The tendency of major countries to own stealth combat drones

This belief is underscored by the statement of the U.S‭. ‬Navy’s Secretary of Navy Affairs‭, ‬Ray Mabus‭, ‬who declared that the‭ (‬F-35‭) ‬fighter jet should be the last manned fighter aircraft the U.S‭. ‬Navy will buy or fly‭. ‬

Since then‭, ‬successfully tested lethal drones have been developed‭, ‬offering greater speeds‭, ‬longer ranges‭, ‬and enhanced stealth‭ ‬capabilities‭.  ‬The U.S‭. ‬Air Force has also initiated a rapid development program for cost-efficient‭, ‬advanced-performance attack‭ ‬drones with capabilities resembling that of fighter aircraft‭. ‬

However‭, ‬the United States is not alone in developing such drones‭, ‬as 20‭ ‬countries‭, ‬including the three major powers—the United States‭, ‬Russia‭, ‬and China—produce combat drones‭. ‬

This study will shed light on the prominent features of these drones and their implications for modern conflicts‭.‬

Stealth Combat Drones

There are various examples of unmanned combat aerial vehicle‭ (‬UCAV‭) ‬models‭, ‬either in production or already manufactured and in‭ ‬service‭. ‬Among the notable examples are‭:‬

Russia’s Use of Stealth Combat Drone against Ukraine‭:‬‭ ‬Western sources indicate that Russia has indeed deployed the long-range stealth combat drone‭, (‬S-70‭ ‬Okhotnik‭) ‬or‭ (‬Hunter‭), ‬for‭ ‬attacks against Ukraine‭.‬

In June 2023‭, ‬it struck Ukrainian military facilities in the Sumy and Kremenchuk regions‭. ‬Russia became the first country to produce a stealth combat drone capable of carrying guided missiles and employing them in combat operations‭, ‬surpassing both the United States and China‭.‬

Moreover‭, ‬the new Russian drone is produced by the Sukhoi and MiG companies alongside sixth-generation fighter jets‭, ‬suggesting‭ ‬that the purpose of the‭ (‬Hunter‭) ‬is to accompany and provide combat support for manned Russian fighters‭, ‬similar to the fifth-generation‭ (‬Sukhoi-57‭).‬

Thus‭, ‬it is clear that Russia plans for the latter to control several‭ (‬Hunter)drones within a short timeframe‭. ‬

The Russian stealth drone can reach speeds of 1000‭ ‬kilometres per hour and has a range of 6000‭ ‬kilometres‭. ‬It can carry weapons‭ ‬weighing approximately 2.8‭ ‬tons‭, ‬moreover‭, ‬it comes equipped with an AI-based data communication channel‭, ‬which enables effective communication for‭ (‬Sukhoi-57‭) ‬and‭ (‬S-70‭) ‬even in the presence of interference‭. ‬

Additionally‭, ‬it can provide synchronous data transmission in all directions‭, ‬including air-to-ground or air-to-air‭, ‬expanding the transmitted data range‭.‬

Several assessments have cast doubt on Russia’s ability to produce the stealth drone‭, ‬claiming that Moscow lacks sufficient engines for this type of unmanned aircraft‭. ‬

This scepticism is based on the original Russian plan‭, ‬which relied on using German-made‭ (‬RED A03‭) ‬diesel engines‭, ‬however‭, ‬importing these engines after the Russian-Ukrainian war and Western sanctions against Moscow seems unlikely‭. ‬

On the other hand‭, ‬previous analysis suggested that Russia is exploring two alternatives to the German engine‭. ‬The first is the‭ ‬‭(‬VK-800SM)turboshaft engine‭, ‬expected to receive official certification by the end of 2024‭, ‬with serial production for 30‭ ‬engines per year starting in 2025‭. ‬

The second option is the‭ (‬APD-500‭)‬engine developed by the Russian state-owned Central Institute for Aircraft Engine Design in collaboration with the Central Scientific Research Automobile and Automotive Engine Institute‭. ‬

