A prescient warning about drone warfare – from 2014

Back in 2014, T. X. Hammes, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. and a 30-year veteran of the US Marine Corps, wrote an extended overview of the threat from small, smart, cheap UAV’s and other drones.  In the light of recent events, as discussed here yesterday and today, it makes chilling reading.  Here’s an extended extract.

The last decade has made the global public familiar with expensive high end drones.  Yet, perhaps the most interesting developments have taken place at the low cost end of the spectrum.  In 1998, an industry/university consortium flew a composite drone from Newfoundland to Scotland on two gallons of fuel.By 2003, a hobbyist launched a GPS-guided model airplane/drone that flew autonomously from Newfoundland to precisely the right landing point in Ireland.  Built of balsa and plywood with a tiny gasoline engine that burned less than one gallon of fuel in the 26 hour flight, it was cheap enough that the hobbyist built 23 to ensure he could be the first hobbyist to fly across the Atlantic.  He made it with the third launch.  In the intervening 12 years, governments, hobbyists, and businesses have steadily increased the range and capability of these platforms.  Hobbyists and businesses have made use of the rapid technological convergence to decrease the cost of long-range, autonomous systems at least an order of magnitude.  Today they are routinely flying smart systems with intercontinental range — they lack only a payload to be a precision weapons system. Their composite construction and very low energy usage mean they will be very difficult to detect.

Of even greater concern, these small, inexpensive drones are designed specifically to be used by people with no particular skills and no in-house maintenance system. Most still require a remote human operator.   But flying them has become so easy that realtors and wedding photographers are using quad-copters with stabilized camera mounts to film properties and events.  Industry has already taken the next step and provided farmers with inexpensive autonomous drones to monitor their crops.

. . .

Since air is the simplest environment, it is not surprising that fully autonomous, cheap, and long-range drones emerged there first. They will be followed quickly by maritime and ground systems. In 2010, Rutgers University launched an underwater “glider” drone that crossed the Atlantic Ocean unrefueled.  This year, the U.S. Navy has launched an underwater glider that harvests energy from the ocean thermocline and plans for it to operate for five years without refueling.

In short, small air and sea platforms have demonstrated the capability of achieving intercontinental range while producing very little in the way of radar or heat signatures.

. . .

The primary driver of how many systems are purchased is cost.   But additive manufacturing is driving down the cost of many manufactured products.   Today researchers in England have prototyped a printed drone that will cost roughly $9 a copy.  And additive manufacturing is not only low end products.

Mark Valerio, vice president and general manager of military space for Lockheed, told Reuters, “In the next decade, we will completely change the way a satellite is designed and built. We will print a satellite.”

Valerio suggests such a satellite will cost 40% less than current models.  These trends indicate that dramatic cost decreases will be the norm for these widely used and increasingly capable commercial drones.

We don’t have to wait for additive manufacturing, either.  The U.S. Navy has announced it will repurpose the commercially produced Slocum Glider – a five foot long, autonomous underwater research vehicle.   The glider can patrol for weeks following initial instructions, surfacing periodically to report and receive new instructions.  Such drones are being used globally and cost about $100,000.  Clearly such drones can be modified into long-range autonomous torpedoes or mine delivery vehicles.  For the cost of one Virginia class submarine, a nation could purchase 17,500 such drones. Additive manufacturing can and likely will reduce the cost of these systems even more. And the skills needed to build and employ a glider are orders of magnitude less than those needed for a nuclear sub.

“Smart” sea mines should be a particular concern for the United States … Since 1950, mines have become progressively smarter, more discriminating, and more difficult to find. They have sensors which can use acoustic, magnetic, and other signals to identify and attack a specific kind of ship, allowing – for example – commercial vehicles to pass unmolested.   As early as 1979, the United States fielded CAPTOR mines.  These are encapsulated torpedoes that are anchored to the ocean floor.  When they detect the designated target, they launch the captured torpedo to destroy it out to a range of 8 KM. Today China possesses “self-navigating mines” and even rocket propelled mines. We are seeing early efforts to use unmanned underwater vehicles to deliver mines.  Since commercially available drones are already crossing the ocean autonomously, pairing drones with mines will almost certainly make it possible to mine sea ports of debarkation and perhaps even sea ports of embarkation.

