When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, they believed their larger forces would quickly overwhelm the Ukrainians because Russia had more troops, tanks, aircraft, helicopters, UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), artillery (towed and self-propelled), high-tech electronic equipment and stockpiles of artillery ammunition. This superiority seemed impressive but it soon became apparent that even with these advantages, Russian troops did not perform well or survive combat for long. Russian tanks and aircraft proved more vulnerable to Ukrainian weapons, which included Ukrainian and Western anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons. Russian communications were a major failure. New Russian military radios, equipped with encryption, were not reliable and few had reached the troops because of corruption in Russian equipment procurement. Some Russian units tried to cope with their radio communications problems by relying on older, unencrypted radios as well as more modern Chinese walkie-talkies that had short range and no encryption.
Most Russian air support was provided by armed helicopters, which overcame the communications problems by getting close enough to see where the Russian and Ukrainian troops were. At that point the helicopters were surprised to discover that their defenses against portable-anti-aircraft missiles did not work against the latest Western missiles the Ukrainians were using. Russian electronic warfare equipment did not get many opportunities to be used because the survivors of the initial attack forces were ordered to retreat to the Russian or Belarus border and be moved to eastern Ukraine and the Donbas region. Here Russia still controlled half of two Ukrainian provinces it had seized in 2014. Russia planned a new offensive there to capture more territory. In Donbas Russia could use its more numerous artillery and massive stockpiles of artillery ammunition. Russian communications were still vulnerable to Ukrainians who could overhear unencrypted Russian communications and act on that information. This led the Russians to simply fire large numbers of shells at the general location of a target. By late 2022 Russia was running out of artillery ammunition and forced to use ancient (30-40 year old) shells that were often unreliable and inaccurate
One of the most frequently encountered Russian UAVs in Ukraine was the Orlan-30. This UAV was designed for conducting aerial surveillance, locating, spotting, and identifying targets. When equipped with missiles, it could spot and fire on stationary or moving targets day or at night. Orlan-30 endurance was five hours, top speed was 170 kilometers an hour and max altitude of 5,000 meters (16,000 feet). Orlan-30 had a laser target designator-rangefinder. Ukraine quickly developed a portable, battery powered jammer that was issued to front line units exposed to Oelan-30s seeking targets for artillery on onboard missiles. When troops heard an Orlan-30, the jammer was turned on to disrupt the UAV communications and laser-rangefinder,
Russia’s failures in Ukraine have demonstrated that it has still not developed a competitive and productive UAV industry. It’s not for lack of trying. Late in the Cold War Russia ignored the development of modern UAVs in Israel and later the United States. In the 1990s, after the Cold War ended, Russian military leaders recognized that Russia was way behind the West when it came to UAV tech and the sheer number of UAVs in use for surveillance and airstrikes. After a few false starts, Russia finally focused on Israel as a solution. Russia produced licensed versions of the Israeli Searcher 2 as the Forpost and hundreds were built. First Russia used imported Israeli components but slowly developed local suppliers for these components. Some of these Forpost UAVs have been used, or rather misused, in Ukraine. The Russian problem with UAVs was their difficulty in adopting foreign concepts and technology.
Compared to Ukraine, Russia has not used its UAVs much during the current invasion. This is apparently due to Russia's bad experience using UAVs in eastern Ukraine since 2014. In contrast Ukraine has developed its own UAV force since 2014 which has proven far superior to what the Russians have.
Then there is the economic angle. In early 2017 Russia revealed that it had increased the number of modern UAVs in service from 180 in 2011 to over 2,000. The ones in service by 2017 were mostly models that had already been seen in action. Procurement and development slowed after 2017 because of sanctions imposed after the 2014 Russian attack on Ukraine. Russia continued using their UAVs in Ukraine, Syria, Armenia and Libya. Russia did introduce new models, but not in large numbers. There was a similar shortage of guided bombs and missiles for aircraft and large UAVs.
Most Russian UAVs require a catapult, often vehicle mounted, to get airborne and land by flying close to the ground and turning the motor off. In some models a small parachute is deployed. These crash landings often require some repairs before reuse. Larger UAVs are fewer in number and can operate from a road or air base.
Current Russian UAVs are a big improvement over earlier efforts and make good use of proven Western UAV design and construction technology. Most modern UAVs are not high-tech and it was always baffling why the Russians insisted on holding onto their older UAV technology for so long. In combat some Russian soldiers brought their own commercial quadcopters. This was a common practice with soldiers in many countries, including the United States.
Ukraine was also more resourceful. In 2015 Ukrainian civilians organized a successful crowd-funding effort to create the PD-1 (People’s Drone 1) and these were ready for service in mid-2016. This was all done by Ukrainian engineers, programmers and model aircraft enthusiasts who obtained OTS (off-the-shelf) components from suppliers. The PD-1 was accepted by the Ukrainian military and entered service in 2016. American and NATO advisers witnessed the testing and were not surprised that PD-1 was equal to many American and Israeli UAVs of the same size and performance, but were impressed that it was built at a cost of less than $25,000 each. It proved to be as secure from Russian hackers and jamming as Western models. Ukraine soon offered the PD-1 for export.
The PD-1 is a 33 kg (73 pound) aircraft with an 8 kg (17 pound) payload. It is 2.54 meters (8.2 feet) long with a wingspan of 3.19 meters (10.2 feet). It lands and takes off on a tricycle landing gear and can also be catapulted into the air and recovered via a parachute. The gasoline engine drives a pusher propeller for speeds of 70-140 kilometers an hour at altitudes as high as 3,000 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) which is out of range of most anti-aircraft guns and portable missiles). Endurance is six hours.
PD-1 can take off and land under software control, can fly missions autonomously (which are hack and jam proof) and available sensors can either store video onboard or stream HD (1080p) video back to the controller who can view it in real time. This video signal is encrypted as is the control signal. It has worked under combat conditions against the best the Russians have to use against them.
The fact that a bunch of civilian engineers quickly organized an effort to deliver a world-class UAV at a low price came as a surprise to armed forces worldwide.
A similar Ukrainian led to the development of the Punisher UAV, which was ready for service at the end of 2021 and quietly began operations soon after the February 2022 invasion. The team that designed the Punisher was composed of veterans of the fighting in eastern Ukraine since 2014. They formed a company, UA Dynamics, with the help of investors and are now manufacturing Punishers as quickly as they can at locations they want to keep secret from the Russians who would be eager to add Punisher manufacturing facilities to their target list.
Punisher is a small UAV with a 2.33-meter (15 foot) wingspan and payload of two kg (4.4 pounds). The payload can consist of one guided bomb or three smaller ones. Max altitude is 400 meters (1,300 feet) but endurance is up to three hours with a top speed of 52 kilometers an hour. Punisher uses another reconnaissance UAV to spot and verify targets, and the recon UAV’s operators then pass the location to Punisher operators who then launch guided bombs to hit the targets. The main targets are Russian supply trucks. Punisher has been able to operate deeper into Russian occupied territory than the larger Turkish TB2 UAV. Once Punisher expends its payload it uses its GPS guidance to return it to its base for reloading and recharging of its batteries, a process that takes about seven minutes. There is minimal communication between Punisher and its target spotter UAV, making it difficult for Russians to spot it via electronic signals. Punisher is small, quiet and difficult to spot from the ground or from the air. Punishers have been responsible for hundreds of successful attacks on Russian vehicles and Russian efforts to detect, much less shoot down, a Punisher have failed.
There are no independent civilian UAV development projects in Russia so Ukraine has an edge in battlefield UAVs as well as many other aspects of modern warfare that Russia demonstrated it is not prepared for.