The development and employment of drone technology in warfare in the last 25 years has followed a pathway featuring systems developed to support the likely operational domain in the time following the end of the Cold War. These conflicts have typically featured an enemy that does not field a capable, modern surface to air capability. As an example, the MQ-9 Reaper platform has been designed to loiter for long periods over a target area and deliver a wide area surveillance capability but is large and slow and could be vulnerable in a non-permissive air environment such as we see in Ukraine.
The conflict in Ukraine in the last 18 months has not only been a reinvigorated global geopolitical struggle, but also a stage for the rapid evolution of autonomous technologies in the realm of modern warfare. The military support provided to Ukraine by the West affords a real-world testing opportunity for current and emerging NATO weapon technologies against the combat power of the armed forces of the most likely ‘near peer’ adversary, the Russian Federation.
Shrinking defence budgets have hollowed out force capability and more affordable (and more numerous) autonomous systems now provide more ‘bang for the buck’. Historical procurement policy in the UK MoD has centred around large, expensive systems with programme durations measured in decades, but this model does not now fit with the operational reality which requires rapid innovation and includes facets of attrition warfare. Autonomous technology is advancing so quickly, the capability is obsolete in years, sometimes even months.
Ukraine: a shifting paradigm
Driven by existential threat, the Ukrainian armed forces have been remarkably agile in focusing on areas where they can gain quick wins to achieve some level of operational parity. Whilst a conventional, Cold War style campaign employing traditional ex-Soviet doctrine has characterised the early stages of the Russian invasion, there has been a paradigm shift in the prominence of autonomous systems.
One of the most notable examples is the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone, which was employed by Ukrainian forces in the early stages of the conflict to great effect. These drones are equipped with AI-driven targeting systems, allowing them to identify and engage enemy positions with remarkable precision. The success of the TB2 has now been eclipsed by the use of Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) drone systems such as the range of products from Chinese manufacturer, DJI. These systems are easily modified, plentiful and – on the planning assumption that their operational life may be limited – both affordable and disposable.
At a tactical level these drones are being used effectively as artillery spotting and weapon delivery platforms following creative modification at the front line. Whole Ukrainian armed forces units have been established to investigate and exploit new drone technologies to tactical effect. As an example, recent footage has shown First Person View (FPV) drones being used to deliver kinetic effects directly into open tank hatches and command posts. As an aside, COTS drones have seen some limited but seemingly successful use against Israeli forces following the Hamas incursion into Israel in early October 2023.
In Ukraine, these initiatives have proved to be hugely successful despite significant attrition from the effective Russian air defence and Electronic Warfare (EW) capability. This has caused considerable losses of drones for the Ukrainians, but they continue to purchase, modify and operate huge numbers. In this case, as Josef Stalin once said, ‘quantity is a quality all its own’.
The focus has started to shift towards the idea of attacks employing large numbers of drones working in concert with each other against a particular target, also known as ‘swarming’. The principle assumes that one or more will get through, even if most don’t, and this provides a local tactical advantage that may prove difficult for the Russian forces to counter.
Drones in the strategic domain
Despite their size and limited range, COTS drones are also now starting to have a strategic effect. In February 2023, Pro-Ukrainian actors of an unknown origin conducted a new kind of offensive action with the use of a COTS drone to recce and then stage a short range kinetic attack on a Russian Federation Air Force (VVS) AWACS aircraft parked at a Belarusian airbase. Whilst the damage on that occasion was limited, the threat of such action forces the Russian military leadership to adapt their posture to mitigate the risk and the capability is negatively impacted. Recent successful actions at other strategic bomber airbases deep in Russia also reinforce the disproportionate impact that small, affordable drone systems can deliver.
The Ukrainians haven’t had it all their own way. Russia – perhaps inspired by the use of Iranian drone technology by Houthi Rebels in the ongoing conflict in Yemen to strike at sites deep in Saudi territory – has increased its use of such technology to tactical and strategic success. The Iranian Shahed family, a loitering munitions system with a 30-50kg warhead and a range quoted as being in excess of 600 miles, has been supplied to Russia in large numbers and used widely. It’s employment in a targeted campaign against the Ukrainian power infrastructure network in winter is a clear attempt to exert strategic pressure on the Ukrainian leadership during the conflict. The Ukrainians also seem to be employing indigenously developed drone systems to target strategic sites as far as Moscow in order to bring the realities of the conflict to the Russian regime and its people.
Strategically, it isn’t just in the air that drones have been making headlines. The successful Ukrainian use of maritime surface drones against the Russian Black Sea fleet has demonstrated that autonomous technology can be applied in a cross-domain way. The combination of successful sea drone and precision missile attacks on Russian Naval assets at sea and in Sevastopol harbour has caused the Russian navy to move many of its units to less vulnerable bases thereby reducing its strategic effectiveness.
The ubiquity of drone technology across the battlefield, not just at the front line but also in the rear areas, is causing military planners on both sides to rethink the subject of Force Protection (FP). Air defence against small drones needs to be sophisticated, plentiful and multi-layered to ensure effectiveness against the threat. This new thinking is exerting a strategic influence on how future wars will be fought and determining what systems will need to be procured to fight them.
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has showcased the transformative power of autonomous technologies in modern warfare. NATO has been keenly observing the drone arms race in the Ukrainian War and is starting to rethink decades old military strategies and doctrines as a result. The conflict continues to serve as a stark reminder that the future of warfare is evolving rapidly, and the military balance must adapt worldwide to this new paradigm. The integration of autonomous technologies into military operations is not just a regional phenomenon but a global trend that will continue to accelerate and shape the global security landscape for years to come.
The 'sit up and take notice moment' has arrived.
The drone genie is out of the lamp and there is no way it is going back in.