Both Russia and Ukraine are increasingly using drones of all kinds to complement the conventional weapons used in the ongoing war.
Drones have become very much part of everyday life. We see them hovering over concerts, parks, and sporting events. But as they get faster and more durable, they are also increasingly used on the battlefield.
Some are able to travel for hundreds of kilometres, fly for a whole day, or even reach an altitude of up to 5 kilometres.
The list of drones being used in battle is extensive, and now includes the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, the American Switchblade 300 and 600, and the Iranian Shahed 136, to name but a few.
“Whether they are DJI drones or others, they are very accessible and cheap consumer drones that governments are using to inflict pain on the other side,” Abishur Prakash, CEO of Geopolitical Business, told Euronews.
They are being used to identify enemy positions, mark a location to be bombed, or even to change its position in case an attack fails.
“They are at the apex of a military revolution, a technological revolution, and a revolution in the way war is fought and understood,” said César Pintado, professor at Spain’s International Campus for Security and Defence.
He said innovations have helped popularise drones and made an instrument that was only available to some armies now accessible to almost anyone, even private individuals.
“The cheapening and efficiency of new stabilised optics systems, with night vision, a new technology that has become more efficient,” he adds.
Which drones are being used in Ukraine?
Pintado said neither Kyiv nor Moscow were really prepared in terms of the use of drones in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
“Russia was behind in its drones. In fact, [before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine] it had incorporated Israeli-made drones into its army, such as the Fort Post,” he explains.
“Now subject to sanctions and the technological blockade, it is making massive purchases of Iranian drones such as the Shahed, or even other Iranian or Israeli models.”
Ukraine began the war in a “situation of inferiority” with few drones of its own said Pintado, who is also an analyst for the Spanish Defence Staff.
“Now, they are making very interesting developments such as the RAM, the PD-1, and other less recent drones such as the UJ-22 or the Viber, which have a longer range.”
“But there are also using Switchblade 300 and 600s donated by the United States, although I suppose that on the Ukrainian side, the star of the drone film would be the Bayraktar TB2,” he said.
Pintado added that Kyiv had in fact bought some drones before the war and are now buying more units because they are actually performing quite well within their limitations.
Pintado is doubtful whether the drones being used have the sufficient destructive capability to cause damage of strategic importance.
He said they can reach strategic targets “such as attacking the enemy’s capital” for example, but still have some way to go to become a decisive factor.
“I see drones as similar to aviation in the First World War. It went from being something almost sporty, almost an anecdote, to being recognised as the weapon of the future,” he concludes.
Ukraine has a United24 website where it receives all kinds of drone donations. On it, it specifies the needs and main objectives as needing to “constantly monitor a huge front line of 2,470 km and support an effective response to enemy attacks”.
Ukraine’s main collection points are in the US and Poland.
“We also need simpler drones. We need thousands of them. They don’t fly as long and far, but they can also perform important reconnaissance functions,” reads the message on the website promoted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
How many drones are being used in the war in Ukraine?
The number of drones being used in Ukraine is disputed. According to the UK’s Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Ukrainian forces could be losing approximately 10,000 unmanned aerial vehicles per month
However, Pintado said that figure is “totally exaggerated”. An expert in drones for military application, he told Euronews that he even doubts that there are 10,000 drones in service in armies across Europe.
“If you look at all possible types, including the drones that some Ukrainians are making, we’re probably talking about several dozen being used a day in this war.”
Russia is also trying to buy more drones and Pintado said he read recently that Moscow had signed a contract for 2,000 units, its biggest purchase ever.
However, many more unmanned aerial vehicles on the battlefield are needed to make drone warfare effective,
Who is supplying the drones to Ukraine and Russia?
Pintado said Russia is currently procuring drones from Israel and Iran, “mainly the misnamed Shahed 136 kamikaze drones”.
Abishur Prakash, Director of The Geopolitical Business, said it is not only Kyiv and Moscow fighting in the skies over Ukraine.
“Indirectly, you have Turkey and Iran fighting,” he said. “These Turkish drones have been responsible for some of Ukraine’s deadliest retaliatory attacks, from attacking oil depots in Russia to sinking a Russian warship in the Black Sea.”
“So you see here how countries far away geographically from this conflict, are suddenly able to play a role in this conflict with drones,” said Prakash.
Drones with artificial intelligence
Drone developers are already exploring applications using artificial intelligence. Prakash said that they are moving towards more autonomous control, with less human involvement.
He also pointed out that in China, great advances are being made “not just with aerial drones, but even with underwater drones that can form swarms”.
And there are other advances he said. Turkey, for example, has proposed the creation of drone carriers to carry drones to different parts of the world, in the same way that aircraft carriers carry fighter jets.
“You need AI in the background to control them,” he said.
“The question, obviously, is what level of control they should have and what level of control humans should have,” he concludes.
Other tech companies, like SpaceX, have also come to the fore “in the geopolitics of this war”.
“That’s a new dimension for the world because we haven’t seen tech companies in a united way or at different levels doing geopolitics,” he said, which influences the development of drones and the course of the war.