It is an umbrella term covering everything from detonators to incendiaries to rocket fuel

Wednesday, May 29th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingRather than talking about explosives, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), researchers tend to refer to “energetic materials”:

It is an umbrella term covering everything from detonators to incendiaries to rocket fuel.


In the field of energetic materials, Reactive Materials or RMs have shown great potential for developing weapons far more effective than conventional high explosives. RMs typically consist of a material such as Teflon mixed with metal powder.

Reactive materials also make highly effective shrapnel. Normally, shrapnel is made of steel or similar material; shrapnel fragments are like miniature bullets. But reactive material shrapnel is explosive: the material can be engineered so that it starts releasing energy when it impacts an object. This makes RMs effective as anti-aircraft and antimissile warheads, as adding a little explosive power makes them much more lethal. According to one estimate, they are five times as effective against aircraft and similar targets as conventional shrapnel. They would be similarly effective as an anti-personnel weapon.

During WWII, a new type of weapon was developed known as thermite. This is a simple mixture of metal and metal oxide powder, like iron oxide and aluminum, but it burns at extremely high temperature. Impossible to extinguish once started, thermite can melt through steel plate, and commandoes used thermite charges to disable guns and heavy machinery. Reactive materials can do better than that.

Energetic Materials & Products Inc. of Round Rock, Texas, has been involved in the Air Forces’ micro-scale ordnance efforts and used the technology in a spin-off called the Tec Torch or Metal Vapor Torch. This flashlight-sized device blasts out a flame jet that cuts through metal like a hot knife through butter, slicing through a half-inch steel bar in less than a second. It has been designed as a breaching tool for police and others who need to cut through bolts, chains, and padlocks at high speed. The Tec Torch is based on reactive material technology with solid fuel and oxidizer, and is cheaper, lighter, and more compact than the traditional oxyacetylene cutting torch.

Each fuel cartridge weighs a couple of ounces and contains precisely graded particles of magnesium, aluminum, and copper oxide. This resulting flame jet burns at over three thousand degrees centigrade and has a speed of over two thousand meters a second. A rectangular carbon fiber nozzle shapes the jet into a flat blade for cutting through bars. The jet has higher energy density than a gas flame, and the cutting action is a combination of heat and abrasion by particles of metal oxide.


A drone perching on a structure could use its own version of the Tec Torch to slice through a vital component, such as power or communication lines — or the cables supporting a suspension bridge.


This type of technology could also be effective at puncturing pipelines, and fuel and chemical storage tanks.

The A-12 Oxcart was a flying fuel tank

Tuesday, May 28th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenThe A-12 Oxcart, which would evolve into the SR-71, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), was a flying fuel tank:

It held eleven thousand gallons, which made the tanks the largest portion of the airplane. The fuel had requirements the likes of which were previously unknown. During the refueling process, which would happen in the air, at lower altitudes and lower airspeeds, the temperature of the fuel would drop to -90 degrees Fahrenheit. At Mach 3, it would heat up to 285 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature at which conventional fuels boil and explode. To allow for this kind of fluctuation, JP-7 was designed to maintain such a low vapor pressure that a person could not light it with a match. This made for many practical jokes, with those in the know dropping lit matches into a barrel of JP-7 to make those not in the know duck and run for cover.


Flying at speeds of 2,200 miles per hour, an Oxcart pilot would need a 186-mile swath just to make a U-turn. This meant an additional 38,400 acres of land around the base were withdrawn from public access, allowing the Federal Aviation Administration to extend the restricted airspace from a 50-square-mile box to 440 square miles. FAA employees were instructed not to ask questions about anything flying above forty thousand feet. The same was true at NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

It goes through a complex, four-stage firing process that is like a speeded-up version of the miner’s approach of drilling and blasting

Wednesday, May 22nd, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingTwo thousand pounds, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), has long been the standard bomb size deemed necessary for destroying structures made of reinforced concrete:

If you lay explosives by hand, about two hundred pounds of well-placed C4 will do the job of a two-thousand pound bomb.


The M150 Penetrating Augmented Munition (PAM) is a portable demolition device weighing just forty-two pounds. First introduced in 1998, it is highly effective against reinforced concrete structures. When triggered it goes through a complex, four-stage firing process that is like a speeded-up version of the miner’s approach of drilling and blasting.