Ashore, mobile land mines/autonomous anti-vehicle weapons are also under development. The natural marriage of IEDs to inexpensive, autonomous drones is virtually inevitable.  The obvious targets are parked aircraft, fuel dumps, ammo dumps, communication sites, and command centers.  Non-state and state actors alike will rapidly transition to drones that can hunt even mobile targets.

Today’s inexpensive drone systems mean states and even non-state actors can afford large numbers of lethal air, sea, and ground drones.  Within the decade, U.S. forces should expect to be attacked by these weapons on every combat deployment.

We can also expect the inexpensive autonomy seen in today’s agricultural drones.  The autonomy has been made possible by impressive technological advances combining tiny sensors, GPS modules, microprocessors, and digital radios, all of which are dropping in price and are commercially available.

These same technologies can be applied cheaply to military systems.  While the Pentagon faces the “Innovator’s Dilemma” and will be severely challenged to keep costs low, other nations, start-up companies,  and non-state actors will not face the same bureaucratic hurdles and thus are likely to produce cheap, smart, and deadly drones using commercially available parts.  They won’t be highly reliable or reusable. They won’t need to be.  If only half of a swarm works correctly, it may be more than sufficient to overwhelm advanced defenses.

. . .

The convergence of technologies and techniques is already producing small, smart, cheap, and long-range drones capable of carrying significant payloads.  Fuel gels and nano-explosives will increase the range and lethality of these commercially available systems.  Additive manufacturing will dramatically reduce the costs.  The Pentagon needs to rethink the exquisitely capable but extremely expensive weapons procurement programs it is pursuing.  While these systems were a major factor in the tactical successes of the last 24 years, the United States needs to think hard about the shift from exquisite and very few to cheap and very many.

There’s much more at the link.  Highly recommended reading.



  1. We have to define our terms. What are you calling 'cheap'? The cheap hobby stuff (in which I am something of an authority) WILL NOT destroy fighter planes, drop heavy ordnance on hapless Marines, fly from Mecca to Tel Aviv autonomously or any of the other codswallop those journalists and talking heads claim. To do serious damage, you need heavy lift, which will be compromised by heavy batteries, augmented by a full blown sensor suite that would include GPS and sonar technologies. Hell's bells, Pete, if these things were viable weapons we would be using them! You will not be seeing the Predators being retired and replaced by Crapcopters any time soon. I know this because I AM a hobbyist, and NO WAY would I even THINK of poking at Uncle Sam and his irritable Marines with these things. An effective drone fit for warfare/terror is going to cost upward of $10K. At least – I would probably put it up around twice or thrice that. Programming it will require somebody that knows what he's doing – which leaves Abu Al Fuknuk-Al out. What are shoulder fired rockets going for these days? $80K? For that price you get a far more robust and effective weapon, far greater range, and far bigger chance of getting away after you fire it.

    I haven't seen this kind of misinformation since the heyday of the gun grabbers. I'm surprised that a man of your intellect and background can be stick handled like this, Pete.

    Boys, go BUY one. Seriously! They're fun, the kids will love it and it will give you a chance to educate yourselves AND have some serious fun at the same time.

  2. In my 70 some years I have seen a lot of things thought to be impossible come to pass. At the very least the military should be keeping a close eye on this technology and thinking about counter measures.

