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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Ukraine War: Now the Ultimate Drone War?

TB2 drone similar to the one fighting in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles has grown. In many ways the war in their country has rested on familiar elements such as artillery bombardment and the use of trenches. But the use of 21st century aerial robotics gives the fighting a futuristic side, with a number of consequences.

The Gamification of Warfare

The increased use of drones has turned into a propaganda boon. Soldiers spend a lot of time staring at monitors as they control unmanned craft, and the video taken from their screens as they carry out attack and reconnaissance missions can easily be converted to social media postings. Ukrainians remotely pilot vehicles to drop grenades on tanks and trench emplacements, and the whole world gets to see the footage.

This type of warfare starts to resemble a video game – the fighting is executed from miles away with the touch of a button. Killing remotely may be easier than fighting up close. Decisions on who to kill or what to destroy are made in seconds, and since at least one drone is always in the air, targeted assassinations can be executed without too much thought. Thus, morality and ethics are different in a remote-controlled environment. Soldiers become snipers who use a video feed as their aiming apparatus. No rifles are needed, and long training times for operators are not required.     

We have likely only seen the beginning of the growth in drone operations that characterizes this war. The Russians are employing Iran-made kamikaze loitering munitions – essentially unmanned bombs that can be guided to a target while adjustments are made on the fly. Meanwhile, Ukraine deploys cheap and plentiful quadcopters that can be purchased on the civilian market and adapted for military use. Ukraine also has larger combat drones that can fire air-to-surface missiles, while both sides use everything from surface-to-air missiles to electronic jamming systems in their efforts to counteract drone activity. Considering the importance of these systems in this war, let’s review a few of the most important automated platforms Ukraine has used on the battlefield.

Bayraktar TB2

The Bayraktar TB2 has been Ukraine’s workhorse. This drone is the size of a small airplane at 21 feet long and 1,200 pounds. Its speed is about 138 mph, and it has a range of at least 180 miles. The TB2 can fly as high as 27,000 feet with an endurance of 27 hours. The Bayraktar is made in Turkey by defense firm Baykar. All components of the unmanned aerial system are manufactured in Turkey, so the Turks take much pride in the aircraft. The Turkish military chose it for service in 2014. It fires laser-guided missiles that have been effective against tanks and armored vehicles.

Switchblade 300

Ukraine has also counted on the handy Switchblade 300, a U.S.-provided loitering munition that can fit in a backpack. This swarming suicide craft is used against Russian armor and small groups of troops in the open. The Switchblade can strike targets beyond visual range to destroy tanks and infantry fighting vehicles that are six miles away. They are only 20 inches long and weigh 5.5 pounds.

Matrice 300 RTK  

The Matrice 300 RTK is a quadcopter drone. It can be bought on the civilian market, and nonprofit groups among other donors have helped the Ukrainian military procure it. The Matrice 300 RTK is another backpack drone, with a length of 32 inches and a weight of eight pounds. The Matrice has a surprising range of nine miles and a speed of 51 mph with a loitering endurance of just under an hour. It delivers intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance data to Ukrainian fighters. The Matrice 300 costs around $20,000, and the whole system including ground components is about $40,000.

DJI Mavic 3

The Chinese-made DJI Mavic 3 is an even smaller recon and combat quadcopter that can be easily toted by Ukrainian soldiers. The commercially made Mavic 3 is only 14 inches long and weighs just two pounds, but it has a range of nine miles with a speed of 43 mph. It can be bought on the Internet for only $4,000. This drone is stout enough to drop grenades or other improvised explosives on enemy vehicles. The quadcopters depend on Starlink internet connections.

As you can see, Ukraine has a steady supply of drones. Some are purchased from defense contractors, while others are commercially available. Unmanned operations are here to stay and part of the roboticized nature of 21st century warfare. Look for more video on social media of these drones blowing up enemy vehicles and capturing recon footage of Russian trenches and emplacements. The Ukrainian drones also serve as spotters for artillery, and we know that howitzers are not going away anytime soon. The Ukrainians have a do-it-yourself “adapt and overcome” attitude that has served them well during the war. Drones are a large part of this success.

Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.