While the earlier assessments question Russia’s ability to produce it‭, ‬the observed deployment of‭ (‬Hunter)drones over Ukraine indicates that Russia has overcome previous obstacles and plans to commence production this year‭.‬

US Stealth Drone Tests in Mid-2023‭:‬‭ ‬The United States Air Force Research Laboratory announced on August 2‭, ‬2023‭, ‬the successful launch of an unmanned combat aerial‭ ‬vehicle‭ (‬UCAV‭) ‬model‭ (‬XQ-58A Valkyrie‭) ‬using artificial intelligence‭. ‬

The drone’s test flight‭, ‬which took place on July 25‭, ‬2023‭, ‬in Florida‭, ‬lasted three hours‭. ‬This trial came after two years of development and similar tests with the US F-15‭ ‬fighter‭.‬

Building fleets of relatively inexpensive smart weapons‭, ‬deployable in large numbers‭, ‬will enable Pentagon officials to rethink‭ ‬strategies for defeating enemy forces‭. ‬

With a range of up to 4800‭ ‬kilometres‭, ‬the United States plans for the new UCAV either to support manned American fighters or to‭ ‬fly in swarms of unmanned combat aerial vehicles for military operations‭. ‬

Chinese AI-Powered Stealth Fighters‭: ‬Chinese military experts confirmed in 2019‭ ‬that China plans to integrate artificial intelligence into drone systems to produce‭ ‬AI-powered unmanned combat aerial vehicles‭ (‬UCAVs‭). ‬

According to Li Yidong‭, ‬chief designer of the Chinese Wing Loong drone series‭, ‬this integration aims to enable these UCAVs to fly independently‭, ‬identify targets‭, ‬and make decisions to enhance their combat capabilities‭.‬

China’s desire to produce AI-powered UCAVs stems from current drones‭’ ‬reliance on ground-based pilots to direct them from control stations‭, ‬which leaves them vulnerable to signal interference in electronic warfare‭, ‬compromising their combat effectiveness‭.‬

Installing artificial intelligence systems on UCAVs can address this issue‭, ‬allowing them to make decisions independently‭, ‬even‭ ‬if they lose communication with the main station‭. ‬

Additionally‭, ‬AI-equipped UCAVs travelling long distances can overcome data transfer delays‭, ‬which is crucial in rapidly changing aerial combat situations where decisive decisions are needed‭. ‬Thus artificial intelligence appears to be the solution to several challenges‭.‬

Implications for Future Battles

The evolution of stealth drone production is driving research to develop anti-aircraft defence systems and stimulating efforts to advance artificial intelligence‭.‬

The following points illustrate the potential impact of these developments on the future battlefield‭:‬

Diminished Human Role‭: ‬The increasing reliance on artificial intelligence in modern warfare raises questions about its impact on international humanitarian law‭. ‬It sparks debates on the ethical considerations of deploying software designed for lethal actions‭, ‬challenging the traditional role of humans in armed conflicts‭. ‬

Such concerns are heightened in the US given its track record of drone strikes that have resulted in civilian casualties‭.‬

The New York Times recently uncovered documents from the US Pentagon revealing erroneous intelligence‭, ‬mistaken targeting operations‭, ‬and years of thousands of civilian casualties‭, ‬including many children‭, ‬due to the use of drones‭. ‬

If such mistakes are made by drones operated by humans‭, ‬the risks of fully employing artificial intelligence in guiding fighter‭ ‬jets and granting machines the discretion to make kill decisions could lead to even greater violations of human rights‭.‬

However‭, ‬this humanitarian debate won’t impede countries‭’ ‬trend towards developing drone fighters and the development of such technology by a major power will inevitably prompt other nations to do the same‭, ‬with little regard for this ethical debate‭. ‬

While such aspects may be viewed as addressable challenges in the future‭, ‬countries must consider them and avoid underestimating‭ ‬them‭.‬

