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The Ukraine War Is a Drone War of a Thousand Cuts

The advance of drone technology has turned this into the War of a Thousand Cuts.

Kamikaze Drone Attack on Russian T-72. Image Credit: Twitter.
Kamikaze Drone Attack on Russian T-72. Image Credit: Twitter.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive has progressed far slower than anyone expected. Western commentators in particular complain that the Ukrainians are incapable of the type of fast, large-scale blitzkrieg they envisioned. The soldiers on the front line though see things differently though: massive assaults have become suicidal and gradual progress is the only way to victory.

We are seeing similar patterns in the war at sea, and in the air, and for similar reasons. The advance of drone technology has turned this into the War of a Thousand Cuts.

Technically known as Lingchi which more literally translates as ‘slow slicing’, the original death of a thousand cuts was a form of public execution reserved for the worst offenders in China. Lingchi was  painful and drawn-out, but always ended in death.

The new form of warfare is similarly slower and more gradual than the decisive blow of the executioner’s axe, but still deadly.

Combined Arms Failure?

NATO doctrine calls for offensives based on combined arms maneuver, that is, a spearhead of tanks and infantry fighting vehicles breaking through enemy lines with the support of artillery and air power. The last two are important for suppressing defensive fire and gaining an opportunity for the attacking force to close with the enemy

Achieving the level of coordination needed for a brigade-sized unit to carry out an attack is a major feat. NATO armies staffed with professional soldiers spend years learning how to fight together effectively. Ukrainian soldiers, most of them civilians recently mobilized, get just a few weeks training before being expected to carry out such attacks. Worse, their enemy has been digging in for months behind concrete  obstacles, anti tank ditches and extensive minefields.

Ukrainian assaults using large armored units took heavy losses even when they made gains, The Ukrainians, understandably enough, switched tactics to using small units and less vehicles. Now an operation may involve just 10-30 infantry at a time who carry out stealthy infiltrations on foot to find a way through defenses.

Instead of rapid armored breakthroughs, we see slow incremental gains as the Russians are pushed back a few metres at a time. Some assume that combined arms assault could work if the Ukrainians were more professional, but those on the front line seem to have no faith in it.

“The days of massed armored assaults, taking many kilometers of ground at a time, like we did in 2003 in Iraq—that stuff is gone because the drones have become so effective now,” Bradley Crawford, a former U.S. Army Sergeant and an Iraq war veteran now training Ukrainian forces told the Wall Street Journal .

Both sides now deploy thousands of drones across the front line. Any attempted large-scale assault is spotted long before it reaches firing distance, and engaged by long-range artillery and kamikaze drones.

Ryan O’Leary, another US Army veteran now fighting alongside the Ukrainians made the same point in an interview with Politico, pointing out that NATO training received by Ukrainian troops did not cover the reality of modern drone warfare — mainly because NATO forces have not yet adapted to it.

In particular, any armored vehicle in the open is likely to be targeted by FPV kamikazes, racing drones carrying RPG warheads. These cost a few hundred dollars each, and volunteer groups on both sides are producing thousands every month. It typically takes several FPV hits to stop a tank, but there are plenty of them.

“As you can see, couple dozen of FPV drones can completely halt any offensive actions,” runs the caption to one Ukrainian video showing how they halted a Russian armored advance.

As military analyst Sergio Miller  told 19FortyFive, this abundance of low-cost precision anti-tank weapons has a similar effect to the machine-gun in WW1: it made assaulting across open ground almost suicidal. Like the lines of advancing foot soldiers fixed bayonets in 1916, a tank platoon has little chance of getting close to the enemy before being decimated by FPV strikes.

The end result is warfare that is smaller scale, and more incremental. A war of thousand cuts.

Ukraine’s Unorthodox Navy

Ukraine has no effective conventional navy. The Hetman Sahaidachny, Ukraine’s only frigate, was in the port of Mykolaiv for repairs, and Russian forces were advancing rapidly, so the commanding officer was forced to scuttle the vessel in harbor. In theory this left Russia in complete naval control of the entire Black Sea, in practice things have worked out very differently. .

Ukraine has fought back, not with conventional naval forces but with a flotilla of locally- built drone boats also known as Uncrewed Surface Vessels or USVs. The smallest of these is essentially a robot jet ski, the largest Sea Baby craft are 18 feet long. All are high-speed vessels, packed with explosives and guided by a remote operator using a video camera in the boat’s prow.

In October 2022 multiple kamikaze USVs breached the Russian defenses around the naval base as Sevastopol and attacked ships moored there. They hit the minesweeper Ivan Golubets and frigate Admiral Makarov, damaging both.

