The Ukraine Drone War Changed Everything: During the Battle of Cerignola on April 28, 1503, the Spanish forces successfully defeated a superior-sized French army through the use of gunpowder weapons, which halted attacks by French cavalry and Swiss pikemen. Just over four centuries later, the machine gun truly changed warfare and led to the static trench lines employed during the First World War. It later took the development of the tank to essentially break those lines, and in the century that has followed, large armored vehicles have been the master of the battlefield.
For all these things must come to pass.
The war in Ukraine could again change how wars are fought, as Russia’s tanks are increasingly destroyed by relatively low-cost man-portable weapons including the FGM-148 Javelin and AT4 anti-tank missile launchers. These weapons have been credited with destroying hundreds of Russian vehicles, including tanks and armored personnel carriers.
And then there are the drones.
Though not new, drones have certainly come a long way since they were originally deployed as target aircraft during the First World War. Radio-controlled drones were used in the interwar era by both the U.S. and UK militaries for target practice and training.
During the Second World War, the first armed drones were used to destroy enemy targets. It was on September 27, 1944, that the U.S. military’s Special Task Air Groups (STAGs) deployed four TDR-1 unmanned, radio-controlled aircraft against a Japanese position at Bougainville in the South Pacific. Though one was lost at sea, and another missed the position entirely, two others struck the target with one of those hitting dead-center. It may have been the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was used in such a manner, but it wasn’t the last.
Even before the Global War on Terror (GWOT), unmanned aerial systems (UAS) showed their true potential to provide an eye-in-sky for friendly military personnel, while later drones were utilized to strike adversaries with deadly precision.
In Ukraine, the new “loitering munitions,” including the U.S.-made Switchblade drones, have also proven to be a serious game changer. Unlike large drones, these small weapons can be deployed close to the frontlines and require little infrastructure to launch. Moreover, unlike a missile, the small aerial craft can stay in the air for upwards of 40 minutes and find a target of opportunity. It also provides time to identify a target, get situational awareness and then strike with devastating accuracy.
The Switchblade has successfully targeted tanks, armored vehicles, truck convoys, and artillery nests. There are currently two models and each has a different mission. The “300” is smaller and meant for anti-personnel attacks, whereas the “600” is a bit heavier with larger warheads and is capable to take out tanks and armored vehicles.
Ukraine has also begun to deploy the larger Phoenix Ghost, which has similar capabilities to the Switchblade. However, it reportedly can fly considerably longer – up to six hours – while it can operate at night with infrared sensors. This is a Ghost with the most, as it is even stated to be effective against medium-armored ground targets.
The drones have proven to be so successful that Russia has also been employing its own. However, its main unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the Orlan-10, is a small reconnaissance and surveillance UAV made at the Center for Special Technology in St. Petersburg. It lacks the offensive capabilities of the Ukrainian drones. As a result, Moscow has had to turn to de facto ally Iran to supply it with drones – a situation few could have anticipated when the war began eight months ago.
The conflict is now transitioning from the expected war with tanks to one where small but deadly drones are creating havoc on the battlefield. Though tanks will remain in the arsenals of most militaries, future military historians will most certainly describe this current conflict as the first true drone war.
A Senior Editor for 19FortyFive, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.