Hudson Institute

A Game of Drones in the Russia-Ukraine War

Senior Fellow (Nonresident)
Ukrainian troops learn how to fly drones with bombs attached at a special school on May 12, 2023, in Lviv, Ukraine. (Paula Bronstein via Getty Images)

This report first appeared as a part of Hudson's Re: Ukraine newsletter series. To subscribe, click here.

Below Hudson Senior Fellow Can Kasapoğlu offers a military situational report about the war in Ukraine.

1. Ukraine’s Unmanned Surface Vehicles Hunt Russian Warships 

In the early morning of August 4, Ukrainian kamikaze drone boats rammed a Russian landing vessel in the waters off Novorossiysk, some 70 miles east of occupied Crimea. An uploaded video of the attack showed that the targeted Russian vessel employed no countermeasures against the assault. The ship, with almost all its lights turned on, displayed a clear silhouette against the coastline, while its crew remained seemingly unaware of the threat. The strike illustrates the success the Ukrainian Armed Forces have recently experienced using next-generation unmanned surface vehicles with increased operational range.

Initial open-source intelligence indicates that the Russian warship suffered heavy damage and serious internal flooding, likely taking it out of action for some time. The vessel, Olenegorsky Gornyak, is a Ropucha-class landing ship that operates not as part of the Black Sea Fleet but with the Northern Fleet in the Barents Sea. Its initial deployment to the Black Sea in February 2022 was an early harbinger of the Kremlin’s initial plans to stage a large-scale amphibious offensive at Odesa. But Ukraine’s sinking of the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship Moskva missile cruiser in April 2022 scuttled those plans, so Russia has used landing vessels primarily in logistics roles. 

Not long after the sinking of the Moskva, Ukraine began using naval drones with greater regularity. In October 2022 it targeted an important asset of the Russian Black Sea Fleet, the frigate Admiral Makarov, which assumed the flagship position following the Moskva attack. The frigate managed to survive the sensational attack, although it suffered a smashed hull and a damaged radar system. 

The Ukrainian Armed Forces have built on this accomplishment by introducing next-generation unmanned surface vehicles with a longer operational range than their predecessors. Their success with these vehicles, including during this week’s strike near Novorossiysk, is prompting broader changes to Ukrainian military policy. The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense announced this week that it would continue attacks on Russian vessels in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. Despite losing most of its navy following the 2014 Russian occupation of Crimea, this week’s attack demonstrates that Ukraine’s coastal defense systems and robotic warfare capabilities remain robust.

2. Drone-ized Infantry and Artillery Change the Shape of the Conflict 

Yet Ukraine is not alone in using new technologies to gain an edge on the battlefield. Both Ukraine and Russia are attempting to make the most out of drone technologies in combat.

Russia’s concepts of operations (CONOPS) for drone warfare have evolved through its experiences in Syria, where its fighters used Orlan-10 drones to spot for the 152mm-class artillery. Field research suggests that Russia’s Armed Forces have continued using these drones in intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) roles to support artillery units fighting in Ukraine. The Orlan-30, a laser-equipped version of the original Orlan-15, is often used alongside Krasnopol 152mm-class guided artillery shells. 

The Russians have also employed first-person view (FPV) drones and grenade-carrying quadcopters in targeting Ukrainian positions. In this effort it has received quadcopters from Chinese suppliers. While the Chinese government has been careful to distance itself from providing direct military assistance to Russia’s war effort, China’s commercial drone industry has offered a lifeline to Russian combat operations.

Along with drones, the Russian military has also made extensive use of loitering munitions, in particular the KUB and Lancet varieties. These aerial weapons wait—or “loiter”—in the vicinity of a target until that target is located. As the conflict has unfolded, Moscow has placed orders for an increasingly large number of these munitions. According to some Russian sources, the preferred CONOPS for loitering munitions involves pairing them with unmanned ISR drones to better spot potential targets

Russia has also equipped larger conventional drones with anti-tank munitions, most prominently the Orion, which has made only a low-profile appearance in Ukraine due to its limited numbers in the Russian arsenal. As Ukraine’s air defenses began shooting down these platforms with increased success, Russia has used them less frequently in air strikes. 

Ukraine’s experience with tactical drone warfare has differed markedly from Russia’s. At the outset of the war, the Ukrainian military’s drone arsenal consisted of no more than 20 Turkish TB-2 drones. The TB-2 preyed on a broad target set, ranging from main battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to artillery and even Raptor-class patrol boats. But its main value was its ability to gradually wear down Russian logistics efforts, picking off long columns of Russian vehicles as they attempted to roll into Kyiv. The TB-2 played such an important role in the early stages of the conflict that it has been lionized with a patriotic song composed in its honor. As the Russian invasion has progressed, Kyiv has increased its stockpiles via new orders.

Aside from these tactical drones, first-person view drones and commercially available platforms have also played an important role in Ukraine’s efforts. The Ukrainian Ministry of Digital Transformation, helmed by the young entrepreneur Mykhailo Fedorov, is running the country’s first-person view drone projects in close cooperation with the private sector

Ukraine’s success with FPV and quadcopter drones is empowering its “drone-ized infantry” to have an asymmetric impact against Russia’s big guns. In some engagements, for example, Ukrainian FPV crews were able to eliminate heavy Russian weapons, such as the Tyulpan 240mm mortar. Ukraine has also used quadcopters in artillery-spotting roles. The Ukrainian Armed Forces have modified some of these miniature platforms to carry grenades against Russian trenches. 

FPVs and quadcopters satisfy two critical requirements for a prolonged and high-tempo armed conflict against overstretched belligerents: due to their low per-unit cost, they are both commercially available and expendable. 

Ukraine’s success with them has offered a clear snapshot of the future of drone warfare. 

3. Iranian Munitions Continue to Influence the War

As the war has dragged on, to save its expensive missiles Russia has resorted to using Iranian Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 loitering munitions in strikes on Ukrainian cities. Statistical assessments indicate that the majority of Russian air strikes now use Iranian kamikaze drones. 

These Iranian loitering munitions, coproduced under the Geran-1 and Geran-2 moniker, are mass-manufactured and affordable, making them efficient weapons of terror. They come equipped, respectively, with 20 or 40 kilograms of explosive warheads. 

An assessment of these armaments reveals the magnitude of the military challenge that Iran currently poses. The munitions’ potency derives from their simple design. The Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 baseline navigates with a combination of inertial navigation systems and Western and Russian versions of GPS. Technical assessments show that some variants carry digital communication devices that allow their users to update their target coordinates in real time. All these sub-systems are commercially available. The Shahed family’s airframe is made of honeycomb and carbon fiber cloth, making it easy to manufacture. 

Assessments of the wreckage of Shahed attacks in Ukraine have shown that the majority of these munitions’ components—even the engine configuration—originated in the West, including in the United States. This reveals just how deeply Iran’s intellectual property theft and smuggling network has penetrated every high-tech market in the world. 

Given the transnational supply chain supporting Tehran’s ambitious arms manufacturing industry, only comprehensive intelligence cooperation among Western stakeholders can hope to stem the tide of Iranian weapons flooding the battlefield in Ukraine.

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