I’ve been asked to write a little bit more about these combat drones that are being used by the Ukrainian Armed Forces to attack Russian personnel and armour positions on the front line. I’m not involved in making or manufacturing such things but I’ve seen it in action and it’s a remarkable deployment of manufacturing technology and IT wizardry. One 3D printer costs 700 Euros to buy in Europe. Each 3D printer can make six drone frames per day if it works for 18 hours a day; it takes six hours to make each drone frame. If you have 20 3D printers, at a cost of EUR14,000, then you can make 120 frames per day or 3,600 drones frames per month. This involves 300 kilograms of plastic per month at 15 to 20 Euros per kilo, so we are looking at operating costs of between 4,500 Euros and 6,000 Euros per month plus the set-up costs of EUR14,000.
This all works out as about 4 Euros per done as opposed to 40 Euros per frame that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are currently paying to buy the same things from China. China is being far more supportive of Ukraine than you might imagine in the media, by the way. I spent today peeling huge bags of garlic donated as humanitarian relief by China. And of course they are selling drone parts to Ukraine to help Ukraine attack Russian front line positions, something again often overlooked by the media. While North Korea sells ammunition to the Russians, and Europe isn’t really selling enough of any weaponry to Ukraine, the Ukrainians are buying their weapons from China who turns out to be a massive supplier of the sorts of cheap military equipment you need to fight a primitive trench war.
So the West might disabuse itself to some extent of the narrative, popular in unimaginative or simplistic elements of the Western press, that China is somehow Russia’s ally in the war against Ukraine. This isn’t true. China is forcing Russia to sell cut-price hydrocarbons to her by reason of the international sanctions the West has imposed, and this is hurting Russia. China is also selling and donating whatever she can to Ukraine to help Ukraine win the war. Some of the kit the Chinese are selling to Ukraine isn’t very good; tourniquets that are insufficient to stop injured soldiers and civilians “bleeding out” (i.e. bleeding to death after being injured) is a good example. However China is, in its own way supporting Ukraine in the war - only she wants to make money doing so, which is typical of third parties in wartime.
There’s real evidence that these cheap and domestically produced combat drones are having a substantial effect in keeping the Russian Armed Forces at bay, particularly along the trenches. Their relentless presence is keeping the Russians under cover and it means that they are less available to man their artillery pieces and fire at Ukrainian personnel and armour. Dozens or even hundreds of these plastic or carbon fibre drones are buzzing over Russian trench positions every day and there are reports of the Russian military being paranoid and scared. The relentless whir of drones is thoroughly demoralising for the Russian Armed Forces, as as the flashes and fires caused by their ordnance.
Also these drones have nonlethal effects in supporting our heroic soldiers doing battle with the Russian aggressors. They can drop a variety of supplies to soldiers in the forward trenches when the ordinary course of logistics and deliveries to these dangerous positions would unnecessarily imperil military or civilian personnel. Things as varied as medical supplies, sugar, coffee and foodstuffs, and even clothes to keep soldiers warm, can be delivered by drone without the risk entailed by stepping out of the trenches or walking through the trench system and all this can be done by navigating using mobile phone masts and cameras, from a small console that requires no greater skill set on the part of the operator than playing a computer game.
The future of modern ground and trench warfare - and that’s what we’re looking at here in World War III - lies in small reusable cheap carbon fibre and plastic drones that can be made informally across Ukraine in any space with an electricity supply and a place to put a small cheap and compact 3D printer. These drones can easily be assembled by unskilled workers or by soldiers and are cheap and easy to pack and transport across military theatre to frontline positions. They are easy to use and easy to learn to fly - indeed they fly themselves. The technology has already been invested in by the West and by the Ukrainians. The designers have done the designing and 3D printers are now a reality. All we need to win the new technology war against the Russians is too have more of them.
This is an area in which we are well ahead of the Russians in technology terms and we don’t need to rely upon more expensive and less reliable Chinese versions. Instead we have the superior technology ourselves and soon we’ll be making the motors for the drones using 3D printers too. While the Russian military establishment has been developing massively expensive hypersonic cruise missiles in its command economy based upon its military-industrial complex that devotes intellectual resources to military priorities rather than consumer welfare, the West, and Ukraine is part of that, has been devoting its intellectual capital to products that consumers might want to buy such as simple, easy-to-fly drones for a range of civilian uses.
Now that technology it transpires can be adapted to military uses along the front line and the Russians are well behind the West because their economic motors don’t turn in the same way so they haven’t been focusing on simple consumer technology. This is an example in which the West’s economic system, focused as it is upon. Individual innovation and competition, can give us a dramatic advantage on the battlefield. Cheap reusable drones for combat and nonlethal purposes are a game changer in the war in Ukraine, and the Russians are nowhere near us. We should invest ever more in this exciting new project now.