LONG READ: Ukraine is losing the drone war

LONG READ: Ukraine is losing the drone war
Ukraine innovated and introduced drones to devastating effect in the early months of the war. But Russia has learnt its lesson and is now using swarms of hunter-killer drone and glide bombs to devastating effect. Ukraine is struggling to keep up. / bne IntelliNews
By Ben Aris in Berlin May 27, 2024

Drones have become a game-changer in the full-scale Russo-Ukrainian war and after an early lead, Ukraine is losing now as Moscow outproduces and out-innovates Kyiv.

That doesn’t mean Ukraine will be defeated anytime soon. Although Russia is able to bring overwhelming force to the battlefield, Ukraine burgeoning drone fleet is deadly and is holding back Russian advances and causing huge losses. The swarms of drones hovering over the no-man’s land between the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) and the Russian forces has made it a kill zone no one can go into and survive.

“This conflict has demonstrated the battlefield advantages of drones, which have become smaller, more lethal, easier to operate and available to almost anyone,” Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) said in a recent paper. “They compress the so-called kill chain, shortening the time from when a target is detected to when it is destroyed, and they can bolster a military’s ability to reconnoitre the forward edge of the battlefield.”

Ukraine had an early lead when it adapted commercially available drones that cost as little as $1,000 and hung Soviet-era grenades to their underbelly that were dropped on expensive artillery pieces or took whole patrols of Russian invaders by surprise, with devastating effect. Since then the size and variety of drone has expanded dramatically.

“These range from the very small – such as the Black Hornet which has a wingspan of only 12 centimetres – to drones with wingspans of over 15 metres. Small systems play a particularly important role in Ukraine. Quadcopters and other rotor drones are mainly produced by commercial firms such as the Chinese DJI and are among the most common. Armed systems, such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2,” European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said in a report.

But Russia learned the lesson quickly and deployed its own drones, buying more from Iran, and has since set up its own production after Russian President Vladimir Putin put the entire Russian economy on a war footing. At the same time, a technology race has broken our as both sides innovate, introduce longer-range drones and develop electronic warfare (EW) countermeasures.

But currently Russia still has the upper hand, and Ukraine’s situation is made worse by the deepening ammo crisis thanks to tardy US financial support. Sources in the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine told Ukrainska Pravda that the number of Russian drones in areas where the fighting is heaviest around Kharkiv has at least doubled in the last three months alone.

New tactics

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in Ukraine have already changed the way wars will be fought in the future. They have proved to be so cheap and effective that they are now deeply integrated into Ukraine and Russia’s armed forces structure. Almost every fighting brigade has an assault drone company, while most units have small reconnaissance drones. They have become an essential strategic and offensive element of war.

The Russian drone arsenal has expanded equally fast. In the early stages of the war Russia imported the Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones which were as effective and a lot cheaper than missiles. But as Ukraine adapted and began to shoot more Shahed drones down Russia has, like Ukraine, switched away to smaller, more lethal types, including the Orion, Eleron-3, Orlan-10 and Lancet drones, as well introducing more recently deadly glide bombs, against which Ukraine has little defence and no way to shoot these fast moving inbound projectiles down.

Russia has developed a system of hunter-killer pairs of the Orlan-10, which finds targets, and the Lancet attack drone that can take them out – a combination that Ukraine as yet has no counter to other than EW. Likewise, Russia’s Orion drones carry missiles which can be used to attack troops on the ground. Shaheds are still in use – a loitering, single-use drone, which hover above a target before diving into it and exploding.

The drones have also brought on a change in tactics on the ground. First, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones hover high above the ground to survey the battlefield and identify targets from afar. Ukraine uses the so-called Sharks that fly at a high altitude and carry a high-definition camera that can see far ahead. Russia uses the Orlan-10 to similar effect. These reconnaissance drones then relay live stream video showing the enemy’s location to pilots operating low-flying, highly manoeuvrable First Person View (FPV) drones, which can launch precision strikes against both stationary and moving targets, all from a safe distance from the front line. After these drones eliminate initial targets, military vehicles fight through minefields to begin the ground assault.

In the assault on Avdiivka which fell to Russia in February, ground assaults remained an integral part of Russia’s drone targeting strategy. The Russian army sent in groups of poorly trained draftees and convicts to attack the Ukrainian front line, forcing Ukrainian troops to respond and reveal their camouflaged positions. Then those positions were pounded with artillery or extremely accurate drone attacks.

