Ukraine losing its drone edge as war with Russia drags on

The early weeks of the war in Ukraine were dominated by social media posts showing Russian tanks decimated by small, cheap drones that helped level the playing field and largely negated Moscow’s massive advantage in manpower and equipment.

Drones, military analysts said, were a key reason Kyiv was able to turn back a planned Russian lightning attack and force the Kremlin to junk its original battle plan.

But that edge is rapidly evaporating, researchers and military observers say, as fresh Russian anti-drone systems arriving on the front lines of the bloody slog in the eastern Donbas region are making the unmanned craft far less effective and depriving Ukrainian troops of a once-potent tool.

Specialists say that Ukraine’s wild success with its fleet of small drones — in particular the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, which costs as little as $1 million and is relatively easy to operate — came largely because Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top generals expected a quick, easy victory and little resistance from enemy forces. That belief led Russian military leaders to leave most of their highly effective counter-drone systems at home, which in turn made Russian troops, tanks and armored vehicles highly vulnerable to unmanned systems that can move in and out of a war zone quickly.

But Russian troops, having already employed anti-drone weapons to great effect while fighting alongside government troops in Syria, have now moved those systems into the Donbas. The result could be a game-changer for Ukrainian troops, who face long odds in the east as Russian artillery and a larger Russian invasion force pummel key cities.

“In the first couple weeks of the war, the Russian military didn’t seem to field a lot of UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles], a lot of electronic warfare systems. It’s known the Russian military has those technologies, has drilled with those technologies, and has constantly discussed the threat learned from Syria,” said Samuel Bendett, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who is closely tracking daily battlefield developments in Ukraine.

“After it became clear Ukraine isn’t going to fold, that Ukrainian soldiers are actually capable and that Ukrainian soldiers have been drilling and practicing … we started to see the Russian military fight more or less along expected lines,” Mr. Bendett said.

The Ukrainian Air Force, he noted, has publicly said it does not need any more U.S.-provided $10-million-a-pop Gray Eagle drones in the face of the changing Russian air defense tactics, and the drones’ vulnerability operating so close to the front lines..

“Once those technologies were on the front lines, then it became clear Ukraine couldn’t fly all of the sorties, it couldn’t fly the Bayraktar TB2 drones,” Mr. Bendett said. “So now the Ukrainians are asking for long-range artillery … and they’re asking for actual [air force fighter planes], not drones, which could be tracked and shot down by Russian defenses.”

Indeed, Ukrainian defense officials have spoken out in recent weeks about the sudden change in battlefield dynamics thanks to Russia’s deployment of electronic warfare systems, radar jammers, layered air defense, much better intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance [ISR] capabilities, and other systems. 

“It’s very dangerous to use such expensive drones in our case, because of the enemy’s air defense,” one anonymous Ukrainian pilot recently told Foreign Policy magazine. “It’s not Afghanistan here.”

Russian generals recently boasted about a cutting-edge laser weapon known as “Zadira” that is capable of burning up Ukrainian drones from three miles away. Those generals said the weapon has been deployed to Ukraine.

“The new generation of laser weapons lead to the physical destruction of the target — thermal destruction, they burn up,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov said in late May, according to Reuters.

The Russian military has poured massive amounts of money, time and resources into anti-drone capabilities. Arguably its more effective tools are electronic warfare [EW] systems, which can electronically disable drones from great distances.

Russia, Mr. Bendett said, is a global leader in EW systems, which also are a top priority for the Pentagon’s counter-drone programs and are widely viewed as one of the most effective ways to combat unmanned systems that proved so potent in recent conflicts such as the Azerbaijan-Armenian border war of 2020.

“That massive EW force potential is now coming to the front” of the war in Ukraine,” Mr. Bendett said.

Russian personnel also gained crucial battlefield experience in Syria in both the offensive use of small UAVs and how to defend against them. That experience is now paying dividends in Ukraine.

Drones have not disappeared from the battlefield.

“Russian forces are likely prioritizing deploying air defenses to eastern Ukraine to nullify operations and protect the artillery systems Russian forces are reliant on to make advances,” the Institute of War think tank wrote on June 22 in one of its widely read daily summaries of the fighting. “However, the Ukrainian air force and armed drones remain active elsewhere, inflicting several successful strikes on targets in Kherson Oblast” in mid-June.

But Russia has paid a heavy price for its decision not to employ anti-drone systems in the early days of the conflict. Such systems may have made a significant difference in Moscow’s campaign to capture the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, an offensive that was repelled in just a matter of weeks after Russia sustained heavy casualties and lost a stunning amount of military hardware.

Still, military analysts say no one should be surprised by Russia’s ability to adapt its battlefield tactics or its willingness to sacrifice personnel early on in the fight in order to gain more intelligence about the enemy.

“Warfare, through the history of man, has been basically the same game. Somebody comes up with a tactical advantage and then there are counter-tactics,” said retired Air Force pilot John Venable, now a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Russia has got the will and they’ve got it from the very top.”

“We in the United States are appalled, and much of the world is appalled, by the Russians,” he told the Washington Times in an interview. “But you have to look at this clinically. This is the Russian way of war. They’ll push as many people forward [as they can]. And sometimes they’re pushing people into a buzzsaw. But they will level the other team, the adversary. They’ll do everything they can to take away whatever resources they have.”

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