Drones have played an important role in the ongoing war in Ukraine. Since the war first broke out on 24 February 2022, both Russia and Ukraine (and the forces supporting each side) have relied on drones to achieve a variety of military objectives related to surveillance, information gathering, and carrying out attacks to reduce the enemy’s capabilities and inflict greater military losses. It is worth noting that the military use of drones has been accompanied by efforts to employ drones for other purposes, particularly for documenting the war. In other words, drones have become a tool of the propaganda war that is being waged alongside the military conflict. Drones have also been used in relief operations and in delivering emergency medical aid.
The increased use of drones in the Ukrainian conflict has been a distinguishing feature of the war. The trend towards “drone swarms,” which have been used to carry out a variety of objectives, is driven by a number of different factors, including:
1. Reduced Cost: Despite the diversification of drone capabilities and the developments taking place in the drone industry, drones remain relatively low-cost compared to traditional aircraft. This is due to three main factors: (1) The material cost of operating the aircraft: For example, the cost of the fully-armed Turkish drone Bayraktar TB2, which has been used extensively during the Ukrainian conflict, is about 10 million USD; (2) Secondly, costs are lower due to protecting human life, i.e., using drones does not involve any threat to a pilot onboard, as would be the case with traditional fighter planes; (3) Thirdly, drones are able to inflict greater losses on the enemy.
2. Expansion of Military Arsenals: In recent years, both Russia and Ukraine have expanded their drone arsenals. The current war has provided an opportunity for both sides to use drones. Ukraine possesses various drones such as the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drones, whose range, according to the company that produces them, can reach hundreds of kilometers, and which can remain in the air for 27 hours and carry up to 130 kilograms. The Ukrainian drone arsenal also contains other kinds of drones such as the German Vector. Drones can drop bombs, but they can also play a part in a broader arms system. For example, they have helped Ukraine in improving the precision of its artillery strikes through providing high-quality video footage. Ukraine also uses locally-produced drones such as the A1-SM Fury and Leleka-100, in addition to developing commercial drones for carrying out attacks and dropping smaller explosives on Russian forces.
Moscow has also developed its drone capabilities. It is estimated that since Russia intervened in the Crimean peninsula in 2014, the Russian army has spent almost 9 billion USD to locally produce a fleet of around 500 unmanned aerial vehicles. This Russian drone arsenal includes the Orion, the Orlan-10 and Eleron-3 aircraft, the Horizon Air S-100 (an unmanned multipurpose rotorcraft), and ZALA, which is mainly used in reconnaissance operations and in strengthening the precision of Russian artillery strikes.
3. Extensive Western Support: The widespread Western support for Kiev, especially from the United States, has helped bolster its use of drones in the Ukrainian conflict. US military aid to Ukraine has included drones and has not been limited to traditional weapons. In March, Washington announced that it would provide additional security aid to Ukraine, including 100 AeroVironment Switchblade kamikaze drones.
The US Department of Defense announced on 6 April that it would train Ukrainians how to use this unmanned aircraft. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a video speech to the Ukrainian parliament on 3 May that the UK would supply Ukraine with military aid totaling 300 million pounds sterling, including a radar system and drones.
Support from Western governments for Ukraine has been matched by popular campaigns to stand with Kiev. Many reports indicate that Kiev obtained drones through the help of wealthy Ukrainians who had ties with European companies. Reports from 12 May also show that several Lithuanian citizens donated aid to help arm Ukraine, and that these donations had been put towards purchasing Estonian-made drones to target Russian artillery.
4. Effective Technical Assistance: It is important to note that Western aid for Ukraine has not been limited to support from governments, but has also included various companies and other institutions. Such aid has played an important role in establishing the central role of drones in the conflict. For example, Starlink satellites, which is owned by US businessman Elon Musk, has been providing services to Ukraine after receiving requests from Ukrainian officials. The service has helped Ukrainian forces to carry out many drone attacks and to avoid problems related to power and internet outages following Russian attacks on Ukrainian infrastructure.
A central tenet of military strategy is that armies should aim to maximum gains at the minimum costs possible. This has been played out in the ways in which drones have been employed in the current Ukrainian conflict, particularly in the context of:
1. Increased Kamikaze Attacks: The war in Ukraine attests to the increased use of kamikaze drones, especially since the US supplied Ukraine with Switchblade drones, which destroy themselves once they reach their target. These drones are part of a category of arms known as loitering munitions, which are launched without a specific target, but rather search for targets that they then attack. Many reports have observed that kamikaze drone use has markedly increased in recent battles in Ukraine—and not only among Ukrainian forces. A Washington Post report on 24 March indicated that there was significant evidence, including photographs, of Russia’s use of kamikaze drones within Ukraine.
