Drones Have Come of Age in Russia-Ukraine War

“A child can operate these drones,” one expert said.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone sits on the tarmac at Gecitkale Air Base, near Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on Dec. 16, 2019.
A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone sits on the tarmac at Gecitkale Air Base, near Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on Dec. 16, 2019.
A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone sits on the tarmac at Gecitkale Air Base, near Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, on Dec. 16, 2019. Birol Bebek/AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is flat, open, and streaked with cloudy skies, terrain that Western officials believe has already limited Russia from carrying out the withering air and missile strikes that characterized the first two months of the war in Ukraine. And as the battlefield shifts east, drones are becoming a dominant—if not the dominant—feature of the conflict, former U.S. officials and experts told Foreign Policy.

With persistent clouds likely to make flying Russian and Ukrainian fighter jets out of missile range more difficult, both sides are turning to a two-pronged drone strategy: using cheap, off-the-shelf drones to keep a watchful eye in the sky and to flag targets for artillery to take out tanks. Experts believe the U.S. provision of hundreds of kamikaze-like loitering drones that can hunt targets for hours before dropping down to detonate a deadly munition, complemented by a fleet of drones that can be bought off the internet as low-cost eyes in the sky, could give the Ukrainians a one-two punch from above.

“That would give them an ability to hunt Russian vehicles without having to get as close and expose their troops in the open,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.

Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region is flat, open, and streaked with cloudy skies, terrain that Western officials believe has already limited Russia from carrying out the withering air and missile strikes that characterized the first two months of the war in Ukraine. And as the battlefield shifts east, drones are becoming a dominant—if not the dominant—feature of the conflict, former U.S. officials and experts told Foreign Policy.

With persistent clouds likely to make flying Russian and Ukrainian fighter jets out of missile range more difficult, both sides are turning to a two-pronged drone strategy: using cheap, off-the-shelf drones to keep a watchful eye in the sky and to flag targets for artillery to take out tanks. Experts believe the U.S. provision of hundreds of kamikaze-like loitering drones that can hunt targets for hours before dropping down to detonate a deadly munition, complemented by a fleet of drones that can be bought off the internet as low-cost eyes in the sky, could give the Ukrainians a one-two punch from above.

“That would give them an ability to hunt Russian vehicles without having to get as close and expose their troops in the open,” said Justin Bronk, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a London-based think tank.

Yet the fighting could become stalemated in the Donbas. Ukraine has largely stopped posting footage from Turkish-made Bayraktar drones in recent weeks—and a few have been confirmed to be lost—a sign to some experts that Russia has begun to shut down that capability in the Donbas as it begins to try to centralize control over the region’s airspace. The provision of new drones could provide a respite for the Ukrainians. The United States is providing Switchblade drones and a close cousin, the Phoenix Ghost, which function as one-shot drones, hovering over the battlefield for hours before diving down to hit their targets. The Biden administration first provided the Phoenix Ghost as part of an $800 million military aid package to Ukraine announced last week.

“These new Phoenix Ghost drones are essentially a modified version of the Switchblade based on feedback from the battlefield,” said Mick Mulroy, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense and retired CIA paramilitary officer. Though there are limited details on the effectiveness of either system, the United States has deployed Switchblade drones in Afghanistan, and Azerbaijan used similar Israeli-made loitering munitions to attack Armenian troops in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Monday that the Pentagon could also rush out similar systems that are still in development based on Kyiv’s military needs. The United States led a conference of about 40 nations on Tuesday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to discuss Ukraine’s future defense needs, including moving the country onto more NATO-standard weapons systems.

“We don’t have thousands and thousands of them, and it’s a program that is still under development,” the senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, told reporters in Poland on Monday. “But when we looked at the development of it and how far along they would come, we realized that this could be valuable. So some of this stuff is literally being pushed into the field of battle, sometimes earlier than it normally would be, to try to help them in the fight they’re in right now.”

And some experts believe that Ukraine could put a chink in Russia’s armor—literally—with the new class of drones that can loiter over their targets for hours and detonate right over tanks and armored vehicles. It could “create a situation where the Russian military will have to expend its resources, conducting anti-drone warfare on a scale it probably hasn’t done before,” said Samuel Bendett, an advisor with the CNA think tank and a member of the organization’s Russia Studies Program. But the battlefield impact of the new capabilities isn’t yet clear. The United States will soon begin training small batches of Ukrainian forces on Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost drones at a remote location in Europe.