PAM’s first charge punches a tunnel deep into the target. The subsequent stages cut through any steel reinforcing bars, propel a powerful explosive charge into the tunnel, and detonate it. Concrete is strong in compression, but weak in tension. It is almost impossible to crush a concrete block, but comparatively easy to tear it apart from inside. That’s how PAM can replace a two-hundred pound charge of C-4, or the warhead on a 2,000-pound bomb, and demolish a reinforced concrete structure such as a bridge support measuring fifteen feet by five by six. It would take a team of seven about three hours to rig a target with C4 explosives for demolition, whereas with PAM, the same process takes about two man-minutes.

It would remain in target range for fewer than twenty seconds

Tuesday, May 21st, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenThe A-12, which would evolve into the SR-71, would beat Soviet advances in radar technology in three fields, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), height, speed, and stealth:

The airplane needed to fly at ninety thousand feet and at a remarkably unprecedented speed of twenty-three hundred miles per hour, or Mach 3. In the late 1950s, for an aircraft to leave the tarmac on its own power and sustain even Mach 2 flight was unheard-of. Speed offered cover. In the event that a Mach 3 aircraft was tracked by radar, that kind of speed would make it extremely difficult to shoot down. By comparison, a U-2, which flew around five hundred miles per hour, would be seen by a Soviet SA-2 missile system approximately ten minutes before it was in shoot-down range, where it would remain for a full five minutes. An aircraft traveling at Mach 3 would be seen by Soviet radar for fewer than a hundred and twenty seconds before it could be fired upon, and it would remain in target range for fewer than twenty seconds. After that twenty-second window closed, the airplane would be too close for a Soviet missile to fire on it. The missile couldn’t chase the airplane because, even though the top speed for a missile at the time was Mach 3.5, once a missile gets that far into the upper atmosphere, it loses precision and speed. Shooting down an airplane flying at three times the speed of sound at ninety thousand feet was equivalent to hitting a bullet whizzing by seventeen miles away with another bullet.

Stealth was still a very new technology:

“Radar works analogous to a bat,” Lovick explains. “The bat squeaks and the sound hits a bug. The squeak gets sent back to the bat and the bat measures time and distance to the bug through the echo it receives.” So how does one get the bug to absorb the squeak? “The way in which to solve the radar problem for us at Lockheed was to create a surface that would redirect radar returns. We needed to send them off in a direction other than back at the Soviet radars. We could also do this by absorbing radar returns, like a diaper absorbs liquid. In theory it was simple. But it turned out to be quite a complicated problem to solve.”

Lovick had been solving problems ever since he was a child growing up in Falls City, Nebraska, during the Depression—for instance, the time he wanted to learn to play the piano but did not want to disturb his family while he practiced. “I took the piano apart and reconfigured its parts to suppress the sound. Then I sent the vibrations from the strings electronically through a small amplifier to a headset I wore.” This was hardly something most fourteen-year-old children were doing in 1933. Four years later, at the age of eighteen, Lovick published his first article on radar, for Radio-Craft magazine. Inspired to think he might have a career in radar technology, he wrote to Lockheed Corporation in faraway California asking for a job. Lockheed turned him down. So he took a minimum-wage job as a radio repairman at a local Montgomery Ward, something that, at the age of ninety-one, he still considers a serendipitous career move. “What I learned at Montgomery Ward, in an employment capacity that today some might perceive as a dead-end job, would later play an important role in my future spy plane career.” Namely, that there is as much to learn from what doesn’t work as from what does.


“An anechoic chamber is an enclosed space covered in energy-absorbing materials, the by-product of which is noiselessness,” Lovick explains. It is so quiet inside the chamber that if a person stands alone inside its four walls, he can hear the blood flowing inside his body. “Particularly loud is the blood in one’s head,” Lovick notes. Only in such a strictly controlled environment could the physicist and his team accurately test how a one-twentieth-scale model would react to radar beams aimed at it. Lockheed’s wood shop built tiny airplane models for the physicists, not unlike the models kids play with. Lovick and the team painstakingly applied radar-absorbing material to the models then strung them up in the anechoic chamber to test. Based on the radar echo results, the shape and design of the spy plane would change. So would its name. Over the next several months, the design numbers for the Archangel-1 went up incrementally, through eleven major changes. This is why the final and official Agency designation for the airplane was Archangel-12, or A-12 for short.


