Uses and implications of aerial drones in the war in Ukraine

For a year now, the war in Ukraine has pitted the army of the Russian Federation backed by paramilitary groups and autonomist militias from Donbass, against the forces of the Republic of Ukraine. This conflict, which is rightly emphasized as the first high-intensity conflict since the Second World War on the European continent, reveals several developments in contemporary warfare.

One of them is indirectly visible to the general public by videos broadcast on social networks. They show from a close-up aerial view the destruction of such and such a vehicle or enemy position, sometimes even the rout of units and the death of soldiers. These recordings are captured by tactical aerial drones belonging mainly to the Ukrainian camp. The number of these recordings demonstrates by itself the massive use of these aircraft on the battlefield.

This article aims to understand the reasons for this use during the past year, and more particularly how they contributed to the success of Ukrainian territorial defense in the first months of the conflict. It will attempt to demonstrate that the use of these various aerial drones by Kyiv’s forces is similar to a “technical surprise” as defined by Admiral Raoul Castex. Namely: “the sudden appearance of an entirely new weapon, the realization of which has been carefully hidden, and which only reveals itself at the moment of use”. Castex adds that “such a surprise is also produced, to a lesser degree however, when a weapon already known is suddenly employed in another way or on another terrain than those assigned to it by the habits, the traditions or the current military ideas”1CASTEX, Raoul (AL). Théories stratégiques, vol. IV, Les Facteurs internes de la stratégie, France, Paris : C.I.D.-C.E.S.M.-I.S.C.-Economica. 1997. p. 185.. The nuance made by the Admiral seems to completely correspond to the use of the drone in the Ukrainian conflict and we will demonstrate it.

By aerial drones we mean self-propelled aircraft, maneuvering without a pilot on board, whose trajectory can be controlled remotely or pre-programmed before take-off2NATO has three categories of drones based on their mass. Category. I: light UAVs, weighing less than 150 kg, which include “micro”, “mini” and “nano” UAVs, with a range limited to the Line of Sight. Category. II: tactical UAVs between 150 and 600 kg without a satellite link (range 200 km). Category III: UAVs weighing more than 600 kg, which include operation, attack and strategic UAVs, equipped with a satellite link, thus freeing themselves from the distance constraint (most of the so-called MALE [Medium Altitude Long Endurance] UAVs and all HALE [High Altitude Long Endurance] UAVs). They are distinguished from other unmanned maneuvering objects in the airspace, such as missiles, by the fact that they are designed and used with the intention of returning to the user after the mission is completed and are not for single use. Therefore, we will present the use of drones in the Ukrainian army, first by their infantry forces, then by the air force and navy. This before developing the analysis on the Russian reaction through what is called loitering munitions.

Ukrainian infantry, the alliance of Bacchus and Damocles

The resistance of the Ukrainian defense lines in the face of the first Russian breakthroughs at borders on February 24, 2022 until their exhaustion between March and April 2022 can be understood depending on two factors. First by the weakness of the Russian device, whose initial plan was not adapted to an Ukrainian resistance (both in its objectives and logistic means envisaged). Then by the very great lethality of the Ukrainian forces whose infantry-artillery couple beat in breach the Russian armored-mechanized columns.

That was not self-evident. Indeed the armored weapon was first conceived during the Great War precisely to get out of the deadlock in which the firepower of artillery and collective infantry weapons, such as machine guns, had plunged the conflict from summer 1914. However, after 2014 the Ukrainian armed forces built motorized infantry units heavily equipped with anti-tank weapons (RPG, NLAW, Javelin) which enhanced their first-tier firepower and lethality against armor. Moreover, Ukrainian artillery fire did not change in its effectors —the tubes available at the beginning of the conflict were still mounts inherited from the USSR— but their effectiveness increased thanks to the spread of the use of light tactical drones3HENROTIN, Joseph. « Le futur est le passé. Avec le GPS (et des drones) », DSI Hors-Série. N°84, June-July 2022. p. 10.. Their mass use has constituted the aforementioned “technical surprise”.

