Drone warfare in Ukraine shows how fighting will change everywhere

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Drone war in Ukraine: Decoys, spies and flying death machines

The first war hero of the 2022 Russia-Ukraine invasion may have been a killer robot.

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 combat drone, an intimidating-looking flying death machine with a 12-meter wingspan that carries up to four laser-guided bombs, began its ascent to icon status in the opening days of the war. Grainy videos began appearing on social media with stunning regularity, showing attacks on Russian military columns and armored vehicles. Ukrainians — and the rest of the world — took notice.

In early March, the catchy song “Bayraktar” by Ukrainian soldier Taras Borovok appeared on YouTube, quickly becoming a viral hit and inspiring countless cover versions. (Sample lyrics: “They wanted to invade us with force, and we took offense at these orcs. Russian bandits are made into ghosts by … Bayraktar!”) Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko announced on Telegram that a baby lemur born at the city zoo had been named “Bayraktar.” In Lithuania, a crowdsourcing campaign raised $6.4 million in three days to purchase a TB2 for Ukraine. The company ended up giving Ukraine the drone and donating the money to Ukraine relief efforts.

Beyond the TB2′s battlefield successes, the war has been an incredible advertisement for the drone, produced by a government-linked company owned by the Turkish president’s son-in-law. Orders from militaries around the world are pouring in.

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The hype surrounding the Bayraktar is earned. According to the Oryx blog, which uses open-source reports to track equipment losses on both sides, the TB2 has taken out six Russian armored vehicles, five artillery systems, six naval ships and more than a dozen missile systems, among other targets.

But the TB2′s days as a wonder weapon are probably numbered. In the early days of the war, Russian troops often moved in isolated units and columns, with little or no air support, making them easy pickings for the drones. Since April, when the war shifted to a grinding, artillery-heavy war of attrition in the eastern part of Ukraine, the Russians have set up advanced air defense systems, rendering drones — even the much-hyped TB2 — far less effective.

“The picture has changed a great deal,” Justin Bronk, senior research fellow for airpower and technology at the Royal United Services Institute, told Grid. “The TB2s were highly effective in the first two or three weeks of the invasion, until the Russians basically got their air defense system coordination in order. Since then, they’ve been increasingly pretty useless on the front lines.”

This is not to say that drones are no longer playing a major role in the war. Both sides are making new and innovative uses of unmanned aerial vehicles, both the expensive big-ticket drones sent by Western governments and cheap off-the-shelf models adapted for war. Whatever happens with the Turkish Bayraktar, the conflict in Ukraine has already made clear that “drone warfare” is an integral part of all warfare now. Dozens of countries now have the capability to use these lethal weapons — and militaries everywhere are going to have to adapt.

Eyes in the sky

At this stage in the war, with drones less able to carry out strikes themselves, their primary use on both sides involves reconnaissance of enemy positions and identifying targets to be struck by artillery. On the Ukrainian side, the drones carrying out these missions are a mix of fixed-wing aircraft like the Bayraktar or U.S. Army-supplied models, as well as modified versions of off-the-shelf consumer drones.

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The challenge for the Ukrainians, Bronk said, is that their GPS signals are vulnerable to jamming by Russian electronic warfare systems. A number of analysts were baffled in the early days of the war by the Russian military’s failure to use this capability, but their jamming systems have since come online. This has at times forced the Ukrainians to fly drones on preprogrammed routes, then deliver the footage back to base rather than transmitting it live. “It’s OK for things like ammunition depots, railheads or very large-scale movements,” Bronk said. “But the inability to use real-time, direct remote control with those small UAVs has really hurt Ukrainian artillery effectiveness over the past month or so.”

The Russians are using drones for artillery spotting and reconnaissance as well. In a press briefing at the German Marshall Fund in Washington last month, a Ukrainian fighter pilot identified only by the call sign “Juice” told reporters that the Ukrainian air force is increasingly being relied on for drone defense. “Unfortunately, the Russians have a lot of them. Every day you are trying to hit more and more drones,” he said. “It’s a difficult task for fighter jets, but in some places our air defenses are not so good, so our guys are trying to find and kill them.” Because of the valuable reconnaissance and targeting data these drones collect, “it’s not a waste to shoot an Archer on them,” he noted, referring to an air-to-air missile.

Drones are not only being used to watch the enemy. Drone strikes played a major role in the ultimately successful Ukrainian efforts to force Russian forces to abandon strategically important Snake Island in the Black Sea, where Russian air defenses were less robust than on land. According to some reports, TB2s were also used as a decoy in the destruction of the Moskva, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet. The drones diverted the ship’s defenses before it was struck by a Neptune missile. So-called kamikaze drones also appear to have been used against several targets on Russian soil, including a dramatic strike on an oil refinery in the town of Novoshakhtinsk in June, captured on video by incredulous oil workers.

