Air Weapons: Drones Dominate Ukrainian Battlefield


April 11, 2024: The Ukraine war demonstrated how new technology, like armed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) also known as drones, have come to dominate the battlefield. This situation began once Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022 and both sides quickly lost most of their conventional offensive weapons in combat. Most of these losses were armored vehicles, especially tanks. Longer range weapons, like artillery, which delivered most of its fire power to targets 30 kilometers distant and a smaller number of guided missiles, which could reach targets over a hundred kilometers distant, tended to survive the heavy losses suffered by armored vehicles that fought at close range.

With nearly all the expensive weapons gone, both sides quickly turned to UAVs, which were cheaper, easier to obtain and more flexible alternatives. It was soon discovered that UAVs had a seemingly endless number of new capabilities. One of the more crucial qualities was the ease of obtaining UAVS and modifying them or building larger or smaller versions. The technology required for current UAV warfare evolved over the last few decades as the commercial quadcopters and hobbyist fixed-wing remotely controlled aircraft achieved a degree of maturity in design and reliability. This made it possible for users or developers to confidently and quickly modify existing UAVs t0 meet their needs.

Most of the resulting UAVs were short range models operating no farther than ten kilometers from their user. This meant the combat zone was a much more dangerous place than it ever had been in the past. The surveillance was constant and round the clock. More expensive UAVs with night-vision sensors, usually based on a combination of object and heat detection and interpretation, provided adequate surveillance at night or in fog or misty conditions. Then there are logistical considerations. Reusable UAVs have to be recharged or refueled between missions. UAVs built as single-use weapons have to be checked out before actual use. This is especially true for the long-range attack models. These fixed-wing UAVs go after targets a thousand kilometers or more distant and tend to use a single diesel or gasoline fueled engine. These engines must be sturdy and reliable because everything depends on a reliable propulsion system. Another critical component is the navigation and target acquisition system. Resistance to electronic jamming is essential. Electronic jamming technology is constantly evolving to deal with improved guidance systems that make earlier jammers ineffective or less effective. This makes every new UAV design likely to be compromised and obsolete in short order. With the inexpensive technology UAVs use, rapid evolution is easier to achieve and the ability to quickly develop ways to disrupt new tech is essential.

For every well publicized successful UAV mission or technology there are many more failures that receive little or no media exposure. UAV developers are keen to know about these failures and both Russians and Ukrainians scrutinize their adversaries' successful or flawed UAV designs. This military version of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) is crucial in discovering which UAV technology worked and which didn’t and why. Ukrainian UAV developers and manufacturers have an advantage in that entrepreneurial developers and manufacturers are encouraged. In Russia such intellectual and manufacturing freedom is discouraged. The Russian state must control everything because that is how Russia became mighty and remains so. That’s the official explanation. Russians consider the Ukrainians seduced by and addicted to those heretical Western ideas and concepts. Ukrainians see those Russian attitudes as an asset for the Ukrainian war effort. This gives Ukraine an edge in the development and use of new UAV technology. Ukraine encourages individuals and small groups of entrepreneurs to develop and manufacture new UAV designs and technologies. The government or wealthy individuals will often finance effective new concepts so that production can be rapidly expanded before the new tech becomes obsolete or simply replaced by a more effective version.

Russia adapted to their disadvantage in UAV development by concentrating on electronic jammers. By rapidly upgrading their jammer technology, Russians can disrupt a lot of new Ukrainian UAV tech for a while. This disruption is becoming more important for the Russians because Ukraine has developed several generations of long range (over 1,000 kilometers) that are increasingly reaching their targets deep inside Russia. That means Russian economic and military facilities far from Ukraine are suddenly under attack. These targets include refineries and fuel storage sites as well as weapons development, manufacturing, and storage facilities. These attacks have destroyed about fifteen percent of Russian refining capacity, reducing the amount vehicle fuel available for commercial and military users.

Air bases and ballistic missile storage or launch sites are also under attack. Targets as distant as the Russian Northern Fleet bases around Murmansk are under attack. This has caused a shortage of anti-aircraft systems that can intercept some or all of the UAVs depending on how many UAVs and air defense systems are involved.

To deal with this Ukraine has increased production of UAVs considerably and the objective for 2024 is two million new UAVs built, mostly armed ones. These numbers are comparable to artillery ammunition production, which for Russia is estimated to be three million rounds a year. Armed drones en masse are on the verge of becoming as or more important than conventional tube artillery. UAV manufacturing operations are often moved to underground facilities to avoid Russian missile attacks. Nearly all the components needed for UAV production are available commercially and can be purchased from European or American suppliers and imported. Custom components are manufactured locally in well protected installations. UAV quality and quantity are a Ukrainian advantage they do not want to lose.

Russia is also increasing UAV production, in part because they recently lost their few A-50 surveillance aircraft and now must depend on UAVs for surveillance. Another Russian disadvantage is their reliance on larger and more expensive surveillance and attack UAVs.




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