The media scene hastily portrayed the Bayraktar TB-2 drone as “Kyiv’s aerial asset” to fight incursions by the Russian invader, overestimating its military effectiveness in a high-intensity conflict. However, the “drone war” in Ukraine is not limited to TB-2s: it also features other types of civilian systems used for military purposes that have produced notable tactical results on both sides. The amplification of the battlefield’s “dronization“, already noticeable in Syria and during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, is now challenging in its magnitude. The use, in Ukraine, of militarized and inexpensive civilian drones, on a broader spectrum of missions, is one of the highlights of the evolution of air conflict.
With the massive arrival of these light drones in the military field, the techno-capability equation of war has been turned upside down. The military procurement strategies undertaken since 2014 have allowed Kyiv to show great flexibility to better exploit civilian technologies for military purposes and thus supplant Russia in quality and quantity in this domain. The ability of the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) to innovate to compensate for greater enemy firepower is an inspiring lesson for our army models. Given the operational experience accumulated by the parties to the conflict concerning the use of these unconventional technologies, recommendations should be made for the benefit of Western armed forces so that they can also modify their own doctrine regarding drones.
Since 2014, Two Arms Trends in Ukraine and Russia That Have Had Far-reaching Strategic Consequences
During the first Donbas War in 2014, Russian anti-aircraft systems significantly reduced Ukraine’s air capabilities. However, by demonstrating the full extent of their ability to overcome intelligence deficiencies, Kyiv quickly grasped that the combination of operational uses for drones could be a real tactical asset. For these reasons, in addition to the low cost of producing these platforms, Ukraine invested between 2014 and 2022 in developing a local drone industry while benefiting from the support of several NATO members to improve its defence infrastructure. The revival of the Ukrainian Air Force has therefore gone through the acquisition of a complete fleet of aerial systems (attack drones, tactics, contact, etc.) while parting with some of its oldest fighters.
Eight years later, to prevent its military’s air potential from being undermined again, Kyiv demonstrated tactical flexibility by combining different types of systems to temporarily and locally challenge Russia’s air superiority. According to several estimates, the UAF’s arsenal of non-military drones was around 6,000 in the summer of 2022. In this respect, drones are, for the latter, a real alternative to light aviation.
Aware of the balance of power that favors them in the sky (4 against 1 for Russian aviation), the opposing camp has innovated only a little in this segment since the fall of the USSR. Lagging behind its Western competitors, the Russian intervention in Syria has nevertheless constituted a laboratory for the operational use of drones that could shed light on the structural weaknesses of the Russian arms industry. However, even if the Syrian feedback has allowed the “(Russian) Ministry of Defense […] to develop appropriate tactical and technical requirements for drones”, multiple technological barriers remained. Over the past decade, Moscow has significantly strengthened its air component by emphasizing the modernization of its fighters and other aircraft. Nonetheless, Russia has underinvested in drones: Western sanctions deployed in 2014 have also permanently restricted Moscow’s room for maneuver to acquire foreign-made optics and electronic components that are essential to their manufacture. On top of it, the Kremlin struggles to formulate precise industrial demands and the multiple bottlenecks for Russian manufacturers, preventing them from meeting production deadlines. This phenomenon has accentuated the dependence on external producers and, by extension, the lack of investment in R&D regarding drones. As a result, the lack of a sufficient national industrial base may have produced a lack of confidence in domestic technologies from the outset of the conflict.
In this particular sector, the transformation of the conflict into a war of attrition does not bode well for Moscow. In the Orlan family of Russian military drones alone, there have been more than 140 destructions or confirmed captures. With this high level of attrition, Moscow will face difficulties repairing its drones due to the tightening of the embargo on critical technologies. Shortage situations could therefore multiply in the coming months if MANPADS or laser guidance systems offered by Western countries to Ukraine continue to play a significant role in the attrition of Russian aircraft. The purchase of 2,000 Iranian Shahed-type programmed munitions highlights Moscow’s willingness to cope with the depletion of its ballistic missile stocks – up to 85% – thanks to rustic and budget-accessible technologies.
