The Drone War between the Ukrainians and Russians

Jim DoughertyApr 24, 2022

Turkish Bayraktar TB2 combat drone 

Almost no one expected the Russians to still be fighting, much less struggling to achieve their goals, after eight weeks of war in Ukraine. Despite its military power and magnitude, Russia has been humbled by Ukraine on the battlefield, and that will go down in history as a major military setback. How could a superpower with a huge military and state of the art weapons struggle in Ukraine?


Military experts say one reason Ukraine has fared well against the Russians is because of drones, which are now rewriting the rules of war. “The tank was key at one point, but now drones may be the more decisive weapons system,” said John Parachini, a Rand Corp military researcher,


So far, the Ukraine-Russia war appears to be a war of drones, with Ukraine holding its own if not besting Russia in that arena. Ukraine's fleet of military drones includes donations from supporting NATO nations, Ukraine-made products, and the recently imported Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2. Also in play is the USA's switchblade drone, which has been used to destroy many Russian surface-to-air missile launchers and resupply vehicles. "A two-person team with a Switchblade drone can be miles away and take out a $50 million piece of equipment with five people in it," said Michael Robbins, head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.


Russia has its own supply of drones, but why has the nation done so poorly? The question is all the more puzzling because during the Crimean war of 2014, the Russians used drones to demolish Ukrainian military armaments and supplies. At that time drone usage was well integrated into the Russian ground military.


But in Ukraine, the Russians have not employed the same tactics as they did in Crimea. Moreover, the Ukrainians, who did not have much in the way of drones during the Crimean war, appear to have recognized their potential and subsequently amassed a sizeable fleet. Exact numbers are hard to come by, but Ukraine estimtes that they have downed or captured at least two to four dozen Russian drones.


The Ukrainian drones


Ukraine appears to have 300 drones on the battlefield. The backbone of the fleet is the A1-S Fury, followed by the Leleka 100 reconnaissance drones, both recently developed and manufactured in Ukraine. In addition, the Ukrainians also possess high-altitude Soviet-era Tu-141 reconnaissance drones, which have seen no success in the war.


However, the most effective and lethal drone for the Ukrainians has been the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone; this aerial flyer with a wingspan of 12 meters can carry four laser-guided bombs. Ukraine appears to have at least three dozen Turkish drones that have been credited with the destruction of dozens of tanks and/or other large vehicles and downed at least a dozen surface-to-air missile systems and several command posts.


The Turkish drones showed their full potential and capability during the 2020 war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. And unlike the US or European drones, the Turkish drones are relatively cheap, costing anywhere from $1 million to $10 million.


"I'd call it the Toyota Corolla of drones,” said Aaron Stein, of the U.S.-based Foreign Policy Research Institute. "It doesn't do everything that your high-end sports car does, but it does 80% of that, right? So even for a high-end military, like the U.S., the basic concept of using an attritable, cheap platform to strike a superior force has inherent value."


The Russian Drones


Russia has a massive collection of lethal drones that include the Zala kyb- also known as the loitering munition, meaning that when it sees the target it will dive into it and explode. However, the most common Russian drones are mid-sized ones used for surveillance and reconnaissance. Other Russian drones include the Altius-U, Granat 1, -2, -3, -4, Sukhoi S-70, Leer-3, Grom (Thunder), Kronshtadt Orion, Okhotnik-B (Hunter), Kronstadt Sirius, Takhion, ENIKS (Eleron-3), and Orlan-10. During the Syrian and Libyan wars, the Russians consistently used the Orlan 10 and Eleron 3 drones. However, it is important to note that the Russians did not have any military opposition from the enemy and the drones did their job. In Ukraine, on the other hand, those drones have faced a very capable enemy, and the Russians have not fared well.


It appears that Russians and Ukrainians are balanced when it comes to the number of drones. So why has the former seen so little success? The answer lies in counter-drone technology.


Counter drone technology


The majority of counter-drone systems today rely on a defensive electronic warfare program that spoofs and jams enemy drones. These systems inundate the air with radiofrequency energy and increase the noise threshold to such a level that the drone is unable to differentiate signals from the remote pilot or the controls.


Another technique is to send false signals to the drone or spoofed GPS signals which cause drone disorientation. Russia is also known to utilize the Pantsir S1 surface-to-air missile system to intercept and destroy drones. But in both Armenia and Syria, the Russian countermeasures against drones didn't work well, especially against the Turkish Bayraktar TB2s that were used by the Azerbaijanis. In most cases, the Bayraktar was able to neutralize the Pantsir S1 radars.


Newer technology allows recently built drones to switch frequencies so that they are not jammed by the enemy's radiofrequency signals. If the drone is unable to reconnect with the control tower, it can work autonomously with a series of preset maneuvers.


While a lot is known about Russian counter-drone technology, not much is known about the systems used by the Ukrainians. For obvious reasons, much of the data on American defensive drone systems remain confidential.


Why Russia has not done well in the Ukraine War


Even though Russia is a leading manufacturer of military tools and has kept up with technology, it has struggled with supplies since a ban was issued after the Crimean war in 2014. Military experts say Russia is hampered by technology embargoes and a stagnant domestic industrial base that lacks capabilities. Despite its huge arsenal, the Russian military has always relied heavily on foreign technology including electronic parts, GPS modules, cameras, etc. Russians have been importing military tools and parts from a dozen nations including France, the Czech Republic, Israel, Spain, Japan, Switzerland, the USA, and the UK.


The other issue with Russia's failure, according to American analyst Roger McDermott, may be related to Russian military leadership, which most likely miscalculated and paid far too much importance to ground forces' tactics in winning the war. “At the operational and tactical levels, Russian military operations during the early phase of its invasion of Ukraine, involved numerous errors and miscalculations,” he said.  


Finally, it could be that the Russian operational design failed to rely on its own high-tech military capabilities. “The Russians did not appear to exploit the partial success of their initial missile strikes and follow them up with large fixed-wing strike packages,” said Israeli defense analyst Guy Plopsyky . “It could be that the Russians grossly overestimated their capabilities and underestimated the Ukrainians. The Russians may have believed that only ground forces would suffice and that extensive use of the tactical aviation department would not be necessary to seize key objectives.” 


It could also be that since the Russians lost several tactical aircraft early on, they may have been afraid of suffering more losses and decided to rely only on ground forces.




Finally, many Western nations siding with Ukraine have sent state of art reconnaissance information as well as the latest in high-tech counter-drone technology. This massive support from Europeans and Americans has been one of the reasons why Ukrainian counter-drone technology has fared exceptionally well.


The exact counter-drone systems offered to Ukraine remain a secret but may include features like the ability to withstand electronic attacks, switching to frequencies that are not jammed, or autonomous operation. Further, both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have provided the latest systems to the Ukrainians, but the exact assistance and military tools remain a secret.

S.Benji is a grad with an advanced degree in the sciences with an interest in avionics. He is a prolific writer with a wide range of publications.