In November, more drone boats attacked the base at Novorossiysk, but did not cause significant damage.

Subsequent attacks followed much the same pattern, with another raid on Sevastopol in March, an unsuccessful strike by three USVs on the Russian intelligence ship Ivan Khurs in May and another intelligence ship, Priazovye, in June. Three patrol ships were attacked at sea in June and July without doing any damage, but two Russian oil tankers were damaged in separate USV attacks, as well as the landing ship Olenegorsky Gornyak.

The most notable drone boat strike put a section of the Kerch Bridge out of action. This was carried out by larger Sea Baby drones, each carrying a 1600-pound warhead apparently designed to direct blast upwards at the road span rather than targeting the more robust concrete supports.

The drone navy has been working with aerial drones, sometimes striking simultaneously to catch defenders off guard. Ukraine has also acquired effective anti-ship missiles – the locally-made Neptune surface-to-surface and Storm Shadow air-to-surface weapons supplied by the UK. This combination of threats is difficult to defend against. If warships stay in harbor they are safe from USVs, but become sitting ducks for missile strikes.

There have been no grand naval battles like the Pacific Campaign of WWII. There have not even been many sinkings, with the notable exception of Russia’s flagship Moskva which was sunk by a Neptune missile. Instead Ukraine’s drone fleet has chipped away.

The Russians may claim to have won every encounter but they are losing the war. Rather than being able to roam freely and launch Kalibr cruise missiles at Ukrainian cities as they did in the early days, their fleet is largely penned up. Every time a warship leaves port it risks being damaged or sunk, while for Ukraine their USVs are as cheap and expendable as ammunition. (Typical Ukrainian USVs cost around $250k, compared to around $1.5m for a Harpoon anti-ship missile).

As the war wears on, Ukrainian USVs are becoming more numerous and more capable. History may decide that the campaign for control of the Black Sea was already over by mid 2023, with Russia quietly conceding defeat without losing a battle.

Cities Under Siege

A similar story is playing out in the air war. There are few air strikes from crewed aircraft, but both sides use drones to wear down the opposition.

Russia has largely exhausted its pre-war stocks of both cruise and ballistic missiles and is now firing missiles as soon as they are made. Production is estimated at around 100 missiles of all types — cruise and ballistic, air, sea and ground launched – per month maximum. The real number is probably less. This is not enough for a sustained bombardment, and Russia is relying increasingly on Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones.

These cheap weapons are essentially small, propeller-driven cruise missiles. The Shahed’s warhead is a fraction of the half-ton of explosive delivered by a Kalibr, and with a cruising speed of around 110 mph they are much easier to shoot down. But they are deployed in much larger numbers, with over 400 recorded in September.

Ukraine may have enough Patriot missiles to intercept every ballistic missile sent their way, but they do not have enough to cope with waves of Shaheds. Hence, some get through. Last winter Russia targeted small substations and other infrastructure to cause blackouts across sections of Ukraine. This year there may be far more.

Again, it is not a matter of a single decisive strike but producing cumulative damage.

Ukraine aims to use the same tactics against Russia, having been building up its capacity to build small, long-range strike drones in quantity. The first few have been sent to probe Moscow’s defenses, with some success, hitting government buildings and other high-profile targets.

Elsewhere Ukrainian drones with relatively modest warheads have set Russian fuel storage tanks and ammunition dumps on fire. Such attacks may not be significant individually , but each hit brings Russia’s precarious war economy closer to collapse.

How to Win a New Type of War

In all three fields, land, sea and air, the novel factor is the presence of large numbers of low-cost drones. These will become steadily more capable and more autonomous as the technology progresses. Ukraine’s drone boat effort was famously slowed by Elon Musk’s refusal to allow them to use Starlink, but Ukraine appears to have found a way around this restriction.

Production of drones is accelerating, both tactical models for the land war and long-range versions for strategic targets. Producing more drones than the other side and inflicting a sufficient number of small cuts may determine the victor.

David Hambling Expert Biography

David Hambling is a London-based journalist, author and consultant specializing in defense technology with over 20 years’ experience. He writes for Aviation Week, Forbes, The Economist, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and others. His books include “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-tech World” (2005) and “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” (2015). He has been closely watching the continued evolution of small military drones. 

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David Hambling is a London-based journalist, author and consultant specializing in defense technology with over 20 years of experience. He writes for Aviation Week, Forbes, The Economist, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, WIRED and others. His books include “Weapons Grade: How Modern Warfare Gave Birth to Our High-tech World” (2005) and “Swarm Troopers: How small drones will conquer the world” (2015). He has been closely watching the continued evolution of small military drones. Follow him @David_Hambling.