Friday, May 17, 2024

Ukraine is changing the face of war

The Russo-Ukrainian War has been going on in earnest for more than two years now (not counting the low-intensity conflict that preceded Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022). In some respects, the fighting resembles older conflicts such as World War I with its trench warfare and artillery duels. In others, it is breaking new technological and strategic ground. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the war is its documentation. The war in Ukraine is being fought in the media to a greater extent than any war that preceded it, and first-person video posted to the internet is one of the ways that the two sides are rallying their supporters and trying to discourage the enemy. In the two years since the invasion, these videos have gone from light-hearted clips of Ukrainian farmers tugging abandoned Russian armored vehicles away to more violent footage of drones and missiles destroying enemy positions and killing enemy soldiers.


Some of the more recent videos remind me of scenes from “The Terminator.” In one example, a Ukrainian drone flies through the open hatch of a Russian T-90 tank before exploding and turning the tank into an inferno. Drones drop hand grenades and small bombs into vehicles and trenches. Seaborne drone boats evade gunfire and crash into Russian ships. It is surreal to watch the videos and think, “These are real people dying.” It’s easy to feel sorry for the targets of the drones such as this poor Russian soldier caught in the open who makes the sign of the cross as a drone runs him down. In at least one instance, a Russian soldier has surrendered to a drone

Drones are plentiful and relatively cheap. Many off-the-shelf models can be configured to carry a small payload the size of a hand grenade. Given the smart, guided nature of drones, they can be more cost-effective than an artillery barrage, especially for small concentrations of enemy forces or moving targets. By some estimates, one drone can be as effective as 200 artillery shells

Drones also fill a variety of roles. Reconnaissance drones maintain a watch over the front lines and provide intelligence and targeting information for the operators of explosive kamikaze drones. Long-range drones have hit targets deep inside Russia. In one instance, a refinery almost 750 miles from Ukraine was hit by a drone attack. Drones have destroyed bridges, sunk ships, and destroyed expensive weapon systems like supersonic bombers and air defense radars. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the high concentrations of drones make it difficult to move safely near the front lines and resupply soldiers at the front. Resupply is now often accomplished by drone as well. 

Outnumbered and short of resources, desperation has driven innovation in Ukraine. This includes both advances in tactics as well as technology. 

“It would be fair to say that Ukraine has done a great amount of work in the drone area by using the cheapest parts for drones to develop the most effective weapons,” Alexander Chernyavskiy, the head of the Ukrainian charity fund Free in Spirit told Understanding AI. “The US creates the most advanced drones in the world… in Ukraine, we don't have resources to buy such expensive drones.”

Drones are much cheaper and easier to employ than manned weapons systems. Drones are also expendable. Operators can be trained quickly and destroyed drones can be easily replaced. 

Current drones take many forms. The most common drones are small quad-copters with four lifting rotors, but some are larger and resemble conventional aircraft or the famed American MQ-1 Predator. Quad-copters like the off-the-shelf DJI Mavic can loiter for extended periods, either for reconnaissance purposes or to wait for targets of opportunity. The more conventional-style drones have higher speeds and ranges. Ukraine seems to have either created or modified a light airplane similar to a single-engine Cessna for drone attacks, using the explosive-laden aircraft to hit a Russian factory 600 miles from Ukraine

And not all drones are aircraft. Ukraine is known to have drone boats as well. These small, maneuverable watercraft can carry out kamikaze attacks on enemy ships and bridges. Attacks by drone boats are responsible for several Russian warships being “upgraded to submarine.”

There are ground-pounding drones as well. Earlier this year, Russia sent a squad of grenade-tossing mini tanks against Ukrainian positions, but the innovative attack was beaten back by [wait for it] defending Ukrainian drones. 

Defenses against drones include jamming frequencies used by their human controllers and using other weapon systems to destroy them. Current drones can be shot down with small arms fire or missiles, but these defenses often require human operators.

Many current drones are also limited by the need for human operators. The drone controller is often located near the front line and must identify targets and then fly the drone on an attack run. (This isn’t the case for the American Predator where the operator can be located halfway around the world. I once met a USAF drone pilot based in Las Vegas who was “flying” drone missions in Africa and the Middle East.) If the operations team is identified by the enemy, they can be targeted by artillery or other drones. 

An obvious innovation will be to field new autonomous systems that would keep humans out of the line of fire. We may ultimately see more battles like the one described above in Ukraine in which armies of robots and drones battle each other while human generals watch from afar. We might also see robotic soldiers hunt down and attack human insurgents or soldiers from countries that cannot afford or don’t possess the technology to field robot armies.

As drones and robots become more capable, it makes less and less sense to build weapons that carry humans. Robotic aircraft can carry out maneuvers that would make human pilots black out. Human crew members need food, living space, and protection. These items all add weight, complexity, and cost. Eliminating the human crew reduces the necessary size of drone vehicles and makes them more maneuverable. All of this makes them harder to hit as well as easier to replace if they are destroyed. 

Other armies and factions are paying attention. Russia has fielded its own drones on the Ukrainian front. Both the Houthis in Yemen and the Iranians have caused concern with drone attacks in recent months. Last week, the US Army hosted its inaugural drone competition at Fort Moore, Georgia. 

Given the effectiveness of drones, I have to wonder how long well-equipped armies will continue putting vulnerable humans on the battlefield. Several countries, including both the United States and Russia, are experimenting with robotic soldiers. The new robot soldiers can resemble tanks, dogs, or even have a humanoid shape… somewhat like the Terminator. In the US Air Force’s new B-21 Raider, the crew is optional.

I’m not sure where all this will lead. We’ve already seen airborne drones targeting enemy forces and equipment. We are starting to see drones targeting other drones and robots. We may eventually see widespread use of drones and robots against civilian populations in terror campaigns. 

Advances in AI and autonomous weaponry seem more and more like “Terminator.” Hopefully, the engineers will consider the cautionary tale of the T-1000 and take steps to ensure that Skynet never becomes self-aware.

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40K DOW: The Dow Jones Industrial Average topped 40,000 for the first time in history on Thursday before closing at 39,869. The stock market seems to be ebb and flow more on inflation data lately than partisan wishes and predictions. 

SCOTUS SAVES CPFB: Conservative justices saved the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau in a 7-2 decision authored by Clarence Thomas. Justices Alito and Gorsuch dissented. The plaintiffs had presented the novel legal theory that the CFPB’s funding was unconstitutional because it was not subject to the annual appropriations process and was instead funded by the Federal Reserve. 

The decision is more evidence that the Supreme Court is not out of control and will reject right-wing legal theories that do not fit with the Constitution or established law. Once again, the lesson is that it is easier to litigate legal cases in the friendly press than before the Supreme Court.

From the Racket News

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