The Drones Finally Take Over


In May of 2016, I covered an obscure trade show put on by the Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International—AUVSI—in New Orleans. I spent the effort and money to do that because, at the time, it looked like drones were soon to become a significant part of aviation. While that’s true by degree, unmanned vehicles and their electric cousins, the urban air mobility contenders, haven’t quite potentiated. The civil use cases just aren’t there. Yet.

One of the most popular forums was a standing-room-only session on an emerging hot topic: counter-drone technology. It was biased toward military applications, but the civil aspect related to protecting airports from malicious drone attacks. A panel discussion suggested that “it” was coming, with it being a conflict in which UAVs or UCAVs, with the C standing for combat, would be decisive. And it would give weak militaries the ability to stymy stronger ones.

They were right. It did. But it didn’t happen in Iraq or Afghanistan although it may be happening in Ukraine now. But the real history was made in Nagorno-Karabakh. Huh? Where the hell is that? I minored in geography in college and I couldn’t find it on a map. Nagorno-Karabakh is in the Caucasus west of the Caspian Sea. Put your imaginary self in Ankara, Turkey, and fly 500 miles due east and you’ll be on the border between Armenia and Azerbaijan where, in the fall of 2020 while we were fixated on COVID-19, a short, vicious war flared and was won decisively by the side that deployed drones effectively. That would have been Azerbaijan. Armenia had mostly Soviet-era weapons.

The conflict got little play in the western daily press, but the defense press took careful notice, with CSIS reporting, “…these weapons were game-changing. Azerbaijani drones provided significant advantages in ISR as well as long-range strike capabilities. They enabled Azerbaijani forces to find, fix, track, and kill targets with precise strikes far beyond the front lines.” (ISR is intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.) Significantly, Azerbaijani drones destroyed heavy units, such as modern tanks and radar air-defense systems. A mainstay drone used by Azerbaijani forces was the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, which Ukraine is also deploying against Russian forces.

What seems to puzzle air defense experts, understandably, is why Russia seems to have applied no lessons from the Armenia defeat. Moscow actually brokered a peace deal between the two countries and had 2000 peacekeepers in place for a time. It reportedly studied the conflict and surely would have noted how successful the drone war was.

Which gets me back to that forum I attended at AUVSI. Various companies and experts were talking about counter-drone systems then in intense development. There are two types: kinetic and non-kinetic. Kinetic means to blow the things to pieces with some kind of missile, projectile or even a giant, rapid firing shotgun. Non-kinetic systems, like the emerging U.S. THOR, use electronic jamming to disable the drones before they can attack.

Russia is supposed to have this sort of stuff, having tested it against multiple drone attacks on its forces in Syria, and it reportedly applied intel from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last year. It’s not clear if they have deployed it or if they have, that it’s effective. Ukraine has about 50 TB2s, reportedly. It claims to have destroyed 1000 armored vehicles, an impressive score that can’t be verified nor confirmed to have been done by TB2s to any degree. It’s likely exaggerated.  

But Ukraine is easily winning the PR war because Russia has shut down domestic news reporting on the war to the extent of criminalizing both reporting on it and protesting against it. Perhaps the Russian counter-drone technology has worked brilliantly, but they’ve constrained themselves from crowing about it. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there are a few U.S. drones prowling around Ukraine, too. Anyone want to take the bet?

We’re watching the history we’ve all been warned about unfold in slow motion. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict demonstrated that UCAVs could be decisive even for a small, under-resourced military. That the Russian air force seems largely sidelined in Ukraine may mean that the inflection point has been reached or, at the very least, you can see it from here. Manned aircraft are giving way to those flown from a trailer hidden in the woods somewhere.  

The word progress has a positive connotation and the fact that we can now kill by remote control to a degree we couldn’t five years ago, we’ve progressed. On the other hand, it’s just a more sterile version of the yeoman’s halberd, unless you’re unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end.

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  1. From what I understand in this article, It sounds like we have entered the Kamikaze stage of Drone Warfare. If attacking a primitive military the drones return home. On the other hand, when both sides have any technology they will electromagnetic pulse (EMP) the drone out of the sky. I image the Drone Cavalries will be next with hopes that some them avoid the ray guns.

  2. Good read, thanks Paul.

    Then there are the 3 Ukrainian Drone Versions. All versions can carry 4 RK-2P guided missiles with the portable Barrier anti-tank missile system or Luch RK-10 missiles, up to 300 kilograms of payload.

    1. The “basic version” includes the MC-500B engine by Zaporizhia-based Motor Sich and will allow the Sokil-300 three hours of operation with a cruising speed of 335 kilometers (208 mph) and a maximum range of 1,000 kilometers (621 miles).

