The Use of Drones in the Russia-Ukraine War

A Bayraktar TB2 drone, photo credit: The New York Times

While Russia’s military capabilities were overestimated, analysts failed to predict just how effective Ukraine’s adoption of asymmetric capabilities would be. Drones are making an impact on the defense of Ukraine given their ability to track targets, shoot missiles, and provide a better visual of battlefields. While drones are not the only types of weapons that are central to the Russia-Ukraine war (HIMARS, for example, have been crucial for Ukraine), they certainly are a growing focal point. The expanding bilateral relations between Iran and Russia further demonstrate the importance of drones in this war. Ukraine is proving that drones can play a key role in national self-defense. 

Russia Relying on Iran 

Russia is relying on Iran for drones. While the relationship between the two powers is nothing new, what is evident is that Russia’s reliance on Iran shows that the Russian military is scrambling to stay afloat. The U.S. at one point reported that Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) sent to Russia could number in the hundreds. However, these drones from Iran are already problematic for Russia. Reports indicate that there are “technical problems,” raising concerns about the drones’ quality. Yet, it is important to consider one of the main reasons Russia turned to Iran in the first place: “a common foe” in the U.S. While Russia may have the backing of Iran for now, it does not compare to the level of support Ukraine receives from other nations, especially the U.S. 

Ukraine’s Advancements

While this war is exposing Russia’s military weaknesses, it is also illustrating Ukraine’s strengths. Recently, Ukraine’s military shot down Shahed-136 and kamikaze drones – supplied from Iran to Russia – over the Dnipropetrovsk region as well as in Odesa. Ukraine is also asserting its superiority over the Russian military through its own impressive drone use. Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine has used the Bayraktar TB2 drone, manufactured by Turkey. These drones helped Ukraine take back Snake Island; Ukraine is not only taking out Russian drones but using this weapon to gain the strategic upper hand in certain theaters. 

Ukraine is demonstrating savvy military tactics against the Russians, part of which includes attacking their military equipment. There are many reports of Ukraine targeting Russian UAVs, with one recent story of a spy drone found destroyed in the Kherson region. Russia’s UAV supply is dwindling, and Ukraine is pursuing a tactical advantage by destroying more. 

Assistance from the United States to Ukraine 

The U.S. continues to supply Ukraine with weapons to fight for its survival, including various types of drones. The United States provided Ukraine with 700 Phoenix Ghost drones. The U.S. also sent the Switchblade which “can circle above a battlefield before in effect becoming missiles that attack specific targets.” These two types of drones do have some similarities, though the Phoenix Ghost has a longer loiter time compared to the Switchblade. As of March, the U.S. intended to give Ukraine MQ-IC Gray Eagle drones. While this has stalled, it demonstrates that the U.S. does not have any plans to stop providing Ukraine drones. The U.S. made its intention clear that it will continue to support Ukraine, with drones as an integral part. Unlike Iran’s supply to Russia, the technical reliability of U.S. drones is unparalleled, giving Ukraine an advantage on the battlefield over its adversary. 

Furthermore, Ukraine is working with countries such as the U.S. and Poland to advance the use of drones and other emerging technology in the longer term. This July, Poland hosted the Warsaw Drone Summit where members of various sectors from countries – including both the U.S. and Ukraine – worked with Poland to envision a “Drone Valley.” Drone Valley would be a hub for drones and other types of technology. This event demonstrates that not only are these countries dedicated to helping Ukraine, but that Ukraine is successfully leveraging its recent advancements in drone usage to improve its security in the long term. 

What do drones tell the world about how the Russia-Ukraine war is fought? First, it shows us that drones do impact how militaries on both sides are fighting. Drone technology is expanding, and this technology makes a difference on the battlefield. Second, it further demonstrates that Ukraine is using drones as one of many ways to reveal that the Russian military is not as skilled as many believed prior to the war. The Ukrainian military is capitalizing on Russian limitations by deploying its own strategy to fight back against Russia’s drones. Russia is showing the weakness of its indigenous military technology by relying on Iran for unreliable drones. Yet with the role played by drones for both Russia and Ukraine, as well as the statements that other countries make in providing these drones to either side, we can be sure of one thing: these new weapons will continue to act as a massive force multiplier in future conflicts around the globe.

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