Ukraine Is Losing the Drone War

How Kyiv Can Close the Innovation Gap With Russia

It’s winter in Ukraine again. The snow is piling up, the temperature is dropping, and the days are short. During the long nights, nearly two years into the full-scale war, the skies above the entire 600-mile frontline are filled with Ukrainian and Russian drones. In past centuries, the machinery of war would grind to a halt when harsh conditions pushed human endurance to its limits. The two most famous military campaigns in this part of the world—Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941—succumbed to devastating casualties as the season changed. Today, the hapless infantry who still fill trenches and strongpoints across Ukraine are contending with the same unforgiving winter. But the drones that have come to dominate this war are limited only by their battery lives—shortened by the cold—and the availability of night-vision cameras.

In the early months of the war, the frontlines shifted rapidly as Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russian offensive. Ukraine held the upper hand in drone warfare, adapting commercial technologies and introducing new weapons to keep Russian forces on the back foot. Since October 2022, however, little territory has changed hands. The Ukrainian army has scored some recent wins, including precise attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and on targets deep inside Russian territory. The Russian army, too, has faced headwinds, losing the equivalent of almost 90 percent of the soldiers and equipment it began the war with, according to some reports. But Russia has also adjusted its strategy, and the conflict is now moving in its favor. Moscow shifted its defense industry to a war footing, and current military spending is more than twice prewar levels. It has also launched thousands of drones—including the Iranian-designed Shahed model now assembled in both Iran and Russia—with new capabilities to target expensive Western-supplied defenses in Ukraine.

After Russian troops first marched on Kyiv, Ukrainian forces were praised for the technological ingenuity that helped them thwart their more powerful invader. Now, Russia has caught up in the innovation contest and Ukraine is struggling to maintain the flow of military assistance from its external partners. In order to undercut Russia’s advantage in this phase of the war, Ukraine and its allies will need to not just ramp up defense production but also invest in developing and scaling technologies that can counter Russia’s formidable new drones.

BATTLE IN THE SKIES
I first visited Ukraine in September 2022 at the invitation of the Ukrainian-based Yalta European Strategy forum. Witnessing firsthand the devastation of the Russian invasion, I was blown away by the determination, resilience, and resourcefulness of the Ukrainian people, culture, and tech industry. The trip inspired me to dedicate time and resources to Ukraine’s battle for democracy, supporting both humanitarian causes and Ukraine’s tech ecosystem. I have since returned to Ukraine several times to learn from Ukrainian partners. Conversations during my most recent visit, in December 2023, emphasized the value technology has brought to Ukrainian offensives and the challenge presented by Russia’s new materiel and drone tactics.

The use of drones has underpinned many of Ukraine’s recent successes on the battlefield. In its campaign in the Black Sea, the Ukrainian military has relied largely on drones and, as of November 17, claimed to have destroyed 15 Russian naval vessels and damaged 12 more since the initial 2022 invasion. Ukraine’s attacks on Russia’s maritime forces have kept sea lanes in the region clear enough for grain shipments, which are vital to Ukraine’s economy, to resume. The drone strikes have also denied Russia the option to fire missiles on Ukrainian territory from offshore ships and have weakened Russia’s defense of Crimea and position in the Black Sea—a symbolic, economic, and military victory for Ukraine.

Ukrainian drone strikes have also reached deeper and deeper into Russia in recent months. Over one week in August, a series of attacks targeted six Russian regions and set a military airfield ablaze. Ukraine has proved that it is willing and able to extend the range of its military operations, and Ukrainian officials have warned that as the war continues they will take more of the fight to Russian territory.

For now, drones are most heavily concentrated along the frontlines in eastern Ukraine. 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, which pilots on the ground maneuver while watching a live feed from an onboard camera. These drones have made tank-on-tank engagement a thing of the past. A Ukrainian battle commander also told me that 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.

THE TIDE TURNS
In other ways, however, Kyiv has lost its advantages in the drone war. Russian forces have copied many of the tactics that Ukraine pioneered over the summer, including waging large coordinated attacks that use multiple types of drones. First, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones hover high above the ground to survey the battlefield and identify targets from afar. They then relay the enemy’s location to pilots operating low-flying, highly maneuverable FPV drones, which can launch precision strikes against both stationary and moving targets, all from a safe distance from the frontline. After these drones eliminate initial targets, military vehicles fight through minefields to begin the ground assault. Since late 2022, Russia has used a combination of two domestically produced drones, the Orlan-10 (a surveillance drone) and the Lancet (an attack drone), to destroy everything from high-value artillery systems to combat jets and tanks. Ukraine surpassed Russia in drone attacks early in the conflict, but it has no combination of drones that match Russia’s dangerous new duo.

At the same time that the Orlan-Lancet team has become decisive in battle, Russia’s superior electronic warfare capabilities allow it to jam and spoof the signals between Ukrainian drones and their pilots. If Ukraine is to neutralize Russian drones, its forces will need the same capabilities. A limited number of Ukrainian brigades have acquired jamming equipment from U.S. suppliers or domestic startups. Without it, the combination of Russian attack drones and Russian jamming of Ukrainian drones threatens to push Ukrainian forces back into the territory that they fought so hard to free early in the war.

Most Western-supplied weapons have fared poorly against Russia’s antiaircraft systems and electronic attacks. When missiles and attack drones are aimed at Russian sites, they are often spoofed or shot down. U.S. weapons in particular can often be thwarted via GPS jamming. A small number of U.S. F-16 fighter jets are set to arrive in Ukraine later this year, and they should quickly get to work targeting Russia’s own jets, which are currently devastating Ukrainian defenses with guided bombs. But it is not clear how even the F-16s will perform amid active electronic warfare and against the long-range missiles deployed by Russian aircraft.