    2. A second version will include an engine by Ivchenko-Progress, the AI-450T2, which allows five hours of flight time and a 1,300 kilometer (808 miles) range but a lower cruising speed of 275 kilometers (170 mph).

    3. The final, long-range version has the Austrian, turbo-charged Rotax 914 engine with a maximum flight time of 26 hours, a distance of 3,300 kilometers (2,050 miles), at an even slower speed of 150 kilometers (93 mph).


  3. Well, THOR reminds me of the Indiana Jones movie where our hero is being threatened by a menacing tribal warrior swinging a nasty looking scimitar and making all sorts of threatening gestures. Indy, just simply pulls out his advanced weapon ( a pistol) and ho-hum, just dispatches the threat. Maybe if humans can progress to the point where warfare will just be a waste of time, we can turn our research into developing training that emphasizes the benefits of cooperation and mutuality of purpose. All that is needed is a “scaling up” of relationship models that already work well.

  4. Even with the latest drone /anti-drone technology, victory, still requires at some point, an infantryman with a rifle (or laser ray gun or whatever the future may bring) enforcing the victors will.

    • My favorite story so far is the Ukrainian grandmother who was sitting on her balcony and saw a suspicious-looking drone below her. Supposedly, she grabbed a jar of pickles and flung it at the drone and knocked it to the ground. This “Baba v. Putin” story was circulating widely when a news service picked it up and tried to find the woman to confirm the story. A day or two later, she was identified and told the reporter, “Not true. It was jar of pickled _eggs_.”

  5. “… drone/anti-drone technology…” = Ukrainian Falcon-300, Turkish TB-2/Javelin, stinger, NLAW and possible UK StarStreak systems

    “infantryman w/ ray gun” = AK-47 + Molotov cocktails

    Why don’t we send them some Van’s RV-8’s modified with hard points and the Rotax 914 engine? OR … better still … some Piper PA-48 “Enforcers.” ( )

    Long ago during my time at Edwards AFB, I realized that the notion of solving every military need with ultra-high technology built in low numbers due to high cost wasn’t always the right way to go. THIS conflict showcases that a highly determined defender in sufficient numbers armed with low end technology is just as formidable and far more nimble.

    “As of 6 March, Russian casualties, according to Ukrainian figures, include some 285 tanks, 985 AFVs, 44 aircraft, 48 helicopters and as many as 11,000 personnel.” (source: Ukrainians)

  6. Are-You-As-Fed-Up-By-Putin’s-Murderous-Attack-on-Humanity-As-I-Am?
    If-So-Then-Let’s-Bitch-Slap-the-Sh*t-Outta-The-F*kr-Before-Good Ol’ Homicidal Vlado-Does-It-To-All-of-Us.

    Thank you!

        • Ukrainians refer to their grandmothers as “babusia”, or as children, “baba”. A babushka is the scarf she wears.

        • After seeing OUR ‘bravery’ on AvWeb, the Ukrainian Drone corps is coming to pick us up for a special mission in Kiev, Raf 🙂

    • Mathias Rust only did 14 months labor for landing his 172 in/near Red Square, based on a ‘hooligan’ conviction for the stunt. I think I can survive that. We can have ‘Hooligan’ decaled on our planes for safety.
      …I’ll have to get a few Rx’s filled with time extensions but hell yeah, let’s go!

  7. Gadgets find uses designers never thought of once they are in the hands of soldiers. My favourite example is the Milan anti-tank missile, one with a two soldiers, one pointing a camera, the other arming the sharp end, which when fired rockets off, trailing a wire, which links it to the image on the camera screen.
    Cost £40,000 a bang, but the accountants agreed, thinking that the tanks it destroyed would cost at least 20 times as much.
    Gave it to the squaddies and what did they do — point the camera at pesky machine gun nests and the like as well as tanks. And all the memos about how it should only be used on tanks were ignored…
    The Ukrainian air force was largely missing at the start of the war — they seem to have been sleeping on the night of the attack and lost most of their attack jets on the ground.
    Russians have not been much better — talk is of fuel stocks which existed on paper since Soviet times, now found to have “gone missing” as they say in South Africa.
    We can only surmise that the fighter jocks have found out how to make use of their new drone toys, probably in ways the designers did not imagine.

  8. Very simple world fix. Clint is my mentor. Everyone throw in a buck. Heck I’ll throw in a ten spot. Put up a wanted poster with that reptile’s face on it and let the tried and true Wild West take it’s course. Problem solved and it could actually have a positive effect on politicians in general. And that wasn’t really fair to reptiles as they kill just to eat

    • For some reason, leaders all around the world are mostly against this sort of tactic. Hmmmm, I wonder why? 😂🤣😂

  9. As a former AD expert, albeit a junior one, I can take a good guess what happened. The Russian air defense guys lost the fight over budget money and mind share. Happens in the US military as well.