  3. Well, while I mostly agree with Glen above, there are just a couple of things being forgotten here, presuming the news is even half accurate;
    1. The ragheads launched a fleet of drones, of which most were disabled by EMP weapons or shot down by AA at God alone knows what cost! The Russians have 3 to play with, but how long would their AA assets last in a huge swarm, what is reload time for these systems?
    2. You dont need to blow a plane out of the sky, any damage to any surface on the ground renders it unfit to fly until it is repaired, again, war of attrition! Same for soft skinned vehicles, tents, ammo dumps, control towers!

  4. As to the cost and availability, what is cheap and available here, and conversely expensive and not available here, may not be the truth to a location quite a bit closer to a major manufacturer with no cares for US import laws, like, oh, say, Com China.

    As to the drones that the Russians shot down, it was not your little tiny handheld, but quite a bit larger.

    ISIS and other 'bad actors' have access to vast cash amounts. What is cheap for them, meaning in the thousands, is unattainable for us 'hobbyist' level 'buy it from Walmart' customers.

    But wait a few years, or not. Mini and Micro drones with toxins or explosives are just around the corner.

  5. "Drone" and "UAV" are both broad terms, too broad for a focused discussion IMO. Better to talk about Quad-copters and Fixed-wing UAVs show the distinction better. A fixed-wing device as in the photo can be quite large (up to and including full airplane size) and carry a tactically useful payload without large batteries. Once the gas engine shuts off you have a silent glider that would be very hard to detect at night.

    A quad-copter is much more maneuverable to be sure but is inherently a shorter range device.

  6. Clearly we must get started on growing batches of clones to form into a Grand Army of the Republic with which defend against the hordes of combat droids, er, drones.

  7. St. John's, Newfoundland to Dublin is 2050 miles.
    That trip was accomplished by a drone on a gallon of gas in 2003.

    Mecca to Tel Aviv is only 940 miles.
    That latter trip is unpossible, because Glen has assured us it must be so.
    Because, apparently, half the distance with a fourteen-year advance in capabilities is an incredible leap of brobdingnagian proportions of tech capability, and could never deliver a payload.

    So, once again, we can believe Glen's earnest counterfactual assurances, or our own lying eyes, and the considered opinion of a thirty-year veteran military theorist.

    Decisions, decisions.

    Oh, and Glen?
    Update your browser.
    "Shoulder-fired rockets"?
    RPG-7s, in a seller's market like Syria, have "skyrocketed" to $2500@, up from $1000 a couple years back.
    MANPADS go for between $2-25K.
    As Casey Stengel used to say, "you could look it up".

    $80K? In your dreams, man; in your dreams.

    The internet is really a thing; you should try it.
    Just a suggestion: If you cut your hat into very small pieces, it'll probably go down easier. You might even try making them out of fruit roll-ups; I think you're going to be on a steady hat diet, from all evidence.

  8. No offense, Aesop, and no need to get pissy; go down to the local hobby shop, find a model that will do all that for $300.00 – and we'll see ya down at the airfield and you can show me how it all works? Oh, I know, you can fly it up here to Alberta, and I will fill it up and send it back down!

    Oh, and I would give my left nut for a pound of Accurate 2520 – could you package that and stow it on the aircraft and send it along? I'll pay you for it, the stuff is unobtanium around here! 🙂

    Boys I am not looking to whiz all over our host; he has some valid points. Yes, a dedicated engineering student probably can fab up autonomous drones that can do all that, but it won't be cheap, and it will be way beyond the hobbyist level. Sure, he might run it on a gallon of gas – but he won't be carrying a payload. All I am saying boys, is that if it is that easy – YOU do it. Seriously, go ahead and I will wait. In the meantime, me and the kids will play with our toys as we see fit.

  9. A few years ago, in a job I no longer do, we (team and I) used a "drone" from Amazon and some stuff from a nationwide hardware store chain (whose initials are "Home Depot") and blew up a shoothouse on the local .mil base. The fact we got our collective asses in a sling was just a bonus.

    Sorry if it doesn't line up with the Canadian's narrative, but it happened.