Another change drones have brought is that tank-to-tank clashes have become a thing of the past. In 2023 there was a long and vocal campaign to send Ukraine the powerful German Leopard-2 and US Abrams main battle tanks, which are vastly superior to the Russian workhorse T-72 tanks. However, a tank battle never happened and the Western tanks have been removed from service after they were overwhelmed by swarms of cheap Russian drones that damaged, disabled or occasionally destroyed these tanks. A destroyed Leopard tank had pride of place in a display of captured Nato armour on Red Square in the recent Victory Day parade in Moscow.

On the back foot, Ukraine has been using German Gepards and US Patriots against attacks from the air, but stocks of both these air defence systems are dwindling and the munitions are vastly more expensive than the nearly limitless supply of cheap drones.

Drones can be shot down, but the cost differential between the cost an air defence missile and a drone is so vast that this is not a practical solution. Far more effective is to jam the drone’s signal and knock it off course, or even hack its operating system and take it over. Besides this, net throwers, drones that fight drones, and even birds of prey trained to take out rogue hobbyist drones have been tried, says ECFR.

Electronic counter-measures

Russia is also far ahead of Ukraine in the electronic counter-measure war. Radar was one of the Soviet Union’s fortes during the Cold War and it has extended this technology to systems for jamming Ukraine’s drones. It has some of the most powerful systems in the world, so powerful that these have been jamming commercial airlines’ communications in the north of Europe.

Effective EW protection has become essential for keeping troops alive. EW has to be technologically effective and the armies need enough EW units to protect their men, vehicles and armour. Russia is well ahead of Ukraine in both of these elements, Ukrayinska Pravda reported in a long article about drone warfare.

"We used to make electronic warfare equipment roughly in the 900 Mhz band. That used to be enough. Now the orcs [the Russians – ed.] are producing drones ranging from 700 to 1,000 MHz. So the electronic warfare devices that we made earlier are already ineffective," a source in the Ukrainian General Staff told Ukrainska Pravda.

Most EW systems have a limited span of frequencies, so drone pilots have responded by switching to less commonly used ones. This leads to a technological game of cat and mouse on the front lines as EW operators seek to disrupt drones flying on constantly shifting frequencies. And Russia has been fast to innovate and introduce drones that work on unusual frequencies or hop between frequencies to make jamming them difficult.

Ukraine has also been innovating. During the two years of the full-scale invasion Ukrainian electronic warfare equipment has evolved from large systems to pocket-sized devices, known as “tenchies”. A new sophisticated EW backpack is being trailed at the moment. As it operates in the 720-1,050 MHz range, it jams and disables a wide range of UAVs and can provide protection from drone attack to a whole squad in the field.

The production of EW systems in Ukraine has increased by 40-50% since the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, but Mariia Berlinska of the Council of Foreign Affairs says the current level of Ukraine’s EW production does not meet even 5% of frontline needs. Battlefield reports say there are only two EW devices per battalion, or 300-800 troops.

Production and development race

Even if it is behind, the effectiveness of drones and their ability to a large extent to stand in for the missiles that have failed to arrive from America means Ukraine is scrambling to expand its production. According to Ukraine’s high command it is losing some 10,000 drones a month and needs to constantly replenish its supplies.

Ukraine’s newly established Unmanned Systems Force (USF) is a separate branch of the armed forces dedicated to drones, and is trying to manage the highly dynamic drone supply.

At the start of the war Ukraine had seven drone manufacturers, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, but now domestic production is rapidly expanding and by early 2024 there were approximately 200 companies producing drones in Ukraine. Domestic output is now around one hundred times higher than during the first year of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

As manufacturing potential continues to expand, Ukrainian officials have set a target of more than 1mn domestically produced drones in 2024 – around double the number of artillery shells supplied by the entire European Union over the past year. A coalition of around ten countries recently vowed to deliver 1mn more drones to Ukraine by February 2025, while France is reportedly preparing to provide the Ukrainian military with the latest strike drone models, according to the Atlantic Council.

Predictably, Russia has also massively ramped up its production of drones. In the first year of the war, Russia imported thousands of Shaheds from Iran, but in the meantime it has set up its own production plants and is churning out around 100,000 drones per month. Russia is also expected to produce 2mn drones in 2024.

Ukraine is pushing back. Social media now carries posts full of tiny workshops of regular Ukrainians building drones, using 3D printing techniques and churning out thousands of them a month. At the same time, the public are crowdsourcing the purchase of new drones from “dronations” that are handed over to the AFU.

