Ukraine is already experiencing the future of drone war. The conflict, which pits regular and irregular Ukrainian forces against Russian-backed separatists in Eastern Ukraine, features the persistent adaptation of modern commercial technologies to the battlefield. Ukraine’s ministry of defense released photos March 19 of a downed drone and its accompanying bomblet.
The short notice captures a portrait-oriented slice of what fighting looks like today. The Joint Forces Press Office claims that the drone was halted with electronic warfare, and then damaged by small arms fire. This is a marked improvement from the situation in the trenches of Donetsk four years ago, where drones deliberately drew fire from soldiers in order to guide artillery strikes against their positions. Having jammers in place mitigates the scouting potential of the drones, and while it’s not a perfect solution, it makes it easier for infantry to shoot down the flying scouts with whatever they have on hand.
The bomblet, too, is a fascinating demonstration of just what weapons a drone can actually carry. In January 2019, Ukraine’s Joint Forces Operation reported an encounter with a drone carrying a fragmentation grenade that had 3D-printed parts. Open-source analysts, examining this latest find in light of similar recovered munitions, tentatively support that finding.
Quadcopters adapted to drop bombs is not new. We’ve seen it in Iraq with ISIS and later with Iraq’s Federal Police, and in Ukraine with militias on both sides of the conflict. The adaptation from earlier improvised shuttlecock-stabilizers to 3D-printed fins is new, though. It shows a progression from assembling weapons from what’s cheap and available to designing the weapons around what can be cheaply yet deliberately manufactured.
It’s a stretch to call drones like this “airpower.” The DJI quadcopters used here are small and cheap, but are limited in range and flight time, often only having about 20 minutes of battery power for flight. That’s without the added weight of a bomb and release mechanism, or any cameras used for targeting. What it is instead is a sort of novel, expendable and reusable style of munition delivery. Even if the drone is lost, it’s only a setback of a few hundred dollars in flying machine. And with 3D printers on hand, parts can be replaced, and new casings for the drone’s payload can be iterated.
If this is the first reliably seen 3D-printed drone munition, it’s extremely unlikely it will be the last.
Kelsey Atherton blogs about military technology for C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain, Defense News, and Military Times. He previously wrote for Popular Science, and also created, solicited, and edited content for a group blog on political science fiction and international security.