With the plane’s underbelly now flat, its radar cross section was reduced by an astonishing 90 percent.


“On 31 March we started to build a full scale mockup and elevation device to raise the mockup 50 feet in the air for radar tests,” Johnson wrote in documents declassified in July 2007. What Johnson was imagining in this “elevation device” would eventually become the legendary Area 51 pylon, or radar test pole.

Lockheed engineers brought with them a mock-up of the aircraft so detailed that it could easily be mistaken for the real thing. For accurate radar results, the model had to represent everything the real aircraft would be, from the size of the rivets to the slope on the chines. It had taken more than four months to build. When it was done, the wooden airplane, with its 102-foot-long fuselage and 55-foot-long wooden wings, was packed up in a wooden crate in preparation for its journey out to Area 51. Getting it there was a daunting task, and the road from Burbank to Area 51 needed to be prepared in advance. The transport crate had been disguised to look like a generic wide load, but the size made it considerably wider than wide. Crews were dispatched before the trip to remove obstructing road signs and to trim overhanging trees. In a few places along the highway, the road had to be made level.


Each member of Lovick’s crew carried in his pocket a small chart indicating Soviet satellite schedules. This often meant working odd hours, including at night. “It also made for a lot of technicians running around,” Lovick explains. “Satellites passed overhead often. Getting an aircraft up on the radar test pole took eighteen minutes. It took another eighteen minutes to get it back down. That left only a set amount of time to shoot radar at it and take data recordings.” As soon as technicians were done, they took the aircraft down and whisked it away into its hangar.


At night, workers needed to bundle up in heavy coats and wool hats. But during the day, temperatures could reach 120 degrees. “Once, I saw a coyote chasing a rabbit and they were both walking,” Lovick recalls.


Bissell had been informed that Lockheed’s A-12 would appear on enemy radar as bigger than a bird but smaller than a man. But he had not yet been told about a problem in the aircraft’s low observables that Lovick and the team had been unable to remedy while testing the mock-up out at Area 51. Lovick explains: “The exhaust ducts from the two huge jet engines that powered the aircraft were proving impossible to make stealthy. Obviously, we couldn’t cover the openings with camouflage coating. During testing, the radar waves would go into the spaces where the engines would be, echo around, and come out like water being sprayed into a can. We’d tried screens and metallic grating. Nothing worked.”


There in the conference room, Edward Lovick decided to speak up about an idea he had been considering for decades, “and that was how to ionize gas,” he says, referring to the scientific process by which the electrical charge of an atom is fundamentally changed. “I suggested that by adding the chemical compound cesium to the fuel, the exhaust would be ionized, likely masking it from radar. I had suggested cesium would be the best source of free electrons because, in the gaseous state, it would be the easiest to ionize.” If this complicated ionization worked—and Lovick believed it would—the results would be like putting a sponge in a can and running a hose into it. Instead of being bounced back, the radar return from the engines would be absorbed. “Bissell loved the idea,” says Lovick, adding that the suggestion was endorsed heartily by several of the customer’s consultants. An enthusiastic discussion ensued among the president’s science advisers, whom Lovick sensed had very little understanding of what it was he was proposing. In the end, the results would be up to Lovick to determine; later, his theory indeed proved correct. Those results remain a key component of stealth and are still classified as of 2011.


Lockheed kept the contract. Lovick got a huge Christmas bonus, and the A-12 got a code name, Oxcart. It was ironic, an oxcart being one of the slowest vehicles on Earth and the Oxcart being the fastest.


The aircraft was going to be five times faster than the U-2 and would fly a full three miles higher than the U-2.

Army soldiers not impressed with 50-kilowatt lasers

Thursday, May 16th, 2024

The US Army sent four Stryker-mounted 50-kilowatt laser prototypes to the Middle East to test against aerial threats:

“What we’re finding is where the challenges are with directed energy at different power levels,” Bush told members of the Senate Appropriations airland subcommittee on Wednesday. “That [50-kilowatt] power level is proving challenging to incorporate into a vehicle that has to move around constantly — the heat dissipation, the amount of electronics, kind of the wear and tear of a vehicle in a tactical environment versus a fixed site.”

Dubbed the Directed Energy Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense (DE M-SHORAD), the service tasked Kord Technologies with integrating a 50-kilowatt class RTX laser onto a Stryker to down class one to three aerial drones and incoming rockets, artillery and mortars. In total, four prototypes were produced, and Breaking Defense first reported that all four were sent to the US Central Command (CENTCOM) region in February.

Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. James Mingus said at the time that the goal was to experiment in a live environment complete with weather challenges and dust storms that can alter light particles and degrade beam quality.

“You may have a 50-kilowatt laser, [but] at 10 kilometers can you put at least four kilowatts in a centimeter square because … that’s what you need to burn through a quarter inch steel plate?” the three-star general asked. “But that’s really hard to get … from a big beam to get the small portion of it on the exact spot to be able to burn at that high intensity and any kind of dust particle or that starts to disrupt that.”

Atomic Energy Commission workers could then locate them with magnets

Tuesday, May 14th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAs impossible as it is to imagine now, Annie Jacobsen explains (in Area 51), in the early days of atomic testing there was no such thing as a HAZMAT suit:

Instead, workers combed the desert floor dressed in white lab coats and work boots, looking for particles of nuclear fallout. According to Atomic Energy Commission documents made public in 1993, this radioactive debris varied in size, from pinhead particles to pencil-size pieces of steel.

Much to the surprise of the nuclear scientists, the atomic weapons tests revealed that sometimes, in the first milliseconds of destruction, the atomic energy actually jettisoned splintered pieces of the bomb tower away from the intense heat, intact, before vaporization could occur. These highly radioactive pieces were then carried aloft in the clouds and deposited down on places like Groom Lake, and Atomic Energy Commission workers could then locate them with magnets.

It’s a very responsible job to shoot down drones when everyone is hiding

Thursday, May 9th, 2024

There are plenty of electronic jammers on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides of the current war, but drone builders keep changing their operating frequencies and using jam-resistant radios, so the troops need shotguns:

Talking to Russian newspaper Lenta last month, retired Colonel Andrei Koshkin said that when electronic warfare fails, a shotgun can be the solution: “I have to say that even a simple shotgun that you go hunting with, which shoots a spray of shot, turns out to be more effective than a machine gun trying to shoot down a drone.”

Such weapons have been issued to some Russian units. Russian social media recently showed pictures of two soldiers credited with bringing down drones. The caption was illuminating though “The first is from the cover of the demining group, the second is from the protection of the Tor air defense system.” — in other words, both were assigned specifically to drone protection, so their role is to watch the skies, shotgun in hand, to protect their unit.

Both soldiers were armed with the 12-gauge Vepr-12 Molot shotgun, a semi-automatic weapon with a 5-round magazine.Other Russians are looking for improvised solutions to give a soldier the capability of a shotgun and assault rifle in one. For example, one video shows how an GP-25 underbarrel grenade launcher can be converted to fire a shotgun cartridge for drone defence.

The Vepr-12 is patterned after the original Kalashnikov rifle and built on the heavier RPK light machine gun receiver.

Another improvised Russian solution involves an adapter fitted to the end of the barrel of an AK-74 assault rifle to fire a single grapeshot round which the developers say had a high probability of stopping an FPV drone at 30 meters/ 100 feet range.


The Ukrainian soldier interviewed notes that shooting down drones is a full-time role which requires constant surveillance.

A piece in Armyinform in April describes a course given by an instructor who is a career soldier with long experience of hunting. He says that the men chosen for shotgun training were selected first from those with hunting experience and then from those with proven shooting skills. But he notes that the role also takes raw courage.

“It’s a very responsible job to shoot down drones when everyone is hiding,” says the instructor. “You have to have character.”

The instructor says that apart from practice at shooting fast-moving targets, there is also a strong safety aspect. In particular, shooters should not be tempted to try and pick up trophies.

“Don’t run after the drones to prove that you shot them down. Do not pick them up in your hands, do not pull the cat’s tail,” he says, noting the danger from unexploded or even booby-trapped drones. “Unfortunately, there have already been such cases.”

Hopefully, they’ll even start hearing the Jaws theme in their head if they suspect one is about

Thursday, April 25th, 2024

Anduril Australia’s Ghost Shark “extra-large” underwater autonomous sub has been delivered one year early and on budget. The official name was revealed a couple years ago:

In a nod to the Ghost Bat unmanned aircraft developed by Boeing Australia for the Royal Australian Air Force, the new autonomous and unmanned weapon will be known as Ghost Shark.

