A game-changing event in the history of warfare occurred on March 23, 2017, and nobody seemed to notice. The age of Drone Warfare began.
A drone started a fire that destroyed $1 billion (€850 million) worth of ammunition at Balakliya, Ukraine. Details of the drone are not available; but our friend John Robb thinks it was a Russian model, that is little more than a model airplane rigged to drop a thermite grenade.
Separatist drones are apparently dropping Russian ZMG-1 thermite grenades in Ukraine, Scout.com reported. Ukrainian intelligence believes a ZMG-1 started the March 23 fire at Balakliya. Balakilya was reportedly the largest ammunition dump in the world.
Drones have destroyed or damaged at least two other ammunition dumps in the Ukraine, Robert Bunker of the US Army War College told Scout. A ZMG-1 burns at temperatures of over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,204 degrees centigrade). That means it can melt through metal and set almost anything on fire.
How Drones are Changing Warfare
These drone attacks are a game changer; because one grenade destroyed thousands of tons of munitions, and may have disrupted the entire Ukrainian war effort. Thousands of soldiers in the field might have no ammunition because of this one attack.
To make matters worse hundreds of soldiers probably had to be pulled off the battlefield; and redeployed to fight the fire, and clean up the mess left over. In the future, thousands of soldiers may have to be redeployed to guard ammunition dumps.
An even greater expense will be fortifying ammunition dumps; or digging underground bunkers for storage or building fire proof bunkers. That will cost millions; or tens of millions, of dollars and require vast amounts of machinery and manpower.
To add to the nightmare the construction workers and equipment will be vulnerable to drone attack. Drones will be able to destroy bulldozers, track hoes and other expensive pieces of equipment; terrorize, kill or wound construction workers, and demolish half-built structures.
Drones’ Cost Effectiveness is their biggest threat
The most appealing and frightening aspect of drone warfare is its’ cost effectiveness. Robb estimated that the Ukrainian separatists received a $500,000 (€423,459.67) return on investment (ROI) for every $1 (€0.85) they “invested” in their drone attack.
Robb’s estimate might be accurate; because a thermite grenade like the ZMG-1 can cost as little as $12.50 (€10.59). Quora contributor Burn Rice estimated the cost of equivalent U.S. weapons at between $12.50 (€10.59) and $110 (€93.16).
There’s also the cost of the drone which is undoubtedly under $10,000 (€8,469.19) and possibly under $1,000 (€846.92). That means the Ukrainian rebels were able to do around $1 billion (€850 million) worth of damage to the enemy for an investment of less than $10,000 (€8,469.19) and possibly less than $1,000 (€846.92).
What’s more not a single rebel soldier had to put herself at risk to carry out an attack; that might set the Ukrainian war effort back by weeks or even months. Drones are not just cheap; they take a lot of the political and military risk out of warfare. Commanders that deploy them don’t have to worry about the political risk of accruing causalities, or the loss of trained personnel in battle.
Why Drone Warfare is about to become the norm; it’s Cheap
This cost effectiveness will undoubtedly be noticed at the Pentagon, and the other headquarters of the worlds’ militaries. Generals and admirals; under pressure to cut the budget and keep casualties low while still winning wars, will embrace drones.
Even the more expensive U.S. drones are surprisingly cost effective when compared to traditional aircraft. A top of the line MQ-1C Gray Eagle Drone from General Atomics costs around $21.50 million (€18.21 million). America’s brand new F-35A Joint Strike Fighter costs around $100 million (€84.69 million) apiece, Popular Mechanics reported.
That means you can buy five Gray Eagles for the price of one F-35A; or deploy 50 drones for the price of 10 fighter planes. The Gray Eagle can do almost everything a fighter plane can; it can strafe enemy troops with machine guns or automatic canons, drop bombs and fire missiles. From a military standpoint you can increase your firepower; and effectiveness, by a ratio of five times by switching to drones.
How Drones can Magnify Firepower
I imagine you might be able to increase the amount of firepower even more by using cheaper; or simpler, drones or simply ramping up the production of models like the Gray Eagle. What’s more is that drones will be cheaper than almost any warplane.
The U.S. Marine Corps’ F-35B costs $131.6 million (€111.45 million) apiece. Even older models are expensive; the F/A-18C Hornet costs around $65 million (€55.05 million) apiece, the AV-8B Harrier II $50 million (€42.35 million), the F-16 $30 million (€25.41 million) to $40 million (€33.88 million) and the F/A-18A Hornet $60 million (€50.82 million).
One has to wonder why any military planner is even bothering with fighter planes these days. Especially since those expensive aircraft can easily be destroyed on the runway by a drone with a thermite grenade. To make matters worse one Gray Eagle with a Gatling gun; or a Hellfire missile, might be able to destroy an entire squadron of fighter planes worth $1 billion (€850 million) on the runway or the carrier deck.
Nor is it just fighter planes, drones can also knock out tanks, artillery pieces, fuel trucks, convoys and even nuclear missiles. It costs North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un between $70 million (€59.28 million) and $100 million (€84.69 million) to build an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) with a nuclear warhead.
That ICBM can be destroyed with one with one Hellfire missile; that costs $70,000 (€59,284.35).The Hellfire can be fired by a Gray Eagle Drone that costs $21.50 million (€18.21 million).
Drones might be More Cost Effective at Sea
The potential cost effectiveness of drones in naval warfare is even greater; a modern diesel burning aircraft carrier; like the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth, costs around $4.04 billion (£3.1 or €3.42 billion). Yet it can be damaged or sunk by a $21.50 million (€18.21 million) drone firing $70,000 (€59,284.35) missiles. What’s even scarier is that America’s nuclear-powered carriers are even more expensive; the brand-new USS Gerald Ford cost an estimated $13 billion (€11.01 billion).
All it would take is one Hellfire to turn the Queen; or the Ford, into a floating inferno; if it hit when planes were being refueled on the deck. Remember an aircraft carrier is nothing but a floating ammo and fuel dump. Worst of all it is a floating ammo and fuel dump with several hundred or several thousand sailors onboard.
Even homebrew drones dropping thermite grenades might be able to set a carrier on fire. A truly scary scenario would be a yacht, a fishing boat, or a speed boat full of such homebrew drones sailing close to the carrier then letting them go during refueling. Therefore a bunch of tinkerers in the garage might be able to sink the most expensive warships in human history; with technology anybody can order from Amazon.
The Final Reason why Drones are the Future of Warfare, no Casualties
The final reason why drones are the future of warfare is an obvious one; they let you hurt or kill the enemy without putting your people at risk. An air force that deploys a Gray Eagle is spared the expense of recruiting, training, feeding, housing and paying a fighter pilot (probably a few million dollars a year).
More importantly the commander that sends a Gray Eagle out does not have to worry about putting pilots at risk. There’s no letters to write to parents; no potential political backlash from pictures of coffins coming home, and no possibility that the pilot might get captured.
There’s also no expense or ramifications from downed pilots. There will be no need for expensive rescue missions; which put additional aircraft and personnel at risk, or negotiations with the enemy to get prisoners back. Instead if a drone gets shot down; it can be blown up with the push of a button, or destroyed in another drone attack.
Drones are the future of warfare and that should scare us to death. The cost effectiveness; and lack of risk created by drones, will make warfare cheaper, easier and more likely in the future.
A slightly different version of this article appeared at Market Mad House.