Cult of the Drone: At the 2-Year Mark, UAVs Have Changed the Face of War in Ukraine – but Not Outcomes

Russia has responded by importing Iranian-manufactured Shahed-136 attack drones. It has also expanded the domestic production of drones, such as the Orion-10, used for surveillance, and the Lancet, used for attacks. Russia intends by 2025 to manufacture at least 6,000 drones modeled after the Shahed-136 at a new factory that spans 14 football fields, or nearly a mile. This is on top of the 100,000 low-tier drones that Russia procures monthly.

Third, the U.S. uses drones to strike what it designates as high-value targets, including senior-level personnel in terrorist organizations. Ukraine and Russia use their drones for a broader set of tactical, operational and strategic purposes. Analysts often conflate these three levels of war to justify their claims that drones are reshaping conflict, but the levels are distinct.

Tactical Effects
Drones have had the biggest impact at the tactical level of war, which characterizes battles between Ukrainian and Russian forces.

Famously, Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka Air Reconnaissance Unit used drones to interdict and block a massive Russian convoy traveling from Chernobyl to Kyiv a month after Russia’s Feb. 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It did so by destroying slow-moving vehicles that stretched nearly 50 miles, causing Russia to abandon its advance.

Both militaries have also adopted low-tier “first-person-view” drones, such as the U.S.-manufactured Switchblade or Russia’s Lancet, to attack tanks, armored personnel carriers and soldiers. Russian and Ukrainian forces are increasingly using these first-person–view drones, combined with other low-tier drones used for reconnaissance and targeting, to suppress opposing forces. Suppression – temporarily preventing an opposing force or weapon from carrying out its mission – is a role normally reserved for artillery. For example, suppressive fire can force ground troops to shelter in trenches or bunkers and prevent them from advancing across open ground.

These gains have led Russia and Ukraine to develop ways of countering each other’s drones. For example, Russia has capitalized on its advanced electronic warfare capabilities to effectively jam the digital link between Ukrainian operators and their drones. It also spoofs this link by creating a false signal that disorients Ukrainian drones, causing them to crash.

As a result, Ukrainian drone operators are experimenting with ways to overcome jamming and spoofing. This includes going “back to the future” by adopting terrain-based navigation, though this is less reliable than satellite-based navigation.

Operational Limitations
Drones have been less successful at the operational level of war, which is designed to integrate battles into campaigns that achieve broader military objectives.

In spring 2022, Ukraine used a TB-2, along with other capabilities, to sink Russia’s flagship ship — the Moskva — in the Black Sea. Since then, Ukrainian officials claim to have destroyed 15 additional Russian ships, as well as damaged 12 more.

Ukraine also used sea drones – uncrewed water vessels – to damage the Kerch Bridge, connecting Crimea to mainland Russia, as well as attack fuel depots in the Baltic Sea and near St. Petersburg.

Though impressive, these and other operations have momentarily disrupted Russia’s use of the Black Sea to blockade Ukraine’s grain shipmentslaunch missiles against Ukraine and resupply its soldiers.

The problem is that Ukraine lacks air superiority, which has encouraged its use of an army of drones to execute missions typically reserved for bombers, jets, attack helicopters and high-end drones.

Though Denmark and the Netherlands have promised to provide Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets, thus replacing the country’s aging aircraft, they have not arrived. My research also suggests that the U.S. will likely not sell its advanced Reaper drones to Ukraine, fearing crisis escalation with Russia. Further, these drones are vulnerable to Russia’s integrated air defenses.

Lack of air superiority exacerbates tactical challenges such as jamming and spoofing, while undermining Ukraine’s ability to deny freedom of maneuver to Russia.

Strategic Myths
Despite these tactical effects and limited operational gains, drones are strategically ineffective.

Drones have not, and are not likely to, shape the outcome of the war in Ukraine. They have not allowed Ukraine to break its stalemate with Russia, nor have they encouraged Russia to end its occupation of Ukraine.

To the extent drones have been strategically consequential, the implications have been psychological.

Russia and Ukraine use drones to terrorize each other’s citizens as well as generate propaganda to stiffen their own citizens’ resolve. Russian and Ukrainian leaders also perceive drones as providing advantages, encouraging them to invest in these capabilities and perpetuate what I call the cult of the drone.

The lesson from Ukraine is that while drones have some value at the tactical and operational levels of war, they are strategically inconsequential. They are not a magic bullet, offering a game-changing capability to decide the fate of nations.

Instead, countries must rely on time-tested combined arms maneuver, wherein they integrate personnel and weapons systems at a particular time and place to achieve a particular goal against an adversary. When these effects are aggregated over the course of a war, they expose vulnerabilities that militaries exploit, and often with the assistance of allies and partners.

Only then can countries achieve military objectives that secure political outcomes, such as a negotiated settlement.

Paul Lushenko is Assistant Professor and Director of Special Operations, US Army War College. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.