New-Technologies: Drones Above Ukraine – by Calum McPhee
The contemporary battlefield is defined by advances in technology (Jones et. al 2022, 34). This is no different for the War in Ukraine; at no point in history has warfighting been more digitally-networked, precise, and intelligent (United States Air Force Research 2005, 6). While this takes many forms, the spotlight often falls on the Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), or drone. In the War in Ukraine, drones are used as an inexpensive, effective, and versatile asset to enable, observe and fight every stage of the conflict to-date.
The War in Ukraine is a snap-shot of a new era of drone usage of interstate conflict (Jones et. al 2022, 5). The stepping-stones were laid during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020. Azerbaijan was able to decisively employ Turkish-supplied Bayraktar TB-2 and Israeli drones against Armenia which drastically influenced the course of the war (Jones et. al 2022, 11-12). Prior to this, modern drone usage was costly and primarily limited to great powers in asymmetric conflicts, such US counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan and Syria (Jones et. al 2022, v). While unmanned vehicles had been involved in conflict since as early as the late 20th century, the concept of a medium to high altitude digitally-networked and armed drone is a uniquely 21st century practice (United States Air Force Research 2005, 6).
Russia’s usage of drones in Ukraine consists of intelligence-collection, electronic warfare and kinetic-strike capability, i.e. lethal force. The collection of intelligence — such as taking photos, intercepting cell-phone traffic, or other forms of electronic-emissions — directly enables all aspects of the Russian war effort in Ukraine (Asymmetric Warfare Group 2017, 26-28). This manifests predominantly through the Reconnaissance Strike Complex, or the “…coordinated employment of high-precision, long range weapons linked to real-time intelligence data and accurate targeting.” (Jones et. al 2022, 19). Through this, drones feed information to artillery which is then able to accurately fire upon a target. This offers several advantages, predominantly it is performed rapidly and remotely without risk to personnel. Drone usage in this fashion allows for strikes well beyond the frontline, such as an attack on the International Center for Peacekeeping and Security near Lviv in 2022 (Bachega 2022).
Ukraine operates drones in a similar fashion with an increasingly diverse pool of foreign-supplied assets (Jones et. al 2022, 40-44). Much like Azerbaijan, Ukraine has utilized Turkish drones with great effect including in the sinking of the Moskva, flag-ship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet (BBC 2022). The War in Ukraine has equally shown degrees of improvisation in drone technology such as commercial-off-the-shelf quad-copter style drones fitted with explosives (Asymmetric Warfare Group 2017, 28). Drones additionally offer a counter to air-defenses as the loss of a drone is far more palatable than manned fighter-aircraft (Jones et. al 2022, 14-15).
Drones in Ukraine are but a case-study in the rapidly evolving way of war. Even as a microcosm, drone usage has evolved significantly since the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. With promises of newer and more capable systems to Ukraine, there are no signs of stopping (Jones et. al 2022, 32-24). The trickle-down proliferation of drone systems to regional and localized powers is but a new standard of how war will be fought in the coming decades of the 21st century.
Bachega, Hugo. “Ukraine War: ‘Sky Turned Red’ as Missiles Hit Lviv Military Base.” BBC News. March 13, 2022. www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-60728208. Accessed 7 Feb. 2023.
“How Are ‘Kamikaze’ Drones Being Used by Russia and Ukraine?” BBC News. January 3, 2023. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-62225830. Accessed 7 Feb. 2023.
Jones, Seth G., Jake Harrington, Christopher K. Reid, and Matthew Strohmeyer. “Combined Arms Warfare and Unmanned Aircraft Systems.” Center for Strategic and International Studies. Rowman & Littlefield, November 10, 2022. https://www.csis.org/analysis/combined-arms-warfare-and-unmanned-aircraft-systems.
Asymmetric Warfare Group. “(U//FOUO) Asymmetric Warfare Group Russian New Generation Warfare Handbook: Public Intelligence.” Public Intelligence, September 18, 2017. https://publicintelligence.net/awg-russian-new-warfare-handbook/.
United States Air Force Research. “The U.S. Air Force Remotely Piloted Aircraft and Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Strategic Vision.”. University of Nebraska – Lincoln, 2005 n.d. https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1000&context=usafresearch.
Calum McPhee is a second year undergraduate student in the Bachelor of Global and International Studies, Carleton University.