Small Wars Journal

Commercial Drones/Robotics and the Modern Combat Zone: A look at Ukraine

Mon, 04/25/2022 - 9:55pm

Commercial Drones/Robotics and the Modern Combat Zone:

A look at Ukraine

By COL (R) Bill Edwards


            If you are paying close attention to the war in Ukraine you would have noticed a significant change in how war is prosecuted in the modern age specifically regarding commercial and military drones, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), unmanned aerial systems (UAS), and robotics.  Additionally, Ukraine is winning the information war starting at the top of their government in the form of President Zelenskyy’s constant and upfront reporting daily.  Why is this important?  What this specific conflict is showing us from a military and possibly more important from a private sector perspective is the demonstration of what strategists and historians would classify as a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA).  "The best-known definition of RMA is the one provided by Dr. Andrew Marshall, Director of the Office of Net Assessment, U.S. DoD, who defined it as '…a major change like warfare brought about by the innovative application of new technologies which, combined with dramatic changes in military doctrine and operational and organizational concepts, fundamentally alters the character and conduct of military operations” (Revolution in military affairs - SourceWatch). 

In the case of Ukraine, the drone in all forms is a fast-evolving technology that is being employed using innovative tactics to create an environment where a real sense of parity can be found between Ukrainian and Russian ground forces.  This is something no one would have predicted before the invasion.  Couple that with an aggressive information campaign that floods the market hourly with updates from the front and you will find a successful recipe for gaining and winning the world’s attention and favor.  This is evident by all the ammunition, equipment, and supplies coming from the west to keep Ukraine in the fight. The overwhelming power of the Russian military has quickly found out that their adversary not only has the “will” to fight but is also “agile” and “creative” in how they fight.  Drones are one very important aspect of how this modern-day David is matching up with Goliath in real-time for all of us to witness.  Now, some will argue that drones in all forms have been used for decades which is true but what we haven’t seen is this level of coordinated employment at a tremendous scale in a major combat operation (MCO) while simultaneously operating in a multi-domain operational environment (MDO).

  Early on, the Ukrainian government using a myriad of social media platforms including Facebook mobilized the private sector to get into the fight early by putting commercial drones normally used for recreation purposes to act like intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR), and weapons delivery platforms.  “The ministry posted the appeal on Facebook last Friday…do you have a drone?  Then give it to an experienced pilot!  Or do you know how to fly a drone?  Join the joint patrol with Unit 112 of the Kyiv City Special Brigade…!  Kyiv needs you and your drone…” the defense minister wrote (How Military And Civilian DJI Drones Are Used In Ukraine - Special (dronexl. co).  More recently, we’ve seen private-sector drones, mostly DJI platforms giving us a frontline view of the Ukrainian targeting process.  More specifically, these drones are flying from locations close to Russian forces, identifying targets and then giving that information for coordinated infantry or artillery strikes.  The best example of this comes with the widely watched stalled 40-mile Russian convoy into Kyiv.  As the world watched and wondered what was happening it recently came to fruition that behind-the-scenes Ukrainian special forces including the Ukrainian drone unit Aerorozvidka thwarted and destroyed the convoy using nighttime ground and drone raids.  Additionally, the idea of robotics is taking shape in this conflict. 

Drone systems that utilize artificial intelligence (AI) and have autonomous capabilities raise a whole different problem to understand.  Systems like the Israeli Harpo are only one of many possible options that could be used in a manner that doesn’t require a “human in the loop” as the system looks for Russian electronic warfare systems and “decides” to take them out autonomously.  Additionally, the United States has entered this space with shipments of the “Phoenix Ghost” a drone that has an extended flight time capability and searches for its target on a “one-way” mission profile.  All of this makes the technology and its employment unique to modern warfare and we shouldn’t be naïve to think that the Russians are not watching and learning.  Russia and its military-industrial complex came into the conflict with limited use of UAV and UAS systems; however, we’ve seen an uptick in their use of drones outside of their expected military-grade arsenal which is a direct reaction to the Ukrainian effort and success.  The use of the Orlan-10 and DJI drones by the Russians has expanded exponentially over the last several weeks as they try to match the Ukrainian effort but sadly reports of technology issues and captured Orlan-10 platforms have shown that the Russians are well behind when it comes to being capable of replicating what Ukrainian forces have produced.  The best example comes from a downed Orlan-10 that was kept flying with duct tape, a bottle cap, and a payload consisting of a low-end Canon DSLR camera.  In the modern age of easily accessible drone technology, this is laughable.  Additionally, it should be noted that Ukrainians have sharpened their skills since the beginning of this conflict in 2014

The use of drones over entrenched soldiers has proven to be very effective.  The use of 3-D printed drones as a “fire and forget” weapon in this conflict emerged in 2015 and the tactics and techniques have only grown more sophisticated over time.  As the conflict continues, we’ve also seen some interesting reports concerning the use of private-sector drone detection and monitoring systems.  In the last few weeks, the Ukrainian government attacked and condemned the Chinese drone maker DJI for helping the Russian war effort with its manipulation of proprietary drone detection and monitoring capability known as Aeroscope.  More specifically, the Ukrainians are accusing DJI of helping Russian forces identify Ukrainian targets including drone operators with this technology while limiting their use of the same system.  Additionally, counter-drone technology continues to lag far behind the platform’s evolution.  This is a noted problem that spans military and commercial/private sector use.  As we’ve seen sophisticated Russian detection systems have failed to counter the extensive and successful use of commercial drones by Ukrainian forces.  A good example is the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva.  It was noted that Ukraine used the Turkish TB-2 platform as a decoy or distraction to lure the ship’s air defenses away from the real threat of ship killing missiles; however, this reporting is thought to be sensationalized to support the overall information campaign and bolster the idea of Ukraine’s drone might.  In the end, Russia underestimated Ukraine and its military “will.”  Russian forces have discovered that Ukrainians have created a semblance of airspace parity and as noted in the previous article “are rewriting the rules of war “ with Russia in the case of drone use. 

Lastly, as the conflict continues more and more western technologies will enter the conflict zone to test their capabilities.  Currently, reports of lasers and non-kinetic takedowns of drones have made their way to open news sources.  Evidence of this inevitable reality comes in the way of a U.S. warship testing a laser on a drone in an exercise.  Additionally, the Israelis have tested a similar system in the summer of 2021, proving we can expect to see far more in this heavily saturated drone environment. 

The Ukraine war is providing the world with an extraordinary view of modern conflict in real-time. Drones and information together are winning the “hearts and minds” of the world community.  It’s time to declare we are witnessing an RMA as it pertains to drones and robotics.  Government and military leaders should take this seriously, but more importantly, recognize how the evolution of the commercial drone market has progressed in the 12 years since its inception.  Frankly, this is quite amazing. 


About the Author(s)

Bill Edwards is a retired United States Army Colonel and veteran of the Iraq war.  He is currently the President of Calibre Engineering.  He speaks and writes extensively on commercial drones/robotics and their impact on society.