“Many of these ‘hobbyist’ drones have been acquired through grassroots crowdfunding efforts, or ‘dronations.’ At just $1,000 per unit, the small drones can be rapidly amassed and repurposed by operators for a specific effect,” the Council for Foreign Relations (CFR) said in a note in a recent paper.

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has turned the country into a giant war lab and confirmed the status of drones as the weapons of the future. With Ukraine no longer assured of further military aid from the US and increasingly obliged to ration ammunition, drones are a cost-effective solution that plays to the country’s tech sector strengths,” Bielieskov, a research fellow at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, said in a recent note for the Atlantic Council.

Economics of drones

Ukraine’s defence industry is capable of producing $20bn worth of defence products in 2024, but it has only allocated $6bn for weapons purchases in the 2024 budget, and hopes to raise another $4bn during the course of the year, according to Minister of Strategic Industries Alexander Kamyshin, the Kyiv Independent reports. Around one-third of the $6bn is dedicated to drone production, Kamyshin told the Kyiv Independent in an interview, with the rest going for things like ammunition.

That means a lot of Ukraine’s 200 drone companies will go unfunded and may go out of business. Part of their problem is despite the rapid innovation, under martial law they are not allowed to export and so have no other alternative ways of making money. Of the 200-odd drone makers in Ukraine, only 58 have government contracts, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry said in February.

And there is a burgeoning export market. The war in Ukraine has fundamentally changed the military strategy. Despite Russia’s overwhelming advantage in men and artillery firepower, it has been unable to capitalise on this thanks to Ukraine’s drones. Drones’ dollar-per-kill ratio is several order of magnitude lower than other weapons, while at the same time they have a very high kill-per-mission ratio as they target individual targets such as single soldiers or tanks – much more than the random death dealt by missiles and bombs targeting things like supermarkets or front line physical defences.

The Baltic states announced on May 25 they will create a "drone wall" along their border with Russia and its ally Belarus to counter potential attacks and patrol the line looking for migrants and other efforts by Moscow to destabilise their eastern border regions. Lithuanian Interior Minister Agne Bilotaite said: "This is a completely new thing – a wall of drones stretching from Norway to Poland – and its purpose is to use drones and other technologies to protect our borders [...] against provocations from unfriendly countries and to prevent smuggling.”

And with the first autonomous AI-powered drones already appearing on the battlefield in Ukraine, the potential of drones is likely to keep increasing exponentially for the meantime. Entire swarms of drones can be controlled by a handful of operators and as they can guide themselves once a target has been selected, the electronic countermeasures that cut the contact with the operators become useless.

Glide bombs

One critical factor in Russia's recent battlefield successes in Ukraine is its extensive use of glide bombs. Despite their simplicity and low cost, glide bombs have become one of Russia's most effective weapons.

Strictly speaking these are not drones but regular Soviet-era FAB-500М-62 500kg gravity bombs that Russia has in vast quantities. However, in another example of low-tech innovation that has characterised this war from the start, Russia has modified them, adding wings – a Universal Gliding and Correction Module (UGCM) – and drops them from Russian jets near the front line. As a result of this modification, a simple bomb becomes a cheap substitute for an expensive guided missile carrying a 390-kilogram warhead and costs only $24,000. A Kalibr cruise missile carrying a 450-kilogram warhead a distance of 1,500 km is worth nearly $6.5mn. The biggest FAB bombs in Russia’s stockpile carry an even bigger payload of 1,500kg. 

Moscow has also announced new version of the glide bombs are on the way, such as the 3.4-tonne FAB-3000 and the "Drel," which contains cluster munitions, again that draw on the Soviet-era stockpile of these munitions.

Bankova has been criticised for not investing into building up heavier defences last autumn and is paying the price now. Hundreds of these large, deadly weapons rain down on Ukraine positions every week, creating 20-metre-wide craters and obliterating military positions and entire settlements.

“These glide bomb strikes will continue to play a critical role in supporting Russian ground operations this summer, despite the likely improvement in air defence capabilities that Ukrainian forces will be able to use against Russian aircraft with the arrival of additional Western air defence systems,” Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said in a report.

And as the glide bombs fall more than they fly, and come down very fast, they are almost impossible to shoot down, as they are also clad in thick metal. EW counter-measures also don’t work against glide bombs, which are not guided. The only effective way to prevent glide bomb attacks is to shoot down the planes that carry them.

As the bombs glide, they have an effective range of only 50 km – about the range of traditional artillery – which means they can only be used on the front line. However, a glide bomb attack on a DIY mall in Kharkiv on May 25 suggests a new modification has increased that range to just under 100 km. 

