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UK testing drone swarms in Ukraine might lead to escalation

Russian, US, UK, NATO, Ukraine

Opinion

UK testing drone swarms in Ukraine might lead to escalation

What’s truly dangerous at this point is the possible deployment of these systems to Ukraine. Most NATO weapons deliveries happened weeks or months before they were officially announced. Writes Drago Bosnic, independent geopolitical and military analyst.

Air superiority is how the political West wages war. US and UK air power has been instrumental in all wars waged by the two leading Western imperialist thalassocracies since the Second World War to this day, although it existed doctrinally since at least the 1920s. This is so ingrained in their concept of warfare that it’s considered nearly impossible for them to lead a successful military campaign without it. This stands in stark contrast to most other comparable military doctrines, particularly the Russian one.

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The Nazi onslaught destroying much of their air force before it got the chance to take off forever changed the way Russians see air power. Realizing (over)reliance on it can have a detrimental effect, coupled with the devastating consequences of American and British firebombing of German cities, which in some cases had an effect no less destructive than nuclear weapons (minus the radiation), Russia’s post-WWII military doctrine adopted a distinct and (up until recently) unique focus on advanced air defenses. Since then, Russia has been developing top-notch SAM (surface-to-air missile) systems, some of which are so advanced they effectively nullify the entire Western air dominance concept. And although Western state-run mass media love to downplay this, the very fact US legislation directly and very specifically targets these systems with sanctions speaks volumes.

The proliferation of these systems is a strategic nightmare for aggressive Western planners, who can’t simply bypass them without incurring “unacceptable losses”. In order to counter Russian SAMs, Western Military-Industrial Complexes have been working on a plethora of new systems. Some prominent examples include advanced drones, particularly miniature ones, which are also planned to operate in swarms, saturating hostile air defenses and paving the way for the more traditional aviation to bomb its way through enemy ground forces.

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RAF (Royal Air Force) experiments with drone swarms show “they can overwhelm enemy defenses” and the concept would be ready for action in a war, according to the UK military service’s Chief of Staff. Air Chief Marshall Sir Mike Wigston told the Global Air and Space Chiefs’ Conference 2022 in London last week that the RAF’s 216 Test and Evaluation Squadron and the Rapid Capabilities Office trialed five drone types in 13 experiments with various payloads and equipment over three years. According to Wigston, this yielded enough insights for the service to declare an “operationally useful and relevant capability,” using its current fleet of drones.

“We are exploring new models of capability delivery and accelerated production ‘when we need them’ rather than ‘in case we need them,’ from the twin jet 3D-printed Pizookie, to commercially available large drones fitted with novel payloads, to large quadcopters,” Wigston stated.

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“The problem of overcoming air defenses is a key obstacle to employing [air] power. Planning for air operations increasingly entails ensuring that planes can fly safely in the first place, putting at risk untold amounts of money that militaries have pumped into beefing up their fleets to fourth- and fifth-generation technology. That conundrum is on display in Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian air-defense capabilities are effectively canceling out the other side’s air power arsenal,” according to Justin Bronk, a defense analyst with the London-based Royal United Services Institute.

“The fact air power has been mutually denied, relatively speaking, in Ukraine by both sides has far more serious implications for us than for either [Russians or Ukrainians]. That’s because both militaries are ultimately dependent on massive land manpower and artillery, whereas joint forces of the UK and other Western powers are critically dependent on having air access and air superiority,” Bonk said at the London conference on July 13.

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“Swarming, which means throwing enough expendable drones at a defensive radar and interceptor position so as to overwhelm them, can be effective, but only to a point. The idea of small and cheap drones attacking air defenses by way of swarming may not be feasible because those drones lack the requisite range and speed. If you want things to go fast and far, they’re going to be jet-propelled and they’re going to cost a fair bit. Getting drone swarms close enough to sophisticated air defenses with a range of hundreds of kilometers requires risky and potentially pricy insertion tactics that negate the widely cited cost benefit of cheap, small drones,” he added.

Western strategists are closely following their latest proxy war against Russia, trying to devise new strategies to fight the Eurasian giant. The deployment of never-before-seen ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) assets around Russia’s borders is a testament to that. In addition, increasing reliance on unmanned systems isn’t just the result of Western militaries trying to adopt new technologies. With NATO having severe manpower problems, drones might be the only way for members to have functional militaries in the near future. The UK itself is faced with this issue, having a very limited ground force with barely a few combat-ready brigades, to say nothing of other micro-satellites carved up after the dismantling of post-socialist federal states.

What’s truly dangerous at this point is the possible deployment of these systems to Ukraine. Most NATO weapons deliveries happened weeks or months before they were officially announced. Thus, it’s highly likely the same is true in this case. How Russia might react is up for debate, but it most certainly won’t take it kindly, which opens up new possibilities for escalation, particularly in the context of the latest controversial statements coming from the UK.

Drago Bosnic, independent geopolitical and military analyst.

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