2. Increased Night Operations: As drone attacks have risen, so too have night operations. Since the beginning of the Russian military intervention in Ukraine, the media has circulated various videos and photo documentation of night targeting of Russian forces and military installations, using drones equipped with thermal-imaging cameras that are able to pinpoint the locations of Russian vehicles. For example, there was a video that circulated at the beginning of the war depicting an attack on a Russian convoy of armored vehicles heading towards the capital of Kiev, in which a night ambush was set using drones. The use of the Starlink satellite network has also bolstered the Ukrainian forces’ capacity to guide their drones and to carry out night operations on Russian forces.
3. Use in Maritime Combat: The Ukrainian war has also witnessed drone use in combat at sea. For example, Ukraine announced in May that it had sunk two Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea near Snake Island. The commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi wrote on social media platforms on 2 May that two Russian Raptor boatswere destroyed at dawn that day near Snake Island. He added that Bayraktar was doing its job, referring to the Turkish drone that was said to have helped to sink the two Russian boats. The Ukrainian general also published a 17-second video clip which he claimed showed the moment at which the drones had hit the Russian boats. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defenseannounced on 7 May that the Russian landing craft Sirena had been destroyed near Ukraine’s Snake Island in the Black Sea using an armed drone.
4. Subterfuge Maneuvers: Drones have assisted in carrying out attacks in some battles, particularly when subterfuge maneuvers were necessary. The armed Russian cruiser Moskva was sunk on 14 April using Ukrainian-made Neptune anti-ship missiles, while Bayraktar TB2 drones were used in another part of the operation. Before carrying out the attack on the Russian ship, the drones were sent into the ship’s airspace, which helped to distract the ship’s defenses. This allowed the Ukrainian forces to fire the missiles and sink the ship.
5. Use in Military Propaganda: There is no doubt that drones have played an important role in the information war and in military propaganda during the Ukrainian conflict. Drones have recorded operations as they happen and distorted perceptions of the opponent. As Zachary Kallenborn has written, drones have played a central role in propaganda efforts in the war in Ukraine, “expanding the range of sight and strengthening propaganda efforts . . . Drones also capture live images and video of events on the battlefield, which can help demonstrate the success of the Ukrainian military.”
Because of this, the Ukrainian government has also asked for help from civilians. Soon after the war began, the Ukrainian government used various social media platforms to mobilize individuals and the private sector to get involved in the war effort through repurposingtheir commercial drones, which would otherwise be used for recreation, towards intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and delivering arms. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense published a statement on Facebook in February calling for individuals to get involved, which read: “Do you have a plane that needs a pilot? Give it to a veteran pilot! Or do you know how to fly an unmanned aircraft? Join our joint patrol with unit 112 of Kiev’s brigade! Kiev needs you and your plane.”
There were many reports about donations that had been collected to purchase drones to support Ukrainian forces. Similarly, many groups were formed to develop drones and supply the Ukrainian army with them, as well as a group that called itself Nebesna Kara, which was a group of drone hobbyists in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. According to some reports, this group has produced more than 40 drones for the Ukrainian army since the beginning of the war.
6. Delivering Aid and Relief Assistance: Many areas of Ukraine have been under siege during the war, which spurred drone involvement in relief efforts. Various organizations announced extensive aid for Ukraine. Last March, the Canadian drone manufacturer Draganfly sent a medical aid shipment as well as drones specialized in search and recovery to Ukraine. These drones can carry up to 16 kilograms of medical supplies, including blood, medicine, vaccines, water, and supplies for treating wounds. The US company Aquiline Drones also announced it would donate 40 Spartacus Hurricane drones to Ukraine in order to contribute to search and recovery efforts and to send relief assistance.
In conclusion, it seems that the war in Ukraine has demonstrated that drones will be an important factor in international conflict in the years to come. This will push competition among different countries involved in the drone industry in new directions, given the growing use of drones amidst what Andrew Marshall would call “a revolution in military affairs.” This is defined as a major change arising from the innovative application of new technologies that produces radical shifts in the character and conduct of military operations as well as dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organizational concepts.