The war between Russia and Ukraine is the first real-world conflict between nations using drones extensively.
As part of a war that began with Russian tanks crossing Ukraine’s borders, World War I-style trenches dug into the ground, and Soviet-manufactured artillery pounding the terrain, soldiers now observe the battlefield on a small satellite-linked monitor while their palm-sized drones hover just out of sight.
The fight set off by an 18th-century emperor-style land grab in Ukraine has turned into a digital-age struggle for technological aerial supremacy, with hundreds of reconnaissance and attack drones flying overhead each day — a turning point in military history.
Every phase of combat between Russia and Ukraine is integrated with drone fleets, aerial defenses, and jamming systems, which separate them by miles. Drones are utilized in this war to connect the physical distance between the adversaries, which are frequently separated by miles.
Historically, drones have been used by one side over largely uncontested airspace to locate and hit targets, such as those hit in U.S. operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
Ukrainian forces have used drones to strike targets outside the battle zone—in Russia’s Belgorod border region or in Crimea, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, according to anonymous Ukrainian officials who spoke about sensitive issues. In addition, Russia has frequently bombed Ukraine’s critical civilian infrastructure with self-detonating drones, a low-cost alternative to high-precision missiles.
A Ukrainian reconnaissance drone flew through a gap between two jamming systems on the Russian border days before the September offensive to expel Russian forces from the northeastern Kharkiv region. It entered Russia and headed north across the Belgorod region, where Russia bases equipment to support its war in eastern Ukraine.
According to overhead images captured by the Ukrainians and later reviewed by The Washington Post, a base for Moscow’s own unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) was spotted.
A Russian Orlan-10, with a propeller on its nose, was photographed sitting in a field beside a house. Later on, the house had a hole in its roof, and an ambulance was driving up. An ambulance was driving up as a result of a Ukrainian attack drone having followed the same route as the reconnaissance drone and delivering a strike on the enemy’s ‘eyes.’
Therefore, the offensive was unforeseen and tricky for Russian forces to counter.
Then, Ukrainians deployed reconnaissance UAVs to mark the coordinates of Russian command posts, artillery batteries, electronic warfare systems, and ammunition depots. Then, Western-provided multiple-launch rocket systems fired on those targets, and drones flew again, redirecting rocket fire in real-time or confirming that it hit the mark. At times, combat drones delivered the blow themselves.
The Ukrainian forces also weakened the Russians prior to pushing forward, allowing drones to hover and provide a live stream of the battle. Colonel General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, describes how they obtained a complete understanding of the combat.
“Two main developments are going to impact future war,” said Samuel Bendett, a military analyst at the Virginia-based research group CNA. “The proliferation and availability of combat drones for longer-ranged, more-sophisticated operations, and the absolute necessity to have cheap tactical drones for close-support operations.”
Drones allow armies to keep track of their enemies’ actions. To keep track of the enemy last spring, the Ukrainian military created a drone unit named “Ochi” (eyes) to provide reconnaissance. On the eastern front, drone teams operate daily except when it rains, with four persons.
Ukrainians’ Drone Pilots in the Trenches
Members of a Kharkiv team would reportedly squint at their small handheld monitor in September to lock in their targets. For example, they could make out several people in military uniform and a cart across the Oskil River in a cornfield in a part of the region then occupied by Russians.
A Ukrainian drone operator named Bars (not his real name, for security reasons) said he saw Russians rummaging Ukrainian farms.
“They’re stealing the locals’ corn.”
On the other hand, an Ochi team drives to a position near the front line and plugs in Starlink internet connections so that nearby brigades can follow their activities. Backup drone batteries are kept close at hand so they can continue filming.
Different Drones Deployed in the Ukraine-Russia War
The Matrice 300 quadcopter, weighing about eight pounds and including monitors, is one of the cheapest weapons available. Small, inexpensive commercial drones make Ukraine’s conflict unique, providing unprecedented visibility and enhancing the typically imprecise artillery fire.
Bayraktar TB2 military drones, such as those provided to Ukraine by Turkey, or Shahed-136 drones supplied to Russia by Iran, are playing a more central role in combat. However, the most popular drones on each side are the ones you can hold in your hand—more of a bug than a bird.
A Mavic quadcopter, manufactured by Chinese company DJI, is available for less than $4,000 online. According to Yuri Baluyevsky, a retired general who served as commander of the Russian army, it represents a ‘tangible symbol of modern warfare in a textbook on advanced military strategies published this year.
According to Ukrainian soldiers, the Mavic’s tendency to be used by all armies is so widespread that they often cannot determine whether a drone they see is a friend or foe. Moreover, if the drone stays in one place for too long rather than just passing by, it is suspicious enough to warrant shooting it down.
