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.
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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.
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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.
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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.