    There are good reasons for it, and understandable reasons. It starts at the very top because first there has to be a fight over whether something will be the responsibility of the Army or the Air Force. For instance, the US has all the ground based AD systems under the Army. Unless The things have changed, the Germans do the opposite all the way down to the Gepard anti aircraft gun system and their ManPADS which are Luftwaffe personnel. Other countries split things differently.

    So, whichever force gets an AD responsibility, it’s not generally going to get a lot of love. In fact, it may be used to get funds that can get redirected to other things. The Air Force is run by the fighter pilot community. The Army by the Infantry and Armor communities. Everything tends to center around their careers and their tools.

    By the time you get down to buying and implementing a system to destroy small drones the odds are the money and personnel have become captive to people whose careers are judged by other things than destroying small drones.

    When Stinger teams were grouped into platoons and assigned to Air Defense Units they spent a disproportionate time being used as cheap labor for things like cleaning up the base because the AD units would get tasked to provide disproportionate soldiers versus other branches.

    When they eliminated the divisional air defense units and placed those soldiers in the infantry battalions, they started spending almost all their time as cheap labor.

    Anyways, the Ukrainians are now crowd sourcing their scouting. Hobbyist drone flyers are providing reconnaissance from their living rooms. Might be time for the FAA and the DoD to sit down and figure out how to get domestic manufacturers involved in making parts for light aircraft and tiny drones. If they are not incredibly stupid and self important, you think they might reason out that they should stop destroying demand for those things domestically?


    • In the past week, I’ve been reading about the massive corruption in the Russian military, as well. A lot of allocated funds somehow find their way to people who steal it. The poor performance of their military is likely the end result?

      As I said above and you alluded to, imagine if the Ukrainian Air Force had a couple hundred Skyhawks or Skylanes capable of carrying lightweight rockets and ‘smart’ small bombs … like our SDB’s. Or, Hellfire missiles. There’s even a version of the SDB that’s ground launched. Along with special ops providing coordinates, those tanks and artillery pieces would be toast.

      Since we’re talking about drones here, I’d imagine someone is thinking about making a small drone capable of carrying some tiny warhead to scare the hell out of those Russian conscripts.

      • I forgot to include it, but had it in my notes. The Ukrainians are deploying this very thing. Small electric drone with a 3 kg ordnance capacity. Quiet and stealthy, then boom, your truck blows up…the one with the gas since they are targeting tankers.

        I think a Cessna would be a step backward from the stealthiness of these drones. The TB2, by the way, can carry a couple of Hellfires. Inexplicably, the Russians are helping by moving in large mixed armored columns with no AD, no infantry and hardly any interval. I heard Petraeus talk about it on CNN.

        I try not to wish ill on anyone. Try not to hate people of any stripe. But after I swept the news this morning, I couldn’t suppress the feeling of the more dead Russians, the better.

        • I, too, saw very disturbing pics of elderly, women, children and other obvious non-combatants being indiscriminately targeted. A captured Russian pilot admitted — today — to following orders to do that and apologized to the Ukrainian people. The whole thing not only makes no sense but showcases why we cannot allow despots and autocrats into positions of “leadership.” Assuming the Russians WERE able to take the whole Country … what’re they gonna do with a pile of rubble? And if it happens like Afghanistan, the Ukrainians will keep chipping away at them until they leave.

          My experience with the PA-48 “Enforcer” at Edwards AFB in the 80’s made me a firm believer that smaller and cheaper does NOT mean less lethal. I also feel that large numbers of such cheaper weapons are often more effective and needed than big buck systems. There’s a time for a loaded for bear stealth F-22 and there are times for a PA-48 or a drone like you described. Without AD, the latter is the way to go.

      • If it’s possible to go back many years, you can probably find where I made many comments and questions about why the US was going all turbine with the predator drones. The Turkish drones are 100 hp. I’m guessing they are rotax powered. They cost more like the original, piston powered predators.

        We’ve let the Chinese and others take over most of our light aircraft technology, as basic as it was. Now, one of the most effective weapons is basically a light plane with 100hp engine.

        Of course, tearing up airports and letting lawyers sue innocent companies into bankruptcy while the FAA colluded with regulations designed to keep average Americans from enjoying flight is clearly the best way to run the country. We shouldn’t even be questioning that. I guess now we will print money to subsidize companies to rebuild what would have been fine without the subsidies if we could just have sensible policies to start with.