The Ukrainian forces have been using civilian quadrotor drones since the first days, which have allowed the frontline units to multiply their reconnaissance of the enemy’s position, and then to guide artillery fire accurately on the assault columns. This device originates from the bad Ukrainian experience of the Donbass War (2014), where the lack of intelligence had resulted —among other things— in heavy losses to the separatists supported by Russian artillery. The situation has been reversed since February 2022, with Ukrainian infantry units having a better awareness of their environment: the intelligence thus gathered is transmitted to Ukrainian units, allowing them to have a real-time “digital map” of enemy movements and if necessary to carry out strikes. This detour of light civilian drones for military use is certainly not new (e.g. also used in Syria4Some Islamic State units had marginally used civilian drones equipped with an explosive charge to serve as a flying improvised explosive device (IED) in siege fighting in Iraq and Syria.) but it does constitute a large-scale “technical surprise”. In the absence of effective countermeasures, these weapons have been a major asset in the formation of a Ukrainian “recognition-strike complex” (to use a Russian concept), which is largely decentralized and produces operational intelligence. As a result the Ukrainian conflict is certainly one of the fronts that is best documented in images thanks to drones5GREENWOOD, Faine. « Ukraine War Is Being Watched From the Sky », Foreign Policy. April 2nd 2022.

The Aerorozvidka6SHOAIB, Alia. « Inside the elite Ukrainian drone unit founded by volunteer IT experts: ‘We are all soldiers now.’ », Insider. April 9th 2022. unit was the first to use drones in this sense, following the same logic of “resourcefulness” that led to the use of civilian equipment. Several multi-rotor drones were equipped with rudimentary dropping systems allowing them to drop charges on opposing armored vehicles, as shown by the many videos posted on social media7<> (01min14 → 02min09) ; <> (00min00 → 00min20). Therefore the Ukrainian infantry8Understood here above all as melee units – capable of maneuver – to be distinguished from territorial defense units made up mostly of mobilized soldiers, less well equipped and employed primarily in urban defense. plays the roles of Bacchus by always having one eye open to spot the enemy, and of Damocles by being able to strike from the sky beyond direct sight, by its means in case of failure of the artillery.

The case of Bayraktar, the physical and psychological impact of an air force without aircraft

Beyond the tactical use of light drones —or micro-drones— by Ukrainian infantrymen, the use of heavier models of the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) or UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) category, whose symbol is the Turkish-made TB-2 Bayraktar, exposes two other lessons specific to this conflict.

Firstly, that an air force reduced to a minimum activity by the loss of combat aircraft can nevertheless continue to operate and play a certain operational role. From the outset, the Ukrainian air force employed its TB-2 drones with their MAM-L laser-guided munitions —of which it probably had more than the observers counted9The Kiev forces had only 7 TB-2s in service out of at least 12 ordered. INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES. « Chapter Five : Russia and Eurasia », The Military Balance. Vol. 122, 2022. p. 211-215 ; Ukraine subsequently ordered or received by donation from Turkey (no official statement on the status of these deliveries) 16 TB-2s in May 2022 and 40 in August 2022. D.S.I. N°159, May-June 2022. p. 39. ; D.S.I. N°160, July-August 2022. p. 35. — to carry out fire support strikes, but above all to carry out interdiction missions (missions aimed at slowing down or paralyzing the arrival of enemy supplies and reinforcements by attacking logistical points at the rear of the front line) or SEAD10Suppression of Ennemy Air Defenses – Destruction des Défenses Anti-aériennes Ennemies. Illustration : <> (00min00 → 1min25) missions (aimed at destroying the adversary’s air defense assets). The Kyiv’s control of the airspace over Ukraine was built progressively by the accumulation of anti-aircraft systems more than by air superiority sorties. The role of the strategic strike also seems to have been “droned” with the repeated use of several Soviet-era Tu-141 observation drones, modified to carry an ordinary bomb. The first occurrence came to public attention by accident on March 1111One of this drone equipped with a bomb crashed in a garden of Zagreb (Croatia) without making victims.THE GUARDIAN. « Military drone from Ukraine war crashes into Croatian capital Zagreb », The Guardian. March 11th 2022.. Between December 2022 and February 2023 several Tu-141s crashed on Russian territory, some of them damaging strategic bombers on the Engels-2 airbase (Saratov Oblast) without being claimed by Kyiv12POWIS, Gaëtan. « Frappes ukrainiennes en Russie : au moins deux bombardiers russes endommagés », Air&Cosmos. December 6th 2022 ; TASS. « Air defenses destroy unidentified object in Saratov Region — governor », TASS. December 29th 2022.. Thus the Ukrainian Air Force remains active despite the destruction of its conventional fleet. This gives an illustration of the idea of “aerial guerrilla warfare” and retaining, against all odds, its ability to strike Russia in depth.

