Are Drones Revolutionizing Warfare? They Do Not, Skeptics Argue

In part, drones have not offered Ukrainians or Russians a decisive edge on the battlefield because both parties are engaged in a fast-paced two-sided cycle of innovation and emulation. Because many drone technologies are commercial or dual use, they can be easily acquired, meaning that innovations quickly diffuse to the enemy. Russian forces have been fast followers in adopting commercial and do-it-yourself (DIY) kamikaze drones. Similarly, Ukrainian forces have tried to match the quantity and quality of Russia’s military drones, but given the military-specific technologies involved, the Ukrainians have been unable to fully close this gap.

This report is part of a larger project exploring how drones are affecting great-power competition and a potential future war between the United States and China. It focuses on lessons learned from drone operations in Ukraine. It offers a novel typology for the widely varied drones available today—military, commercial, and kamikaze—to enable more precise discussion of their impact; it provides an overview of the Ukraine conflict to date; and it includes an in-depth analysis of major developments seen for each drone type in this war.

Beyond this general assessment about whether a revolution in military affairs has occurred, this analysis yielded a number of insights about the war in Ukraine and drone warfare more broadly.

In the Ukraine war:

·  Ukraine has consistently out-innovated Russia with commercial technologies and software, but Russian forces have quickly adapted and emulated Ukrainian successes. In a key example, Ukraine pioneered the use of first-person view (FPV) racing drones in kamikaze attacks and began creating DIY cheap kamikaze drones. Russia was a fast follower and employed FPV kamikaze drones to contest Ukraine’s summer 2023 counteroffensive.

·  Volunteer networks have performed an unprecedented role in acquiring, modifying, and building commercial and DIY drones for both Ukrainian and Russian troops. Because of a heavy reliance on commercial or dual-use technologies, patriotic civilians have been able to bolster drone production. They have also led broader efforts to professionalize the use of drones by identifying best practices and establishing training courses.

·  Russia has an edge in military drones, which enables its forces to see and strike farther behind the front lines, while Ukrainian forces have gaps in this area. Russia entered the war with a reasonable inventory and bolstered production of its most effective military drones to meet the current demand. Russia now has enough Orlan-10 and ZALA surveillance drones that Ukrainian forces sometimes do not bother trying to shoot them down because the Ukrainians know that the drones will be replaced. In contrast, Ukraine has smaller inventories of military drones—both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and kamikaze variants—which limits its forces’ visibility and reach behind the front lines. This gap may eventually close as Ukraine’s government is investing heavily in its indigenous drone industry.

·  In the Ukraine war, drones have operated in stacks rather than swarms. Drones are more effective when operated as a part of larger team of uncrewed systems. Swarms typically consist of a greater number of units that autonomously coordinate their behavior. The drone stacks used by both sides in the war in Ukraine have been coordinated through multiple drone operators using software-based battle networks, traditional means of communication, or commercial communications platforms. Both parties claim to be using artificial intelligence to improve the drone’s ability to hit its target, but likely its use is limited.

·  Russian and Ukrainian forces are using long-range kamikaze drones for penetrating strategic strikes. Ukrainian forces would not have a capability to strike deep targets inside Russia and Crimea without these drones. Russian forces use kamikaze drones to complement their more expensive long-range cruise and ballistic missiles by soaking up Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) interceptors, identifying the location of air defenses, and creating complex heterogeneous attacks. It is not clear that strategic strikes weaken public support for the war, but they may be diverting scarce air defense assets from the front lines.

·  In the Ukraine war, both sides are experimenting with counterdrone capabilities. Electronic warfare (EW) is the most effective way to stop drones, but Ukrainian and Russian forces are trying counters that range from simple barriers such as wire nets to drone dogfighting. A key part of the drone-counterdrone competition has been finding and attacking drone operators using drone tracking software such as AeroScope and WindtalkerX. Because commercial and FPV kamikaze drone operators must remain near the drone’s operating area, they are vulnerable to discovery and attack.

More general lessons about drone warfare include:

·  The accessibility and affordability of drones is creating new capabilities at a scale that previously did not exist and transforming the battlefield. The three primary examples of this are the ubiquity of commercial drones on the front lines, FPV kamikaze drones for beyond-line-of-sight antipersonnel and antivehicle attacks, and long-range kamikaze drones for strategic strikes. All of these missions could be completed by more expensive military systems, such as military drones, traditional manned air forces, and antitank weapons or artillery. The biggest difference is that because the commercially derived versions employed in Ukraine are cheap and plentiful, there are deeper stockpiles of uncrewed aircraft than have previously been available, enabling drones’ widespread use.