    Our intent was to show a "hobby drone" could do real damage; we seem to have underestimated our abilities.

  10. Way back in 2002, the US Navy concluded the Iranian coastal fishing fleet armed with Silkworm missiles would beat a US carrier group.


    I don't know what size and wealth of enemy a carrier group is still good against. Not a big one. Imagine the PR win from sinking a large military ship in a US port. Or while passing under the Golden Gate bridge, blocking the channel, where a zillion drivers will see the salvage operation. Would sinking a capital ship be a bigger PR win than 9/11? One month later they do it again, proving all the "we closed that barn door" talk from officials is just talk. And then a third time. And a fourth time. And a fifth time.

  11. I'm not pissy, Glen.
    There's a picture and two videos of what hobby drones can do and have already done, right here on this site.

    Which you've told us and told us is unpossible.

    You're the guy in the local barbershop, telling everyone that man will never fly.

    In 1905.

    Catch up on current events, and get a new schtick.

    In the early 1980s, the Israelis built military drones in a garage, with Styrofoam and balsa and gasoline engines.
    They sent a few of them flying up the Bekaa Valley, with ELINT pods, cameras, real-time video, and nav telemetry, and recorded all the AA sites warming up, noting the positions and frequencies.

    The next time they went up there a few weeks later, they sent drones in first with transponders and such hung on them that said to Russian-client radar "I'm the entire Israeli Air Force".
    Behind them, they flew an alpha strike with HARMs that erased the entire Syrian Air Defense network in Lebanon for a decade, and then wiped out 87 Migs in return for 0 losses.
    That was 35 years ago.

  12. cont.
    Only 26 years ago, in Gulf War I, sailors on the USS New Jersey, flying modified IAF hand-me-down drones for use in NGF spotting, used them to adjust fire from 20-30 miles out in the Persian Gulf.
    One of the drones, winged by Iraqi AAA, was losing altitude, but as they flew the crippled drone back to the ship, the entire CIC was in tears of laughter watching countless Iraqi soldiers coming out of their positions, hands raised, running after the slowly descending drone as it headed back to sea, trying to surrender to it, before they caught another 2000# shell in their pants, because all they knew was when they heard the little engine, it meant large sections of local real estate were about to disappear in smoke and flames, and they were tired of that.

    I knew this because I attended a military briefing on drones in 1984, and an aerospace one just after GW I, both by serving military officers. BTW, the USMC's first RPV Platoon was stood up in 1985 at Swamp Lejeune, and the guys they specifically recruited were those with civilian RC experience, because that was the tech level they were working with. Recovery was stretching a badminton net across a short runway, and repair consisted of duct-taping damaged Styrofoam or replacing sections, as needed. There were no PH.D.s involved. My former platoon commander was one of the first officers assigned when he left my unit. After they showed us what they could do, in the field, using less tech than you could find in a 1985-era college radio/television department.

    What you think drones can't do was being done for real decades before you even heard of them, and likely before you even began RC flying.
    Jumping Jehoshaphat, sometime look up Operation Aphrodite and how Jack Kennedy's older brother died, fer cripe's sake. That was in 1944, with tech that you could replicate today at Radio Shack while in the Boy Scouts HAM club.

    And now, even hobby-level drones can be and have been successfully weaponized, whether as made, or with minimal hobby-level alteration.

    Consequently, your ceaseless gainsaying of this observed reality is worn down to bare tire rims, and your undercarriage is smoking and sparking something fierce.

    The first such drive-by is funny, the second is sad, and after that, it's just annoying.

  13. I dunno, but I bet you could make a royal mess flying a quad-copter with a grenade w/ a contact fuse into the air intake of a jumbo-jet, ready for take-off….

  14. Maybe the whole debate comes down to a definition problem, as /urbane legend/ pointed out when he showed what different groups consider "cheap".

    Remember that the US military considers destroying a 15k technical with a 250k rocket a solid win – and it is, since their budget is more than 100x larger than their opponents. They can outspend them. As European, I appreciate the strategy, it worked wonders in the cold war.