DJI, the largest commercial drone manufacturer in the world, does not provide Mavics or other UAVs to either Ukraine or Russia. Because DJI has stopped selling UAVs in Ukraine and Russia, it has distanced itself from the conflict. Despite this, volunteers and charitable organizations purchase in large quantities. The Ukrainians use the UAVs for surveillance, but they have also been outfitted to drop small munitions.
Ukrainian forces cleared a path for their troops last month by recycling Coke cans into explosives and dropping them from Mavics onto minefields in the southern Kherson region.
Khartia Battalion in Kharkiv uses Mavics to fire small, cylindrical explosives at Russian outposts. Because the explosives cannot seriously damage a tank, they make the enemy nervous, fearing a more substantial assault at any moment.
Autel Robotics’ EVO II drones are also available, and like DJI, which is based in Shenzhen, China, they are manufactured there. The Ukrainian military seeks to test drones of all kinds, such as the Vector UAV from Germany or the Poseidon drone from Cyprus. Serhiy Prytula, a Ukrainian TV star, has been collecting them so that he can do so.
How Drones Shifted The War
Senior Ukrainian and Russian commanders, who trained together in Soviet times, used to be skeptical about drones. Now, they are eager to train thousands of drone pilots.
The ‘Army of Drones’ initiative has bought nearly 1,000 UAVs for Ukraine’s state crowdfunding, says Mykhailo Fedorov, the country’s digital transformation minister.
To achieve this goal, Fedorov said, they need to have 10,000 drones flying along the huge battle line, broadcasting the fighting nonstop.
Ochi teams typically maintain contact with artillery units to obtain the coordinates of Russian equipment or bases and monitor strikes as they occur. Before the Kharkiv counteroffensive, we were instructed to collect and save targets. The soldiers involved in the lightning push in the northeast said they had never experienced so much aerial reconnaissance with such precision.
According to Ochi operator ‘Felix,’ Russians were acting as if the beach were their home, and they didn’t seem to grasp that they’d soon be punished.
On Sept. 6, the Ukrainian Kharkiv counteroffensive began, as did Ochi’s strikes on ammunition dumps and bases, according to Felix. “We kept track of where our people were going or how to get around,” Felix said. “Whenever our people moved, we were there.”
Every Ukrainian soldier has experienced a frightening confrontation with a Russian Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone, which also has electronic-warfare capabilities.
In late April, Lieutenant Oleksandr Sosovskyy, a deputy battalion commander in Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade, and four soldiers were traveling to a village near the front line in the Kharkiv region when they heard an eerie buzzing overhead. Driving between two houses, they were exposed to view and unable to detect their enemy.
For several hours, shelling followed wherever they went. The soldiers tried to spread out and take cover as they moved around the village. However, the Orlan helped the Russians correct their fire, which was both relentless and precise. Sosovskyy stated, “They were trying to destroy our vehicle and obviously kill us.”
Sosovskyy has observed that there are fewer Orlans to be concerned about in recent months. Until recently, the Russians would frequently have two flying—one for reconnaissance and one to correct artillery strikes—but by summertime, seeing or hearing a single one, let alone two, became rarer.
The production of all kinds of unmanned aircraft is increasing as unmanned aircraft usage expands. However, the drop in Orlans has highlighted the difficulties Moscow faces in manufacturing.
The Orlan-10 is the military’s workhorse in the air, but it’s unclear how many are left. Many have been shot down, and there is little available data on production rates.
In September, Alexander Khodakovsky, commander of the Vostok Battalion, part of the Russian armed forces, expressed dismay at Moscow’s lack of drones after his forces were expelled from Kharkiv.
Despite having fewer people than he would like, Khodakovsky said that the real problem was that he could not locate the enemy positions from which they were firing at him for hours. He said he could not do so because he lacked artillery reconnaissance means.
Col. Yurii Solovey, who leads air defense for Ukraine’s ground forces, said his unit has destroyed more than 580 Orlan-10s since Russia’s invasion began. Solovey noted that Russia has been using some new drones as a sign that they have exhausted their Orlan-10s.
“They’re starting to use some new drones instead, so that’s a sign to us that they’ve basically run out of the Orlans. But they still have to do reconnaissance,” Solovey said.
It is difficult to find alternatives. Because Russian military drones rely on microelectronic components produced in the United States, Europe, and Asia, Moscow is now unable to procure them because of sanctions.
Steeping Demand Means Struggling Supply Chain
According to Colonel Igor Ischuk, the Defense Ministry has developed appropriate tactical and technical requirements for unmanned aerial vehicles. But unfortunately, most manufacturers are unable to fulfill them.
Because of the conflict, the factories are being converted into office-like facilities. As a result, locations have been removed from Google Maps—for fear of airstrikes.
