Grenade Through The Sunroof? Disruption For Aerospace And Aviation From Ukraine

Gaining experience in aerospace is difficult. New aircraft typically require years of experimental and operational testing — even small aircraft can take upwards of 10 years to move through the aircraft, production, and operating certification. Historically, wars have dramatically increased the pace of aerospace development and we are already seeing this unfold over the last six months of the war in Ukraine. The war has served as a laboratory for new technologies that pose serious risks to U.S. aerospace dominance and highlight challenges the U.S. and other Western countries face as we enter the world of robotic flight.

The Innovation Incubator

Scale helps determine how quickly industries move down the experience curve. To put things into perspective, the Russian manned aircraft fleet, the second largest in the world, totals upwards of 3,700 aircraft. The Ukrainian armed forces alone have deployed 6,000 predominantly commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) drones for Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) missions. In addition, they have deployed hundreds of “suicide drones” like Aerovironment’s Switchblade, attack drones like the Turkish Bayraktar-TB2, search and rescue drones like BRINC’s LEMUR that flies in enclosed spaces, and even freight drones for battlefield resupply. Today, a very large commercial drone fleet might have 100 aircraft. The Ukrainian army is operating at 80-100 times that scale and will fly an outsized proportion of all drone missions this year.

A Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drone is on view during a presentation at the Lithuanian Air Force … [+] Base in Siauliai, Lithuania, on July 6, 2022. – Lithuania on July 6, 2022 exhibited a crowdfunded Turkish-made military drone that it plans to send to Ukraine to help the war-torn country fight Russia’s invasion. People in the NATO member country raised 5.9 million euros for the Bayraktar TB2 drone over three days last month, before its Turkish manufacturer Baykar announced it would donate the drone free of charge. (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS / AFP) (Photo by PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

Drones are technically proficient, cost-effective, easy to modify, and expendable. Whereas a F-35 costs $120MM; the DJI Phantom 3 can be purchased for less than $400. These cost differences become even greater when comparing the full product lifecycle. Consumer drone product lifecycles last months instead of years and COTS drones are easy to hack. Some estimates suggest the average drone has an average combat life of one day.

Ed Anastassacos, CEO of Herotech8, a “drone in the box” company in the UK, sees a massive impact from the wartime pace of operations. “It creates such rapid feedback loops that you compress years of learning into weeks. The Ukrainians have such a high rate of adoption, they act like a start-up. It wouldn’t surprise me if by the end of the war, the Ukrainians were one of the leaders in this space.” Joseph Menaker, one of the founders of UAV Factory and a board member of Edge Autonomy puts it even more directly, “During every two months of the war in Ukraine, unmanned aviation has progressed as much as in two normal years.”

One can see the demand for drones in the U.S. supply chain. BRINC, which makes drones for search and rescue among other applications for primarily enclosed spaces, bought back inventory from its U.S. distributors to send aircraft to Ukraine. “Emergency services inside Ukraine needed something that could help them find people in confined spaces, so we sent them 10 drones. The pace of feedback and especially the mission video has been very helpful to our development,” says Blake Resnick, CEO of BRINC Drones. A few drone company management teams have all but moved to the Baltic States to support deployment of their systems in this fertile test environment.

POLAND. KUJAWSKO-POMORSKIE PROVINCE. MARCH 22.2022. First lemur dron presentantion at the hotel. … [+] Chase Bailey drone pilot and trainer for BRINC is explaining the use of dron to the ukrainian pilots. BRINC, a Seattle-based drone maker, came to Poland to train pilots from the Ukrainian Emergency Service. The pilots are trained to fly the Lemur drones in order to reach the victims in the bomb-damaged buildings of Ukraine. (Photo by Karolina Jonderko for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The Washington Post via Getty Images

The war pulls demand deep down the value chain helping the industry develop core capabilities. “We have seen the number of unmanned aircraft on our fleet management software increase dramatically since the start of the war,” says Tony Pucciarella, CEO of AlarisPro, a flight readiness and maintenance platform in which my fund, DiamondStream, has invested. “All the additional flying has given OEM’s considerable insight into the performance of their systems as well as the life of individual parts and a path towards extending useful asset life of the entire aircraft. This can help with certification.”

