI drone warfare

On Aug. 30, a wave of Ukrainian drones struck deep into Russia, some flying more than 400 miles to damage two military planes in Pskov. The next day, drones constructed largely out of cardboard struck at a Kursk airfield. On Aug. 5 and 6, a Ukrainian sea drone attack incapacitated a Russian military transport and a tanker in the Black Sea.

These are not isolated events. It is rumored that Ukrainian drones are doing a lot of damage to Russian planes based closer to the front, and Russian Lancet drones are targeting Ukraine’s precious Western armaments. Drones are one of the most effective weapons Russia has. However, these drones operate closer to the frontline, and Lancets are guided by an operator, which can’t be done without a satellite link at a distance of more than 90 miles.

What stands out in the Pskov, Kursk and the Black Sea strikes? The use of a very cheap weapon — in one case literally made from cardboard — to damage big, expensive, irreplaceable targets.

Let’s have a look at the drones that struck Pskov. These drones must fly far, be cheap and be invisible. They need not endure. This means they are basically assembled from assorted bric-a-brac: plywood or cardboard. They can’t carry a big payload, which would increase both cost and visibility. Likewise, they can’t be steered by a human operator, for a human operator without a satellite link is useless after 90 miles, and the satellite link requires a phased array that’s too expensive.

So what’s left? An AI. A droneGPT. The drone uses GPS; has an industrial- or tactical-grade inertial measurement unit capable of navigating in GPS-denied environments; processes various signals (such as from nearby cell towers); but, above all, it is equipped with a camera and a processor. It takes the snapshot of the target and is able to compare it against a database of blueprints stored in its memory.

It solves a captcha. It’s basically a self-homing Tesla — with an explosive on board.

It’s able to wreak havoc by striking an aircraft at a soft spot. An airplane is not armored. Its skin is only 2 mm thick, and there’s a lot of expensive items inside, some — especially in the case of Russian warplanes made in the Soviet era — irreplaceable. A small shrapnel charge that goes off right on top of the vulnerable spot can cause irreparable damage. A plane will look intact on a photo, but it will have holes in the vital places.

The same is true for a sea drone. True, this one is bigger. It’s carrying a thousand-pound payload. An armored ship’s hull is not an aircraft skin and can absorb a lot of damage. But the drone is a submersible. It’s basically a long-range torpedo that doesn’t need a warship to launch. Back in World War II, aircraft carriers put dreadnoughts out of business, for an irreplaceable dreadnought could be damaged by a cheap mass-produced plane. A sea drone puts a plane to shame. True, it will hardly sink a ship. But a listing warship hobbling off to a dry dock is more than enough.

Is this a game-changer?

Let me quote to you from a great book by Lawrence H. Keeley, “War Before Civilization”: “The most common form of combat employed in primitive warfare, but little used in formal civilized warfare, has been small raids or ambushes.” That’s the essence of war — to kill without being killed, which became almost impossible after the emergence of civilizations and armies.

A droneGPT changes back this most fundamental factor. You can once again kill without being killed. You can use a Skynet to do your bidding. Yes, you could previously do it with a Hellfire missile. But a Hellfire costs $150,000 a piece. This stuff can be built for a pittance in a shed. The implications are slow to come, but they are staggering.

Will there be the countermeasures? Sure. There’s no sword without a shield. You can put a mesh over a gun; that’s what Ukrainian soldiers are doing to protect their howitzers from Lancet drones. You can stash the plane in a shed. You can place buoys to protect a bridge. Surest thing, you can change your location. This is how Russian Ka-52 helicopters evade Ukrainian drones — constantly switching between landing pads, never spending more than 12 hours in one place. But all this costs time and money. There will be always one who slips or neglects. And you have to know where the target is. A success of a droneGPT is 90 percent previous information and only 10 percent AI.

Which side will the new form of warfare favor more: Ukraine or Russia?

It’s not easy to predict. Ukraine has independently developed literally hundreds of drone models, mostly FPV concoctions built by amateurs in a garage. But it is one thing to build a drone and another to get official papers. Ukraine’s grassroots effort seems to be greatly hampered by the usual problems of the country.

Putin does not possess astonishing Ukrainian diversity, but he has loads of money. He is ramping up on Lancet production and is building a mega factory to produce Iranian Shahed drones in the thousands.

A Shahed-136 is not the type of drone we are talking about. It’s fat and dumb, and has only GPS to orient itself. It tries to compensate for its lack of intellect by carrying a big payload, which makes it vulnerable to detection by sound: it buzzes like a chainsaw. In short, it’s a flying Shahed belt, suitable for mass terror, not for surgical strikes.

Perhaps the biggest factor to consider is that there’s a big stock of high-value defenseless military targets in the Russian rear. Ukraine simply doesn’t have as many targets, and it has no Navy. So Ukraine is a natural favorite for this type of asymmetric warfare.

Still, the cat is out of the bag, for there is another highly valuable and irreplaceable target that can be struck by droneGPT: a human. You can protect a howitzer with a mesh. You cannot really protect an ordinary person who gets out of his car and goes for a stroll from a droneGPT programmed to recognize his face.

War will never be the same.

Yulia Latynina is a Russian writer and journalist formerly with Novaya Gazeta and Echo of Moscow, two major Russian independent media now shut down. She’s a Kennan alumnus and a recipient of the U.S. State Department Defender of Freedom award.

Tags Artificial intelligence drone warfare drones Iran Iranian drones Military Russia Russia-Ukraine conflict Ukraine Vladimir Putin