·  Surveillance and targeting missions remain more important than drone strikes. Despite the prevalence of videos on social media showing commercial quadcopters dropping grenades on soldiers or crashing into tanks, the most consequential mission for drones has been collecting intelligence and obtaining targeting information. Ground forces at all echelons are employing different types of drones to improve their situational awareness, planning, and operations.

·  Commercial drones are making it more difficult to concentrate forces, achieve surprise, and conduct offensive operations. By providing greater visibility into enemy troop movements beyond the front lines, drones have made it difficult for the Ukrainian and Russian militaries to mass forces. Offensive operations are difficult but not impossible in this environment. If strong defenses are in place, prolonged periods of bombardment can weaken the enemy and gradually enable territorial gains.

·  Kamikaze FPV drones offer cheap precision strike capabilities but are tactical beyond-line-of-sight weapons that primarily extend the reach of ground forces. FPV drones are essentially very cheap antitank weapons, but their range is roughly six times that of the most advanced antitank weapon. Their biggest drawbacks are their small payload capacity, which limits their destructive power, and the fact that FPV drones, unlike modern antitank weapons, are not automated fire-and-forget systems. Instead, FPV drone pilots require training and must be very skilled to effectively steer the fast drones and crash them into vulnerable parts of an armored target. Even though experienced or lucky FPV operators might destroy a tank, more often FPV attacks at best will disable large vehicles, which can then be destroyed by follow-on artillery or air strikes.

·  Even large numbers of small drones cannot match the potency of artillery fire. Collectively, drone strikes supplement indirect fire weapons, but they are not substitutes for howitzers. Common artillery shells pack a bigger explosive punch and can be fired rapidly in large salvos. Thus, artillery barrages far outstrip the firepower that many small drones can collectively deliver.

·  Drones provide affordable airpower, but they have not replaced traditional air forces or been able to obtain air superiority. A core mission of most air forces is obtaining and maintaining air superiority—that is, the freedom to conduct operations in the air, which include protecting against enemy aerial attacks and conducting offensive air-to-ground operations. Obtaining air superiority typically entails destroying an opponent’s air force through air-to-air engagements or attacks against air bases and suppressing or destroying ground-based air defenses. There have been a few instances of drone dogfighting and kamikaze drone strikes against Russian bomber air bases, but these missions have been few and far between. Russian forces have conducted effective suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations involving drones near the front lines but have not disabled Ukraine’s long-range air defenses. Because neither side has obtained air superiority, they have both relied on standoff attacks instead of direct attacks against deep targets.

·  Drones are not more survivable than crewed aircraft, but instead enable greater risk acceptance. Drones are vulnerable to many countermeasures, especially electronic warfare, guns, and SAMs. Like countries discovered the hard way with bomber aircraft in World War II, the drone “will not always get through.” Because drones are cheap and do not have humans aboard, both sides have been willing to send them on risky missions that may have a low probability of succeeding.

·  Drones do not have to be survivable if they are cheap and plentiful because one can have resiliency through reconstitution. Because they are vulnerable, drones must be cheap enough and easy enough to manufacture that they can be readily replaced. Instead of hardening commercial drones against electronic attacks, which would notably raise the costs, both parties have opted to instead buy more cheap drones. The logic of resiliency through reconstitution also applies to military drones.

In the Ukraine war, drones have become an increasingly important weapon, but they have not revolutionized warfare. Nonetheless, Ukrainian forces have extensively employed drones to gain an asymmetric edge over a superior Russian force. Russian forces have been fast followers and emulated Ukraine’s use of commercial drones to a surprising degree given the reluctance of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) to officially embrace private- sector technologies. Russian forces have employed their military-grade and kamikaze drones as a part of the reconnaissance fires complex, allowing them to increasingly leverage their greater firepower. Throughout the war, there have been rapid cycles of adaptation as both sides have learned from each other, adopting tactics and technologies that have been used successfully and developing counters to improve defenses. This pattern is likely to continue as the war drags on. It is clear that drones alone will not determine who prevails in this conflict, but they will certainly play a prominent role in the ongoing war in Ukraine and in other battlefields in the future.


1. This is similar to the conclusion that Shashank Joshi reached in his special report. Shashank Joshi, “Ypres with AI,” The Economist, July 8, 2023,