Author: Andy Oppenheimer
January 18 2023
Uncrewed aircraft play key role in the war in Ukraine and offer potential lessons for future conflicts
Combat drones have become a regular part of conflicts around the world over the last two decades. Their versatility, lack of a human pilot and relatively low cost has made them a popular tool for missions from surveillance and reconnaissance to communications relay to strikes.
Aerial drones have led the way, but significant work has gone into the development of uncrewed ground and maritime vehicles as well. Uncrewed platforms are seen taking on a greater role for maritime missions such as minehunting and destruction, while work continues on ground vehicles that can carry equipment for troops, weapons for combat or serve as battlefield ambulances.
Since Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, drones have received much of the limelight, driven in part by a steady stream of battlefield videos. They have inarguably played a vital role on both sides, identifying targets for other platforms, such as tube artillery and rockets, monitoring hostile forces and launching strikes. Volunteers from both sides have built aerial drones and modified existing commercial air vehicles for battlefield use.
Ukraine has received a number of systems from its allies, ranging from nano-uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), to loitering munitions and medium surveillance and strike drones. As Russia has burned through its stocks of conventional missiles, it has increasingly turned to Iranian loitering munitions. Chinese commercial quadcopters have been employed by both sides.
As the use of UAVs has expanded, so too have the countermeasures. In addition to shooting down drones with small arms or surface-to-air missiles, a variety of electronic warfare systems have been employed. These can jam air vehicles, cut their links with their ground station or, in some cases, allow the operator to seize control of a hostile drone.
From Targets to Threats
Uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA), have a long history. Until the 21st century, technological shortcomings limited them to roles such as aerial targets and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. Improved technology, from the air vehicles and control systems to sensors and other payloads, has allowed uncrewed aircraft to take on an increasing number of missions. The war in Ukraine has seen their use explode across roles and in a large-scale, contested environment for the first time.
Drones can be preprogrammed to fly a route to a target or to conduct a surveillance sweep. Many are equipped with two-way data links, allowing the operator to change course or shift targets on the fly. At the low end, drones can be operated by individual soldiers with minimal training for local reconnaissance. In Ukraine, quadcopters have increasingly been used to drop small grenades on individual vehicles and infantry positions.
UAVs have become popular because of their relative ease of use, variety of mission sets and low cost while reducing risk to operators. The basics of this predate the war in Ukraine, including drone attacks in recent years on a Russian airbase in Syria, Saudi oilfields and oil tankers at sea.
The same factors that have made drones of interest to the armed forces have made them an important tool for militant groups. They require minimal personnel and skills and are cheap. Accordingly, groups like the Islamic State, were early adopters. ISIS modified widely available consumer drones to carry grenades during the battle for Mosul in 2016 and 2017. This trend has continued in Ukraine.
Turkish and Iranian Drones in Ukrainian Skies
The battlefield in Ukraine has evolved over the last year of conflict and with it the use of drones. During Russia’s initial invasion, Ukraine made good use of its Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 medium-altitude, long-endurance UAVs to find and destroy Russian armored vehicles and strike supply lines. As the focus of the conflict shifted to the Donbas and southern Ukraine, bringing the front lines closer to Russian air defense systems, the Bayraktar saw reduced use. Ukrainian pilots told Foreign Policy magazine in June 2022 that the drone had been limited to rare special operations and attack missions. As of early 2023, the Oryx open-source intelligence website counted 14 Ukrainian Bayraktars lost in combat.
Another shift came in October 2022, when Russia turned to drones to strike civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. Moscow began adding Iranian-built Shahed-136 loitering munitions, known as the Geran-2 in Russia, to its missile strikes against Ukraine.
The Shahed-136, essentially a cruise missile, can accommodate a warhead up to 110 pounds (50 kg). Their small size, with a wingspan of about 8 feet (2.5 m), and slow speed makes them hard to detect on radar.
While such propeller-driven air vehicles are relatively easy to destroy, when launched in large numbers, they are difficult to track, in many cases picked up on radar as migrating birds. Their low cost makes them ideal for such swarm missions, which ensure that some will make it to their targets.
More than 400 of these Iranian-made loitering munitions have been launched by Russia since August 2022, causing significant damage to critical infrastructure and killing civilians. Despite Ukrainian claims of having shot down some 70 percent of the air vehicles.
Using cheap Iranian drones instead of expensive cruise missiles has allowed Russia to damage the Ukrainian electrical grid, hindering normal life in cities affected by the attacks, despite rapid repairs and support from the West, while retaining its more advanced capabilities for other missions.
The drones pose a sufficient threat that efforts must be made to shoot them down. This expends valuable munitions, particularly surface-to-air missiles, potentially creating vulnerabilities in the future.
Military, Civilian UAVs Mix
Commercial Chinese drones have been widely used by both sides. These are primarily DJI Mavic-series quadcopters. The Chinese-made Autel Evo has also been used for local reconnaissance and tactical strikes.
The Mavic Mini weighs half a pound (0.2 kg) and can fit in a pocket but can send high-quality video to distances up to 2 miles (3 km). Ukrainian snipers and artillery units have used them to locate Russian vehicles.
Russian-made drones have also been employed. The medium-altitude Orion uncrewed combat aircraft system has been used on the border of Ukraine. It can carry a combat payload of 550 pounds (250 kg), or four air-to-surface missiles, has a top speed of 120 mph (200 kph) and an endurance of up to 24 hours.
The U.S. has supplied tactical loitering munitions to Ukraine, including the Switchblade, first fielded by American special operations forces in Afghanistan, and the new Phoenix Ghost. Poland has provided its Warmate loitering munition to Kyiv. These weapons are reportedly capable of destroying up to medium armored vehicles.
