The drone revolution: How Ukraine conflict is being fought to the new rules of war

Cheap unmanned aerial vehicles have transformed the battlefield and rendered many traditional tactics obsolete

A Ukrainian soldier carries a drone and a remote control in Zaporizhzhia region. Reuters
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Drones and the future of war: Read the next in the series here - Defeating the drones

Towards the end of the Cold War there was what is called a “revolution in military affairs”, where the quality of western equipment far outweighed the quantity of Soviet arms, with the defeat of the Russian-supplied Iraqi army in 1991 the demonstrable point.

But as drone warfare in Ukraine evolves at terrifying speed, this thinking might have been overturned. Both sides have used hundreds of thousands of drones to unearth enemy positions or strike the opposition. All of a sudden, it's not so much the quality of these flying weapons as the sheer quantity that can be deployed.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s ingenuity has come to the fore. Its engineers have repurposed scores of drones designed for civilian use to become killers. In many cases, this has been driven by volunteer groups and public donations, a trend that now extends to Russia.

The surge in drone use in the 18-month conflict has made many traditional battlefield tactics obsolete, changing the way soldiers train on both sides.

In June unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) made for the country’s vast agricultural industry were readapted and armed with rocket-propelled grenades to target a company of Russian tanks hiding in woods behind the front line.

In a recent report, the Rusi think tank said five UAVS were sent, each carrying for rocket-propelled grenades, "destroying or seriously damaging seven of the tanks, although all of the UAVs were lost in the process”.

That told several significant stories – drones were both deadly and expendable, but they had also made the battlefield “transparent”, making it extremely hard for enemy forces to move undetected.

Before, small teams of reconnaissance soldiers would have put themselves in danger by locating Russian tanks. Light aircraft or helicopters could also do that job but also at great risk, flying at low level and threatened by machineguns or portable anti-aircraft missiles.

Drones could not only do this job, with no risk to human operators, but attack too, with lethal effect.

Finally, the attack emphasises their extremely low cost compared to the systems they target.

A Russian T-90 tank for example, costs up to $4 million, but could be vulnerable to a drone costing several thousand dollars.

“Different types of drones are having their moment in Ukraine but it’s not just one drone that is deciding the war,” said Dr Ulrike Franke, technology lead at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s a cat-and-mouse game between drones and counter-drone technology in Ukraine, so you have these moments where one side has had an advantage but it doesn't necessarily last because there's always a counter-measure being developed.”

Those counter-measures can be as basic as a steel cage over a tank turret to absorb the initial blast, anti-drone nets or sophisticated electronic warfare weapons that block the signal between drone and operator.

Russia is adapting, too, adding jamming devices to tanks and, in some cases, taking a more crude approach, building “flak towers” for anti-aircraft guns inside Russia, to spot the low-flying attackers as they sneak under radar coverage.

Russia has also stepped up production of a dedicated attack drone, the Lancet, that has a 40km range and has proven a scourge to Ukrainian artillery systems and lightly armoured vehicles.


The experts now argue that Ukraine is demonstrating that quantity now has its own quality.

“The problem is that if you have one fancy weapon and the enemy has 10,000 fancy ones, you may also need 10,000 fancy weapons,” said Dr Franke. “We need a new approach to the quantity versus quality discussion.”

With Ukraine’s forces losing an estimated 10,000 drones a month, it was also necessary to focus on cheaper systems because “the $100 million systems we are currently developing is not something you can afford to lose”, she added.

This was now leading into a huge debate among western militaries on how civilian drones can be repurposed for combat.

The “natural conclusion” of the war, suggested Keir Giles, of Chatham House think tank, was that “both sides need large numbers of drones at all tactical levels”.

He argued against the idea that Ukraine would lead to another revolution in military affairs.

“This isn't the first conflict in which the role of UAVs has been described as transformative and is changing the nature of warfare,” he said. “It is just the first in which it has been so ubiquitous and on such huge scale, that it becomes completely undeniable.”

Previous conflicts in which fleets of drones sowed chaos in enemy ranks include the Libyan civil war and the brief but bloody Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 2020.

An early display of their potential came in February 2020 when a Syrian air strike killed dozens of Turkish soldiers. Turkey retaliated with fleets of its now famous Bayraktar TB2 drones, bypassing Syrian air defences at low altitude and destroying scores of Syrian armoured vehicles.

But drone use in the Ukraine war dwarfs these conflicts in both scale and different applications.

Nonetheless, Mr Giles warns the next big drone war might not resemble Ukraine, so we may not yet have seen the next RMA.

Supporting that argument is that neither Russia nor Ukraine has the high-altitude and long-endurance drones owned by America, Britain and other powers.

The US, for example, has a drone almost the size of a Second World War bomber, the RQ-4 Global Hawk. capable of flying for 42 hours over 25,000km, the drone can survey 100,000 sq km of land per day.

There's a good reason for this advantage – the US has unparalleled experience with unmanned vehicles, first flying drones on reconnaissance missions in 1964 at the start of the Vietnam War.

Back then, they were considered useful but suffered high loss rates. It was only after massive advances in shrinking electronic components in the 1980s and 90s that the military drone renaissance began.

“Ukraine has used unmanned vehicles because it's very economically viable and it is a much more flexible platform to make changes,” said Akshara Parakala, lead UAV analyst at Janes, the defence intelligence company. “You just need a few tweaks to give it fire-control system and the tailoring capabilities of UAVs is really easy.”

What Ukraine was also demonstrating was that armies could use small and cheap payloads, such as the RPG warhead or a grenade, with great accuracy.

The world first glimpsed this brutal cost efficiency in Iraq in 2016, when an ISIS quadcopter drone dropped a small grenade into the open hatch of an Iraqi M1A1 tank, instantly disabling the nearly $4 million vehicle.

Several years later, as Armenia and Azerbaijan clashed over Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenia's high end S-300 air defence systems – optimised to track and shoot down fighter planes – proved next to useless against small kamikaze drones.

The aircraft were undetectable to the multimillion-dollar systems, several of which were destroyed.

Multiply this several times over – as is happening in Ukraine – and it’s easy to see why the US wants tens of thousands of drones.

“Even though they are more vulnerable to being intercepted if you can build loads of them, there's always a saturation point where there are so many coming in that the defences cannot cope and some will get through,” said Jeremy Binnie, a Janes expert on drones and the Middle East.

Drones can also be useful as a distraction from a real attack.

This was apparent when Ukraine deployed Bayraktar drones to focus the air defences of the Moskva missile cruiser, before anti-ship missiles were launched from the shore, eventually sinking the vessel.

The Moskva may be the most extreme example to date of a relatively low-cost drone helping to destroy a $750 million warship, but it is also true that Russia has destroyed or damaged about $10 billion worth of energy infrastructure, much of it using drone attacks.

Ukraine is countering with its own one-way attack, using Kamikaze drones, and has now also launched numerous strikes on Russian infrastructure, taking the war to a new and dangerous phase of economic attrition.

Read more on The National's series Drones and the future of war

Updated: October 06, 2023, 7:35 AM