Even more proof of the vast cost effectiveness of drone warfare was just demonstrated in Scotland. A private drone that cost $350 (£271.67) successfully penetrated the security of the Royal Navy’s $5.09 billion (£3.9 billion) aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth.
The drone landed on the flight deck of the Queen took pictures and flew away without anybody noticing, Popular Mechanics reported on 14 August 2017. Some news stories indicate that the Royal Navy did not seem to care about the incident.
This is frightening because if the drone had been carrying a thermite grenade; it might have caused hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of damage, and injured or killed dozens of sailors. On 23 March 2017, a drone successfully destroyed $1 billion (£780 million) worth of ammunition at Balakliya, Ukraine, with such a grenade.
Sinking a $7.99 billion warship might cost $400
Thermite grenades; such as the Russian ZMG-1, can cost as little as $12 (£9.31); yet they can burn at temperatures of over 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,204 degrees centigrade). If a drone dropped a thermite grenade on the deck during refueling it might set The Queen Elizabeth on fire. That would be a potential catastrophe because an aircraft carrier is a floating ammunition and fuel dump.
Therefore it would be possible to destroy one of the world’s largest and most technologically advanced warships; and up to 40 of the world’s most advanced warplanes, for a cost of less than $400 (£310.47). That would also put the lives of the 1,600 people onboard the 65,000 ton Queen Elizabeth at risk.
This would be a tremendous political embarrassment for Her Majesty’s Government because the Queen Elizabeth’s total cost was estimated at $7.99 billion (£6.2 billion) by the BBC. This figure is different from the one above because it includes the value of the 40 F-35B fighter planes and 10 helicopters the Queen is supposed to carry. Since the Queen is also the largest ship ever launched by the United Kingdom – her sinking would probably mark the end of Britain’s status as a major power.
The Disturbing Economics of Drone Warfare
The economics here baffle the mind because even top of the line drones; such as the US Air Force’s MQ-1C Grey Eagle, cost around $21 million apiece. The F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters the Queen Elizabeth; and her sister ship HMS The Prince of Wales, are supposed to carry cost around $131.60 million (£101.68 million) each.
The Hellfire missiles carried by the Grey Eagle cost around $70,000 apiece, and all it would take is one Hellfire to turn either carrier into a floating inferno. That means any third world dictator with a decent bank account has the means to destroy Britain’s sea power.
Americans should be even more disturbed because the U.S. Navy’s latest carrier; the nuclear powered U.S.S. Gerald R. Ford cost an estimated $12 billion to build and carries a crew of 2,600. My guess is that the Ford is just as vulnerable to drone attack as the Queen and the Prince.
Have Drones Made Aircraft Carriers Obsolete?
This means that the Great Powers; the USA, China, UK, France, Russia and India, are setting themselves up for catastrophic and embarrassing losses by investing so heavily in carriers.
It also points to a situation where the carriers will have to remain far out at sea to avoid drone attack, and might therefore be militarily useless in a future conflict. New kinds of warship; such as destroyers, cruisers or submarines equipped to carry large numbers of drones, might be necessary.
The taxpayers and politicians of the Great Powers; including the United States, need to start asking their admirals some hard questions. If such questions are not asked we might be setting ourselves up for a 21st Century Pearl Harbor in which much of a great power’s fleet gets sent to the bottom by new technology.
It is time to ask the question is the prestige of maintaining large warships really worth billions of dollars and potentially the lives of thousands of sailors? Particularly when a drone that costs a few hundred dollars gives almost anybody the power to sink an aircraft carrier?