On top of showing off the prototype, to be used for testing and concept definition, Rear Adm. Peter Quinn made clear the still-to-come larger, schoolbus-sized system may carry warheads.

“Due to their range, stealth and persistence Ghost Shark will be able to operate throughout the Indo-Pacific. Due to its modular and multi-role nature, our adversaries will need to assume that their every move in the maritime domain is subject to our surveillance and that every XL-UV (drone) is capable of deploying a wide range of effects — including lethal ones,” Quinn told a small audience of government officials, officers and journalists. “Once your potential adversaries understand what a Ghost Shark is — not that we’re going to give them any specifics at all — we expect they will generate doubt and uncertainty.”

Then he delivered the best line of the day, greeted with appreciative laughter from the crowd: “Hopefully, they’ll even start hearing the Jaws theme in their head if they suspect one is about.”

This zig-zagging slows it down

Wednesday, April 24th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingSwarms of drones, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), might follow the model of pack-hunters like wolves:

Wolves are unusual among carnivores in that, in some areas, they prey largely on animals larger than themselves. Not only are moose and bison several times bigger than wolves, they are also faster. But a pack of wolves can bring down a large prey animal by working in a pack and using a set of heuristics — simple hunting tactics from a combination of instinct and experience.


During the approach, each wolf moved towards the prey until it reached a certain distance; it then moved away from any other wolves that were the same distance. The net effect was that the wolf pack spread out and enveloped the prey. If the prey tries to circle around, the pack keeps homing on it, and in simulations the prey often ended up running towards one of the pursuers and was “ambushed” by it. Even though the prey may be faster than the wolves, it keeps turning to get away from the nearest wolf. This zig-zagging slows it down so that another member of the pack travelling in a straight line can catch it.

Harris hawks provide another model:

Harris hawks are medium-sized hawks native to the Americas, found from the southwestern US to Chile and Argentina, which use a variety of approaches to attack prey. They are among the few birds of prey that work cooperatively, often in family groups of four to six birds. The most common tactic is a simultaneous attack with multiple Harris hawks diving in from different directions; a rabbit or other prey may dodge the first hawk or two before getting picked up by the third or fourth.

When prey goes to ground, the hawks switch tactics. The birds perch around the cover where their target has hidden, surrounding the prey, and then take turns attempting to penetrate the cover. As soon as the prey is flushed out, the surrounding birds swoop in and take it.

Finally, Harris hawks also carry out “relay attacks” in which multiple birds swoop down one after the other, each chasing the prey for a short distance. As it escapes one hawk, the next one in the flock takes over. Researchers have recorded up to twenty swoops in one chase over half a mile before the exhausted prey was finally taken.

The world was under the impression that the Russians held the record for airspeed

Tuesday, April 23rd, 2024

Area 51 by Annie JacobsenAnnie Jacobsen paints a not-so-flattering portrait of LBJ in Area 51:

Before he became president of the United States, Lyndon Baines Johnson liked to ride through rural Texas in his convertible Lincoln Continental with the top down. According to his biographer Randall B. Woods, Johnson also liked to keep a loaded shotgun in the seat next to him, which allowed him to pull over and shoot deer easily. On the night of October 4, 1957, the then senator was entertaining a group of fellow hunting enthusiasts at his rural retreat, in the dining room of his forty-foot-tall, glass-enclosed, air-conditioned hunting blind that Johnson called his “deer tower.” All around the edge of the lair were powerful spotlights that could be turned on with the flip of a switch, blinding unsuspecting deer that had come to graze and making it easier to kill them.

It was an important night for Johnson, one that would set the rest of his life on a certain path. October 4, 1957, was the night the Russians launched Sputnik, and the senator began an exuberant anti-Communist crusade. That very night, once the guests had gone home and the staff of black waiters had cleaned up, Johnson retired to his bedroom with newfound conviction. “I’ll be dammed if I sleep by the light of a Red Moon,” he told his wife, Lady Bird.


“Soon they will be dropping bombs on us from space like kids dropping rocks onto cars from Freeway overpasses.”


The orb was seen as ominous and foreboding, a visual portent of more bad things to come from the skies, with 4 percent of Americans claiming to have seen Sputnik with their own eyes. In reality, explained historian Matthew Brzezinski, “What most actually saw was the one-hundred-foot-long R-7 rocket casing that [Sputnik’s designer Sergei] Korolev had craftily outfitted with reflective prisms. It trailed some 600 miles behind the twenty-two-inch satellite,” which in reality could only be seen by a person using a high-powered optical device.