    Now Glen uses a $300 off-the-shelf drone as example. And those cannot do that, I trust him on that. And a drone like the mentioned TAM-5 (although "The Spirit of Butts' Farm" sounds way better) could not carry any additional load when crossing the Atlantic and it was way more expensive. But it was built for that one purpose only. On the other hand, a 100k "off-the-shelf" under water drone gives a bit more leeway in what to do with it…

    So the question for all participants -if they are interested in a fair debate on the practical implementation- should be: What would be the exact purpose, the allowed price range, the allowed amount of work and the allowed tools? Maybe restrict the shape, too: Planes are usually more efficient than quad copters, but the latter are way easier to control.

    Personally, I would love to see what can be done with $5k, some carbon fiber rods, some 3d-printed connectors, cheap powerful electric motors from China, modern lithium poly batteries and off-the-shelf controls and software.

    As a 21st century terrorist org, 5k x 20 be my startup funding to get something that is capable to destroy high value infrastructure and grounded planes, and that can be easily built according to a one-page schematic and shopping list published in Inspire (or whatever the current terror mag is named).

  15. How hard is it to replace your GoPro with a small block of C4 and a cell phone detonator and fly it up the tailpipe of a modern fighter jet. Instant mission kill. The cost of said quad vs. the cost of a modern jet engine is a big win, and that assumes there isn't additional damage from fire and such. C4 and detonators might be hard to find in the US, but apparently they are widely available 'over there'. A quad copter with a range of a mile or so will get across the fence and to the flight line at most airports…even military ones.

    Apparently the Russians have some defenses, but they are not 100% as we have seen.

    Woe is he who underestimates his enemy. There are plenty of Western educated technical people in the terror cells from doctors to engineers.

    1. The problem right now is that without video, you can't be precise enough to fly up a tailpipe. GPS has its limitations. A vidlink with the range for comms from a safe distance outside a perimeter isn't found on hobbyist drones, and is easily jammable. All surmountable problems, but not cheaply.

  16. C4 can be had here in some US states with just a driver's license, last I looked.

    There's also plenty laying about off the radar.

    Glen was cock-a-doodle-doing back in October about how COTS hobby-level drones had payloads "measured in grams". Turns out that would be 500 grams.

    For countries that have landed on the moon, that equates to 1.1 pounds.

    Which is the weight of a US M67 frag grenade, a jury-rigged PG-7 warhead, a block of C4 with ball bearings imbedded on the face, a soda can filled with homemade thermite, a juice bottle filled with gasoline, or a ziplock baggie filled with ricin/anthrax/ mysterious white powder, all of which play hell with civilian targets, and static soft military targets, like Syrian-based MiGs and Sukhois, and Crimean ammunition dumps.

    "If" is a settled case in history.
    The only remaining questions are "when" and "where", the next dozen times.

    It's easy to be sanguine and dismissive of reality in Alberta, when the nearest LNG terminal is going to be 1500 miles away.

  17. I'm interested in model gliders (slope soarers, if you must know) and have collected plans and articles on such gliders.

    One thing a lot of prople don't realise is that in strong winds, you need a heavier aircraft to punch through the wind. The instructions for one of the models states "In strong winds, add 1 pound of ballast". Now for slope soaring, you win by keeping the glider airborne as long as possible but even with a pound of explosive as ballast and a 150 foot height achieved by a towline, a flight time of 3 1/2 to 4 minutes on flat ground isn't remarkable. The speed of our ballasted glider? anything from 80 MPH to 120 MPH and I kid you not. So that would yeild from 4 to 10 miles range. Wingspan is about 6 foot or less.

    You want a foam glider? Lok at Experimentalairlines website or their youtube videos. Or i f you really want to go sophisticated, using a hot wire cutter to produce NACA and other advanced airfoils quickly and cheaply is a doddle. I experiment with a two channel glider fuselage (operates rudder and elevator) and swap out foam wings to try to find the optimum airfoil shape.

