US looks to mass produce drones ahead of any major conflict

04 September 2023 - 08:30 By Peter Apps
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Workers repair damage on the roof of a multi-storey apartment block after a reported drone attack by Ukraine in Moscow, Russia on May 30 2023. File photo.
Workers repair damage on the roof of a multi-storey apartment block after a reported drone attack by Ukraine in Moscow, Russia on May 30 2023. File photo.
Image: REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

The dozens of Ukrainian drones believed to have been used against Russian airbases last week represent the largest single unmanned attacks of the Ukraine war so far, but they could be dwarfed by future major conflicts.

At a defence conference in Washington last week, deputy defence secretary Kathleen Hicks unveiled the Pentagon's new "Replicator" programme aimed at galvanising the US into delivering thousands of cheap, smart combat drones for any future conflict.

The project, she said, was driven by one concern in particular, namely that China can increasingly challenge the US military in terms of "more ships, more missiles, more people" and that an essential response is therefore to innovate, including with large numbers of cheap drones.

That would represent a reversal of conventional wisdom in recent decades in which the US was the unchallenged leader in terms of large military platforms – long-range bombers, aircraft carriers and similar – while rivals like China flooded the world with cheap, much lower-tech weaponry like AK-47s.

No one expects the US to completely upend its military focus. With 10 aircraft carriers, Washington easily outnumbers, Beijing which will put its third to sea for the first time later this year.

"America still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive and few," Hicks said.

Pentagon officials talk in terms of deploying large numbers of cheap drones rapidly as a "hedge" strategy for what the US increasingly views as an almost existential and potentially multi-decade China confrontation.

The US is not alone in reaching such conclusions. In July, Reuters reported that after a review of lessons from Ukraine, Taiwan, which only had a few hundred drones in its arsenal at the beginning of the year, is embarking on its own major manufacturing effort.

Self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, hopes to have more than 3,200 drones in service by mid-2024, ranging from the smallest weighing only a couple of kilograms to those capable of flying well over 100km. Manufacturers co-opted into the effort include those that previously built remote-controlled aircraft for leisure and commercial use.

Should China invade Taiwan and the US intervene, drones would be at the forefront. The US air force is working on what it calls its unmanned "collaborative combat aircraft", a pilotless plane designed to operate alongside manned jets. While it will be capable of performing a one-way mission to destroy targets when required, the idea is that it will be more often reused. US officials said the plan is to have thousands in storage for use in any conflict.

Artificial intelligence may massively increase the number of drones a single human operator can direct, despite ethical worries about removing the “human in the loop” for matters of life and death. Even without that, however, the Ukraine war has proved a fast-evolving test bed for much wider drone warfare than anything seen previously.

In March last year, the US announced it was sending some of its latest small combat drones directly to Ukraine, specifically around 120 of a new platform dubbed “Phoenix Ghost”. Pentagon officials generally declined to give precise details of such systems, and said they would also not reveal precisely what drone capabilities the new Replicator project will target.

According to Britain’s Royal United Services Institute, Ukraine lost an astonishing 10,000 drones a month in the first year of the war. Significant numbers of any new Western small combat drones manufactured may well find themselves drawn immediately into fighting in Ukraine, but the Pentagon clearly wants to move beyond that to build up US stockpiles and ability to produce.

US officials have publicly briefed that Replicator aims to build enough drones to conduct “swarm” attacks in which large numbers are used to overwhelm enemy defences. They also said “replicator” refers to manufacturing processes which can be dramatically scaled up in times of war.

On that front  some of the latest unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) used by Ukraine in its most recent attacks appear to be particularly innovative. According to Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia, they included small flat-packed cardboard drones made by Australian firm SYPAQ. In March, the company announced it had secured a contract with the Australian government to get them to Ukraine.

Said to cost $3,300 (about R62,000) a piece, they were originally designed to deliver items like light orders from online retailer Amazon across vast distances in Australia. Ukraine said it damaged five Russian fighter jets in its attack on an airfield near Kursk, about 150km inside Russian territory. Given the multi-million price tag of modern combat jets, that would be a remarkable return on investment.

Last week also saw massive explosions at a major Russian civilian and military airport at Pskov, destroying several massive Antonov transport aircraft in what appeared to be another drone strike. Some Ukrainian UAVs also appear to have been able to strike as far as Moscow, while Ukrainian officials have also shown off maritime drones they said they will use to attack Russian warships.

Ukraine’s drones are only one facet of the massive industrial war effort the conflict has produced, which sees Kyiv spending an estimated 34% of its gross domestic product on defence. The enormous requirements of the war are also exhausting Western capability to manufacture artillery shells and anti-aircraft and anti-tank rockets, prompting the US and Europe to invest billions in building those capacities as well.

For Kyiv, relatively cheap drones — particularly those that can be re-engineered within Ukraine from original civilian versions — have several advantages beyond cost, not least that they can be used more flexibly than Western-provided long-range missiles. Several nations providing the latter have imposed limits on their use, including in some cases banning strikes on Russian territory.

The most likely venue for a US-China conflict, most analysts believe, remains the Pacific Ocean and South China Sea, with the most likely trigger a Taiwan invasion. Such a conflict would have some differences to that being waged in Ukraine, taking place over potentially vast distances of water.

In the past three years, Chinese drones have flown increasingly close to airspace around Taiwan and Japan. Recently Taiwan said a Chinese TB-001 UAV, capable of carrying missiles, approached its airspace, at least the second such foray by a large Chinese drone this year. Others of the same type have observed Japanese ballistic missile tests.

In the past 10 years, China has quietly established itself as a global leader as an exporter of larger combat drones. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global arms sales, China shipped at least 282 large armed combat drones to 17 countries over the past decade, while the US exported only 12 over the same period to France and Britain.

Larger Chinese drones are reported to have been used extensively by Myanmar and Ethiopia to bomb rebels on their soil, as well as by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen.

For a growing number of nations, drones may still be seen as a relatively low-cost, low-risk way to strike at enemies. But any larger conflict they see action in may yet have massive human costs.

* Peter Apps is a Reuters columnist writing on defence and security issues. He joined Reuters in 2003, reporting from southern Africa and Sri Lanka and on global defence issues. He has been a columnist since 2016. He is also the founder of a think tank, the Project for Study of the 21st Century, and, since 2016, has been a Labour Party activist and British Army reservist.


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