Finally, the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 seems to have confirmed Kyiv’s capability choices adopted since 2014 in terms of air power. The Western-supported UAF’s capability recovery has made it possible to develop a holistic approach to drones and to fully exploit the added value of a diversified use of drones.
With the unfulfilled promises of the campaign to suppress enemy air defences, Russia’s control of the airspace is widely contested. As a result, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) can only claim local and temporary air superiority. The lack of air-ground coordination and the lack of engagement in the 3rd dimension (a Russian air activity below the minimum activity required to ensure credible coverage of Ukrainian airspace) seem to largely be the causes of this inability to maintain an impenetrable protective bubble against Ukrainian aircraft. Deprived of this essential asset and facing significant logistical refuelling problems to ward off the mess, surprise and confusion generated by Ukrainian drone operators, the Russian armed forces were quickly exposed to new threats. As they can operate in a contested environment, the small drones (Ukrainians and, to a lesser extent, Russians) conducting intelligence and harassment operations are the most eloquent demonstration of this new situation in the military field.
The Convertibility and Adaptability of the Civilian Drone: a Multiplied Use Valuing the Combination of Combat Platforms.
Micro-drones are generally not exceeding $10,000, are available in commerce, and are implemented directly in the field by human operators. Between obtaining information, preparing ambushes, designating targets for artillery and tracking troop movements and fighter take-offs, these drones seem to allow a vast extension in the range of potentialities.
The range of these aircraft can reach several kilometres or even tens of kilometres for the most enduring. They can also fly at very high altitudes and discreetly. Furthermore, thanks to their electric motor, these drones emit no heat and have a very low acoustic signature. Therefore, they are hardly perceptible, drastically reducing the probability of an interception.
Many MANPADS (Stinger, Strela, etc.) used during the clashes in Ukraine must hook their infrared target to reach the identified heat source. These electric vehicles, therefore, escape the least sophisticated MANPADS. Moreover, by producing a reduced signature vis-à-vis the various sensors, these civilian drones make it possible to delay the detection of a device by the radars of the opposing defences, and this at a lower cost – an aerial stealth in a low-cost version to a certain extent.
Although Russian air defence is a reference in this area, the ability of some Ukrainian drones to penetrate temporary protective bubbles raises questions about the resistance to denial of access devices. For example, for a region that does not exceed Brittany in terms of area, Crimea has more ground/air defence means than the entire French metropolitan territory. This very high concentration induces, more generally, the destruction of 90% of the drones used by the UAF. But it turns out that several of these devices still manage to penetrate advanced air defences to “marginally strike Russian territory” and Crimea. Thus, despite a very high interception rate, these commercial drones make it possible to create security breaches in the enemy’s defence systems and force Russia to “devote capabilities to its sites’ defence.”
In addition to testing the detection capabilities of the most advanced radars, drones alter the cost-benefit calculations of operations. For the same mission, the overall cost of deploying and maintaining drones is much lower than that of a large majority of other aircraft. As a reminder, the average price of an anti-aircraft missile is around several hundred thousand euros. Individually, a French-designed MISTRAL anti-aircraft missile costs 169,000 euros. Given the low price of a civilian drone, complete airspace protection would quickly deplete surface-to-air missile stocks and create an unsustainable cost for both sides. It seems that “very different drones may have to perform identical missions just as identical models may have to perform very different missions.”
The tight mesh setup, thanks to MANPADS and other Ukrainian air defence systems, has made it possible to intercept 85% of Iranian SHAHED 136 drones. If the interception rate is much higher than at the beginning of the conflict (about 30%), it turns out that there is indeed penetration in the Ukrainian multi-layered defence. Moreover, the massive use of drones in military terrain creates a configuration where the balance between offensive and defensive and economic balance often favours offensive means. Another proof of “adaptability in operational concepts of use,” this differential widens even further when these devices are transformed into a weapon of war.
Militarized Civilian Drones: a Destructive Role at the Center of Techno-Guerrilla Warfare
Between grenades fixed with cups on commercial drones and the use of 3D printers to add anti-tank bombs on octocopter drones, there was nothing to suggest that the diversion of low-cost civilian means would significantly increase the military capabilities of the parties to the conflict. It has happened now: “drones become full-blow attack systems.” As these drones proved capable of permanently threatening mobile infantry units and logistics lines, the practice quickly spread to almost all Ukrainian units.
