Small drones, big problem. Two new reports examine the rise and rise of armed ‘one-way attack’ drones 

From top: Israeli Harop, Iranian Shaded 136, Polish Warmate.

Over the past few years  – and particularly in the on-going war in Ukraine – we have seen the rise in use of what has become known as ‘kamikaze’ or  ‘suicide’ drones.  Two new excellent reports have just been released which examine these systems.  ‘One-Way Attack Drones: Loitering Munitions of the Past and Present’ written by Dan Gettinger, formerly of the Bard Drone Center and ‘Loitering Munitions and Unpredictability’ by Ingvild Bode & Tom Watts,  examine between them the history, current use, and growing concern about the increasing autonomy of such systems.

A drone by any other name…?

Firstly, to address the elephant in the room: are these systems ‘drones’?

Naming has always been a keenly fought aspect of the debate about drones, with sometimes bitter conflict over whether such platforms should be named ‘unmanned aerial vehicles’ (UAVS), ‘remotely piloted air systems’ (RPAS) or ‘drones’. ‘Drones’ has been the term that has stuck, particularly in mainstream media, but is regularly used interchangeably with UAV (with ‘unmanned’ being replaced in recent years by ‘uncrewed’ for obvious reasons).  While many in the military now accept the term ‘drone’ and are happy to use it depending on the audience, some continue to insist that it belittles both capabilities of the system and those who operate them.

Whichever term is used, a further aspect of the naming debate is that an increasing number and type of military aerial systems are being labelled as ‘drones’.  While all these systems have significant characteristics in common (aerial systems, unoccupied, used for surveillance/intelligence gathering and/or attack), they can also be very different in terms of size and range; can carry out very different missions; have different effects; and raise different legal and ethical issues.

One type of such system is the so-called ‘suicide’ or ‘kamikaze’ drone  – perhaps better labelled ‘one way attack’ drone.  There are several different categories of this type of drone, and while they are are used to carry out remote lethal attacks and therefore have significant aspects in common with the much larger Reaper or Bayraktar drones, they are significantly different in that they are not designed to be re-used, but rather are expendable as the warhead is part of the structure of the system which is destroyed in use. Importantly, while loitering munitions are a sub-set of ‘one way attack’ drones, not all one-way attack drones are loitering munitions.

Dan Gettinger’s report ‘One-Way Attack Drones: Loitering Munitions of the Past and Present’ helpfully sets out a history of the development of these systems and identifies three sub categories: anti-radar systems, portable or ‘backpackable’ systems and Iranian systems.  He has compiled a helpful dataset of over 200 such systems (although not all are currently in operation). All of these, he argues, can be traced back to “the transition from the era of jet-powered target drones to that of remotely piloted vehicles.” Read more

Loitering munitions, the Ukraine war, and the drift towards ‘killer robots’.

Switchblade loitering munition flies towards target area. The operator views video feed and then designates which  target the munition should strike.

Loitering munitions are now hitting the headlines in the media as a result of their use in the Ukraine war.  Vivid descriptions of ‘kamikaze drones’ and ‘suicide drones’ outline the way in which these weapons operate: they are able to find targets and fly towards them before crashing into them and exploding.  Both Russia and Ukraine are deploying loitering munitions, which allow soldiers to fire on targets such as tanks and heavy armour without the predictability of a mortar or artillery round firing on a set trajectory.   Under some circumstances these ‘fire and forget’ weapons may be able operate with a high degree of autonomy.  For example they can programmed to fly around autonomously in a defined search area and highlight possible targets such as tanks to the operator.  In these circumstances they can be independent of human control. This trend towards increasing autonomy in weapons systems raising questions about how they might shape the future of warfare and the morality of their use.

Loitering munitions such as these have previously been used to military effect in Syria and the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.  Although they are often described as drones, they are in many ways more like a smart missile than an uncrewed aircraft.  Loitering munitions were first developed in the 1980s and can be thought of as a ‘halfway house’ between drones and cruise missiles.  They differ from drones in that they are expendable, and unlike cruise missiles, have the ability to loiter passively in the target area and search for a target.  Potential targets are identified using radar, thermal imaging, or visual sensor data and, to date, a human operator selects the target and executes the command to destroy the target.  They are disposable, one-time use weapons intended to hunt for a target and then destroy it, hence their tag as ‘kamikaze’ weapons.  Dominic Cummings, former chief advisor to the Prime Minister describes a loitering munition as a “drone version of the AK-47: a cheap anonymous suicide drone that flies to the target and blows itself up – it’s so cheap you don’t care”.  Read more