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Ukraine: Showcasing the Benefits and Drawbacks of Drones

There is no doubt that drones are now a rallying emblem of Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion. Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2, for example, created enough of an impression to earn itself a place in Ukrainian folklore, and that too with its own theme song. From strike and reconnaissance medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) aircraft like the TB2 to loitering munitions like the Switchblade, Ukraine is arguably writing the rulebook for drone use conventional and asymmetrical warfare.

Today, the United States is doubling down by transferring four General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle drones to Ukraine. This is on top of the Switchblade and ‘Phoenix Ghost’ loitering munitions it is already supplying to the Ukrainian forces. One can reasonably expect Ukraine to receive additional drones in the future too.

However, ultimately, what will an abundance of drones strategically achieve for Ukraine?

When one examines the reality, they can see that Ukraine’s drone usage is having an effect. In the earlier leg of this war, Ukraine used its drones in a successful area-denial mission against Russian armour. In fact, Ukraine may have also used the TB2 in a targeting role against the Russian Navy’s Moskva cruiser.

Thus, at some level, drones work. They can inflict significant damage against conventional warfare assets, such as tanks, infantry, armoured personnel carriers, and potentially even surface-to-air missile (SAM) or air defence systems. Likewise, loitering munitions can be a potent precision-strike asset for lightly-armed units, such as infantry and lightweight vehicles.

However, Ukraine is getting the full benefit of drones when it uses those in combination with other assets. So, for example, even if Ukraine used the TB2 against Russia’s Moskva cruiser, the ‘fatal blows’ came from the Neptune anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM). Thus, to emulate that sort of strike again, Ukraine will need more ASCMs, but are those as forthcoming or accessible to Ukraine as drones?

With over 100 days passing since the start of Russia’s invasion, it seems that Moscow is – from a strategic perspective – still more than able to sustain its momentum. While it does suffer losses, Russia is still able to capture Ukrainian territory and, in turn, inflict significant losses on Ukraine.

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, alluded to the point that drones are not enough. He said, “With all due respect to Bayraktar, and to any hardware, I will tell you, frankly, this is a different war.”

On the other hand, through a carefully-devised ground-based air defence system and optimized use of its existing fighter assets, Ukraine was able to deny the Russians control over its air space.

Granted, Ukraine has lost its air control to Russia in the Donbas region, but the system it has in place does work as well it could. The Ukrainians are largely suffering from the lack of additional assets, such as fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, and early warning systems.

Undoubtedly, if Ukraine had been able to maintain more conventional airpower – i.e., through fighter or fighter-bomber aircraft – it would likely have been able more effectively thwart Russia. Unfortunately for Ukraine, new fighter aircraft are among the much-wanted items it is not getting from the U.S. or the West.

Likewise, Ukraine is also feeling the lack of conventional naval and land-based assets, such as submarines and tanks, respectively. To be fair, Kiev had demanded more conventional assets, but it did not get them.

Thus, drones on their own are not a decision solution, at least not in a strategic sense. Yes, modern drones are a potent weapon system and, in some contexts (like area-wide loitering), a force-multiplier. However, it does not appear that drones are enough to strategically alter a conventional imbalance.

That said, the limitations that Ukraine is seeing could be a result of the inherent design limitations of the drones themselves. The TB2, for example, is limited in its range and payload. In the future, one might see substantially more capable designs – like the Kızılelma/MIUS – and autonomous capability create a more significant change. However, at that point (e.g., a jet-based unmanned combat aerial vehicle with payload and range capacity of a manned fighter) one is approaching the capability set of conventional assets.

However, while Russia is strategically in control of the war, the drones may become an impactful ‘thorn’ for Russia as it advances into Ukraine. Practically, as long as Ukraine retains control of enough of its own territory, it can continue deploying drones to obstruct armour, attack fixed positions, and – if it can acquire larger systems – engage in stand-off range strikes.

Basically, Ukraine can (provided it continues getting drones and precision-guided munitions) prevent the Russians from consolidating control over freshly-taken territory. In other words, Ukraine can escalate the cost of ‘controlling’ its territory by persistently deploying drones against Russian positions. Given the fiscal pressures Russia is facing, this can be a major factor in slowing its advance in the coming months.

Thus far, it seems that Ukraine will continue getting drones. If anything, the transfer of the MQ-1C shows that Ukraine could potentially gain larger and more capable drones down the line.

One system to keep an eye on would be the Bayraktar Akıncı. While not a substitute for its fighter aircraft needs, Ukraine can use the Akıncı to deploy heavier weapons from within the air space it still controls.

This ‘hard-hitting’ capability could be more of a gamechanger. Potentially, Ukraine could start deploying air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), precision-guided bombs (PGB), anti-radiation missiles (ARM), gliding munitions and other stand-off range weapons (SOW). However, given the sensitive nature of these types of weapons, Ukraine could also suffer from supply bottlenecks. Moreover, it is also unclear to what extent Bayraktar will scale the Akıncı’s production line considering that the drone is in demand. For example, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) may be a major customer of this specific drone type in the near future.

Ultimately, the growth of Ukraine’s drone – and broader – warfighting capability fundamentally depends on how much the U.S. and the West are willing to provide. While suffering the entirety of the loss in terms of life, territory, and its country, a big part of Ukraine’s fate rests in the decisions of outside policymakers.

The U.S., for example, has to carefully balance its goal of weakening Russia with controlling the escalation ladder. For example, the U.S. turned down Poland’s proposal to transfer its own MiG-29s to Ukraine out of concern that Russia could construe it as a direct attack by NATO. Thus, even permitting the sale of large drones, like the Akıncı – especially with large SOWs – could be troublesome from that standpoint. But at the same time, Washington’s move to isolate Russia economically is also a critical piece of its strategy, so to say that Russia is given free rein in Ukraine would also be inaccurate.

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