Western ammunition shortages could make Ukraine’s need for advanced drones more acute, given a looming shortage of Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, the weapon of choice in U.S. military aid packages to Kyiv until recently. The Stinger, a shoulder-launched anti-air rocket that the CIA handed over to Afghan mujahideen to fight the Soviet Union in the 1980s, hasn’t been purchased by the Pentagon in nearly 20 years. On an earnings call on Tuesday, Raytheon CEO Greg Hayes said the U.S. defense contractor will need more time to redesign components in the Stinger and its heat-seeking head before replenishing stocks of the missile being sent to Ukraine. And several other countries have privately or publicly indicated that they’re tapped out.

“We need everything, to be honest,” said one Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak with the media. “It’s war. If we don’t stop [Russian President Vladimir] Putin in Ukraine, he will come to Europe.” In a tweet on Tuesday, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was in dire need of air defense, drones, artillery systems, and combat aircraft, among other weapons, from NATO countries. Ukrainian officials have also reportedly talked to U.S. defense contractor General Atomics about acquiring MQ-9 Reaper drones, the U.S. Air Force’s most capable strike drone.

But the Ukrainians aren’t the only ones putting more eyes in the sky. The Russian military has talked about fielding quadcopters since at least 2019, influenced by Syrian militants’ use of commercial drones nearly seven years ago. But Russia never made clear whether it was talking about acquiring drones from foreign providers or starting a defense industrial base of its own. The Ukrainian government has also suspected that Russia has used small drones to secretly strike at weapons depots; Moscow has denied these accusations. Russia has also sought to downsize its munitions to make them easier to load onto small drones.

But the bigger problem for the Russians has been the inability to shoot down drones fielded by the Ukrainians and to degrade Ukrainian air defenses, which Western officials expected them to suppress just days into the conflict. The British defense ministry’s intelligence arm assessed on April 27 that Ukraine still held control of a majority of its airspace 63 days into the conflict, with Russian forces mostly providing limited support to ground troops. Russia claims to have shot down 583 Ukrainian drones during the two-month war but has not provided any independent verification for this claim.

The impact of off-the-shelf commercial drones has also given most front-line units a pre-baked intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability. While the use of heavy combat-capable drones has tapered off, the Chinese-made DJI Mavic drone and its Polish and Turkish counterpart surveillance drones have become almost ubiquitous in footage from the Ukrainian battlefield, experts said, giving both sides a much clearer snapshot of the war and improving targeting to a point where neither side can make headway. DJI halted business in both Russia and Ukraine this week. Armed Ukrainian Punisher drones have also made an appearance alongside Turkish Bayraktars. Both sides are expected to use multicopters for spotting movement and directing artillery fire while attack drones, howitzers, and aircraft do the rest of the work.

“Particularly as [loitering drones] start being used in large numbers, there’s also a question of how much that impacts Russian freedom of action,” said Bronk, the RUSI expert. “But that may make them more vulnerable to artillery, for example, whereas if they disperse them, then it’s harder to provide short-range air defense cover against things like munitions. It’s partly about forcing unpleasant choices on the Russians as they try to gain ground.”

But even as the United States sends to Ukraine high-tech loitering drones that are barely out of development, the battlefield two months into Russia’s invasion has been characterized by ubiquitous use of off-the-shelf technology, experts said, even more than during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war, which ushered in a new era of drone prominence. In that six-week conflict, Azerbaijan deployed Chinese-made unmanned aircraft to target Armenian ground forces in a decisive campaign. The lightning campaign that left Azerbaijan with a larger chunk of the disputed region saw the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drone—which has become an internet meme during the Russia-Ukraine war—first become famous and featured large doses of Israeli loitering munitions, similar to the U.S.-made Switchblades and Phoenix Ghosts.

Yet experts have been surprised by how the same drones that can be bought at big-box stores in the United States have become the go-to aircraft not just for Ukrainian defenders—where reserve units have struggled to get proper equipment—but also for a motley crew of Russian-aligned fighters in the Donbas, including soldiers from the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic and Chechen Rosgvardia units. Autopsies of Russian Orlan drones that have fallen out of the sky in Ukraine seemingly show the system using basic components: a Japanese Canon camera and a plastic water bottle for a fuel tank.

“They’re basically using a drone you can buy at Walmart,” said Bendett, the CNA expert who specializes in studying drone warfare. “These are not military-grade technologies at all. A child can operate these drones.”

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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