Ukraine needs fighter jets to create an exclusion zone above the front line and push the glide bombs out of range of their defensive positions, but since Avdiivka Russia has taken control of the skies. Manpads and other surface to air missile systems have brought down about half a dozen Russian jets in the last months, but Ukraine’s troops on the ground remain extremely vulnerable to glide bomb attacks.

Europe has promised Ukraine around 60 of the US-made F-16 jet fighters and the first four are expected to arrive soon. However, Russia has an active fleet of 300 advanced jet fighters in service, so it hard to see how a handful of F-16 will make any difference. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has called on the West to provide Ukraine with 120 of these jets if they are to make any difference at the front.

Ukraine also has glide bombs supplied by Western allies, including the US Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) and Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB). These are more accurate and sophisticated than their Russian counterparts, but Ukraine’s arsenal is much more limited and at the moment it can’t use them against targets inside Russian territory, where they would be most useful.

Russia has adapted a Soviet-era dumb bomb by strapping wings and motor to its underbelly to turn it into a crude but lethal guided missile

Sea drones

Despite the increasingly asymmetrical picture in the drone wars on land, Kyiv has also scored some big successes by developing deadly sea drones that have driven Russia’s Black Sea fleet out of its home power in the Crimea and broken the navel blockade to the extent where seaborne exports have resumed.

“[Ukrainian unmanned] drone boats were already used last autumn, most notably in the attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol. More recently, Ukrainian forces damaged a Russian amphibious landing ship and struck a Russian fuel tanker using naval drones. These attacks are a testimony to Ukraine’s innovative military-industrial sector,” says ECFR.

In a similar adaptation as Russia has made to make FAB bombs useful, Ukrainians have adapted marine drones by strapping Soviet air-to-air missiles on top of them and firing them at ships.

On March 5 the AFU destroyed one of the Russian Black Sea Fleet's patrol ships using homemade drones that cost $250,000, attacking it with five Magura V5 maritime drones. The Sergei Kotov reportedly cost about $65mn to build. As Russian ships don’t bristle with the anti-missile guns that were common in WWII, Russia appears to have little defence against these sea drones, which have tipped the balance of power off Ukraine’s coast. Ukraine's latest tally of Moscow's losses during the more than two years of war puts the number of destroyed Russian ships at 26.

Ukraine has developed a seadrone, an unmanned boat with Soviet-era air-to-air mounted on its deck.


Glide bombs and sea drones are the big showy weapons, but the drone that it all started with, the First Person View (FPV)) drones that are operated by a man wearing googles and a controller, remains the backbone of the drone war. When asked to identify the best tank-killing weapon in their arsenals, Ukrainian commanders of all ranks give the same answer: first-person-view drones. They remain amongst the cheapest and most deadly of all the drone types. It is 1mn FPV drones that Ukraine intends to build this year.

FPV drones are more versatile than an artillery barrage at the opening of an attack. In a traditional attack, shelling must end as friendly troops approach the enemy trench line. But FPVs are so accurate that Ukrainian pilots can continue to strike Russian targets until their fellow soldiers are mere yards away from the enemy. They have single-handedly gone a long way towards offsetting the lack of Western-made missiles that have failed to appear this year, and they are so simple that regular Ukrainians have been making them themselves using 3D printers and instructions available on YouTube.

The FPV drones, which cost as little as $500 each, take off from improvised platforms several kilometres from the front line. Depending on their size, battery and payload, range varies from 5 km to 20 km or more.

Despite Russia’s massive artillery advantage, Russian forces have not been able to capitalise on it, as the FPVs swarm every time they try to cross no-man’s land, forcing them back to take cover.

And new drones are coming to the battlefield all the time. In May a Ukrainian start-up called Swarmer demonstrated a new set of four AI powered drones that can be operated by a single person. The drones use artificial intelligence to work together as a coordinated swarm.

The recognisance drone leads, choosing its own approach and looks for a target. Once the target is approved by the operator, heavy bomber drones move in and destroy the target. Finally a small follow-up recognisance drone follows and confirms the kill. All the drones are piloted by AI, not human operators, who only choose and approve the kill order.

A few protype AI drones have already appeared on the battlefield and could be a game changer. Their biggest advantage is they can make decisions on their own so there is no signal dependency on the operator miles away. That means the EW countermeasures are totally ineffective, as once the kill order has been given, outside the EW effective range, the drones can’t be stopped once they have been given the order to attack.