    In a sense I agree with Glen Filthie BUT that is if you buy your models and components from a model shop ready to go. There are many Muslims in the west that have attended university and have the technical skills to produce and modify the necessary components. I know from friends that the IED's the Muslims use are very sophisticated and not just a mobile phone SIM card and explosive. Yet we are supposed to believe that these guys culd not master something than a 8 year old American child could do in his bedroom with a few basic components? This is akin to the pre second world war "experts" saying japanese have poor eyesight, can't fight at night and are lousy pilots … How did that work out?

  18. without video, you can't be precise enough to fly up a tailpipe

    Laser designator pointed on target, missile flies to the spot. Modulate the beam with some simple pattern or code. Put the second designator on a second drone, which does have video to the pilot.

  19. I remember the Mythbusters doing some wonderful experimental work on explosives. They would set up their trademark crash test dummy and blow him up in proximity to some differential pressure cells.

    We would need to do something similar here to gage the effectiveness of a GoPro lump of C4 or Thermite. I will bet you dollars to donuts that the percussive blast radius is miniscule, and nowhere near that required to rip off the empennage of a jet fighter plane.

    Can you blow up an ammo dump with 8.6 ounces of C4? Our leading minds say yes!!!

  20. nowhere near that required to rip off the empennage of a jet fighter plane

    Land the GoBoom on the canopy, shotgun the instrument panel with fragments of the canopy. It mostly might just break the glass instrument faces. Mostly.

  21. For the fourth time, Glen:
    If you're going to be so conspicuously wrong, go to the photo a couple of posts prior: that's apparently a PG-7 warhead, which is the business end of an RPG-7 anti-armor rocket, the height of 1957 Soviet technology.

    It's rated as effective against 500mm (again, for countries that landed on the moon, that'd be 20 inches) of homogenous steel tank armor. Or, for the more aeronautically inclined, steel armorplate about 19 7/8" thicker than the aluminum skin applied to the control surfaces of the average fighter (or commercial) jet.

    Given the fuel, hydraulic, and electrical lines, along with fuel, engines, and more vital components that comprise everything underneath that skin, it' doesn't take a helluva lot of skill (or warhead) to render a multi-million dollar/ruble aircraft hors de combat with a hit anywhere from nose to tail, and obviously some places are better targets than others, but detonation in close proximity would be catastrophic. (And unless it was dropped on static targets from altitude, it would render the drone a one-way flight as well, but that doubles the range on a one-way mission, which only sucks for those who think drones can't reach out far enough.

    And for benefit of those still swinging after the bell, nota bene the aircraft in question were parked in fixed revetments, not attacked in flight. Duh.

    And since you seem to have forgotten imperial measurement yourself, the payload capacity of the 3DR drone mentioned waaaaay back originally was noted to be 500 grams as provided OEM and before any hobbyist modifications; that'd be 1.1 pounds, or double the weight you just incorrectly cited, above.

    You've lost this argument, each and every time, and have resorted to just making stuff up. Srsly, that's the best you can do?

    -50 points for Slytherin.

  22. And FTR, one doesn't go after open-air ammo dumps with C4; they use thermite, which is composed of equal parts rust (iron oxide) and aluminum shavings, available everywhere at minimal cost, and which burns, in any quantity or weight, at about 4000° F, which takes out ammo dumps in spectacular fashion, especially after the first detonation.
    The only trick for the hobbyist-level user is the initial ignition, but after that, physics takes over nicely.

    For a bonus, they'd render a jet fighter to smoking scrap even more effectively than a PG-7 hit, unless someone had both first-world crash rescue, and a very rapid (like in seconds) response.

    Once again, you could look it up:

    1) Stick to what you know.
    2) This topic probably isn't within that problem set to any degree.

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