According to Center for Naval Analysis adviser Samuel Bendett, “this is probably the first large-scale war where proprietary military and commercial drones are used so extensively.”
Naval Drone Assault Seizes Headlines
Aerial drones are not the only uncrewed systems on the Ukrainian battlefield. In one of the high-profile operations of the war on Oct. 29, Ukraine launched a combined strike of UAVs and uncrewed surface vessels (USVs) against a Russian military base in western Crimea, an airbase and Russian warships near Sevastopol, home to the headquarters of the Russian Black Sea Fleet.
Video released after the strike appeared to show an attack on an Admiral Grigorovich-class frigate. A minehunter was also reportedly hit by the USVs. While the attack did not cause a significant amount of damage, it forced Russia to pull its naval forces into protected bases and demonstrated the potential threat drones pose to the unprepared.
Ukraine has also taken delivery of uncrewed ground vehicles. In September 2022, Janes reported that Milrem Robotics in Estonia had delivered one of its THeMIS robots to an unnamed Ukrainian charitable organization in a casualty evacuation and logistics configuration. In November, Milrem announced that it would supply another 14 THeMIS UGVs under a contract with the German government before the end of 2022. Seven would be in a casualty evacuation configuration and seven in a route-clearance configuration with payloads supplied by French firm CNIM.
Russia has also reportedly deployed its Uran-6 UGV for mine-clearance operations in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region. This would be the type’s third combat deployment, following operations in Syria and the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Small and Cheap is the Future
One lesson of the war in Ukraine is that on battlefields with significant air defenses, there is a declining place for the first-generation of larger, expensive combat drones, such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper.
Such aircraft, designed for long surveillance flights, were ideal for the counterinsurgency missions in Afghanistan and Iraq but are unlikely to be survivable in conflicts where modern air defenses proliferate. The need for such surveillance will not change but the platforms that do it may have to.
Smaller, cheaper uncrewed aircraft, linked and controlled by AI, could be the wave of the future. Advanced networks behind the front may collate the imagery and data acquired by such drones. The tradeoff is that smaller air vehicles lack endurance and cannot carry as powerful sensors as larger platforms.
The current generation of drones is relatively vulnerable to threats such as machine guns and missiles. Smaller, cheaper platforms are increasingly favored over larger, more vulnerable and expensive systems.
There is a significant cost disparity for engaging smaller, cheaper drones with surface-to-air missiles or air-to-air missiles. Each drone may be much cheaper than the missile (or missiles) used to engage it, increasing the cost for the defender. At the same time, larger, more expensive platforms, available in smaller numbers, may be too valuable to risk in high-threat scenarios.
Compare an Iranian-imported drone costing $20,000 with a low-end surface-to-air missile at around $150,000: The cost is low enough that several can be lost on a single mission without much concern. A Bayraktar TB2 unit, however, reportedly costs about $5 million and may not be worth risking in areas where surface-to-air missiles are deployed.
Other defensive options include self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs), usually twin cannons mounted on an armored vehicle. Although these widely lost favor as surface-to-air missiles became more capable, the German Gepard vehicle, armed with a pair of 35-mm cannons, has proven adept at shooting down drones and cruise missiles over Ukraine.
A wide number of jamming and other electronic warfare systems have also been developed for use by soldiers on the ground. Kyiv has begun conducting experiments on the battlefield with a defense system designed in Lithuania. Called SkyWiper, it works by jamming the communications of drones in flight. Meanwhile, an Israeli contractor, D-Fend, has tested a countermeasure that hacks into swarm drone guidance software and takes it off course.
The U.S. Army is experimenting with electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) to knock out drone swarms and using AI to target and destroy incoming drones. This must be done without disabling or bringing down friendly aircraft that may be in the skies above typical drone targets, particularly in urban environments. The U.S. Army’s Joint Counter Small Unmanned Aerial System Office is working on adapting air traffic control systems to spot drone flight patterns.
Building Toward the Swarm
Drone development continues. One area that has received much attention is swarming. The idea is that up to thousands of small drones could work together through artificial intelligence. The swarm might begin widely dispersed and then coalesce for a strike, each air vehicle communicating with the other through the entire flight.
This ability, as described by David Hambling in his book Swarm Troopers (2015), is already here. Software engineers can simulate swarms that appear in nature. Drones have been programmed to first keep a measured minimum distance from the others (separate); stay on the same course as the others (align); or move toward a neighboring drone (cohere).
Such systems have advanced beyond initial development. A Dept. of Defense-funded MIT project in 2016 produced a swarm of 103 micro-drones so fast and with such a small wingspan -- less than a foot -- that attempts by CBS to film the flight failed to capture the swarm even with high-speed cameras.
Russia’s goal is to exhaust Ukraine, and its Western allies, with drone attacks. Forcing Ukraine to expend expensive surface-to-air missiles on cheap drones is a win for Moscow and contributes to pressures on Ukraine’s allies as Kyiv seeks new deliveries of ammunition and weapons. Protecting civilian infrastructure around the country from combined missile and drone strikes also diverts Ukrainian forces away from the front line.
Moscow’s drone war on Ukraine is unlikely to bring about victory. Attacks on civilian infrastructure have hardened Western resolve, contributing to recent deliveries of more advanced air defense systems, and brought international condemnation.
At the same time, the conflict is demonstrating the value of drones on the battlefield. Small, expendable UAVs have demonstrated their worth for reconnaissance, designating targets and attacks on troops and equipment.
The use of drones will no doubt continue to evolve in Ukraine, with armed forces around the world keeping a close eye on developments.
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