Russian forces have copied many of the tactics that Ukraine pioneered.
Russia has ramped up its military offensives in spite of the harsh winter weather, and increased production capacity has played a big role in the latest advance. Ukrainian officials estimate that Russia can now produce or procure around 100,000 drones per month, whereas Ukraine can only churn out half that amount. International sanctions have not stopped other types of Russian military production, either. Russia has doubled the number of tanks built annually before the invasion, from 100 to 200. Russian companies are also manufacturing munitions far more cheaply than their Western counterparts, often compromising on safety to do so: a 152-millimeter artillery shell costs around $600 to produce in Russia, whereas a 155-millimeter shell costs up to ten times that much to produce in the West. This economic disadvantage will be difficult for Ukraine’s allies to overcome.

After months of relative calm in Kyiv, Russia has also resumed regular drone attacks on Ukraine’s capital. So far, Ukrainian forces have managed to detect and shoot down nearly all the incoming aircraft, but this protection will be difficult to sustain as Moscow introduces technological upgrades to drones, increases domestic production, develops new ways to evade detection, and launches high-volume attacks that simply overwhelm Ukrainian air defenses. Here, too, Ukraine is at an economic disadvantage—one of Russia’s drones of choice, the Shahed, is far less expensive than the air defense systems required to neutralize it.

Even though Russian cyberwarfare has had relatively little effect so far, the Ukrainian military’s reliance on mobile data and smartphones to coordinate operations leaves it vulnerable to future attacks. A recent uptick in Russian attempts to shut down cellular networks across Ukraine could have severe consequences. With Russian capacity expanding on multiple fronts in this fight, Ukrainian commanders have become less optimistic than they were just a few months ago. Their focus has turned from offensive operations to defending their current positions and keeping their forces intact.

WINNING THE DRONE WAR
The next few months will be difficult for Ukraine. When I visited Kyiv in December, the government officials and military officers I talked to shared their fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin would announce a second round of mass conscription and a major offensive in eastern Ukraine after Russia’s election in March. Russia’s resilient war economy, expanded materiel production, and population edge, combined with uncertainty about the West’s continued support of Ukraine—especially in a U.S. election year—give Putin reason to double down. Meanwhile, the home-field advantage that Ukraine enjoyed in the early days of the invasion has eroded. Russian troops have settled in on Ukrainian soil and littered eastern Ukraine with land mines, which injure and kill Ukrainian combatants and civilians alike even in areas that the Ukrainian army has won back. The growing strength of Russia’s defenses in eastern Ukraine helps explain the disappointing outcome of Ukraine’s long-heralded summer offensive, too. As Russian forces now probe parts of the frontline for weakness, the Ukrainian military has adopted an “active defense” position. It has been able to stymie Russian assaults, but that success often comes at a high cost.

In this phase of the war, as the frontlines stabilize, the sky above will fill with ever-greater numbers of drones. Ukraine aims to acquire more than two million drones in 2024—half of which it plans to produce domestically—and Russia is on track to at least match that procurement. With so many aircraft deployed, any troops or equipment moving on the ground will become easy targets. Both armies will therefore focus more on eliminating each other’s weapons and engaging in drone-to-drone dogfights. As technological advances increase the range of drones, their operators and other support systems will be able to stay hundreds of miles from the battle.

But remote operation of a drone-centric war will not necessarily lower the human cost. In fact, developments so far suggest that the opposite is true. As Ukrainian military officials explained to me in December in Avdiivka, a city in the Donetsk region, ground assaults remain an integral part of Russia’s drone targeting strategy. The Russian army sends groups of poorly trained draftees and convicts to attack the Ukrainian frontline, forcing Ukrainian troops to respond and reveal their camouflaged positions. Now visible to the drones overhead, the Ukrainian positions are then pounded by Russian artillery. I heard estimates of around 100 to 200 people dying on each side every day in this type of combat—and the number could rise as the lethality and quantity of drones increase.

Russia and Ukraine will focus more on eliminating each other’s weapons and engaging in drone-to-drone dogfights.
Meanwhile, in both Europe and the United States, war fatigue is setting in and support for Ukraine is beginning to crack. Waning financial and military aid from the West could turn the conflict’s fragile stalemate into an opening for Russia. Russia has enough ammunition stocks and production lines to continue fighting for at least another year; Ukraine will need to secure additional Western ammunition supplies if it is to plan that far into the future. Ukraine also needs antiaircraft and attack missiles to strike fast-moving airborne targets. Recognizing that U.S. weapons that rely on GPS may not stand up well to Russian electronic warfare, Ukrainian startups are working around the clock to develop advanced drones that can resist spoofing and jamming. Only with more and better weapons systems—both offensive and defensive—can Ukraine turn the tide on the battlefield. Filling this gap in innovation and procurement will require sustained financial and technical support from Kyiv’s allies.

The prognosis could change with a decisive shift on the battlefield, but for now neither Russia nor Ukraine is expecting a swift end to the fighting. To avoid a protracted war, the West needs to back a concerted military effort to push back Russian forces and a diplomatic effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table. The alternative is years of further suffering for those in the war zone. While I was in Kyiv in December, ten Russian missiles were launched and intercepted by air defenses, including U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles, in the middle of the night. Fifty-two people in my neighborhood were injured by falling debris—including six children.

Ukrainians’ deep love for their country fuels their resilience and determination, even as they face constant reminders of the deadly reality of war. Putin is betting that internal divisions and divided attention will turn Western capitals away from the Ukrainians’ fight for survival as the conflict enters a difficult new phase. Only by neutralizing the advantages that Russia has gained can Ukraine and its allies prove him wrong.

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