Redefining the battlefield: Drone warfare tactics in Ukraine

February 27, 2024

By Roman Vysochanskyy

A recent video on social media shines a stark light on the future of warfare. In it, a small vessel first approaches a formidable warship and then there is an explosion. This footage is not only a dramatic tableau of military engagement but a harbinger of a new epoch in armed conflict that is increasingly defined by the use of smaller uncrewed drones. The small vessel was one of six Ukrainian-produced MAGURA-V naval drones; the target a large landing ship from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Although Ukraine lacks a traditional navy, it has spearheaded an incredible effort to build and acquire various types of drones for maritime defence.

Since the large-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia began in February 2022, Ukraine has undergone significant military and technological changes, including the widespread deployment of uncrewed systems. Commercial drones were modified to quickly and inexpensively provide defending troops with the drones they needed.  

These innovations are being closely observed by other states seeking to modernize their arsenals, particularly as both Ukraine and Russia seem to be acquiring smaller, cheap and readily available drones with ever greater autonomy. While it seeks to defend its territory, Ukraine can take the lead in establishing and enforcing clear policies and oversight on deploying increasingly autonomous drone systems in line with international humanitarian law and human rights law.

Drones in battle

During two years of full-scale war, Ukraine has often been short of drones and other modern weapons. So, it began producing its own. Ukraine has also pioneered the adaptation of commercial drones and corresponding software applications across different military domains. A wide range of modified first-person-view (FPV) racing drones have been mass produced at low cost and used in kamikaze attacks, bolstering the supply of do-it-yourself kamikaze drones.

According to The Economist article, “How cheap drones are transforming warfare in Ukraine,” published February 5, a simple FPV drone can cost as little as $400 dollars. The Economist also reports that, this past January, there were 3,000 verified FPV drone strikes in Ukraine, although the actual figures might be higher.

As of December 2023, it was estimated that Ukraine and Russia had each likely deployed more than 50,000 FPV drones a month. On the other hand, a recent update to the Tochnyi Info experts’ comprehensive analysis of photo and video footage from drone battles reveals more than 10,000FPV drone strikes by Ukraine and Russia combined from September 2023 to February 2024, showing that Ukraine surpasses Russia by approximately 32.16 percent in FPV drone strikes. Ukraine primarily targets infantry and vehicles, while Russia concentrates more on attacking positions.

Ukraine conducts more FPV drone strikes than Russia. (February 26, 2024). Infographics Summary Source: TOP LEAD

The Russian military quickly modified its own drones in the summer of 2023. The resulting drone race has mobilized clusters of information technology and volunteer networks in both countries to purchase, assemble, and manufacture drones. In recent weeks, during intensified fighting near the destroyed city of Avdiivka, Ukrainian soldiers were shooting down 200 drones each day in that area alone.

According to recent information from the Ukrainian government, approximately 200 Ukrainian companies “are engaged in the production of drones and products,” with at least 67 models of Ukrainian uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs)contracted by the state. With an increasing need for drones on the battlefield, Ukraine has also called on citizens to assemble drones at home.

Even with so much Ukrainian innovation, Russia has generally maintained a strategic advantage with an arsenal of military drones that includes the Zala and Orlan reconnaissance drones and the one-way attack Shahed drones supplied by Iran, which allow for combined multi-munition strikes. In response, last July, Ukraine allocated $1-billion for drone production.

The evolution of drone warfare

Prioritizing defence sustainability, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence aims to ramp up FPV drone production to one million units per year while receiving another one million FPV drones from Ukrainian allies within the next year. Plans also include producing new drones designed for specific multitasking: intelligence, fire adjustment, drone interception, long-range attacks, and real-time situational awareness.

Experts predict that drone warfare in the Russo-Ukrainian conflict will evolve from joint to integrated operations and will advance toward autonomy with the adoption of automated swarming tactics. A drone coalition led by the United Kingdom aims to provide Ukraine with thousands of drones that are supported by artificial intelligence (AI) and capable of swarming and targeting adversaries simultaneously. These activities will raise questions about accountability and liability.

During a mission, drone operators can organize drones into stacks of as many as several hundred on the front line over a single battlefield, with each individual drone tracking and engaging the enemy.

Both Ukraine and Russia maintain large training facilities for drone operators. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported training in 2023 of 3,500 FPV drone operators and 1,700 UAV teams at more than 800 educational facilities. Ukraine’s‘ Drone Army’ project trained 20,000 UAV operators at 33partner schools – a mix of grassroots initiatives, vocational education centres, nonprofit organizations, and private enterprises – from July 2022 to February2024. 

Despite the disparity in the number of trained operators, each country may have approximately the same number of first-class FPV drone operators. The website of the Ukrainian-based drone training facility Dronarium Academy, which showcases data on its own 11,800 UAV pilots, indicates that only 20 per cent become FPV operators. Furthermore, only 10 per cent of these FVP operators achieve high-quality FPV strike pilot status.

During a mission, drone operators can organize drones into stacks of as many as several hundred on the front line over a single battlefield, with each individual drone tracking and engaging the enemy. Both armies are also experimenting with AI to increase the range, accuracy, and effectiveness of drone attacks, while minimizing the operator’s role.

However, AI applications are still technologically limited. There have been successful battlefield trials of only a few, including the Ukrainian drones Saker Scout and SkyKnight 2, and Russia’s Shturm 1.2 and Ovod (Gadfly). Ukraine is ahead of Russia in tests of combat drones equipped with AI elements – primarily machine vision to recognize, capture, and pursue targets for destruction. On average, it takes Russia three or four months to replicate and apply a specific Ukrainian innovation on the battlefield.

The drone race has also spurred the development of new ways to counter drones with sophisticated electronic jamming and deception techniques and by tracking down drone operators.

With military aircraft and ammunition in short supply, Ukraine is using drones to enhance its air power. Ukraine is also actively developing uncrewed ground vehicles (UGVs), surface vehicles (USVs), and underwater vehicles (UUVs), with various levels of autonomy.

Long-range rapid maritime kamikaze drones occupy a separate strategic niche in Ukraine’s military operations. These robotic boats allow Ukraine to protect its grain corridor, amplify domination in the Black Sea, and engage distant enemy naval targets. So far, Ukraine, with no navy, has sunk a third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.

With its array of low- to mid-tier drones, the Ukrainian army ranks among the world’s most experienced in intensive drone warfare, although Russia is not far behind.  Recognizing the pivotal role of drones, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy issued a decree this month to establish the Unmanned Systems Forces within the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This strategic decision will centralize, regulate, and enhance drone capabilities and policies in Ukraine.

Opportunities to observe and regulate in advance

No armed conflict has seen as much use of drones as the current war in Ukraine. But such use comes with challenges. At present, many businesses and individual civilians in Ukraine are involved in drone production and delivery. The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, lacks the coordinated, unified defence and security policy needed to establish a ‘smart war’ industry. Ukraine must consider these factors when attempting to achieve a coherent military strategy. 

But while this is Ukraine’s primary concern, the world’s experts on international security are observing the increasing use of drones and beginning to engage in a debate on regulations. Updated laws will be needed to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure from the misuse of these powerful weapons, which are inching ever closer to full automation and AI integration.

Roman Vysochanskyy holds a Master’s degree in International Public Policy from the Balsillie School of International Affairs (BSIA) and a PhD in Social Philosophy and Philosophy of History from Ivan Franko National University of Lviv, Ukraine. He is currently a BSIA Technology Governance Initiative Research Fellow with Project Ploughshares.

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