When he became President, after JFK’s assassination, Johnson received a briefing on Oxcart:

Johnson loved the idea of the Agency’s secret spy plane, but not for the reasons anyone expected. Johnson seized on one detail in particular: the aircraft’s speed. At the time, the world was under the impression that the Russians held the record for airspeed, which was 1,665 miles per hour. When Johnson learned the men at Area 51 had repeatedly beaten that record, he wanted to make that fact publicly known. What better way to begin a presidency than by one-upping the Russians?


Through a veil of half-truths, he would out the Air Force’s interceptor version of the Oxcart, the YF-12, as the speed-breaker. The YF-12 would be given a false cover, the fictitious name A-11. Respecting McCone’s national security concerns, the actual A-12 Oxcart program—its true speed, operational ceiling, and near invisibility to radar—would remain classified top secret until the CIA declassified the Oxcart program, in 2007.


Three months later, on February 29, 1964, Johnson held a press conference in the International Treaty Room at the State Department. “The world record for aircraft speed, currently held by the Soviets, has been repeatedly broken in secrecy by the… A-11,” President Johnson declared from the podium, thrilled to give the Russians a poke in the ribs.


Two YF-12s belonging to the Air Force but being tested at Area 51 were quickly flown in from Groom Lake and driven into a special hangar at Edwards. The airplanes’ titanium surfaces were so hot they set off the hangar’s sprinkler system, which mistook the high-temperature metal for a fire. When the press junket began, the aircraft were still dripping wet. Never mind; no one noticed.

The same sort of action is playing out in miniature in a struggle to gain control of low-level drone airspace

Saturday, April 20th, 2024

David Hambling notes that drone tactics in Ukraine are evolving:

With so many drones from both sides at the front it is inevitable that encounters will occur; since 2022 there have been occasional ‘dogfights’ with operators using their unarmed machines to knock opponents out of the sky. Now, however, we are seeing a different pattern. Rather than random encounters, there are deliberate intercepts, with small quadcopters attacking bigger bombers.

This is similar to the pattern in WW1, as early biplanes evolved from scouts to light attack craft and then fighters whose main task was bring down attacking bombers and gain aerial supremacy. This was necessary because the only thing that could effectively take on an aircraft was another aircraft. Almost a hundred years later the same sort of action is playing out in miniature in a struggle to gain control of low-level drone airspace.


Drone operators have little situational awareness. Their view is generally limited to seeing ahead and downwards. Successful attacks usually come from above and behind to achieve surprise.

As well as FPVs, Russians are also taking on Baba Yagas with standard quadcopters. In this case the preferred tactic is for the unarmed attacker is to drop on to the Baba Yaga from above, so the Baba Yaga’s rotors are broken by contact with the attacking drone’s body. The attacking drone may still be lost, but it is a good trade for one of the larger Ukrainian drones.


In March one Russian group displayed a new drone known as “Ram” a quadcopter fitted with metal spokes to damage enemy rotor blades with impunity. This type of modification may be inspired by the annual DroneClash competition held in the Netherlands, a capture-the-flag game in which teams needed to eliminate each others drones in air-to-air combat and drones were fitted with lances, chains and other such weapons.


The logic of these intercepts is obvious: air defence missiles are rare and precious assets costing hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, and are reserved for major threats like cruise missiles. FPV drones costing a few hundred dollars are plentiful and it makes sense to use them wherever possible.


Now the Russians have started to intercept Baba Yagas, the Ukrainians are giving their bombers fighter escorts. This Ukrainian video appears to show a Ukrainian quadcopter covering a Baba Yaga and taking out the Russian drone attempting to intercept it, suggesting that drone tactics are already looking more like WWII than WW1.

The number of incoming drones made a bigger difference to the outcome

Wednesday, April 17th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingBack in 2012, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), a study out of the Naval Postgraduate School predicted what would happen if a Destroyer (DDG) came under attack from simple drones, or “flying IEDs”:

The destroyer is protected by a system called Aegis, named after the legendary shield of Athena. Aegis is a sophisticated arrangement that coordinates various radars, guns, and missile launchers into a tightly integrated defense grid. It can detect, identify, track, and intercept incoming aircraft, missiles, and other threats in seconds, with minimal oversight from its human operators.


