When the Russian military invaded Ukraine on February 24, not many analysts expected that the war would last very long. Russia has vast superiority in troop numbers, tanks, artillery, aircraft, and naval power. Many expected that Kyiv would fall in days and the entire country in just weeks.
But unexpected fierce Ukrainian resistance has, thus far, hammered Russian forces into a bloody stalemate. One area where the Ukrainians have somewhat leveled the playing field is in the use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Although both sides have been using drones, and the Russian usage has increased recently, the Ukrainians use of drones from the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2, to US-made Switchblade 300 and 600, to commercially available UAVs have been very effective.
Ukrainian forces have used the drones to conduct airstrikes, direct artillery fire, and for reconnaissance operations. While the Ukrainians don’t have any official drone unit or drone operators, their troops have been learning on the fly and have leaned on civilians with that expertise to teach but also to aid and assist in the fight against Russia. In doing so, they are re-writing the rules of warfare with near-peer or peer adversaries.
The United States has a huge fleet of about 11,000 drone systems including the much larger MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones that were used to devastating effect in both Afghanistan and Iraq. But those cost millions of dollars and the TB-2 and other UAVs that are used by Ukraine are much smaller, cheaper, and easier to use. And their forces have exacted a heavy toll on Russian armored forces, surface-to-air missile systems, as well as their navy.
The TB-2 drones were used to distract the anti-aircraft systems of the Russian Black Sea flagship, the guided-missile cruiser “Moskva” and then the ship was sunk by Neptune anti-ship missiles. Bayraktar drones have also been used to sink other Russian surface ships in and around Snake Island as well as conducting strikes on targets inside of Russian territory.
Ukraine reportedly only had 35 TB-2 drones at the outset of the war, but the Russian military has claimed to have shot down 37 since the invasion began. However, there are reports that TB-2 drones have taken out nearly 50 percent of Russian surface-to-air missiles.
The Russian units operating in Ukraine have had a much lower capability of counter-drone technology than was previously believed. And in many areas, the drones operate with near impunity. It could be just another in the long line of Russian failures to have their forces adequately prepared for this war. Did the Russian units discount the threat or was it lack of training? Russian troops used drones extensively in Syria, so it may have been simply a case of these units ignoring their own doctrine.
But the Ukrainian troops have used the technology that they have at their disposal with surprising effectiveness. And they are getting more of the Switchblade drones from the US. Although they are much smaller with a limited range than the TB-2, they can be very effective against troops on the ground and lighter skinned vehicles.
The US and other NATO nations are studying how the drone war is playing out, especially in the information environment where they can find and fix enemy troop movements as well as getting a close eye on the conditions on the ground which can help in gauging where, what kind of, and how much economic assistance may be needed.
It shows just how effective drone warfare can level the playing field against a vastly inferior enemy force. It is a lesson that should be constantly upgraded as situations on the ground change.
Article By Steve Balestrieri