Analysis | The Russia-Ukraine drone war

Policy analyst Fuad Shahbazov examines the use of drones by both sides as well as the international reaction

Analysis | The Russia-Ukraine drone war

Ukrainian drone attack against Russia forces. Photo: Ukrainian 503rd Separate Marine Battalion via REUTERS

Russia's military intervention in Ukraine in February 2022 unfolded a series of political, security, and energy crisis in the wider European continent and caused an immense race of arms. With the growing Russian offensive in Ukraine's major cities, NATO member states launched a military aid campaign to support Ukraine troops with modern warfare equipment, anti-tank and cruise missiles, combat and reconnaissance drones, medium-range missile systems, etc.

Given the Russian military's lack of sophisticated weaponry and defense technology compared to NATO states, it paid a heavy price for poor military planning, low combat readiness, and logistical problems.

The Russian troops became explicitly vulnerable to Ukraine’s counter-military operations with modern weaponry, including the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 combat drones equipped to carry four laser-guided bombs.

Turkey started the export of its flagship drones to Ukraine in 2021, shortly before the full-scale war erupted. During the first three months of the war, Bayraktar drones proved very effective against the Russian units, armored vehicles, and navy. As such, Bayraktar drone was reportedly used to destroy the Moskva cruiser, the main vessel of the Russian navy, in April 2022.

Thus, stories of the success of Bayraktar drones dominated the news cycle in Ukraine and abroad, whereas demonstrating Russia's vulnerability against modern combat drones. However, Russia quickly learned from the catastrophic losses in the first months of the war and significantly increased its air defense and jamming systems to counter Ukraine's drones.

Russia's efforts somehow paid off, as Bayraktar drones became largely ineffective in the current phase of the war. The ineffectiveness of drones became explicit, particularly in the last two months with the military operations now undergoing in Donbas region, where the focus of the war shifted and a large number of Russian troops are concentrated.

While Ukraine forces are currently limiting the use of drones due to their vulnerabilities, the Russian troops are on the verge of securing full control over separatist regions Donetsk and Luhansk.

Seemingly, Ukraine drones were unable to penetrate the defensive anti-aircraft glacis deployed by the Russian forces, namely long-range S-400 and S-300 defense systems, the Buk M2/M3 for medium and low altitude divisional defense, TOR M1/M2 for short-range defense, and SHORAD systems such as Tunguska, Sosna. The deployment of impressive weaponry is further supported by a large concentration of electronic warfare tools, such as Krasukha-S4, making the operation of drones in this region very risky.

One recent footage of the Russian MoD clearly showed Krasukha-S4 in operation. As a result, Ukrainian pilots openly stated that Bayraktar combat drones have become virtually useless in the face of more robust Russian air defenses. While Russia is now better organized and fielded than in the first months of the war, Ukrainian Armed Forces need new military tactics to tackle the Russian troops' offensive on the eastern flank.

With the renewed military tactics, Russia now consolidated all of its anti-aircraft assets to eastern Ukraine rather than having them spread out across the country, thus getting enough time to repair vehicles and systems damaged earlier. Russia has had ample time to detect and identify vulnerabilities and the transmission frequencies and other electromagnetic signatures of Bayraktar drones.

Indeed, Bayraktar drones militarily are an effective weapon but obviously not militarily decisive. This thesis has been reiterated by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, stating that “with all due respect to Bayraktar, this is a different war.”

There are about 50 Bayraktar TB2 drones operated by the Ukrainian forces, though they are scaling back the use of Turkish drones. This decision should not come as a surprise since each Bayraktar TB drone costs around $2 million. Taking into consideration price and technical capabilities, Ukraine now seeks to purchase US-made drones, namely MQ-1c Gray Eagle, which technically overshadows TB2 drones.

Nevertheless, at this stage, the import of $10 million cost Gray Eagle drones looks unreal as the US seemed reluctant to supply Ukraine with a drone carrying sophisticated and sensitive military technology. The concern is that the Russian troops could gain access to surveillance equipment and other staff if they were shot in Russia-controlled eastern Ukraine.

With Russia’s current firepower in Donbas region, Gray Eagle is not survivable over this battlefield. Therefore, some Ukrainian experts suggest downgrading the technical characteristics of Gray Eagle and delivering it to the Ukrainian forces, though such an option would significantly degrade the drone's main capabilities.

Despite rational concerns regarding Gray Eagle, the US agreed to supply to Ukraine at least 700 of the less sophisticated single-use Switchblade 300 and 600 drones, with a range of six or 25 miles, loitering munitions that can hang in the sky and smash down, with fearful effect on their target.

It is noteworthy that although Russia claims to shut down tens of the Ukrainian combat drones over breakaway regions in the east, it still has not achieved air superiority. Instead, Russia began actively using its own drones for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, since gathering necessary intelligence in this stage is more critical in terms of tactical superiority.

Hence with more sensitive intelligence gathered last month, the Russian forces may launch a new offensive on the eastern flank shortly.

With drones becoming less effective, Ukraine now advocates for US-made fighter jets like F-15 and F-16 to perform more complex missions. Unlike drones, technologically advanced fighter jets could be a real game-changers, though there are also inevitable risks. First, such fighter jets require adequate training and developed tactics.

With the Ukrainian pilots operating Soviet-era technology, this may take longer than expected. Also, exporting F-16 jets requires a lengthy Congressional procedure followed by logistics issues for planes’ arrival, which may take more than a year.

Combat drones are not war-winning technology but war-enabling. Even the US-made Gray Eagle drone supplies will not give Ukraine an upper hand given Russia's increased air power on the eastern front and frequent missile attacks on large urban areas. Although the drone fleet ensured Ukraine's superiority over the Russian ground forces and navy for a certain period, Moscow has now adapted and is less vulnerable.

Written by Fuad Shahbazov, policy analyst covering regional security issues in the South Caucasus. He is a former research fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies of Azerbaijan and a former senior analyst at the Center for Strategic Communications, also in Azerbaijan. Shahbazov is a master’s degree candidate in Defense and Diplomacy at the University of Durham in the U.K. He can be found on Twitter at @fuadshahbazov.

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