Drones have been around for a long time – a very long time, if you go back to Chinese fire kites or the Austrian attack on Venice using exploding balloons in 1849. Drones were used in Vietnam, in the Kosovo war, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, most recently, in the confrontation between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno Karabakh.
The war in Ukraine is thus not “the first drone war”. It is neither the first war in which drones play an important role, nor the first in which both sides employ them. Nevertheless, the use of drones in Ukraine represents a step change. Never before have so many drones been used in a military confrontation. The Royal United Services Institute estimates that Ukraine is losing 10,000 drones per month, giving an indication of how many are in use. Aerial defence systems are largely neutralising manned aviation, making unmanned systems particularly important. For those looking to understand their importance, here are the main takeaways from Ukraine:
There are a lot of different drone systems in use in Ukraine.
These range from the very small – such as the Black Hornet which has a wingspan of only 12 centimetres – to drones with wingspans of over 15 meters. Small systems play a particularly important role in Ukraine. Quadcopters and other rotor drones are mainly produced by commercial firms such as the Chinese DJI and are among the most common. Armed systems, such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, or on the Russian side, the Orion drone, carry missiles which can be used to attack troops on the ground. So-called kamikaze drones, or loitering munition, single-use drones, which hover above a target before diving into it and exploding with it, are also used extensively, especially by Russia but more recently for the attacks on Moscow.
Drones are primarily used for surveillance, intelligence gathering, propaganda, and strikes.
Surveillance and reconnaissance are the most natural uses of drones. All drones carry photo, video, or other data collection sensors, which allow forces to locate enemy bases, observe troop movements, and choose targets. Closely linked to surveillance is the ability of drones to document attacks, which can also provide useful material for propaganda purposes. Drones have documented the destruction of cities by Russian forces, the flooding of Ukrainian territory following the Kakhovka dam breach, and attacks against Russian ships, tanks, troops, and materiel. Finally, drones are used to help direct and conduct strikes. At the beginning of the war, Ukrainian forces used armed military drones such as the TB2 to target the Russian convoy headed for Kyiv. A TB2 drone may also have been used to distract the defences of the Russian flagship Moskva while naval missiles attacked and ultimately sank it. Intelligence gathered by drones is also used to direct artillery and other strikes.
The most remarkable aspect of drone use in this war is the large number of civilian drones.
Many, possibly the majority, of the drones used by Ukrainian forces were originally designed for commercial purposes or for hobbyists. They are therefore available in large numbers and at low cost, and are easy to use. As they are not built for war, these drones tend not to survive for a long time in the battlespace – but given their price and availability, they are generally dispensable. The Chinese manufacturer DJI produces most of these systems. It officially suspended operations in Ukraine and Russia a few weeks into the war, but its drones, most notably the Mavic type, remain among the most used and most sought-after systems. Individuals have donated many drones and crowdfunding efforts by the public have also allegedly led to the acquisition of thousands of drones.
Drone attacks on Moscow are a warning signal for now – but could eventually have military consequences.
So far, the Ukrainian government has not officially assumed responsibility for the drone attacks on Moscow, which have become more frequent in recent days. Initially, unmanned systems were used to attack military installations in Russia, such as the Engels air bases in December. More recently, there have been drone attacks on Moscow, including its financial centre, which could have been carried out either by the Ukrainian armed forces or pro-Ukrainian groups possibly from within Russia. Militarily, their impact has been limited: so far, no one has been killed in the attacks and the destruction appears minimal. But they send a signal to the Russian regime, population, and businesses that the war could come back to Russia. While Russian air defences reportedly intercepted some of the drones, it is still embarrassing for the Russian military that they are unable to protect the capital. If the attacks continue and grow in frequency and force, the Russian army may have to increase the protection of Moscow and other cities, meaning aerial defence systems or experts might have to be withdrawn from the frontline.
Drones are easy targets but that doesn’t mean they are easy to fight.
Drones are easy targets as they are usually not built to evade aerial defences. They tend to fly low and slowly, and can often be destroyed with a single hit. However, combatting drones can be difficult as one needs to have the right drone defence systems in the right place, at the right time, while not spending significantly more money on fighting a drone than the drone is worth.
There are two main ways to down a drone – kinetically and electronically. The first means shooting down a drone with bullets, rockets, or similar. Ukraine has been using Gepards, Patriots, or Iris-T to fight against attacks from the air. The second means jamming or interrupting the signal between the drone and its operator(s). A more advanced version of this approach is to hack the drone and take over its command. Besides these, net throwers, drones that fight drones, and even birds of prey trained to take out rogue hobbyist drones can intercept drones. The counter-drone market is a multibillion business opportunity.
Naval drones are beginning to play a role in Ukraine.
The term “drone” doesn’t necessarily refer to airborne systems, but most drones fly. Maritime drones – both surface vessels and submarine systems – exist, as well as ground based drones (though many call them robots rather than drones). Before this conflict, however, only airborne systems were used extensively in military operations. This is starting to change. Drone boats were already used last autumn, most notably in the attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. More recently, Ukrainian forces damaged a Russian amphibious landing ship and struck a Russian fuel tanker using naval drones. These attacks are a testimony to Ukraine’s innovative military-industrial sector.
Ukraine is likely to become a serious player in the drone industry once the war ends.
Ukraine has become an important place for drone development and manufacturing. Joint private-public partnerships have led to the development or repurposing of drones for military use. The pressure of the war to innovate, the ingenuity of the Ukrainian people, and the opportunity to work closely with experts from many Western countries have helped establish a robust domestic defence industrial base. The Ukrainian drone industry is on track to become a serious international player once the war ends, able to export systems that are combat proven.
A shorter version of this article was first published in German in Focus on 3 August.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.