Lessons from use of drones in the Ukraine war

Oleg Vornik, chief executive officer of DroneShield, analyses how drone and counter-drone systems have been used during the war in Ukraine.

Note: all information in this story comes from the various open intelligence reports, as Ukrainian military and civilian population make extensive footage with their smartphones and publishing online. This makes it the first war of its kind, fought online as much as in the field.

Russian forces have used “grey zone warfare” (cyber, unmarked troops, Wagner Group etc.) both in Eastern Ukraine and around the globe extensively for a number of years now. Using drones is an extension of this strategy.

Drones can be used in four ways in warfare: precise payload delivery (such as dropping explosives or kamikaze attacks), surveillance (scouting out enemy positions to send a mortar or otherwise coordinate an attack), nuisance / loitering and cyber/hacking (using proximity to enemy networks to hack in via a drone and degrade/infiltrate the networks).

Drones came to symbolise asymmetric warfare, with a $3,000 drone able to drop a charge into a $5 million tank, destroying the tank and its occupants, without drone pilot being in the line of fire.

Ukrainians also use drones, on the larger end, most famously the Turkish-supplied TB2 Bayraktar, following their success in Armenia against the Russian-supplied ground defence Pantsir systems and tanks (with Azerbaijan deploying the TB2s), as well as in the Middle East. Immediately prior to the war, Ukrainians were in the process to set up a local manufacturing line for TB2s near Kyiv. However, some of the used drones are designed and already being made locally in Ukraine too.

Loitering munition drones are a fascinating class of drones on their own, essentially a low cost flying smart munitions, popularised by AeroVironment’s Switchblade, launched from a tube in the field.

The US government has recently approved supply of AeroVironment Switchblade drones to Ukraine, for use in a range of scenarios including attacking tanks.

And what about counter-drone/C-UAS?

There appears to be a divide between the full-scale electronic warfare (EW) capability that Russians have, such as their on-vehicle system (which would be too much for drone jamming, too expensive to have a lot of those units and they are vulnerable targets).

And on the other hand, the handheld and portable units, which appear from public reports almost “home-made”.

Such basic jammers are likely to lack safety protocols for the operator (Russians are not well known to consider safety features for their soldiers – consider them not investing in the internal lining between the tank shell magazine and the crew, which reportedly caused a lot of the publicised tank explosions where the tower flies off some distance from the body, when a shell explodes inside the tank and creates a chain reaction with the rest of the magazine). Back in the Cold War, there is a famous story of Americans and USSR having the same class of a nuclear submarine, except the USSR boat was able to move faster … because the lead safety wall between the crew compartment and the nuclear engine was removed from the design, to help the speed. While Western counter-drone devices go through full internationally accredited safety protocols (similar to what cellphone manufacturers do), Russian jammers are less likely to have the shielding and other design features for operator health. There is also a question of basic effectiveness – while jammers are originally an old technology (since WWII), there is a lot of IP in waveform/antenna design, jamming signal effectiveness, effective dissipation of heat and so on.

How effective are western counter-drone systems against Russian drones? A lot of Orlan-10 components appears to be Chinese, European or US made. Hence the established C-UAS systems would likely be highly effective, both in detection and defeat. With the Russian military-industrial base likely to be plagued by years of corruption and mismanagement, use of non-Russian componentry is not surprising. Similar to their tank production lines reportedly halted due to lack of componentry.

The use of drones (and C-UAS) in warfare is here to stay – Ukraine-Russian war will be in military textbooks around the world for the next 20 years as a case study. With all the tragedy, devastation, death and loss, it is also a testbed for technologies in a military setting (first meaningful scale war for a long time). Counter-UAS systems will become a critical component for heavy armour, such as tanks and howitzers, and will form a part of the soldier portable kits (along with small tactical drones themselves).


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