Also lagging behind in this subcategory of militarized civilian drones, the Russian armed forces reacted quickly in the summer of 2022 by investing in the “professionalization of drone operators“. However, Russia has been struggling to catch up with operational know-how developed by Ukrainian civilian defence groups since 2014. The case of the Aerorozvidka unit is probably the most convincing example of the integration of military volunteering and civilian technologies within the Ukrainian army. The operational experience gained during eight years of sporadic fighting in Donbas now allows this squadron to conduct more ambitious air-land operations as part of the techno-guerrilla warfare that is playing out in Ukraine. While relying on a NATO-powered intelligence centre, the Aerorozvidka unit uses irregular air forces and budget-effective technology to map enemy movements in real-time. This squadron is ultimately symptomatic of the UAF’s ability to demonstrate agility and inventiveness. This element seems to contrast with the rigidity of the Russian chain of command.
The Major Role of Drones in Psychological/Informational Warfare
In addition to being highly technological, drones and their onboard cameras have proved very useful in the context of informational and psychological warfare played out in parallel with combat. The constant threat of drones profoundly destabilizes the troops’ morale by creating a climate of terror. On the informational side, the image capture they produce allows decentralized communication that is widely relayed on social networks. Thanks to these images, the Ukrainian and Russian governments could opt for vast disinformation campaigns capable of reviving the battle of perceptions.
Rethinking Procurement Strategies: Towards a New Trade-Off Between Operational Mass Requirements and Technological Superiority
Between the strengthening of the anti-drone fight, the acquisition of these systems by non-state actors and the challenge of attrition for defence strategies, this large-scale drone war raises a set of security risks whose consideration must be a strategic priority for Western military staffs. Moreover, the phenomenon of massification of cheap drones will foreshadow the conflicts of tomorrow. Still, unlike in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, drones are not the main aerial phenomenon in Ukraine since their actions are also combined with those of more traditional aerial platforms. In this regard, the resilience of UAF against what has been described as the Russian “steamroller” already allows us to draw several lessons to develop adequate countermeasures.
Develop Less Expensive Integrated Anti-Drone Systems
On the defensive side, the mesh and the layering offer a higher level of protection to deal with threats in the 3rd dimension. Inspired by the less expensive countermeasures developed by Russia, our army models will have to invest in developing several defence systems to avoid being helpless in the face of this increasingly stealthy and evolving threat. As for the UAF’s renewed interest in Soviet-era “Flak” short-range anti-aircraft guns, it recalls the dangers of “over-specifying” and perfecting weapons systems at all costs in the context of anti-drone warfare. To reduce the significant disparity between drone models and guidance methods, hybridizing the action of old and modern air defence systems is just as relevant as combining the action of the civilian and the military on the offensive side. An integrated air defence network doesn’t just need up-to-date advanced technologies to be effective, especially when drones operate at low altitudes and in saturating attacks.
Because drones rely on the electromagnetic spectrum, Russia’s electronic warfare has been effective in “generating enormous attrition of Ukrainian drones.” Still, it has also had notable weaknesses in producing the effect of these systems on its own troops. In addition, the range of jamming systems remains limited. Far from being a solution to obtain an impenetrable iron dome for the protection of our sensitive areas, electromagnetic jamming systems could be an appropriate response to break the GPS link between the drone and the human operator when there is one.
To better support our forces on the ground, anti-drone rifles operating as directional jammers, laser/microwave directed energy weapons and interceptor and jamming drones are all integrated means of defence that deserve special attention from armies. Furthermore, regarding surface/air defence, the development of short-range mini-anti-aircraft missiles and the production, in large numbers, of fast gun systems (ground/air artillery) capable of dealing with saturating attacks would make the fight against drones economically viable.
