The two main reasons why Ukraine is dominant in the drone war

Two major reasons why Ukraine is dominating in Drone in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.

Russia’s “invasion” of Ukraine has pushed unmanned systems to the front lines of modern warfare. Drones have long been considered too slow or sophisticated enough to fight well-equipped adversaries. But drones such as the Turkish-made “TB2” used by Ukraine destroyed Russian tanks and ships, and are said to have helped sink the flagship of the Russian black sea fleet, the Moskva.

Although the Russian military has more than 10 years of experience in drone combat, they are much less efficient at deploying their own drones in the ongoing war.

How to explain the difference between the successes and failures of Russia and Ukraine in terms of unmanned systems? Technology is one of the reasons. It will be difficult for Russia to beat the radios and sensors on the drones used by Ukraine, which are vulnerable to the electronic anti-drone system provided by NATO. Fundamentally, the Ukrainians are winning the drone war because they embraced new technologies and recognized autonomy as an interaction between operators and machines.

Russia has been successful in drone warfare for 10 years. Russians honed their tactics in operations in Syria and Ukraine, using drones to detect radio signals from enemies, listen to opponents, or locate them for shelling.

But the Russian military has only recently begun to deploy large armed or surveillance drones. On the battlefield in Ukraine, Russia relied heavily on smaller, more familiar targeting and jamming drones like the Orlan-10 UAVs.

By contrast, Ukrainian troops, which did not have drones when Russia “annexed” Crimea in 2014, now have thousands of drones with western and NATO support.

There is also an asymmetry in anti-drone technology. According to reports, the Ukrainian military has deployed multiple NATO-supplied electronic warfare systems to shoot down dozens of Russian drones. Although Russia has adjusted its electronic warfare forces over the past 20 years, its jammers have been largely ineffective, and the Russian military has been forced to shoot down Ukrainian drones with surface-to-air missiles that cost much more than their targets.

Another factor that has contributed to the success of the Ukrainian military’s drone warfare is its recognition that the operators and their unmanned systems are a team relationship, not a relationship between individuals and tools.

Orlan-10 drone
Orlan-10 drone

The Russian military appears to see drones as tools, or as extensions of manned systems. For example, the Orlan-10 UAV is a Reconnaissance drone to detect enemy weapons and location the system is equipped with an extended antenna to detect or interfere with enemy signal transmissions. As a result, Russian drone operations require uninterrupted, high-quality long-distance communications and are vulnerable to sabotage by Ukraine’s anti-drone systems.

The Ukrainian military accepted the “chaotic middle ground” of partially automated unmanned systems. For example, suicide drones like the switchblade are able to fly along pre-planned routes and find potential targets on their own, but require communication with the operator before they can launch an attack. By having the “switchblade” automatically search for Russian armor or artillery over short distances and then give orders to strike, the Ukrainian army reduced the quality and quantity of radio communications required, thereby reducing vulnerability to anti-drone systems.

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