Ukraine 2 years later: the first “drone war” is fought


By John

The war in Ukraine has definitively confirmed the centrality of the use of drones in modern conflicts. Unmanned aerial vehicles, now used for strikes and not just for reconnaissance, have shown that they can inflict enormous losses on armies that are large but lack an adequate defense system.

At the origin of the centrality of drones in this war was the inability of both sides to take control of the airspace due to the integrated defense systems supplied to both armies. A stalemate that pushed Kiev to follow a very specific strategy, using drones to make up for the difference in forces on the field. Ukraine has used to its advantage the advantages of the use of aircraft which have become increasingly smaller over the months and undetectable by enemy radar, as well as lethal, economical, easy to maneuver and quick to produce. In Ukraine, drones have reduced the so-called ‘death chain’, i.e. the period of time that passes from the moment the enemy is identified to when he is annihilated. Reconnaissance activities, targeted attacks beyond the lines, monitoring the enemy, are all fundamental strategic activities that in this war have been entrusted to unmanned aircraft. At the same time, the conflict has accelerated research and development of combat drones.

Kiev has produced and used drones ranging from the size of the palm of your hand to 500-pound aircraft to target and slow the Russian advance. Moscow entered the field with its army and only later understood the importance of drones in influencing the progress of the conflict, paying a high price for this delay.

In the first year of the conflict, small Ukrainian drones were used to drop grenades on Russian positions, while the large Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktars, inflicted hundreds of millions of dollars in damage to the Kremlin’s armaments, even sinking the Russian ship Moskva. The Russian president Vladimir Putin responded, belatedly, with the purchase of hundreds of Iranian kamikaze drones, the Shahed-136 which put Ukrainian air defenses in difficulty. However, it is precisely the new technologies and the industrial production of these weapons that constitute the main card to play for Kiev in the future.
The Ukrainian government aims to produce unmanned aircraft capable of striking up to a thousand kilometers away, which would mean targeting targets within Russian borders. Particularly significant is the agreement signed with the Turkish company Baykar, which allows Ukraine to produce components of the infamous TB2. In terms of technologies in the field in an initial phase of the conflict, the aforementioned TB2 Bayraktars arrived from Turkey were decisive. Equipped with rockets and heavy weapons and difficult to identify by Russian radars (as already happened in Libya, ed.), the drones designed by the Turkish president’s son-in-law Recep Tayyip Erdogan they made it possible to hit important targets and break through the airspace that Moscow thought it controlled. Heavy losses that pushed the Russians to run for cover, to the point that the Russian army can now identify and strike these large Turkish drones. Kiev responded by switching to more massive small drones. According to what was declared by the Ukrainian deputy prime minister Mykhailo Fedorovin 2023 the country’s internal production reached 300 thousand drones, not counting the aircraft received from allied countries.

The declared objective is to reach one million drones in 2024, with at least half of the components homemade, many of which starting from a reconversion of technologies already used for civilian use. An example is given by First Person View (FPV) drones, normally used for sports competitions and filming, which have been modernized at very low costs, armed with explosives and used to hit non-moving targets. Despite being disposable, they have the advantage of not being detected by Russian radar. Just a year ago Ukraine produced seven types of drones, now it produces around 80. A way to meet the need for weapons and ammunition from abroad that the Ukrainian president Volodimir Zelensky returned to ask insistently.

An analysis by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) according to which Kiev needs 240 thousand bombs a month to counter the Russians gives an idea of ​​the priority that drones have for Kiev. The latter, on the other hand, can count on a production of 125 tanks on a monthly basis. Moscow can count on a stockpile of ammunition five times greater than Ukraine’s. Numbers that give an idea of ​​how this war pits a Ukrainian air defense made increasingly fluid by the use of drones on one side and the powerful Russian war production on the other. Drones have replaced tanks as a priority and are much faster and easier to produce than both the latter and rockets capable of hitting at long range. Putin, however, took action and responded with Russian-made Orion, Eleron-3, Orlan-10 and Lancet drones; however, the sanctions imposed by Western countries have slowed down Russian domestic production. The Russian leader was forced to turn to Iranian Shaheed-136 drones, capable of carrying 45 kilos of explosives.

A recent investigation revealed that Russia has built a factory in the Tatarstan region, 800 km from Moscow and aims to build 6,000 drones on the Iranian model, renamed Geran-2, by 2025. The race to produce drones has been accompanied by the development of defense air systems. Turkish TB2 drones are no longer playing the fundamental role they played in the first months of the conflict precisely because, as mentioned, Moscow has understood how to intercept them. The defense systems of the two countries have allowed the shooting down of thousands of drones, but these are very expensive devices and rockets often used to shoot down drones costing a few hundred euros. Now the challenge between Kiev and Moscow is also played out for the production of an anti-aircraft gun that is cheaper than the objective.

The conflict continues not only on the battlefield, but also in that of development and investments aimed at raising the level of ‘electronic warfare’, currently the quickest way to contain damage and losses inflicted by drones and change the balance of the conflict. At the moment Russia seems to be focusing on the superiority of its air force and the improvement of its drones; on the contrary, Ukraine continues to develop economical and rapidly produced solutions. If Moscow really manages to produce 6,000 drones on the Iranian model within a year, however, it could make up for an inferiority that has currently cost it dearly. However, Ukrainian production has proven to be rapid and varied and an adequate use of the new ‘smart’ drones could put the already slow Russian advance in serious difficulty in the coming months.