Stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap?

The Corvo UAS from Australian company SYPAC
The Corvo UAS from Australian company SYPAC (Image credit: SYPAC)

The pace of drone development has accelerated fast over the past decade, bringing in a myriad of new technologies to increase performance, add new capabilities and address new military use cases.

However, added sophistication is often accompanied by added cost. In the meantime, the past ten years has also shown over and over that cheap drones can be highly effective too, and countering low cost drone operations can prove to be an expensive task.

Yemen’s Houthi rebels were first seen using drones to attack Saudi Arabia in April 2019, targeting the city of Khamis Mushait. The next month the Houthi’s armed drones hit two of Aramco’s oil-pumping stations west of Riyadh, causing significant damage to the oil giant’s East-West pipeline. Frequent drone attacks continued over the past few years, with Aramco facilities providing the Houthi’s with high-value targets. Whilst the Houthi drones were low-tech and low-cost, Saudi’s primary defensive weapon was the Raytheon’s Patriot surface-to-air missile system, with a single missile costing several million dollars.

Low-cost, off-the-shelf drones have also been used intensively by Ukrainian forces in the war against Russia. Smaller, low-cost drones can easily evade more sophisticated Russian air defense systems and obviously easier and cheaper to replace. Ukraine also bought $3,500 ‘cardboard drones’ from Australia. With so many drone losses recorded, being able to replace military drones at scale is becoming vital to success.

Battlefield realities are driving development in both drone development and in counter-drone systems. Counter-drone system providers are developing systems that are both able to identify smaller drones and distinguish between small drones and birds. Meanwhile, more militaries are looking at ways to use volumes of smaller, less expensive drones in combat situations.

In August, the Pentagon confirmed that its Replicator programme was developing plans to field thousands of small, low-cost autonomous drones across multiple domains. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) issued a solutions brief in October for suppliers to submit proposals for affordable, mass-produced, medium-range UAVs.

During the coming year we’re sure to see more emphasis on creating miltary drones that can be mass produced at a lower cost. Given that drone warfare easily becomes a numbers game, we can also expect swarming drones to see continued development as more militaries begin or extend trials of drone swarms.

by Carrington Malin