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Ukraine Needs a Whole Lot of Deadly Drones

Kamikaze swarms can overwhelm Russian defenses.

By , an associate professor of information science and technology at the University of Houston, and , the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.
A Ukrainian activist carries a drone.
A Ukrainian activist carries a drone.
A Ukrainian activist carries a drone in western Lviv, Ukraine, on April 1. Aleksey Filippov/AFP via Getty Images

Putin’s War

As the Russian military stalls in Ukraine, the Kremlin is turning to plan B: terror bombardment of civilians, an attempt to carve off parts of eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea coast, and destruction of Ukraine’s civil and industrial infrastructure. Accordingly, Kyiv needs a plan B as well. It needs long-range offensive strike options that can be deployed en masse and regenerate after attrition by Russian air defenses—something that the Ukrainian Air Force, despite its heroic efforts to date, cannot do.

Long-range, low-cost, self-manufactured kamikaze drones—produced and launched from a variety of locations throughout Ukraine’s nearly Texas-sized territory—would be a game-changer. Kyiv could begin to break Russian sieges through high-volume strikes against command-and-control nodes, artillery units, rotary and fixed-wing airfields, and logistics chains—including in Belarus and Russia itself. Decentralized production and launch capabilities would present Russian forces with fiendish interdiction challenges. Taken together, Ukraine’s ability to strike back at scale for a long period of time would constitute critical first steps toward saving Ukrainian civilian lives now and, hopefully, eventual battlefield victory later.

Kamikaze drones (also sometimes called “loitering munitions”) differ from drones like the United States’ MQ-9 Reaper or Bayraktar TB2 that Ukraine uses now. Rather than being a launch platform for missiles and bombs that return to base after missions, a loitering munition flies into the target itself—sometimes at near-cruise missile ranges—and explodes. Israel’s nearly 40 years of drone experience in conflicts with Syria and the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh attest to kamikaze drones’ combat effectiveness even against modern air defense systems.

As the Russian military stalls in Ukraine, the Kremlin is turning to plan B: terror bombardment of civilians, an attempt to carve off parts of eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea coast, and destruction of Ukraine’s civil and industrial infrastructure. Accordingly, Kyiv needs a plan B as well. It needs long-range offensive strike options that can be deployed en masse and regenerate after attrition by Russian air defenses—something that the Ukrainian Air Force, despite its heroic efforts to date, cannot do.

Long-range, low-cost, self-manufactured kamikaze drones—produced and launched from a variety of locations throughout Ukraine’s nearly Texas-sized territory—would be a game-changer. Kyiv could begin to break Russian sieges through high-volume strikes against command-and-control nodes, artillery units, rotary and fixed-wing airfields, and logistics chains—including in Belarus and Russia itself. Decentralized production and launch capabilities would present Russian forces with fiendish interdiction challenges. Taken together, Ukraine’s ability to strike back at scale for a long period of time would constitute critical first steps toward saving Ukrainian civilian lives now and, hopefully, eventual battlefield victory later.

Kamikaze drones (also sometimes called “loitering munitions”) differ from drones like the United States’ MQ-9 Reaper or Bayraktar TB2 that Ukraine uses now. Rather than being a launch platform for missiles and bombs that return to base after missions, a loitering munition flies into the target itself—sometimes at near-cruise missile ranges—and explodes. Israel’s nearly 40 years of drone experience in conflicts with Syria and the 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh attest to kamikaze drones’ combat effectiveness even against modern air defense systems.

As Russian forces immobilize themselves voluntarily by digging in to consolidate gains and involuntarily through what appear to be compounding logistics supply chain breakdowns, higher-intensity kamikaze drone operations can amplify Ukraine’s demonstrated capabilities in cyberintelligence, signals intelligence, and special operation forces for compounding lethality as Russian capacity for mobile warfare erodes. For now, NATO should move past MiG-29 fighter aircrafts and instead focus on helping Ukraine further scale up its capacity to inflict drone hell on its invaders and facilitate their military defeat.

For tactical strikes, which we define as those occurring at a distance of 150 kilometers (or 93 miles) or less from friendly territory, Ukraine has proved able to creatively generate targeting data as well as successfully and persistently operate Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB2 drones despite tremendous Russian surface-to-air missile capability. That the Russian Air Force hasn’t swept Ukraine’s unmanned aircraft from the skies reflects yet another of its shortcomings. But Russian air defenses will enjoy greater coverage and concentration as fighting becomes increasingly focused on Ukraine’s east and southeast. Kyiv thus needs dozens more Bayraktar TB2 systems to continue interdiction operations and spotting for its forces’ tube and rocket artillery.

But Bayraktar TB2s alone are insufficient. Kyiv needs a strategic drone warfare concept as well, one with specific political end-state objectives. The Yemen-based Houthi rebels’ disruptive drone warfare campaign against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offers a possible model. The Houthis, likely enabled by their Iranian allies, have made enormous strides in using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAS) to impose impactful home front and rear-area costs on foreign attackers. As of December 2021, Houthi forces had reportedly fired more than 850 drones against targets in Saudi Arabia during the preceding seven years. The pace varied, with the Houthis alleging in March 2021 that they unleashed a salvo of 18 armed drones in a single day at various facilities in Saudi Arabia.