After running a computer simulation five hundred times, the researchers concluded that with eight drones approaching simultaneously, four could be expected to get through and hit the destroyer.


Worse, if the attacking drones targeted vulnerable points like radar or missile launchers, they might leave the destroyer defenseless so that it could be sunk by larger weapons.

The study went on to look at various ways of improving the defenses, by having better radar or greater accuracy or longer range weapons. These improvements reduced the number of hits, but only up to a point. Even with all the improvements in place, the average number of hits was reduced from four to 1.3.

The researchers also found that the number of incoming drones made a bigger difference to the outcome. Even the baseline destroyer with no improvements could beat off an attack by five drones; ten would tend to overwhelm even the best defenses and score at least one hit.

A 2014 RAND study concluded that “two or three smaller RPAs [Remotely Piloted Aircraft, drones] with less-capable sensor packages were often able to equal or exceed the performance of the larger RPAs employed singly.”

The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all

Tuesday, April 16th, 2024

Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen The use of drones in warfare has its origins in World War II, Annie Jacobsen reminds us (in Area 51):

Joseph Kennedy Jr., President Kennedy’s older brother, died in a secret U.S. Navy drone operation against the Germans. The covert mission, dubbed Operation Aphrodite, targeted a highly fortified Nazi missile site inside Germany. The plan was for the older Kennedy to pilot a modified B-24 bomber from England and over the English Channel while his crew armed 22,000 pounds of explosives piled high in the cargo hold. Once the explosives were wired, the crew and pilot needed to quickly bail out. Flying not far away, a mother ship would begin remotely controlling the unmanned aircraft as soon as the crew bailed out. Inside the bomber’s nose cone were two cameras that would help guide the drone into its Nazi target.

The explosive being used was called Torpex, a relatively new and extremely volatile chemical compound. Just moments before Joseph Kennedy Jr. and his crew bailed out, the Torpex caught fire, and the aircraft exploded midair, killing everyone on board. The Navy ended its drone program, but the idea of a pilotless aircraft caught the eye of general of the Army Henry “Hap” Arnold. On Victory over Japan Day, General Arnold made a bold assertion. “The next war may be fought by airplanes with no men in them at all,” he said. He was off by four wars, but otherwise he was right.

David Hambling covered the same incident in Swarm Troopers.

Well before World War 2, Jacobsen notes, a few visionaries saw the potential of drones:

Nikola Tesla mastered wireless communication in 1893, years before any of his fellow scientists were even considering such a thing. At the Electrical Exhibition in Madison Square Garden in 1898, Tesla gave a demonstration in which he directed a four-foot-long steel boat using radio remote control. Audiences were flabbergasted. Tesla’s pilotless boat seemed to many to be more a magic act than the scientific breakthrough it was. Ever a visionary, Tesla also foresaw a military application for his invention. “I called an official in Washington with a view of offering him the information to the government and he burst out laughing upon telling him what I had accomplished,” Tesla wrote. This made unfortunate sense—the military was still using horses for transport at the time. Tesla’s friend writer Mark Twain also envisioned a military future in remote control and offered to act as Tesla’s agent in peddling the “destructive terror which you have been inventing.” Twain suggested the Germans might be good clients, considering that, at the time, they were the most scientifically advanced country in the world. In the end, no government bought Tesla’s invention or paid for his patents. The great inventor died penniless in a New York hotel room in 1943, and by then, the Germans had developed remote control on their own and were wreaking havoc on ground forces across Europe. The Germans’ first war robot was a remote-controlled minitank called Goliath, and it was about the size of a bobsled. Goliath carried 132 pounds of explosives, which the Nazis drove into enemy bunkers and tanks using remote control. Eight thousand Goliaths were built and used in battle by the Germans, mostly on the Eastern Front, where Russian soldiers outnumbered German soldiers nearly three to one. With no soldiers to spare, the Germans needed to keep the ones they had out of harm’s way.

