Murphy's Law: Do Not Underestimate Ukrainians

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June 24, 2017: Because the United States refused to supply the Ukrainian military with digital, jam resistant UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in 2015 Ukrainian civilians organized an effort to raise money and design and build one locally. This PD-1 (People’s Drone 1) was ready for service in mid-2016. This was all done by Ukrainian engineers, programmers and model aircraft enthusiasts who obtained OTS (off-the-shelf) components from suppliers in locally and in Australia, China and the Czech Republic. The PD-1 was tested and accepted by the Ukrainian military and entered service in August 2016. American and NATO advisers had witnessed the testing and were not surprised that PD-1 was equal to many American and Israeli UAVs of the same size and performance and were impressed that it was built at a cost of less than $25,000 each. It proved to be as secure from Russian hackers and jamming as Western models. Ukraine is now offering the PD-1 for export.

The PD-1 is a 33 kg (73 pound) aircraft with an 8 kg (17 pound) payload. It is 2.54 meters (8.2 feet) long with a wingspan of 3.19 meters (10.2 feet). It lands and takes off on a tricycle landing gear and can also be catapulted into the air and recovered via a parachute. The gasoline engine drives a pusher propeller for speeds of 70-140 kilometers an hour at altitudes as high as 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet, out of range of most anti-aircraft guns and portable missiles). Endurance is six hours.

PD-1 can take off and land under software control and can fly missions autonomously (which are hack and jam proof) and available sensors can either store video onboard or stream HD (1080p) video back to the controller who can view it in real time. This video signal is encrypted as is the control signal. It has worked under combat conditions against the best the Russians have to use against them.

The fact that a bunch of civilian engineers quickly organized an effort to deliver a world-class UAV at a low price got a lot of commanders concerned about what is also going on in Syria, Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish provinces in northern Iraq. Islamic terror groups as well as more secular groups like the Kurds have adapted existing commercial UAVs, especially the quad-copter designs, to military purposes. These UAVs cost about a thousand dollars each, compared to $35,000 each for the Raven the American military has been using since 2003. The problem is not the performance of Raven, it has been excellent, but the cost and peacetime attitudes towards training expenses. Lower ranking commanders point out that when their troops (most of them with combat experience using Raven) are not training for combat they suddenly find themselves being ordered to use their Ravens less because while they are “cheap” in a wartime situation (where they save American lives) in peace time money is more of an issue and risking the loss of Ravens is considered unacceptable. At least it is unacceptable to the people who control the budget. But if the troops had cheaper UAVs they could, literally, get away with losing more of them in peacetime training. The Ukrainian team that developed the PD-1 is then began working on a cheaper, more “expendable” design called the PC-1, which is basically a quad-copter design durable for military use. The PC-1 will also have an optional weapons package and be similar to the Switchblade design American troops have been using but unlike Switchblade the PC-1 will be more agile and reusable. By early 2017 the PC-2 was available as a 3.5 kg (7.7 pound) quad copter with an endurance of 30 minutes, ceiling of 2,000 meters (6,400 feet). PC-1 can operate up to five kilometers from the controller, normally operates at low altitudes (50-400 meters) and carries a stabilized day/night vidcam and is easily upgraded. Current flight software allows for autonomous operation.

This all began in 2003 when Raven the first small (expendable) military UAV entered service. Raven fundamentally changed the way troops fought and made the users safer and more lethal and did the opposite for the other side. Raven was developed by the U.S. Army, it has since been adopted by the Marine Corps and a growing number of foreign countries. The RQ-11 Raven was very popular with users from the beginning. Initially Raven was usually used by an infantry company commanders. This meant that each infantry battalion could have as many as nine such UAVs available (three per company). This was a significant reconnaissance force for infantry units that, at that time were dependent on separate army aviation battalions, or the air force, for air reconnaissance. After Raven front line infantry commanders had their own air force and the result was revolutionary. Soon convoys were supplied with Ravens to monitor routes for ambushes or bombs. Base protection troops also obtained Ravens to improve base security. Special operations troops were among the first users and often equipped small recon patrols with them.

Raven had flaws that were quickly fixed. But in some cases the older models (like the ones that did get an encrypted data link) were kept around for training. That was reasonable. But the U.S. was unreasonable when they initially sent Ukrainians older Ravens (without the encrypted datalink upgrade) because of fears that the Russians would learn how to hack Raven. The Russians didn’t much trouble hacking the older UAVs but went ahead and sent older model Ravens to the Ukraine. Initially the Ukrainian troops were grateful to receive 72 older RQ-11 Raven UAVs. Everyone in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) knew of Raven by reputation and soldiers fighting the Russian backed rebels there were eager to get this form of air support. But the Russians also knew of Raven and were happy to discover that the Americans had sent some of older analog Ravens that were easy to hack and jam. That’s what the Russians proceeded to do and the Ukrainian troops soon found the Ravens to be useless. Rather than wait for the Americans to do the right thing the Ukrainians went ahead and did it themselves

The more jam/hacker resistant digital Ravens have been around since 2010. It was in 2008 that the U.S. Army decided to equip Raven with a new communications system that transmitted video using a digital, rather than an analog, signal. This will enable higher resolution pictures to be transmitted, as well as allowing more Ravens (as many as 16) to operate in the same area rather than the current limit of four for analog Ravens. There was another, less publicized, reason for going digital. Some Islamic terrorists had figured out how to hack the analog signal and look at what a local Raven could see. Then the Islamic terrorists figured out how to jam the analog signal, forcing the Raven to either crash or switch to the automatic “return home” mode (built in for situations when the control link is lost). American electronic warfare experts in Iraq quickly concluded that this could lead to hackers not only jamming a Raven control signal but also taking control of one. These hacks were eventually tracked to Iranian military advisors working with Shia militia in Iran. This led to the decision to upgrade future Raven’s to digital. At that point the U.S. Army had only bought a few thousand Raven’s and it took a while to design, build, test and install the digital control system.

Since 2003 over 20,000 Ravens have been built. The individual Raven costs about $35,000 while a Raven system (four Ravens, two controllers and spare parts) goes for about $175,000. The current RQ-11B weighs 1.9 kg (4.2 pounds) and the battery gives it endurance of 60-90 minutes. Top speed is 95 kilometers an hour but normal cruising speed is less than half that. Max range (from the controller) is ten kilometers and normal operating altitude is 150 meters (500 feet). The Raven is very easy to launch. One can simply throw them or one can use a hand-held bungee cord. The battery-powered UAVs are also very quiet. This makes them practically invulnerable at night. They can fly as high as 300 meters. The operator uses a controller very similar to those used with video games, making it easy to train new operators. The small size helps. Raven is 915mm (36 inches) long and has a wingspan of 1.4 meters (43.5 fee). All this makes Raven a very difficult target to hit with small arms fire, at any range.

The Raven gradually attracted competitors and now troops or civilians can have their own air force. These small UAVs found a lot of civilian uses (agriculture, security. construction, search and rescue and so on).

 


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