Drones from America

The U.S. has shipped Ukraine hundreds of Switchblade drones, designed to loiter around their targets and then crash into them, as well as a modified version known as the Phoenix Ghost, described by U.S. officials as having been “developed for a set of requirements that very closely match what the Ukrainians need right now in Donbas.” While some videos of Switchblade strikes have circulated, it’s too early to say whether they’re having much of an impact on the battlefield. As “loitering munitions,” Switchblades are, like the Bayraktar, vulnerable to air defenses. CNN recently reported, based on a U.S.-intelligence source, that despite their now sizable inventory of Switchblades, many Ukrainian units “prefer to use commercial drones rigged with explosives that are more user-friendly.”

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The White House reportedly put the brakes on the proposed sale to Ukraine of MQ-1C Gray Eagles, one of America’s most advanced combat drones, over concerns that one could end up in Russian hands. At the briefing in Washington last month, the Ukrainian pilots were skeptical that such an expensive system — one Gray Eagle costs more than $20 million, compared with around $1 million for a TB2 — would really be useful in the Donbas.

“It’s very dangerous to use such an expensive drone,” said a pilot known as Moonfish. “Knowing Russian air defenses right now and knowing the range of the missiles that the Gray Eagle carries, I’ll give you a 90 percent chance it will be shot down.” He added: “It’s not Afghanistan here.”

The DIY war

No one has yet written a song or named a lemur after the DJI Mavic 3, an off-the-shelf Chinese quadcopter, which you can buy for about $2,000 on Amazon, but commercially available drones, thanks to their sheer numbers, have arguably been as significant in Ukraine as their advanced military-grade counterparts.

Civilian volunteers as part of a group called Aerorozvidka, or “aerial reconnaissance,” have been working to modify commercial drones for military use in Ukraine since the original Russian invasion in 2014. This year, the group’s numbers have swelled, including active military members bringing combat experience. Innovations to these cheaper drones have included a variety of range extenders, thermal imaging systems and 3D-printed modifications to drop grenades on Russian tanks with stunning accuracy. While these drones can be shot down as easily as their military-designed counterparts, it’s less of an issue given their low cost. When the price of lithium for batteries started going up, engineers found a way to adapt the batteries from e-cigarettes and vape pens to power drones. Even the drone that carried out the dramatic attack on the refinery in Novoshakhtinsk appears to be one that’s available for sale on the Chinese e-commerce platform Alibaba, according to reporting by the Drive.

“The commercial side is where all the action is,” Faine Greenwood, a civilian drone researcher, told Grid. “There’s just frantic activity around this stuff. It’s kind of a Cambrian explosion of innovation.” Greenwood has compiled a database of more than 600 instances of commercial drones being used in the Ukraine War.


Not all the innovation is happening on the Ukrainian side. Officially, the Russian military disapproves of its troops using commercial drones rather than military models, but there have been numerous examples on social media, many collected by Greenwood, of Russian troops using and modifying commercial drones.

Cheap and easy to modify, drones produced by the Chinese company DJI have become the platform of choice in this war. This has made many uncomfortable, including DJI itself. The company has denied allegations that it has shared data on Ukrainian positions with the Russian military. In April, DJI announced it was halting sales in both Russia and Ukraine.

The revolution will be streamed

Just as television coverage has informed and shaped the public perception of wars since the era of Vietnam, social media has been the prime messenger for information about the war in Ukraine. The global public has consumed much of its news from the war zone in tweets and bite-sized videos, often disseminated on Twitter, Telegram or other platforms by the combatants themselves rather than journalists.

An advantage of drones, from an information warfare perspective, is that they film their own kills. This may have been the reason the whole TB2 cult took off in the first place. Drones capture incredibly vivid and clear videos of combat, perfect for dissemination on social media. Those videos are often set to music.

“For the most part, to the degree that drones are now strategically influential, or consequential, it’s the propaganda value that they have provided to Ukrainian forces,” Paul Lushenko, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and doctoral candidate at Cornell University who researches drone warfare, told Grid.

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Drones have also been used to document killing by others; this was the case with the footage that first revealed the extent of the Russian military’s killing of civilians in the town of Bucha.

All wars are drone wars now

During the American war on terror, drones acquired an image as a tool of asymmetric, irregular warfare. The U.S. could take out alleged terrorists from great distances, without placing American soldiers in harm’s way. Sometimes piloted by operators thousands of miles from their targets, drones were perhaps the iconic symbol of the ability of a superpower to strike its enemies anywhere, with minimal risk. Few other nations had the capability,

That picture has been changing for some time now, and not just because the U.S. counterterrorism war is winding down. The U.S. and other major powers no longer hold an overwhelming advantage in drone technology. If anything, as U.S. military commanders have acknowledged, the fact that small drones, including commercial models, can be so easily and cheaply adapted for military use could help smaller countries, rebel groups and terrorist organizations level the playing field.

At least 38 countries — including Iran, Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan — now have armed drones in their military arsenals. Drones have played a key role on the battlefield in recent conflicts between the Ethiopian government and Tigrayan rebels, and between Armenia and Azerbaijan; they were also used by both the Ukrainians and Russians in the lower-intensity combat in eastern Ukraine between 2014 and this year.

The war in Ukraine, the first major military conflict between nation-state militaries of this size and strength in decades, is giving the world a dramatic demonstration of both the capabilities and limits of this drone technology in a modern war. It almost certainly won’t be the last one.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

TOPICS

Ukraine