Similarly, the Defense Logistics Agency issued a request for information (RFI) document looking for “weapons systems or commercial capabilities for Ukraine security assistance.” In a matter of weeks, DLA received over 300 proposals outlining a wide array of technologies. Many of these solutions will receive accelerated funding increasing the pace of technology development.

The Ukrainians have innovated continually in the areas of ISR (intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance), precision attacks using commercial drones, and secure data links.

Cheap and Deadly Commercial Drones

The pace of development has brought anticipated risks from drones into sharp focus. The Ukrainian and Russian militaries initially used drones primarily for ISR missions that identify and track targets for artillery. Mr. Resnick observes, “drone simplicity and value has enabled the Ukrainians to democratize military ISR missions.” For example, a father and son team in the Ukraine used their commercial drone to spot Russian forces and facilitate indirect artillery attacks. More importantly, the Ukrainians have tightly integrated commercial drone ISR missions into GIS Arta artillery targeting software. Often artillery starts to hit Russian targets only moments after identification.

The Ukrainians and Russians have also created innovative modifications to COTS drones to enable direct attacks on enemy personnel and armored vehicles at an astonishing pace. In this video from April the Ukrainians take an obsolete DJI Phantom 3 (a drone I gave to my daughter for Christmas four years ago), with a makeshift solenoid and 3D-printed fins to ensure the attached grenade is precisely targeted. The whole set-up probably cost less than $1,000. The grenade drops precisely through the sun-roof with unfortunate results for a team of Russian special forces.

This video shows the slightly less sophisticated Russian version.

By July, this technology had evolved considerably. Below is a DJI Matrice 300, with a eight grenade carousel for ground attack. In addition, the Ukrainians had evolved techniques to use multiple drones in these attacks, some for ISR and target acquisition and some for munitions delivery.

The War has illustrated that anyone with $1,000 and basic technical competence can spot targets for artillery attacks or use light COTS drone swarms to attack targets. The war has also shown that identifying and preventing these attacks is not easy.

Struggling to Identify Threats

On March 10th, a relatively large Tu-141 Soviet era drone flew through Romania, Hungary, and Croatia at over 3,000 feet for over an hour before it ran out of fuel. It crashed in a park in southern Zagreb. The bomb inside the drone exploded on impact and damaged several cars. It is unclear who sent it or if it was a malfunction. A drone this large doesn’t escape undetected. The drone was seen by radars in all three countries. There was no reaction by NATO as the radar in the three countries did not identify the TU-141 as a threat.

This picture taken on March 11, 2022 shows a crater on the ground after a flying object crashed … [+] overnight on the outskirts of the Croatian capital, Zagreb. – A drone crashed in a park, police said, with media reports saying it was likely a Soviet-made reconnaissance drone recently used by Ukrainian forces. Local media, citing a military aviation expert, said it could be one of the Tupolev Tu-141s recently used by Ukrainian forces. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

This incident shouldn’t have surprised anyone. Military radar systems work well in war zones when combined with transponders that can easily divide hostile and friendly traffic. Civilian aviation remains driven largely by visual flight rules that made sense when people sat in the pilot’s seat and were at personal risk of accidents or worse. The air traffic control system that evolved from those rules focused on deconfliction in congested airspace. Why should air traffic controllers worry about an aircraft in uncontrolled airspace? As John Walker, a former senior executive at the FAA and Senior Partner at the Padina group, says, “We are currently using a 1950s airspace structure to manage these challenges. Until the conflict in the Ukraine, however, we didn’t fully understand the power of robotic war. Managing these risks with visual flight rules will simply not work.”

This issue will compound rapidly over the next decade. There are more than 30MM commercial manned flights per year globally and more than 300MM drone flights. Today’s radar-based Air Traffic Control (ATC) systems work well for large aircraft flying at high altitudes and high speed. Additionally, ADSB sensor systems do a reasonable job of tracking commercial aircraft with transponders.