However the term “technical surprise” to qualify this use of the TB-2, Tu-141, and so on would be abusive. Indeed the TB-2 was already used intensively during the conflicts between Armenia/Artsakh and Azerbaijan in 202013MITZER, Stijn, OLIEMANS, Joost. « The Conqueror of Karabakh: The Bayraktar TB2 », as well as between the forces of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and those of Marshal Haftar in Libya during the offensive on Tripoli by the latter’s forces14MITZER, Stijn, OLIEMANS, Joost. « An Unmanned Interdictor: Bayraktar TB2s Over Libya ». On the other hand, it should be noted that Ukraine has used the success of the TB-2 to produce a victorious and positive communication on its military action. The Bayraktar has become a symbol in itself, to the point that a song is dedicated to it15BOROVOK, Taras, (Colonel [Ukraine]). « Bayraktar » <>. It is likely that this reputation has limited certain Russian maneuvers, with commanders preferring to avoid exposing themselves to strikes16THOMAS, Aude. « Les drones sur le champ de bataille : quelles leçons tirer de leur emploi par les forces ukrainiennes ? », Défense & Industries. N°16, June 2022. p. 12, leading to an operational effect of these drones that is potentially greater than their actual physical presence17This is a recurring pattern in military history, where the reputation of a weapon system, or of a military unit, leads to more caution than necessary (considering its actual action) on the part of the opposing side. This was the case in the perception of the US Stinger missiles delivered to the Afghan Mujahideen through Pakistan between 1980 and 1989. This caused fear among Soviet pilots that was out of all proportion to the losses inflicted by these missiles. See SIDOS, Philippe, (COL). La guerre soviétique en Afghanistan, France, Paris : Economica. 2016. p. 269-287., perfectly illustrating the psychological aspect of air power as theorized to the extreme by Douhet18DOUHET, Giulio. La maîtrise de l’air [Il dominio dell’aria] (trad. SMITH, Benoît et ROMEYER Jean), France, Paris : I.S.C.-Economica. 2007.

The real technical surprise came from the Ukrainian Navy which, for the first time in the world, included a drone in a naval operation by combining a TB-2 with a land-based battery of Neptune anti-ship missiles. This action led to a strong operational and symbolic success with the destruction of the missile cruiser Moskva in the Black Sea on 13 April, 2022. According to Ukrainian authorities the drone was used to locate the ship and divert its defenses19SHELDON-DUPLAIX, Alexandre. « Ukraine : la Russie à la peine. », Marines & Forces navales. N°199, June-July2022. p. 33.. Navy TB-2s were also used to strike the Russian-occupied Snake Island until July20 Finally, drones are regularly used for coastal naval strikes, sinking or seriously damaging assault craft such as Raptor and BK-16 in May 2022.

The Russian response, a low-cost densification of firepower, Shaded-136 and Lancet

Even more than the Artsakh conflict of 2020, this war exposes the widespread and intensive use of loitering munitions or suicide drones, a hybrid form of the drone and the cruise missile21 SMALDORE, Yannick. « Munitions rôdeuses. Un atout majeur. », DSI. N°161, September-October 2022. p. 92.. Like the latter they are destined to accomplish their mission by destroying themselves. Like the former they are more maneuverable, can eventually return from a mission intact if no target has presented itself and use their lifting surface to keep themselves aloft rather than the single thrust of a rocket engine.

In this respect it appears that Russia has developed their use more rapidly to compensate for its inability to transform the numerical superiority of its air force into effective air superiority over Ukrainian territory. From September-October 2022, several salvos of long-range strikes were launched against the electricity and drinking water infrastructures of Ukraine’s major urban centers. Approximately 30% to 40% of which were out of service by the end of October22ZELENSKY, Volodymyr. 20/10/2022 : « Attacks by Russian cruise missiles and Iranian combat drones have destroyed more than a third of our energy infrastructure. » ; VINCENT, Faustine. « Le réseau électrique d’Ukraine, nouveau « champ de bataille » de la Russie », Le Monde. 24/10/2022. A.F.P. et EURONEWS. « Ukraine : “attaque massive” russe contre des installations énergétiques dans plusieurs régions », Euronews. 31/10/2022.. Having already accumulated a backlog in the development of more “classic” drones, Moscow is supplying itself for these strikes from Iran which produces the Shaded-136 suicide drone23RAMZY, Austin. « What is known about the Iranian-made drones that Russia is using to attack Ukraine. », The New York Times. October 17th 2022.. The objective here is the same as for Kyiv: to weaken the morale of the population and hit strategic infrastructures.

