Drones Over Ukraine: How Are UAVs Affecting Battlefield Operations on Both Sides?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 61

Russian Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone (Source: TASS)

The war in Ukraine has showcased the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) by both sides, a capability that has enabled much more extensive combined-arms operations by their respective militaries. Drones have been ever-present both at the platoon–battalion level as well as in operational-strategic missions, as infamously exemplified by Ukraine’s Turkish-built Bayraktar unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) (see EDM, March 16).

According to Russian claims, one or more Bayraktars were responsible for an April 25 early morning attack on an oil depot in Bryansk, a Russian city located 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border (T.me/bazabazon, April 25). The activity of Ukrainian strike UAVs has, indeed, increased in the border areas of the Russian Federation. Ukrainian drones, including an Ukrjet UJ-22 Airborne surveillance UAV, have reportedly been shot down by military units in Klintsy, in Russia’s Bryansk region (T.me/kremlinprachka, March 24). But snippets of singular cases leaked on social media offer little insight into the effectiveness of such Ukrainian aerial operations behind enemy lines.

When it comes to the observed deployment of drones by both warring sides, it is worth highlighting the difference in saturation and distribution of opportunities between them. Russian army brigades typically have a reconnaissance/surveillance company composed of two platoons dedicated to long-range and short-range reconnaissance that are equipped with Orlan and Eleron drones. They are used extensively over the battlefield. But these assets only inform commanders at the brigade/battalion level; at the platoon–company level, army officers and soldiers are forced to purchase their own drones for the purposes of improving their individual unit’s surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities. However, the availability of such off-the-shelf drones is itself a problem: the civilian market cannot cover the needs of the Russian Armed Forces. Without such assets, the initiative and speed of decision-making lower down the command chain falters, routinely forcing Russian officers to conduct battlefield reconnaissance utilizing World War II–era methods (Author’s interview with Russian officer, April 15).

A UAV operator from a military unit in Chechnya said that civilian drones were actively being sent to Chechnya over the past six months, where they have remained even after the start of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine. The unavailability of these drones for Russian soldiers fighting on the front lines has caused bewilderment among a number of army officers (Author’s interview with Russian drone operator, April 18). Such revelations further undermine the authorities’ propaganda narratives regarding the particularities of Chechen involvement in the war (T.me/bulbe_de_trones, March 21; see EDM, March 3, 8, April 26).

Finally, Russia’s military reconnaissance UAVs suffer from internal component deficiencies. Corruption in the Russian defense-industrial sector and the Armed Forces have created glaring discrepancies between what internal parts are supposed to be installed to meet the military’s specifications versus what has actually been used to manufacture the drones. Those issues have been further exacerbated by Western sanctions on high-technology exports to Russia since 2014. Civilian elements were repeatedly discovered, such as a Canon camera acting as the main optics for the Orlan (YouTube, April 12, 15).

Problems also affect the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Not every company in the Ukrainian military is equipped with a quadcopter on a permanent basis, because these are constantly being shot down; so there is always a need for more. Regarding larger or more advanced complexes, these are provided by the state only to certain units: for example, a reconnaissance company or a fire-control battery. The first month of the war saw difficulties with the repair of damaged UAVs and the supply of new ones, but the situation has since stabilized. Today, almost every mortar battery unit flies at least one drone (Author’s interview with Ukrainian army officer, April 15).

Despite Russian complaints about the availability and quality of their reconnaissance UAVs, the Ukrainian side has assessed them as a notable hazard. As one Ukrainian Territorial Defense officer told this author in an interview on March 30, the saturation of Russian Orlans in the air is quite large, which contributed to significant Ukrainian artillery, personnel and wheeled vehicle losses during the defense of Kyiv, forcing the infantry to march on foot. That said, one of the Orlan’s weaknesses is its loud noise—the Ukrainian military has nicknamed this drone “Hagrid’s Motorcycle” (Author’s interview with Ukrainian Territorial Defense officer, March 30)

The present shift from positional to maneuver warfare in Donbas puts additional pressure on UAV operators and their equipment. In mobile warfare, the soldier is constantly under threat, at any time the situation at the front can change, and the enemy can go on the offensive. In view of this, some Ukrainian regiments have built an improvised antenna mount and attached it to their drones in order to be more mobile on the battlefield. This customization allows them to more quickly relocate and land the UAV in another place. At the same time, the Ukrainians have been experimenting with operating drones in different weather conditions (Author’s interview with Ukrainian Army Drone operator, April 3).

The major challenge in the Ukrainian Armed Forces at the moment is streamlining drone operations for the purpose of adjusting fires. Presently, UAV-collected reconnaissance/targeting data is first transmitted to higher authorities for review, and only then does the data with the order reach the personnel working the firing position. This is a large waste of time, especially when trying to engage a moving target. In view of this, the UAV crew should work directly with the artillery units, noted one Ukrainian army drone operator (Author’s interview, April 3)

Summing up, the greatest value of drones in the Russo-Ukrainian war has been in the realm of reconnaissance and surveillance. The speed of decision-making by the commander depends on the speed of receiving intelligence, and this, in turn, facilitates taking initiative on the battlefield. Working in conjunction with artillery, infantry equipped with tactical reconnaissance drones can achieve greater results than strike UAVs like the vaunted Bayraktar could alone. As a senior advisor to General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, recently noted, “[A]nti-tank missiles slowed the Russians down, but what killed them was our artillery. That was what broke their units” (Rusi.org, April 22). The same lesson will surely apply to the developing massive battle for Donbas.