Beyond large manned flights, however, identification becomes more challenging. Radar systems were not designed to detect small drones which have small profiles and contain very little reflective material. Many of these aircraft fly slow and low. Human eyes struggle to see a small drone at 400 feet, and, despite complaints about noise, they become almost inaudible at a certain altitude. They are often made mostly of plastic and can look like birds if radar systems pick them up at all. Few drones carry transponders and even many manned aircraft still don’t carry them.

Remote identification will help, but the nature of drones and the scale of unmanned flying will still lead to a snowstorm of security risks. Commercial aviation operated approximately 39MM flights 2019 and fewer in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. In contrast, drone flights will grow from 323MM in 2021 to 7.1B in 2029 – a 22-fold increase. The complex operations segment, which includes beyond visual line of sight and large fleet operations, will increase by 26,000 times over the same period. By the end of the period, nearly everyone in developed countries will have some type of daily contact with a drone. If NATO can’t identify a large, high-speed Soviet era drone, flying at altitude through the airspace of three different countries as a threat, how will we identify threats from drones without transponders from among 7B flights?

Stopping Drone Threats – Challenging and Expensive

KYIV, UKRAINE – 2022/05/14: A Ukrainian soldier holds an anti-drone rifle preparing it for testing … [+] in Kyiv. Anti-drone rifle purchased with funds raised during a charity concert in Toronto, Canada, as part of the presentation, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. Anti-drone jammer (counter drone rifle) EDMS, long-range electronic gun for combating multicopter. (Photo by Mykhaylo Palinchak/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Even if you can identify potential threats, they can be hard to stop. Dr. Scott Crino, CEO of Red-Six, a well-known counter-drone consultancy, sums up the challenge, “counter-drone systems are trying to catch-up to the attackers. Right now, the attackers have the advantage.”

Mr. Menaker notes that drone operations have become increasingly difficult as counter-drone measures, and especially jamming, have become more effective during the course of the war. Having your drone hijacked and reveal your position has created risks for front-line infantry who operate drones.

Still, electronic countermeasures have their limits. Take the June 22nd Ukrainian drone attack on a refinery in Rostov, Russia by a drone available for sale on Alibaba. According to a Luhansk People’s Republic mil-blogger, Murz, the drone was likely stripped of much of its electronics thereby reducing its electric footprint. It flew low and slow which made it difficult for Russian air defense to detect and jam. The Chinese produced drone carried a small warhead but created a large fire given its highly flammable target. In August, the same type of drone struck the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol.

Many have speculated that inertial guidance, reduced radio contact, and innovative use of Elon Musk’s Starlink system have made Russian electronic countermeasures less effective against Ukrainian drones. Use of cell-towers for navigation can also make it difficult to isolate drone signals for counter-drone operations. Optical and acoustic identification systems can help solve these identification issues. However, they often have relatively short detection ranges and degraded performance due to weather and other types of interference. This makes them useful for point defense but less effective at detecting threats in a broader traffic pattern. Overall, the war in Ukraine suggests defending critical infrastructure from determined attackers won’t be easy.

If these hacks challenge the effectiveness of cheap counter-drone measures, traditional air defense systems look prohibitively expensive. Dr. Crino cites a drone attack on Abu Dhabi in January 2022 to illustrate the challenges. “The attack was led by an inexpensive drone that cost a few thousand dollars as a decoy. It was followed by several cruise missiles. The Abu Dhabi defensive systems attacked the lead drone with Patriot missiles. Patriot missiles were designed to attack larger manned aircraft and they used thirteen $6MM missiles to shoot down a drone that cost a tiny fraction of that amount.”

Ukraine seems to have followed a similar strike strategy for airfields and supply depots in the Crimea. The attacks created tremendous response from Russian air defense systems highlighting their locations and capabilities. The cost of acquiring this intelligence, which can later be used to target air defenses with anti-radiation missiles, costs little. A COTS drone might cost as little as $1000-2000. A Stinger missile system is $38,000. Given the expense of air defense missiles, it also amounts to an effective attrition strategy – trading cheap drones for expensive, hard to replace missiles. This opens the airspace for attacks by more traditional aviation systems. Dmitri Alperovitch, of the Silverado Policy Institute calls this “asymmetric warfare”.

