Can Armed Drones Turn the Tide of Battle in the Ukraine?

Can the introduction of a single powerful weapon system turn the tide of battle in modern war?  Not usually, most experts say.  But depending on the war’s balance of forces, and the weapon in question, it can prove to be a powerful equalizer in the conflict, especially for the side under siege. The Biden administration’s announcement that it plans to send armed “Gray Eagle” drones to the resistance forces in the Ukraine has raised speculation about its likely impact on a war of attrition that seems increasingly to favor Russian occupiers

The number of drones is small – just four – too few, it would seem, to make a major difference one way or the other.  But just as the introduction of Stinger anti aircraft missiles in Afghanistan in the 1980’s all but eliminated Russia’s commanding air advantage over the Mujahideen armed rebels, drones capable of conducting recurring deep penetration missiles strikes on Russian ground forces in the Ukraine might eliminate the Russian invaders’ current ground force advantage

And their effect on the war’s balance of force could be more than simply military in nature.  In Afghanistan four decades ago, the rebels experience a huge psychological boost when they began downing Russian Hind helicopters that had killed or displaced thousands of civilians, driving them into exile, leaving the armed rebels feeling permanently under siege.

In the Ukraine, resistance forces,  with funding from the West, including billions of dollars in US military aid, have managed to slow the advance of Russian forces, keeping them from consolidating their control over major cities.  But denied access to modern jet aircraft, much less the establishment of a Western “no-fly zone” to deter Russian aerial bombing, the Ukrainain resistance has felt hamstrung in its efforts to take the offensive on the ground, reversing and ultimately repelling the invasion.  Ukrainian resistance forces have received other powerful defensive  weaponry in recent mounts, including anti-tank missiles, but armed drones could allow for attacks deeper into  Russian forces – indeed, even into Russia itself.

The Biden administration has agreed to provide the armed drones after extracting an agreement from President Zelensky that his forces would restrict its attacks to Russian forces in the Ukraine alone.  But the possibility of an escalation has some Pentagon officials worried, and it’s far from clear that Congress will agree to authorize the use of the drones.

How much real damage could the drones do?  It’s not just the possibility of pounding military strikes launched on Russian command and control centers and key artillery batteries.  Armed drones can also gather vital behind-the-lines intelligence on the state of Russian forces and their capabilities and their likely next moves in battle, giving the resistance a fresh tactical advantage

But Ukrainian forces still need to become trained to use the drones, which could take weeks, and it’s far from clear that Congress will agree to authorize the sale.  For now, the announcement of the prospective sale seems more designed to reassure Zelensky that the United States is not about to abandon the resistance to the Russians, even if more aggressive US support to repel the invasion is unlikely to be forthcoming.

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