In America, the Army Air Forces developed its first official drone wing after the war, for use during Operation Crossroads at Bikini Atoll in 1946. There, drones were sent through the mushroom cloud, their operators flying them by remote control from an airborne mother ship called Marmalade flying nearby. To collect radioactive samples, the drones had been equipped with air-collection bags and boxlike filter-paper holders. Controlling the drones in such conditions was difficult. Inside the mushroom cloud, one drone, code-named Fox, was blasted “sixty feet higher than its flight path,” according to declassified memos about the drone wing’s performance there. Fox’s “bomb doors warped, all the cushions inside the aircraft burst and its inspection plates and escape hatch blew off.” Remarkably, the drone pilot maintained control from several miles away. Had he witnessed such a thing, Nikola Tesla might have smiled.

During the second set of atomic tests, called Operation Sandstone, in April of 1948, the drones were again used in a job deemed too dangerous for airmen. During an eighteen-kiloton atomic blast called Zebra, however, a manned aircraft accidentally flew through a mushroom cloud, and after this, the Air Force made the decision that because the pilot and crew inside the aircraft had “suffered no ill effects,” pilots should be flying atomic-sampling missions, not drones.

Again, Hambling goes over some of the same history.

Life detection radar works on the Doppler principle and only detects movement

Wednesday, April 10th, 2024

Swarm Troopers by David HamblingMost forms of radar are blocked by walls and other solid objects, David Hambling explains (in Swarm Troopers), but there are also through-the-wall “life detection” radars:

These use ultra-wideband radio waves, which can go through solid walls as easily as air. Life detection radar works on the Doppler principle and only detects movement, in particular the movements associated with human life — breathing and heartbeats. First responders use portable units in rescue operations to detect if there are people alive in a building. It is imprecise but will give the number and approximate location of any people inside. The technology is also used by the military and police.

The minimum order is a box of five

Thursday, April 4th, 2024

Just as small, agile drones are starting to look like the future of war, David Hambling notes, small agile suppliers may be the future of defense procurement:

Steel Hornets, “a private manufacturer of weapons systems for unmanned aircraft systems”, is essentially a mail-order drone bomb company sending munitions directly to users.


Steel Hornets, “a private manufacturer of weapons systems for unmanned aircraft systems”, is essentially a mail-order drone bomb company sending munitions directly to users.


Steel Hornets provide their munitions without explosive filling or detonator. This makes them safe to handle and easy to distribute via the postal service, allowing Steel Hornets to supply drone operators quickly and efficiently wherever they are.

To arm the munition, the operator fits it with a standard military MD5M or KD8A detonator, devices the size of a thumb drive available by the million. Then also pack the bomb body with plastic explosive.

A spokesman for Steel Hornets said that explosive was typically drawn from supplies for demolition work, or scavenged it from other munitions. For example, the UR-77 Meteorite demining system uses line charges filled with over 1,450 kilos / 3,200 pounds of plastic explosive to blast a path through minefields. One line charge contains enough explosives for several hundred drone bombs.

Steel Hornets are also exploring other ways for users to source explosive filler. With commercial plastic explosive costing just a few dollars a pound (the U.S Army pays $22 a pound for small demolition charges but they do not do things cheaply), it should not add much to the cost of the finished munition.


Steel Hornets produce three types of drone bomb: armor-piercing shaped charges for use against tanks and other vehicles, fragmentation weapons effective against personnel, and dual-purpose munitions which combine both functions. All three require considerable design, so munitions from Steel Hornets give a real advantage over garage-made or field-improvised alternatives.

The aerodynamics plastic bomb casings are 3D printed with fins to ensure they fall in straight. They are also well balanced so they can be carried without affecting the stable flight of the drone.

“It’s not the cheapest, but it’s a very flexible manufacturing method,” says the Steel Hornets spokesman.

It allows them to make in very small batches, and also to change the design instantly with no need for re-tooling. But the more significant element is inside.


For example Steel Hornet’s BP 75mm replacement for the standard PG-7 warhead weighs 850 grams/ 30 ounces, somewhat lighter than the original. In tests Steel Hornets’ shaped charge with a copper liner penetrated 180mm / 7 inches of steel plate. This is less than the original which can go through 260mm/ 10 inches of armor, but this is not seen as a problem.

“We are seeking a compromise between weight, size, and cost,” the Steel Hornets spokesman told Forbes. “Additionally, we are making the shaped charge jet thicker, which often results in more confident penetration, albeit slightly reducing the penetration thickness.”


The miniature tank busters are a bargain at $14 a time. As with other Steel Hornets products the minimum order is a box of five. This gives an idea of how different they are to traditional arms companies dealing in orders of thousands.