The Insecure Supply Chain

The war has also demonstrated the frailty of aerospace supply chains. Russian drone production depends on imports of advanced semi-conductors from the west. In some cases, they appear to have used chips from washing-machines to repair tanks. These supply challenges have also driven them to create drone supply deals with the Iranians. The U.S. believes that these component supply challenges have slowed Russian weapons production.

On a systems basis, China-based DJI supplies most of the COTS drones. DJI produces a detection product called Aeroscope that enables drone tracking and identifies the location of the operator of the drone’s control system. At the beginning of the war, the Ukrainians accused DJI of helping the Russians to target their pilots with Aeroscope while denying them similar access to Russian operators. Not surprisingly, DJI tried to limit the controversy by suspending drone sales in Ukraine and Russia. Whatever the truth of these allegations, it shows the challenges of relying on a supplier tied to a potentially hostile power and those challenges go far beyond simply locating drone operators.

Running a drone fleet requires software to plan flights, integrate maintenance status, and assure pilot availability. All of these activities will require application program interfaces (API) between the drone controller, the operations centers that plan and control drone flights, and the maintenance software that validates their readiness for flight. Although DJI does not offer an API today, private companies have found ways to access the DJI controllers to provide the relevant data. Some observers see the potential for security vulnerabilities from having a cloud-based drone controller from a Chinese company interfacing with key civilian and military infrastructure.

The U.S. government identified these risks some time ago and has moved to discourage use of DJI drones by U.S. government agencies. However, the U.S. government has granted many waivers to these rules and many U.S. allies have no such rules. Despite these concerns, both sides in the Ukraine conflict still use DJI drones as the best available solution for many ISR missions.

Six Takeaways for the Future

Given how much the war has accelerated the pace of change and crystalized opportunities and risks that many have observed previously, here are five thoughts for the future.

A New Balance for Safety and Security

Until recently, air safety was mostly about preventing accidents and hijackings. While terrorists managed to use aircraft as weapons in the 9/11 attacks, the measure taken to improve security in airports and on aircraft themselves prevented further attacks of this type.

With the advent of drone technology, this has changed in several important ways. Getting control of an aircraft has become easy. You can buy one on-line. It has also become cheap. The grenade launching systems the Ukrainians use cost less than an old used car. Finally, the personal risk from launching an attack by air has declined. Air terrorism is no longer a suicide mission. A bad actor can launch an attack with a commercially available drone remotely as the Ukrainians did at Sevastopol. The balance of risks for everyday people in air safety has begun to move from flight safety towards security. This will create new challenges for war and peacetime security in the skies.

Airspace Management to Contain Security Threats

The sheer number of aircraft and potential targets will make limiting the opportunities for attack and figuring out what to defend a top priority. Airspace management tools will be needed that can rapidly validate what aircraft don’t represent a threat and that reduce risk by dynamically changing restrictions on airspace to limit drone access to sensitive areas at sensitive times like sporting events or concerts. All of this will require enormous scale to implement at reasonable cost, but tentative approaches could lead to partial solutions with greater risks.

The Pendulum Swings Towards Lower Cost Systems

Stalin famously stated, “quantity has a quality of its own.” Cheap weapons systems have increasingly dominated the Ukraine battlespace. Cheap drones destroy expensive tanks and wear down expensive air defenses. Cheap HIMARS missile systems have had more impact on interdiction of logistics than manned aviation has had to date.

Not surprisingly, the Ukrainians had mixed feelings regarding the purchase of four U.S. made MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones at a price tag of $10MM each. While Ukraine’s general staff supported the purchase, front-line pilots see them as too complex to use, too easy to shoot down, and too expensive for the capability they bring. Perhaps the reports that the average COTS drone lasts for one day of combat informed their perspective.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, developed by General Atomics stands on display at the Seoul … [+] International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition (ADEX) at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, South Korea, on Monday, Oct. 18, 2021. The exhibition opens on Oct. 19 and will run through Oct. 23. Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

© 2021 Bloomberg Finance LP

Expect more robust debates about the tradeoffs between the costs of weapons systems vs. their capabilities.