The Need for Air Defence Systems‭:‬‭ ‬Previous developments reveal that many countries can now develop drone fighters‭, ‬which are expected to be operational within a‭ ‬short period‭. ‬Produced in large quantities‭, ‬these drones will form swarms‭. ‬Undoubtedly‭, ‬such a scenario will bolster military efforts aimed at developing air defence systems capable of intercepting drone swarms‭.‬

So far‭, ‬there are no air defence systems capable of fully protecting a state from drone attacks‭. ‬However‭, ‬some argue for integrating drone fighters with air defence systems to address this challenge‭.‬

On the other hand‭, ‬some advocate for the necessity of developing artificial intelligence and integrating it into air defence systems to enable quick and accurate decision-making in dealing with drone threats‭, ‬while others suggest relying on electronic warfare and laser weapons‭. ‬

Notably‭, ‬the Russian-Ukrainian war highlighted the importance of electronic warfare in countering drones‭. ‬

While Ukraine launches tens of thousands of drones monthly‭, ‬most of them fail to reach their target due to the efficiency of Russian electronic warfare‭, ‬described by some as an‭ (‬invisible scissor cutting communication to a remotely controlled device‭), ‬according to Mykola Kolesnyk‭, ‬commander of the Ukrainian drone unit‭. ‬Furthermore‭, ‬the development of laser weapons to confront drone‭ ‬challenges is nearing fruition‭. ‬In 2017‭, ‬the British Army began developing‭ (‬DragonFire‭), ‬the first long-range‭, ‬high-power laser‭ ‬weapon‭. ‬

On January 19‭, ‬2024‭, ‬the device demonstrated its ability to shoot down drones for the first time‭. ‬Although the development of laser weapons is costly‭, ‬their ammunition cost is significantly lower‭, ‬with the cost of one laser shot reaching one dollar‭, ‬compared to over one million dollars for one missile‭. ‬

Moreover‭, ‬since laser weapons do not contain physical projectiles‭, ‬there are no concerns about running out of ammunition‭, ‬as long as they have a power source‭. ‬While such systems are used to shoot down small or medium-sized drones‭, ‬they can be developed to‭ ‬confront future drone fighters‭.‬

Risks of Drone Penetration‭: ‬Any remotely operated device‭, ‬such as planes or civilian drones‭, ‬is susceptible to hacking and cyber attacks‭, ‬however‭, ‬it’s not‭ ‬as straightforward for military systems‭. ‬Military drones are equipped with robust authentication protocols and encryption to protect against unauthorized access‭.  ‬Additionally‭, ‬physical security measures are implemented to safeguard drones from physical tampering‭. ‬However‭, ‬this doesn’t mean that these drones are entirely immune to electronic or cyber-attacks‭.‬

During the Russian-Ukrainian war‭, ‬Russia managed to shoot down numerous Ukrainian drones using electronic jamming‭, ‬as previously‭ ‬mentioned‭. ‬There have also been reports in the media suggesting Washington’s reluctance to supply Ukraine with modern American‭ ‬drones‭, ‬fearing they might fall into Russian hands‭. ‬

Hence‭, ‬the concern regarding the possibility of drone penetration remains possible‭.‬

This necessitates countries to invest in securing their drones from penetration to prevent them from being compromised and used‭ ‬to launch attacks against the deploying nation‭.‬

Conclusion: The development of combat drones represents a natural progression in the increasing use of UAVs‭, ‬particularly small and medium-sized ones‭, ‬in modern battles worldwide‭. ‬

Coupled with the growing applications of artificial intelligence‭, ‬the prospect of developing combat drones is becoming an imminent reality‭.‬

Russia and the United States already possess experimental models‭, ‬and production is expected to commence soon‭. ‬However‭, ‬the development of these military systems poses significant risks‭, ‬particularly concerning their ability to avoid harming civilians‭. ‬There is also a pressing need to develop anti-drone air defence systems and protect them from external penetration‭.‬

Al Jundi

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