Ukrainian forces could likely operate at a higher sustained tempo with more advanced UAS systems given the country’s indigenous technical expertise and, almost assuredly, significant materiel support from NATO members. The United States has already promised 10, 40-kilometer-range (or almost 25-mile-range) Switchblade 600 loitering munitions that can destroy artillery units besieging Ukrainian cities. This offers a useful field test, but Ukraine needs hundreds of these weapons, which would allow Ukrainian forces in the suburbs of Kharkiv, Mariupol, or Odesa to be able to engage most Russian tube and rocket artillery systems and their support vehicles even before they come within range of the city centers. This is a critical near-term challenge for Ukraine’s military. If it can neutralize these systems through the application of counterbattery sensors and UAS, the Russian capacity to menace urban centers could be considerably degraded.

But in the long term, Ukraine needs to be able to manufacture such drones itself using a mix of imported and, in some cases, domestically produced parts. Importing drones that are largely assembled in kit form is an option, but the importation of parts, such as engines, along multiple supply routes and from what’s left of the Ukrainian industrial base would build in greater resilience to Russian interdiction attempts. Domestic assembly also would accelerate Ukrainian forces’ ability to rapidly incorporate lessons learned and make adaptive changes as kamikaze UAS battle experience accumulates.

With appropriate sensors and advanced warheads, Ukrainian kamikaze UAS could target dug-in Russian artillery and armor throughout Ukraine as well as supply networks, military headquarters, air defense systems, and perhaps even ships in the Black Sea and Sea of Azov. If Ukraine wished, it could take the fight to Russia, attacking airfields, critical infrastructure, the arms industry, and other high-value targets. Russia would threaten escalation and try to step up airstrikes against suspected drone part supply lines and assembly workshops, but a credible UAS threat to bases in western Russia could seriously curtail sortie generation. It likely would not risk direct NATO intervention by using chemical or nuclear weapons in response to drone attacks and, aside from weapons of mass destruction, has limited remaining escalation options given its ongoing terror bombardments and atrocities against civilians.

If the Houthi operations offer a guide, Ukrainian drone operators could potentially target Russian assets at ranges approaching 1,000 kilometers (or 621 miles) from its territory. The impacts on Russian military logistics and aircraft basing would be profound. Air bases in Belarus and western Russia host strike aircraft, helicopters, and even A-50 airborne early warning aircraft—but thus far have operated with relative impunity, save for a few Ukrainian counterstrikes with very short range (70 kilometers or 43 miles) Tochka-U ballistic missiles. Long-range precision UAS swarms launched from havens in western and central Ukraine could reach virtually all of these facilities. Russian forces no doubt take this threat seriously, having suffered deaths and aircraft damage from UAS strikes against the Khmeimim Air Base in January 2018.

If Ukraine attained the capacity to launch several dozen UAS per day against Russian targets on a sustained basis, the air defense implications would also quickly become profound. In recent months, Saudi Arabia has sought to procure at least 280 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles and took urgent delivery of a “significant number” of Patriot surface-to-air missiles, which it uses to destroy Houthi drones and defend against ballistic missile attacks by the group. Russia lacks an external patron capable of resupplying its defensive missile stocks in the face of a drone war. Furthermore, Russian fighter aircraft engaged in counter-UAS operations would be unavailable to defend strike aircraft over Ukraine or engage drones hunting Russian armor, air defense, and artillery units. They might also be vulnerable to Ukrainian ground-based surface-to-air missile traps.

Forcing harder choices with compounding consequences on Russian forces would facilitate Kyiv’s ability to hold Moscow more immediately accountable for its indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilians and industrial infrastructure. Pushing deeply beyond the immediate front lines—drones and loitering munitions that are lower cost and have long-range capabilities—would threaten Russian forces and infrastructure beyond Ukrainian territory. Yemen’s Houthi drone-makers appear increasingly capable of indigenously producing their aircraft domestically using component parts, such as engines and cameras clandestinely sourced from a wide variety of publicly accessible suppliers.

Ukrainian drone fabs would have access to a much wider range of parts than their counterparts in Yemen, including world-class guidance systems, multi-effect warheads, and fuses, since they would not have to contend with export controls. Kamikaze drones producible at scale and capable of accurately delivering a 40-kilogram (or 88-pound) warhead over a distance of 1,000 kilometers at a unit cost of between $50,000 and $100,000 could potentially become possible. In NATO-speak, that would mean delivering a warhead twice the mass of the micro-munitions dropped by Ukraine’s TB2 drones at a cost roughly equivalent to a Javelin anti-tank missile round. And it could potentially do so over distances that normally require cruise missiles that cost 10 times as much. Moscow could not ignore such UAS systems deployed at scale.

NATO should not be afraid to facilitate this process. Member countries have already supplied or pledged to supply approximately 60,000 anti-tank weapons, roughly 10 times as many man-portable air-defense missiles as were supplied to the Afghan mujahideen during a nearly decadelong campaign in the 1980s, and Soviet-origin military hardware from U.S. stockpiles. The alliance is now also reportedly considering the supply of anti-ship missiles to Ukraine.

In short, NATO countries acting on their own volition have already established ample precedent for providing weapons that can—and have—killed many Russian invaders and destroyed large volumes of equipment. Adding deep warfare drones and/or their precursor components is thus aligned with existing actions and would add an essential tool for breaking sieges, saving Ukrainian lives, and helping Kyiv begin restoring its pre-2014 territorial integrity.

The views expressed in this article are exclusively those of the authors. They do not reflect official assessments or positions of Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, or the University of Houston.

Christopher Bronk is an associate professor of information science and technology at the University of Houston.

Gabriel B. Collins is the Baker Botts fellow in energy and environmental regulatory affairs at Rice University’s James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, whose funding sources are listed here, and a senior visiting research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

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