In Ukraine’s skies, drones tell a story of two wars

Keir Giles

To understand Russia and Ukraine’s very different ways of fighting, a good first place to look is up. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been described as the “first full-scale drone war.” That description may be a little misleading – all of the ways in which we have seen drones being employed in the conflict have precedents, some of them dating back over a decade.
And this isn’t the first war in which the capabilities of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been so thoroughly integrated into operations. But it is true that the fighting in Ukraine represents the first long-term, sustained conflict where all the currently available uses for drones are an indispensable part of combined operations – and on both sides. Those two sides are very different. The drones involved, and how they are used, present a kind of shorthand for Russia’s and Ukraine’s contrasting approaches to fighting wars overall.
We see Russia turning to its fellow authoritarian regimes for help. In drone warfare, we see the pitting of Russian (or Iranian) low-tech mass against Ukraine’s expensive defense capabilities. It’s a tactic seeking to exhaust Ukraine by making that defense unaffordable – Ukraine has no choice but to conduct costly intercepts of cheap drones to protect its critical civilian infrastructure from Russia’s campaign of destruction. We see the hype about advanced Russian capabilities that was heard in the years before the war shown up in some cases to be empty flimflam. Some of Russia’s drones are designed to be flown as high-tech packages supporting each other and relaying information back to artillery batteries to conduct strikes. But a closer look at them shows the low-tech solutions – plastic bottles and ordinary consumer cameras – that Russia cobbles together to get a drone flying.
It also turns out that both Russia and Iran rely on components imported from the US and the West, to build their current generation of drones. Meanwhile Ukraine turns instead to its citizens, and friends abroad, to crowdfund solutions on a volunteer basis because its people are the ones that are motivated to win this fight for survival. These solutions cover the full range – from hobby drones adapted for surveillance and reconnaissance, through to improvised mini-bombers carrying grenades for dropping on Russian troops, and full-scale military-specification UAVs purchased through citizen funding.
Drone operations also highlight Ukraine’s skill in the information war with Russia, and in the battle for hearts and minds far beyond the battlefield. Take for instance the drone that was most prominent in reporting in the early stages of the conflict – the Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2. Because this was a Ukrainian-operated system that could inflict visible and dramatic damage on the Russian invader, its role in the conflict was carefully played up by Ukrainian information operations.
This was a key element in challenging the widespread perception of the Russian armed forces as greatly superior in capability to Ukraine’s, and sparked a competition between Ukraine and Russia for public perceptions of drone effects – a competition which Ukraine has won convincingly. Like so many other aspects of Russia’s warfighting capacity, analysts had anticipated ahead of February’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that drone warfare would be overwhelmingly weighted in favor of Moscow. But Ukraine too entered the drone war fully prepared – after a long process of upgrading capabilities and adapting tactics based on the lessons of its eight-year struggle against Russian regular and proxy forces in the east of the country.
This included integrating large numbers of smaller adapted consumer drones, alongside more expensive higher-specification UAVs. In other conflicts, like Syria, these drones were labeled “the poor man’s air force.” But in Ukraine, an emergency solution – a low cost, commercially available stopgap – evolved instead into an integrated capability. Meanwhile, other previous conflicts highlighted the rapid pace of new applications for drones, driven by the integration of additional technologies.
The brief conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in April 2016 demonstrated the utility of so-called kamikaze drones (now more euphemistically referred to by some users as “one-way UAVs”), designed not to carry weapons but to be the weapons themselves, destroying enemy vehicles through direct impact. This capability sparked intense interest in Russia, where military officers saw it as a potential key enabler for tackling NATO tanks. But as in other cases, Russia still wasn’t able to develop the technology itself, leading it to turn instead to Iran. Besides simply shooting a drone down if it presents a large enough target, it can be neutralized by jamming or hijacking its data link (electronic warfare) or hacking its operating system (the “cyber” option). Private suppliers to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, including through crowdfunding, have been requesting sourcing of consumer drones with very specific firmware versions – in some cases preferring older firmware to newer – because they have been found to be more resistant to capture using Russian hacking methods.
It’s clear an unpublicized cyber contest between Russian and Ukrainian UAV operators is playing out – a kind of cat-and-mouse game of operators and their adversaries struggling for control of drones. And drones are used to deliver cyber attacks too – something Russia was doing well before 2022. The long-anticipated next phase in their evolution is the harnessing of machine learning to give drones greater autonomy – either operating in self-managing swarms, like a lethal version of popular drone light shows, or even making their own decisions on when to launch attacks.
Here too, Russia’s hype has been shown up – claims that Russia was already operating drone swarms in major exercises three years ago turned out on closer inspection to just mean multiple drones flown by multiple operators at the same time. But with the speed at which drone technology is advancing, Western militaries should have decisions in place now for how they are to deal with both the operational and moral challenges of their own or their enemies’ drones being able to kill without human supervision.