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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

Russia vs. Ukraine: The First Real Drone War?

A U.S. Air Force MQ-9 Reaper, assigned to the 62nd Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron, armed with four GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munition, parks on a flightline before a mission on Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan Feb. 22, 2018. The 62nd ERS provides close air support, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in Afghanistan.(U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Paul Labbe)

How could what we’ve learned from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict affect the course of fighting along the Russia-Ukraine border? If Russia invades Ukraine, one result may be a fuller understanding of the role that drones will play in high-intensity modern combat. The world will be watching, not just for the geopolitical spectacle but also for clues as to the future of military conflict.

Drones have been used on the battlefield for a long time and in a wide variety of ways. It is an oversimplification of the history of drone warfare to draw a tight distinction between reconnaissance and strike. Even early drones were sometimes used in strike roles, and the most modern strike drones work so well in part because they can provide a map of the battlefield. Over the last decades drones have demonstrated transformative potential in certain kinds of conflicts, especially in permissive, low-intensity wars. Drones make possible long-term surveillance, combined with the ever-present threat of a lethal strike.

We can perhaps say that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the first in which drones have played a decisive tactical role in modern high-intensity combat. Drones not only mapped out defensive air and land networks, but then directly attacked and degraded those networks. This goes a step beyond the classic AirLand Battle vision of long-range, precision airstrikes which could disrupt communications and logistics nodes and thus either cut the guts out of an armored offensive or paralyze a defensive network. Rather, plentiful lethal drones were used as part of an attrition strategy, mapping out the enemy defense and then attacking it directly in addition to facilitating traditional armor, infantry, and artillery attacks. Azerbaijan was able to purchase off-the-shelf military equipment (sometimes with off-the-shelf operators) and use it to tear apart a set of prepared defensive positions that had held territory for decades.

The newfound importance of drones is also challenging some geopolitical alignments. Turkey’s unusual position as a friend to Russia and an arms exporter to Ukraine puts it at the crux of the current crisis. Indeed, concern that Turkish drones exported to Ukraine might change the military balance in the Donbass is one of the drivers behind Russia’s confrontational strategy. Access to drones means that Ukraine will keep some of the tools of airpower even if Russia establishes rapid domination over the airspace. But then Russia may be able to use its fleet of drones to map, attack, and neutralize Ukraine’s air defense network, making its own legacy systems that much more effective. Russia’s drone arsenal is large and lethal, and may well help ground forces chart a path through static Ukrainian defenses, all while making it more difficult for Ukrainian forces to move into blocking positions.

But innovation always spurs counter-innovation. We can count on armies to develop more advanced techniques for concealing themselves from drones using both old and new technologies. The importance of basic competency in electronic warfare, which makes the command and control of drones more complex, will become clear. We should also expect armies and air forces to figure out ways to make their air defenses more lethal. This will include automatic ground-based defense systems and potentially UAVs that can destroy enemy drones. For their part the Russians have improved defenses on some of their armored vehicles, hoping to avoid the results of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

We can wildly overestimate the impact of UAVs (and eventually of ground and sea unmanned vehicles) on warfare over the last. The importance of even famous platforms like the Predator is often misunderstood. Yet it now seems likely that unmanned vehicles will play a critically important role if the Ukraine-Russia conflict goes super-hot. If there’s war, the defense industrial giants of the world will be paying the closest kind of attention to how the battle plays out.

Laser Drone

Eren Drone from Turkey.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).

Written By

Dr. Robert Farley has taught security and diplomacy courses at the Patterson School since 2005. He received his BS from the University of Oregon in 1997, and his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 2004. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020). He has contributed extensively to a number of journals and magazines, including the National Interest, the Diplomat: APAC, World Politics Review, and the American Prospect. Dr. Farley is also a founder and senior editor of Lawyers, Guns and Money.



  1. Commentar

    February 5, 2022 at 9:48 am

    Nagorno-karabakh is different from ukraine-russia scenario. N-k was affected by turkey’s direct involvement, but here russia holds all the cards, not turkey. This is something very important yet biden and his nato underlings don’t get at all.