Domestic Civil Aviation Scale, Essential for Effective Defense Procurement

The U.S. recognizes the value of innovative commercial technologies and secure domestic sources for these technologies. Programs to facilitate innovation including SBIR and AFWERX and the “blue drone” certification programs have all contributed to building a domestic unmanned industry.

DJI’s dominant role in the drone war in the Ukraine has shown both the foresight and the limitations of these programs. With the potential for ten times or more volume, dual use commercial technologies should deliver similar capabilities for less. Figuring out where commercial is good enough and where much more expensive capabilities are needed will become an ongoing challenge.

Just as importantly, large scale war requires scaling production rapidly. What happens when that scale required to deliver cost effectively rests in the supply chain of a potential adversary? Ukraine may prefer to work with someone other than Russia’s ally, but the Chinese have the production capabilities to deliver large quantities of what Ukraine needs due to its dominating position in the commercial drone market. Government’s need to consider whether a key source of supply could be controlled by an adversary. Russia has certainly faced this situation due to its reliance on western semi-conductors and the U.S. could face this challenge if a conflict with China arose over Taiwan.

Mobilizing Civil Aviation Talent

Ukraine has dramatically outperformed Russia in mobilizing human resources for the air war. The physical separation of drone pilots from their missions and the simple user interfaces of COTS drones makes tapping remote civilian pilots a low cost, rapidly scalable method of making talent available for military ISR missions. The Ukrainian government tapped this potential by recruiting civilian drone pilots domestically and internationally, activating Facebook groups with experience in recreational drone use, and reconstituted Aerorozvidka.

Aerorozvidka, which is often typified as a “war start-up,” is an NGO that supports the war effort and remains separate from the Ukrainian defense establishment. Its members help with piloting and developing drones, and creating software tools to deploy robotics on the battlefield. This type of start-up based democratization of warfare drives continual military innovation just as the Silicon Valley ecosystem drives commercial innovation. It also offers a model for a defense reserve system that reduces costs and dramatically improves mobilization of aviation forces in the case of large-scale war.

The western defense contracting markets differ from the Ukrainian Aerorodivka model. Consolidation in the aerospace and defense industry has left a handful of large prime contractors still standing. They pursue long bidding processes that require massive resources. This structure creates bias towards large, highly capable systems that require significant maintenance and highly skilled operators. The system is not set up for dual use technologies that make the costs and scalability of these bespoke technology choices apparent. The simplicity of dual use technologies has enabled the Ukraine war to rapidly deploy new technologies to recently mobilized soldiers in short amounts of time even while the US has limited shipments of some complex weapons systems to Ukraine due to training considerations. As the lessons of the war sink in, expect more emphasis on dual-use (including AFWERX and SBIR programs) and a lively debate on defense contracting structures.

Accelerating Civil Aviation Drone Applications

Just as World War II led to the jet age of commercial aviation, the capabilities that have evolved so rapidly in the Ukraine will dramatically accelerate the adoption of drones and the benefits they generate in civilian applications. Improvements in navigation and autonomous flying will make drones cheaper to use and more effective for complex missions like last mile delivery and linear inspection. Understanding how to identify threats in the airspace will help governments manage safety as the number of drone flights increase. Experience in coordinating multiple drones for military missions will make fighting fires with drones more effective. More secure data links and better jamming devices will reduce risks to the general public from bad actors. The ISR mission experience will make visual inspection of critical infrastructure like railroads, refineries, and pipelines faster and more accurate. More experience in using drones in collapsed buildings and to find wounded soldiers on the battlefield will help with civilian rescue missions. The large scale use of these complex systems by common soldiers will result in easier to use drones that are faster to deploy. The accelerated development of these capabilities will put more pressure on regulators to rapidly find safe ways to deploy these technologies and support this next generation of aerospace and aviation industries.

The Way Forward

As is true of so many technologies, drones have destructive power and tremendous potential benefits. The war in the Ukraine has accelerated the opportunity to create a new golden age of aviation with all the benefits that will come with these new capabilities. It has also created disruption for legacy aerospace and aviation approaches, new risks for military and civilian security, and challenges for governments trying to assure safety without becoming overtaken by events. Moving forward on this tightrope requires good balance, but those standing still will likely be blown off the line.

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