Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), including the armed versions and loosely referred to as drones though there is a subtle difference, have emerged as the most recent platforms that can make a difference in campaigns and wars.
The lineage of technical innovation of contemporary times that revolutionise the way wars of fought is long from the musket that seems so anachronistic today to the machine gun, artillery cannon, tank, infantry fighting vehicle, combat aircraft, helicopters, etc so on.
Automated, unmanned platforms are the latest addition to this list. The UAV has gained much prominence over those systems in use on land, sea and undersea due to the high level of potential exploited over the past few years.
While UAVs and drones have been used in wars for some time, the success of the platform by Azerbaijan in the war against Armenia in 2020 has led to an increase in interest in the usage.
Armed forces that had been hitherto fore cautious of UAVs and drones on the battlefield changed their approach dramatically to embrace these in large numbers.
The War in Ukraine is no exception.
A large number and wide variety of UAVs including the armed versions were employed, providing a greater understanding of their employment in the future.
These lessons are summarized based on employment with specific platforms that have demonstrated the role play in the scenarios.
The caveat remains that these are only preliminary lessons that are subject to refinement as more information and insights add to the present body of knowledge after 10 weeks of war.
The first and the most obvious inference drawn is the multiple roles that the UAV can play on the battlefield from reconnaissance, surveillance, target detection and identification to indirect fire by directing artillery or missile strikes and direct fire in the form of neutralization and direction. Logistics support is another role that a UAV was seen to perform in Ukraine.
Importantly some UAVs have demonstrated the ability to perform multiple roles in the same machine, thus avoiding the necessity of duplication of the platform.
Russian forces employed drones such as Eleron 3SV essentially for reconnaissance and surveillance. However, the Zala Kyb, “loitering munition” dived into a target to explode and the Kronshtadt. Orion, a larger machine for precision strikes and reconnaissance, was also used with at least one instance of, “strike on a command center in Ukraine in early March 2022”.
Russia also employed the Borisoglebsk 2 MT-LB and R-330Zh Zhitel systems as counter drones and electronic warfare purposes.
Ukraine employed the A1-SM Fury and the Leleka-100 for reconnaissance while the Bayraktar TB2 drone was employed for heavy attacks on large targets.
United States provided Ukraine with Switchblade drones which were employed as loitering munition.
Draganfly, a US drone manufacturer has reportedly provided drones for delivery of medical stores and equipment on the battlefield.
A high degree of flexibility is evident due to the multiple roles that the UAV can perform and the ability to switch from one to another. Even where single role systems are developed or available these can be employed flexibly to advantage.
The utility of the UAV is ubiquitous, to say the least, and this is not just in terms of roles but also at the levels at which this can be utilized from the squad to the operational and strategic. This perhaps is the distinct difference between the UAV and other weapons systems and platforms that innovated warfare, for the influence of these was restricted to a certain level, whereas drones are almost everywhere.
Ubiquity also implies the necessity for integration of the UAVs at the level at which it is being used and the larger overall operational picture to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.
Unless integration with the tactics and operations of skirmishes and battles is undertaken their utility cannot be exploited. Using a drone as a “toy for the boys,” will remain wasteful, and these machines do cost money.
Integration also assumes importance in airspace, mainly where large UAVs are being used, as these may interfere with the flights of combat fighters and other aircraft on the battlefield.
As observed by some analysts, Russia is believed to have integrated drones into their operations far better than the Ukraine armed forces.
For integration and effective utilization training for the operator as well as the user is important and this takes some time. Even though these are relatively simple to operate but do require some hands-on training to develop a degree of expertise for optimal employment. This was evident as the United States provided the Switchblade UAVs to Ukraine which took some time to be effective from the, “box to the battlefield.”
Counter Drone Systems
With each weapon intervention, a counter is obvious, and the UAVs are not exception as counter-drone systems also proliferated in Ukraine, more about these later in a separate deliberation.
Drones are slow-flying platforms and thus in a dense air defence environment can be extremely vulnerable, as was shown with the loss of at least two Bayraktar TB2 drones to the Ukrainian separatists.
Drones can also be countered electronically with Russia using Borisoglebsk 2 MT-LB and R-330Zh Zhitel for jamming and spoofing.
Economy and Cost
While compared to a manned aircraft, the UAV obviously has a very significant advantage, this may not necessarily be true in terms of the cost of individual platforms which can be high and thus their availability and utilization would be restricted. However drones such as the Turkish manufactured, Bayraktar TB2 used in Ukraine are said to be far cheaper than the US Predators.
The cost of a drone such as R 18 employed by Ukraine and developed by some civil agencies are said to cost about $ 20,000, while the light anti-tank weapon NLAWS costs $ 40,000 per unit and the Javelin about $ 200,00 based on per-unit costs.
Wider Scope for Development and Production
With parallel technologies being developed for non-military usage, there is wide scope for adapting these for military purposes and Ukraine clearly demonstrated a capability towards the same even sometimes after war had broken out but mostly after 2014 when the situation was expected to escalate to the current state of warfighting. Aerorozvidka, a civilian team integrated with military units in early stage of the war
Artificial Intelligence (AI)
Integration of AI has been carried out in a limited way in the drones used in Ukraine. This may provide considerable advantages assisting in intelligent targeting amongst other multiplying effects.
UAVs and drones have been hailed as wonder machines yet unless these are effectively employed, they can be just another system that is wasted away, leading to distraction rather than multiplier advantage, as evident from a summary of lessons above.