    Bifen and co are walking into an n-k (artsakh) situation but where turkey or even germany or poland are of no use.

    If biden and/or ukranian underlings attempt to use US drones against russia/donbass, RUSSIA WILL turn kyiv into a wasteland using missiles like iskandar and kinzhal. It then will be finito for biden. Bye-bye 2024.

  2. Norah Dean

    February 5, 2022 at 12:05 pm

    Indeed, but the Nagorno Karabakh debacle was largely due to Pashinyan’s inability to visualise the elephant in the room, which was Aliyev’s large-scale preparation for the invasion of NK. I cannot see Ukraine’s army, even with the successful Bayraktar UAVs, from stopping the Russian Army’s blitzkrieg and rapid advance at least to the river. I suspect that even now, Putin, Lavrov do not fully understand the relationship between the State Dept ( fully controlled by the Globalists) , the Pentagon ( mainly defense-oriented ) and the President. Biden of course is controlling nothing at all, not even his own bladder. Papers to be signed are presented to him every day, which he signs without reading because of course as the World knows, he has secondary stage Senile Dementia. His decisions are made by the Presidency ( the title of his coterie of advisers ).

  3. Mr. Russian

    February 6, 2022 at 12:54 am

    Drones are ALREADY actively used in the Donbas region conflict.
    Small drones are used almost every day for intel and sometimes for strikes, using hand grenades as bombs. Both sides blame each other on that.
    On October 26th, 2021 Ukraine officially said that it used Bayraktar TB-2 drone to strike military position in Donbas, which raises a question on Minsk agreement implementation.

  4. L'amateur d'aéroplanes

    February 6, 2022 at 2:36 am

    Yevgeny Alexeyevich Fyodorov (Russian politician, deputy of the State Duma of the Federal Assembly of Russia four convocations (1993–96, 2003), chairman of the Committee on Economic Policy and Entrepreneurship of the State Duma, member of the Central Political Council of United Russia party, PhD. State Councilor of the Russian Federation, coordinator of the organization “National Liberation Movement”) proposed, among other things, to use nuclear weapons against the Nevada Test Site or to bomb American army laboratories as a warning.

    This is not a joke :

  5. Sergey

    February 6, 2022 at 6:48 am

    It would be a disaster for Ukraine if they think they can have a similar impact against Russia that Azerbaijan did against the Armenians. Based on very credible sources the vital role Turkey and Turkish military played will be missed by the Ukrainians, and not forgetting Turkish army of cannon fodder paid Syrian jihadists, all funded and paid by Turkey.
    Also I doubt Russia will allow Israel to also play such a vital role in logistics and intel that they provided for Azerbaijan. They must be very hardy those Armenians to be able to survive thousands of years facing invader after invader, no wonder the Azerbaijanis needed so much help.

  6. Alex

    February 6, 2022 at 10:05 am

    Russia has adopted and is testing the Peresvet laser system in the Donbass. No one else in the world has this.

  7. Commentar

    February 6, 2022 at 12:58 pm

    Russia versus ukraine producing drone war? I don’t think so.

    As US carefully moulds public opinion and prepares people for coming war in europe (just like bush period where they put out official levels of alert, one day highest, next day lower level, then up again), US is secretly eyeing a missile versus bmd war.

    Missiles versus patriot/land aegis systems war is the wet dream of the US deep state because so far, the much vaunted bmd systems have done a so-so job in yemen and saudi arabia. Mostly successful but there were some misses. They need more testing. Ukraine/northern europe would be ideal place since the europeans would be the ones ‘left holding the baby’ should situation turned dire.

    It could also be NATO combat aircraft versus russian combat aircraft but this is more complicated as NATO air bases woule be put up for ‘auction’ by hypersonic strikes.

    Indeed, the White House is whipping up hysteria using scaremongering, latest being “russia could topple zelenskiy within 48 hours anytime now if invasion proceeds”, a typical much used byline during cold war era to justify emplacing huge nuclear capable rockets on euripean soil.

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