In addition, the autumn of 2022 saw the arrival on the front of Russian-made Lancet loitering munitions (and their variants). They are used for the same missions as the Ukrainian TB-2s at the start of the conflict, namely: strikes beyond the line of contact, notably in counter-battery operations (26 documented strikes) and SEAD missions (18 strikes against radar or anti-aircraft missile systems)24MITZER, Stijn, OLIEMANS, Joost. « Hit Or Miss: The Russian Loitering Munition Kill List ». However Ukraine is not outdone in terms of these weapons, since the United States agreed to deliver Switchable 300/600 light prowler ammunition25D.S.I. N°159, May-June 2022. p. 39., which is particularly lethal for less armored vehicles or infantrymen entrenched in the open (e.g. trenches).

Finally, there is the issue of the resources devoted to the conflict. In fact, for a cost estimated according to the contracts at around 5 million US dollars26FAIVRE LE CADRE, Anne-Sophie. « Le drone turc, atout majeur de l’armée ukrainienne », Libération. March 9th 2022, a Bayraktar allows —with certain limitations especially its sensitivity to jamming— to carry out precision strike missions within 15-20km behind the front line, which the Russians devote to their much more expensive Ka-52 Alligator helicopters. As the conflict progresses and by mimicry, the Russian side uses suicide drones for strikes on infrastructure. This use is certainly subject to counter-measures27One can resolutely consider that more than half of the aircraft launched are shot down by the Ukrainian anti-aircraft defence, or miss their target because of a lack of precision or because of a jamming of the G.P.S. signal which guides them: “The effectiveness of the campaign is moreover all the more reduced as the Ukrainian defence makes constant progress passing from a capacity of interception of missiles of 30 % in March to more than 50 % in June” in GOYA, Michel, (COL [2S]). op. cit. Official Ukrainian statements claiming an interception rate of over 85% on average during the last quarter of 2022. but the cheapness of the system relative to a cruise missile allows it to have a more imposing arsenal at equivalent cost. This potential strike mass in turn forces the adversary to invest means and resources in a particularly dense anti-aircraft/anti-missile defense. This is what Kyiv is doing, going so far as to seek to acquire the very expensive and sophisticated Israeli Iron Dome anti-missile system.


Thus, the mass use of aerial drones has contributed to the success of the Ukrainian defense by helping to further densify infantry strike capabilities as well as to diversify artillery reconnaissance and coordination capabilities28DESJARS DE KERANROUË, Romain, (LCL). « L’emploi des drones : un atout sous-estimé pour la puissance aérienne ? », Vortex. N°3, June 2022. p. 105..

In fact the war in Ukraine is fulfilling the hypotheses of some observers, who envisaged the emergence of “adversaries who have massively integrated drones into their fleets [which] could lead them to reconsider the trade-off that has been made between the improvement of platforms, their types and their numbers”. These illustrations unambiguously raise the question of the durability of an army model based on highly technical capabilities but in reduced numbers, in the face of potential enemies who are certainly technically “inferior”, but who will have integrated a mass of light strike systems that can bring about a confrontation of means by number and saturation29MIRALLES, P., THIÉRIOT, J.-L. : « Face à des nuées de drones à un millier d’euros, est-il intelligent d’utiliser des missiles qui coûtent entre un à deux millions d’euros pièce ? » in « La préparation à la haute intensité », Rapport d’information parlementaire par la commission de la défense nationale et des forces armées, n°5054. Février 2022. p. 92. Cité dans : DESJARS DE KERANROUË, Romain, (LCL). op. cit. p. 107..

Like any “technical surprise” the massive use of drones, or simply for new operations, gives an advantage to those who use them over those who are ahead in this domain. However, like all surprises, these only last for a short time. Historically “the appearance of a new weapon has always been followed, more or less rapidly, by a counter-perfection of the weaponry that removes the exorbitant superiority that it may have had for a moment”30FULLER, J.F.C., (Major-General [Grande-Bretagne]). L’Influence de l’armement sur l’histoire, France, Paris : Payot. 1948. p. 39. Cité dans : DE LESPINOIS, JÉRÔME. « La surprise technique : matrice de la guerre aérienne ? », Stratégiques. N°106, 2014/2. p. 69.. The question is how long it takes for armies confronted with these innovative uses of weapons to adapt both in terms of tactics and equipment, in order to counter the initial adverse advantage. The answer depends on the plasticity and adaptability of the forces to develop new doctrines (intangible level) and on the performance of the military industries of the different powers to produce countermeasure and/or interception systems (material level).


Written by Auguste Lombard, 3-year Bachelor student at Sciences Po

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