Small combat drones are a growing concern, especially those developed and built in Ukraine. These drones range from planes that can travel nearly 30 miles and drop a five-pound missile, such as the Punisher drone favored by Ukraine’s special forces, to reconnaissance gliders. Fedorov, the digital minister, hopes to manufacture 2,000 of these drones every month by the end of the year.
It is not just because of a hardware shortage that Russia’s failures are apparent. Instead, it shows how drone warfare requires advanced equipment and a contemporary mindset for decision-making.
Pavel Aksenov, a military expert and BBC Russian service reporter, said Russia’s rigid chain of command requires ground troops to seek senior approval for strikes, resulting in delays. Even when a Russian reconnaissance drone spots a target, the go-ahead comes after the target has departed.
Ukrainian law enforcement officers in downtown Kyiv raised their guns skyward and steeled themselves as the rumbling drew closer. Then, they opened fire when they spotted the white triangle through the clouds.
Solovey, head of air defense for Ukrainian ground forces, described the Shahed drone, which has an explosive warhead at its nose, as a “moped in the sky,” moving slowly and loudly before crashing into its target.
Russia’s domestic production problems are being solved with the Shahed, a powerful drone purchased from Iran, another country that has been ostracized by the West. According to Ukrainian officials, Moscow recently ordered more from Tehran.
According to Kyiv and its Western allies, Russia has purchased hundreds of Shahed-136 drones, and Iranian trainers have traveled to Ukraine to assist in their operation. The Shaheds first appeared in Ukraine on Sept. 20, and initially, they were used to intimidate southern Ukraine.
On Oct. 17, when the Kyiv police fired their guns into the sky, one drone was shot down, but four others struck near a power station. A residential building split in half and fell down, killing five people.
Since the Shahed has few metallic parts and flies low, it isn’t easy to detect. It can be taken out by expensive surface-to-air missile systems such as an S-300 or Buk, but doing so would waste resources that Kyiv would instead use against Moscow’s high-precision missiles. Fighter jets have recently been scrambled to shoot down Shaheds.
Aksenov, the Russian military expert, explained that this vexing choice is partly the point— to deplete Kyiv’s resources while saving Russia’s own stockpile.
Ukraine’s Drone Use as a Movement for the Masses and the Military
Ukraine was the first of the two sides to employ foreign drones. And one—the Turkish-manufactured Bayraktar TB2—was instrumental in provoking Russian President Vladimir Putin prior to the invasion.
TB2 drones were first deployed in eastern Ukraine in 2019 as a reconnaissance mission. However, on Oct. 26, 2021, an enemy howitzer was destroyed after a TB2 drone bombed it.
In a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin condemned the drone incident as “destructive” behavior and “provocative activity,” citing the Kremlin. In Moscow, TB2s were used to promote the notion that NATO was arming Ukraine for an assault on Russia—a narrative used to justify Putin’s invasion.
The TB2 drones, which cost approximately $5 million each, are the most powerful UAVs in Ukraine’s arsenal and provide the first indication of how UAVs might assist Kyiv’s military in opposing Russia’s much more extensive and better-equipped military. The TB2 carries four laser-guided missiles and can stay aloft for more than 24 hours at an altitude of up to 25,000 feet.
TB2s were prominent in conflicts in Libya and Syria before being used in Ukraine, and they were decisive in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war.
In May, the Ukrainian military said it was using TB2s to target Russian bases and ships on Snake Island in the Black Sea, from which Moscow’s forces withdrew in July.
There are currently several foreign-made combat drones in Ukraine’s fleet, including self-destructing Switchblade drones supplied by the United States. The Bayraktars remain an icon, inspiring a sort of drone fever.
Volunteers recently organized a rave in a Kyiv subway station to raise money to purchase a drone. So, in addition to schools for drones, there are also ones for women.
Using drone photography, Serhii Ristenko, one of the trainers, shot scenes for the HBO miniseries “Chernobyl.” During the Russian occupation of northern Ukraine at the beginning of the war, he buried his drone in the backyard so that he and his family would not be deprived of it.
Renko now instructs Ukrainian troops on how to operate the R-18 octocopter, a drone made by Aerorozvidka. This drone, equipped with a thermal imager, can travel up to six miles when carrying explosives.
According to Restenko, one of his students, a 50-year-old captain who wanted to learn to fly, was obsessive about asking questions. He only got a smartphone the week before we met and called me 50 times a day with questions. However, he really wanted to learn, and he did.
During the early phase of the defense of Kyiv, Syrsky, colonel general at the time, suggested making something “artistic” about the Bayraktar to boost the public spirit. He was inspired, he said, to see new technology defeat antiquated military hardware such as tanks.