Almost 20 months into the Russia-Ukraine conflict, both states have implemented various tactics and strategies to gain an edge on the battlefield. The use of drones, however, has been a regular feature of the conflict. In recent months, this drone warfare has significantly intensified, marking a new chapter in the conflict. The regular use of drones and autonomous systems in Ukraine serves as a testing ground for future warfare, with various kinds of drones likely to become the norm within the militaries of major states.
These drones haven’t completely changed the game for either Russia or Ukraine yet, but they’ve given both states the tactical flexibility that they might not have had otherwise. Both states have targeted their adversary’s civilian and critical infrastructure, including ports, storage sites, government buildings and more. Although not always resulting in serious damage, drone warfare has provided both states with regular tactical and psychological victories, which are necessary for morale when engaged in a protracted conflict. They’ve also allowed for the constant bombardment of the enemy’s defences, which has been possible due to the low-cost nature of these drones. Often, drones are also launched alongside missiles. This overwhelms the enemy’s air defences, and ensures that at least a few drones or missiles reach the intended target and cause damage.
Both Russia and Ukraine have launched their recent drone strikes for different purposes. Russia has increasingly begun to target Ukrainian grain depots. In September alone, Russia launched multiple drone attacks on Ukrainian grain infrastructure on ports along the Danube River. Since withdrawing from the grain deal in July, Russian drone strikes have destroyed large amounts of Ukraine’s grain resources and damaged key grain infrastructure. After one of these drone strikes, Ukrainian regional Governor Oleg Kiper stated that, although 17 drones had been shot down, “warehouses and production buildings, agricultural machinery and equipment of industrial enterprises were damaged.” According to Denys Marchuk, Deputy Chairman of the Ukrainian Agrarian Council, “more than 270,000 tons of grain has been destroyed during these attacks”.
Ukraine, on the other hand, has been launching significant drone strikes of its own. In recent months, Ukraine has increasingly begun to target Moscow. In May, two drones struck the Kremlin, an incident later labeled by Russia as an attempted assassination of President Putin by Ukraine. Since then, drone strikes within Moscow have only increased. On Aug. 30, Ukraine launched six simultaneous drone attacks on Russian territory, which damaged an airport and four military transport planes. Besides the damage caused, Russia’s inability to defend Moscow from constant drone strikes is in itself certainly an embarrassment for them, and a huge morale boost for Ukraine.
Overall, the frequency of drone usage by both Russia and Ukraine has increased significantly within the past few months. Various drones and autonomous systems have been used in Ukraine, including kamikaze drones, unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs), and drones for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) purposes. They haven’t been a game changer, but have complemented the offensive and defensive military operations of both states.
Apart from acting as a testing ground for drone warfare, Ukraine has also acted as a testing ground for anti-drone technology. Both Russia and Ukraine have regularly used electronic jammers and other counter-drone systems to down incoming drones. Anti-drone warfare will also likely be a common feature of future warfare. In 2022, the US DoD allocated nearly $700 million for research and development to counter small drones. As has historically been the case with the introduction of new military technologies on the battlefield, a counter-technology is usually not that far away. The accuracy of these anti-drone systems, however, is yet to be proven.
A major challenge drones present is that they are now widely available and cheap enough to be purchased in large numbers. The fact that the majority of these drones are low-cost makes it easier to fire them nearly every day. Missiles, for example, would prove too expensive to use in the same way. Some of the ISR and combat drones used by both Russia and Ukraine cost as little as $2000. Even the Iranian-made Shahed drones, which Russia has used regularly, are estimated to cost only $20,000 to make. This low-cost nature of certain drones will make their proliferation to smaller countries and non-state actors (NSAs) much easier as well. Having an effective air defence system will become even more difficult, as a state won’t want to spend more money to stop the drone than the drone actually costs.
Another important point is that many of the drones being used for military purposes in Ukraine were originally civilian drones, which were later repurposed for military use. Interestingly, thousands of these drones have been provided to Ukraine through crowd-sourcing. One such fund, ‘Come Back Alive’, has raised over $200 million for military assistance to Ukraine and provided over 7000 drones, as well as other military equipment. This will be another feature of future warfare, the blurring of lines between the civilian and military domains.
For the most part, the drones being used by both Russia and Ukraine have been remotely controlled by human operators – not artificial intelligence (AI). The integration of AI into drone systems, however, is a major problem in the future. Not knowing the level of AI inside a drone’s ‘brain’ – whether it’s totally autonomous or not – could lead to misperception of an adversary’s intentions on the battlefield, and ultimately increase the risk of conflict escalation. Drone swarms, which were previously thought to only be a thing of the distant future and science fiction, may very well become a common feature on the battlefield within a few years or decades.
The US has recently laid out its plans to incorporate thousands of drones and autonomous systems across domains in their militaries within the next 2 years. With Ukraine, and other battlefields, showing how useful drones can be for military operations, drone warfare will only increase.
[Photo by Russian Ministry of Defense via Wikimedia Commons]
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
The author is a Research Officer at the Strategic Vision Institute (SVI), Islamabad. His research focuses on emerging technologies and global power competition.