Wednesday, February 21, 2024

How will AI-enabled attack drones shake up the global strategic equation?

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In recent months, announcements have multiplied concerning the development of a new generation of attack drones equipped with artificial intelligence, to reinforce their effectiveness, whether in Russia, China, Iran and even in North Korea.

Far from being anecdotal, the arrival of this new generation of long-range military defensive device, with effects close to those that can be obtained by the use of nuclear weapons.

While the weapon systems capable of providing effective defense against these new drones are still to be discovered, we can expect that their tactical as well as strategic potential, and a particularly low budgetary and technological entry ticket, will cause a profound upheaval of the global strategic equation established since the end of the Second World War, based solely on nuclear weapons.

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The use of Shahed 136 long-range attack drones against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure

From September 2022, a new weapon was launched by Russian forces, alongside traditional ballistic and cruise missiles, to strike the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Dnipro, Kremetchouk, Zaporozhye and even Kharkiv . Far from the technological weapons that the West was beginning to deliver to the Ukrainian forces, it was an inexpensive drone, easy to produce, and acquired in large quantities by Russia from Iran, the Shahed attack drone. 136.

Shahed-136 attack drones
The Iranian Shahed 136 long-range attack drone was first revealed in December 2021, and used in combat in Ukraine from September 2022.

For the first time, drones were used to carry out strategic missions, namely to strike civilian infrastructure and even the adversary's population. It had only 2.5 m wingspan and 200 kg, but it was capable of traveling up to 2,000 km using its MD-550 piston engine, and accurately hitting a target thanks to its satellite guidance, to detonate its military charge of 30 to 50 kg.

Above all, its production price, estimated at around $20 to $40,000, was incommensurate with that of the cruise missiles used until then by Moscow, such as the Kalibr and the Kh-55, but also with that of the missiles used for counter it.

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While Russian long-range munitions stocks tended to become empty, the approximately 800 Shahed 136s delivered by Iran to Russia allowed Russian forces to maintain significant pressure on Ukrainian anti-aircraft defenses, which were forced to be deployed, and employed, to protect the country's strategic infrastructure. They also caused a significant consumption of ammunition and the dispersion of DCA forces for the Ukrainian armies.

Since then, the Shahed 136, and its version produced locally in Russia, called Geran-2, have been systematically used in addition to cruise missile and ballistic missile strikes against Ukrainian civil and military infrastructure , often in order to attract fire. the DCA supposed to protect them, and thus increase the effectiveness of the missiles themselves, which are much more destructive.

Towards a second generation of attack drones equipped with AI and more efficient

New models of long-range attack drones have since been used, whether in Ukraine, or by the Houthi rebels and Iranian auxiliary forces, in Yemen and Iraq. This is the case of the Shahed 238, an evolution of the 136 equipped with a small reactor, giving it a cruising speed estimated between 600 and 800 km/h, compared to only 185 km/h for the old model.

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Shahed 238 attack drone
The Shahed 238 drone is equipped with a turbojet, and would have on-board AI, according to Tehran. Russia has developed its own version of the drone, called Geran-3, also equipped with AI.

If these new drones improve certain capabilities, and sometimes increase the difficulty of intercepting them, they do not, however, change the context of use. However, faced with the operational potential demonstrated by the Shahed 136 in Ukraine, several countries, including Iran , but also Russia with the Geran-3 , China and others, have undertaken to develop a new generation of these drones. attack, this time equipped with Artificial Intelligence, giving them unparalleled performance.

Indeed, if the Shahed 136 is suitable for hitting infrastructure, it is incapable of targeting anything other than previously established geographic coordinates. Impossible, therefore, for it to be used to dynamically strike anti-aircraft defenses, which are by nature mobile.

Above all, its use requires having very precise information regarding the position and layout of the target, as well as the trajectory to follow to reach it. Finally, the satellite guidance of these drones, at the heart of their precision, also constitutes their greatest weakness. Indeed, powerful jamming, for example, in the form of spoofing, is enough to make them deviate from their trajectory, and hit rapeseed fields, rather than the electric grid.

The onboarding of artificial intelligence, even relatively little evolved, would not only strengthen the resistance of attack drones to jamming , but it would give them very significant adaptability, to strike potentially mobile targets, or to fill in gaps. information in navigation or concerning the target itself, in order to determine the best trajectory to follow.

Drone swarm
Drone swarms make it possible to coordinate the action of each of the drones composing it, with that of the others, for an overall optimized effect.

The use of AI also makes it possible to coordinate the attack pattern of a set of drones, to make it evolve in a swarm, so as to saturate adversary defenses by making the most of the limits of the systems used.

According to the Russian authorities, who no longer seem to care about reliability considerations regarding the use of AI in drones, as before the war, this phase of embedding AI in attack drones and lurking munitions , has already started, and should arrive on the battlefield in the coming months.

An accessible, inexpensive strategic weapon that is difficult to protect against


LOGO meta defense 70 Military Drones and Robotics | Defense Analysis | Russian-Ukrainian conflict

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Fabrice Wolf
Fabrice Wolfhttps://meta-defense.fr/fabrice-wolf/
A former French naval aeronautics pilot, Fabrice is the editor and main author of the Meta-defense.fr site. His areas of expertise are military aeronautics, defense economics, air and submarine warfare, and Akita inu.

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