Increase the Interoperability of Offensive Systems by Integrating Drones at the Operational Level
On the offensive side, it must be the same. Since the drone is not a miracle weapon, its combined use in maneuvers could be understood as a privileged vector to accelerate multi-medium / multi-field integration. In addition, drones fit perfectly into a “maneuver by fatigue” (“manœuvre par lassitude“) described by General Beaufre since they pose “a disproportionate threat compared to the means invested.” To achieve such a saturation effect, opting for synchronizing the impacts of various systems to maximize results in the military field is necessary. Like the dronification, the popularization of civilian technologies risks restoring a certain parity to the benefit of our competitors. The strengthening of the combined approach will make it possible to be proactive in the face of the planned obsolescence of air supremacy. The performance of small drones is multiplied if they are deployed in addition to electronic warfare and ground/air defence means. This approach will consider the limitations of these technologies and their inability to deal with more hardened objectives or missions that are in-depth and duration.
If the benefits of autonomous and remotely operated systems (AS) are no longer to be proven to Western staffs, the experimentation of these devices seems to be confined to tactical units. When we look in detail at recent orders of the French armed forces, the capacity building of land forces in this segment seems marginal. The operational advantage they represent and their affordable cost should lead to a democratization of so-called “consumable” drones to all conventional forces. Creating mixed units would make it possible to achieve military objectives without mobilizing all of its traditional military assets. Provided that the reconciliation of mass requirements and operational superiority is respected and that the multiple technological barriers are overcome (liaison difficulties, strengthening of management and mobility capabilities, etc.).
Monitor Technological Innovations and the Dynamism of the Private Sector
Recent developments in Ukraine have amply demonstrated that the simplifying dichotomy between civilian and military drones is no longer relevant. Since scientific advances regarding the miniaturization of drones are also outside the military world, the private sector ecosystem is a hotbed of innovation that can inspire the military. Therefore, a constant technological watch is necessary to stay informed of developments in defence procurement. The slow pace of bureaucratic rules within the military apparatus could lead many armies to no longer be able to keep up with developments in this sector in Ukraine and elsewhere. While many countries – such as African states that constitute the largest emerging market for such capabilities – and non-state actors outside the heavy artillery market could quickly – if they haven’t already – integrate large numbers of micro-drones into their concepts of operations.
The Adoption of a Technological Approach at Controlled Cost: Breaking with the Quest for Total Versatility for our Army Models
The question of the rapid adaptation of our armed forces to this new strategic situation remains unresolved. While the concept of a war economy is making a smashing comeback on the political and media scene, European states are still far from it, with an average of 2% of their GDP allocated to defence (around 40% during the Second World War). Nevertheless, it seems that the Western military staffs wish to prepare for it. The ramp-up of arms production, which the proliferation problem and the fight against malicious drones perfectly illustrate, requires translating the consequences of the war in Ukraine into deeds and “concrete contracts.” Beyond the announcement effects and the pressures exerted on defence manufacturers, a real recalibration of the entire productive tool (supply chain, suppliers, human resources, etc.) is imperative. It would allow for a power increase that would restore a qualitative thickness to our armed forces without excessive budgetary inflation. An “assumed renunciation in terms of innovations” and the transition to a mix of high-tech capabilities and more rustic devices could lead our armies to favour specific equipment such as consumable drones.
Engaged in high-risk operations in a major conflict, militarized civilian drones have found their place between conventional aircraft and ground forces. And for a good reason, as their low cost saves considerable resources while posing a constant physical and psychological threat to troops from the front to the rear lines.
Would acquiring a wide range of drones make it possible to ward off Norman Augustine’s prediction about the soaring costs of fighter jets? While they cannot replace existing weapon systems, these so-called “expendable” drones can now strengthen air forces (in numbers), enhancing the observation capabilities of small infantry units and transforming the dynamics of lower airspace while optimizing the use of other existing weapon platforms. All this provided that they are engaged in multi-domain operations with other environments and fields thanks to an agile and adaptative C2 (command and control). For all these reasons, the military potential and the combined effect of small drones will have to be quickly integrated into the acquisition strategies of Western armies in order to create mixed capability models capable of adapting to “the extension of the domains of conflict.” The UAF’s inventiveness and tactical flexibility will eventually lead them to reconsider a significant increase in civilian drone purchases for the lower military echelons.
The author thanks Lt. Col. David Pappalardo, Deputy Air and Space Defense Attaché at the France Embassy in Washington, D.C., for his expert advice while writing this article.