Drone Wars

The US is sending Ukraine 100 new Switchblade 300 loitering munition drones as a tiny part of the recent $800M military aid package. These are basically the early, practical predecessors of the slaughterbots Stuart Russell was so concerned about back in 2017.

The Switchblade 300 is about 2 feet long and weights about 2.5 kilograms, so perhaps 10x to 100x larger than a slaughterbot. Like the slaughterbot, the Switchblade uses a mass efficient shaped charge explosive, only much larger – suitable for destroying light military vehicles. And this is what makes the Switchblade actually practical: the primary purpose of modern warfare – at least as practiced by the West – is to disarm your opponent. Killing humans is oh so passe.

Current Switchblades are remote piloted, which along with the 10 km range, is a rather severe limitation and perhaps why we sent a relatively small package of only 100 units – this is probably a field test.

Full autonomy is an obvious next step. An iphone 13 class device weighs about 150 grams (and even less if the battery is reduced, as the UAV only has 10 minutes of flight time), and costs only about $1,000 vs $6,000 for the drone (the 600 model has a javelin anti-tank warhead and is 10x larger and costlier), so there are no significant tech or economic limiters on creating fully autonomous variants.

A fully autonomous Switchblade-like drone munition would not be tethered to a nearby operator through a short range radio link. Removing the tether limitation, the next limitation is the short 10 km range, which we could easily extend by utilizing cruise missiles as delivery platforms.

A cruise missile (either the trusty old Tomahawk or the newer stealthy JASSM) can deliver a 450 kg warhead up to 2,000 km, traveling a little below the speed of sound just 100 ft or so above the ground. A single cruise missile could thus deliver over 150 Switchblade 300 sized drones deep into enemy territory.

A single C-130 transport plane can carry up to 19 cruise missiles to the border of enemy territory, which can then launch in mid-air from crates ejected from the back of the plane – ie the “Rapid Dragon” program – to ultimately deliver almost 3,000 drones per transport plane. Each larger C-17 transport can carry 75 cruise missiles, or over 10,000 of the smaller SB-300 drones or 1,000 of the larger SB-600 drones. For point of comparison, a single volley of 10,000 drones could probably destroy or disable most of the Russian military’s transport/logistics trucks, and a volley of 1,000 of the larger drones could destroy a good chunk of their main battle tanks.

A dozen of these massive Globemasters could carry over 100,000 drones, enough to end most armies in a single volley.

If each drone costs $6,000, the cruise missile delivery adds another $9,000 in unit cost, and transport plane delivery then adds another $8,000 up front and less than $1,000 for amortized fuel, for a total cost rounding up to ~$15,000 per delivered munition and end inflicted light vehicle casualty, or perhaps ~$150,000 for every battle tank casualty (all assuming a high lethality ratio, which seems to be the case today against forces that do not have counters for these small fast drones, and nobody yet has counters for large masses of drones).

This is potentially a paradigm shatterer – a 100x efficiency improvement in destroying light vehicles. Cruise missiles, priced a bit over $1M a pop, are simply too expensive to use against such numerous small targets.

A future Rapid Dragon using SpaceX Starship could deliver a bit more than a C-17 to any location in the world in less than an hour: deploying a suitable reentry vehicle near some undefended border air space which launches 100 cruise missiles that then deliver up to 15,000 drones a further 2,000 km into enemy territory.

Warfare is all about delivering minimal sufficient destructive energies to specific weakpoints in specific machines which are critical for the enemy’s war effort. Nuclear weapons are extraordinarily powerful, but just as extraordinary wasteful and inefficient. A vastly smaller minuscule amount of net destructive energy, but delivered with ultra high precision and focused on exactly the right locations, can do vastly more useful damage. The key enabler: Moore’s Law.

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