The war in Ukraine is fast becoming a “battle of drones.” Each side has begun deploying small, hard-to-detect missile-equipped drones for deep penetration “kamikaze” attacks on the other side’s ground vehicles and rearguard encampments. The drone war had remained at a low level until last month when Russia escalated its drone attacks and began targeting Ukraine’s cities, sparking fresh outrage in diplomatic circles. Both sides are also relying increasingly on foreign drone suppliers, which is ratcheting up the level of violence without giving either side a decided battlefield advantage.
Undoubtedly, Russia started the drone war with drones from its own arsenal. Kalashnikov Concern, Russia’s leading small arms defense contractor, manufactures drones loaded with self-exploding munitions that can hover in place for hours, waiting for prime targets to strike, However, over the summer, Moscow also received several thousand advanced Iranian drones which Putin is using to bombard several Ukrainian cities, including the capital of Kiev. Thousands of casualties have been reported since the strikes began in earnest several weeks ago
Ukraine has been responding in kind, with additional support from US forces. The Zelensky government received US-manufactured “Swtitchblade” suicide drones last spring – but just 100 of them – and is desperate for more. And now Israel, which refuses to arm Ukraine directly, is jumping into the mix by supplying the Zelensky government with sophisticated anti-drone technology through Poland, which has agreed to serve as a transshipment point.
Faced with the latest Russian assault, Ukraine now wants to secure more lethal state-of-the-art American “Gray Eagle” drones equipped with hellfire missiles that could inflict major damage to Russia’s ground force. But the Biden administration has been reluctant to provide them, owing to its policy of refusing large-scale air support (including jet aircraft) to Zelensky, ostensibly to avoid triggering an escalation and a direct confrontation with Russia. There’s also a concern that Russia might shoot down one of the Gray Eagles and capture and copy the drone’s highly sophisticated on-board targeting technology for future use of its own.
In the interim, Turkey has been supplying Ukraine with top-of-the-line Bayraktar TB2 suicide drones that have proven useful against Russian artillery and armored personnel carriers. Turkey has also agreed to help Ukraine build a drone munitions factory. There may also be clandestine shipments of additional third-party drones that have yet to be revealed.
Undoubtedly, the latest Russian attacks on Ukraine’s cities have exposed the country’s strategic air defense vulnerabilities. Putin is pressing the air war to offset some of the gains Ukraine has registered on the ground against Russian forces in recent weeks. The offensive coincides with Putin’s declaration of newly independent buffer states after elections held at gunpoint in the eastern Ukraine, a de facto annexation that may set the stage for an eventual negotiated settlement that would seem all but inevitable given the current stalemate.
Sadly, Ukraine is becoming something of a laboratory for some of the latest drone weaponry currently available on the international market. And it’s not just drone weaponry that is being tested but also drone training programs and logistics, allowing drone producers the world over to extract valuable lessons as they market their capabilities to their chosen proxies.
How much of a difference are drones actually making? Ukraine claims to have shot down dozens of Russian-produced drones, which is one reason the country recently turned to Iran. But despite all the marketing hype – especially coming from Turkey – it’s doubtful that either side’s escalating drone attacks will fundamentally alter the war’s balance of forces. Each side may gain a short-term tactical advantage before the other side moves to offset it. Meanwhile, the level of violence continues to rise to the detriment of the terrified civilians trapped in the middle.