How did the revolution in drone warfare happen in Ukraine? How is it having an impact? What can we learn? And what will come next? I started to get some answers to these questions at a gathering co-hosted by the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and Ukraine’s Brave1 in Poland last week, where 200 front-line operators, Ukrainian military and civilian leaders, international drone company executives, and European and U.S. government representatives gathered to discuss the future of drones and Ukraine. Altogether, the stories––and this post is simply an attempt to capture the stories told by attendees––revealed an incredible amount of battlefield innovation happening directly among warfighters. The innovation isn’t necessarily as high-tech as you think; it isn’t always coordinated, and it is far from perfect, but there is a sense that it is having an essential impact on the Ukrainian’s efforts. While this conference report is not a definitive and universal account of the conflict, it does provide a set of insights from the warfighters. There are plenty of lessons to learn here and plenty more research that should be done.
What are drones doing in Ukraine?
Conference participants focused on First Person View (FPV) drones, flown by drone pilots using line-of-site control within a small operational radius. Why? These drones are small, light, cheap, and relatively easy to operate. A single person can carry one on their back and have an impact on the battlefield. The short-range may not be ideal, but greater ranges are more challenging given Russian electromagnetic warfare (more on that later), and drones with a greater range are often heavier and more expensive.
Drones are involved in a broad spectrum of missions in Ukraine, and participants contrasted their use now with U.S. counter-insurgency operations focused on intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) from the past. ISR still figures prominently in drone use cases for Ukraine, but there were also many other missions. For example, drones are fulfilling strike missions where aerial, ground, and maritime drones act as kamikazes, or where drones carry and drop munitions on targets. Drones are also spotting for artillery fire. Participants also mentioned logistical roles (to “carry crummy Russian munitions” and provide drone replacement parts), as well as communications relays. Of all these, drone spotting for artillery fire or as part of a strike mission was the most commonly discussed.
At the most basic level, one pilot will control an individual FPV with the support of a small team. There was a mention of as many as 3000 Ukrainian drone teams operating around the country, with roughly 3 FPVs each. Command and control (C2) may be limited to just the instructions from the pilot to the drone for a kamikaze mission, or it may involve a short message from the drone spotter to the drone shooter over something as basic as an encrypted messaging app. For other missions, drone operators may use digital, tablet-based C2, like Kropyva, or more advanced systems, like Delta. Command and control is flexible and depends on both the operator and the mission.
Ukrainians are also starting to use “mass effect” drone operations: where several drones, sometimes with diverse capabilities like electro-optical, infrared, communications links, and kinetic capabilities, are flown in concert. Each drone is controlled by a single pilot with the intention of confusing, if not overwhelming, the enemy and their counter-drone systems. The effectiveness of these operations has not been rigorously tested but participants generally agreed this could be highly effective, perhaps for no other reason than that operators on the ground in Ukraine–from both sides–are traumatized by the sounds made by drones and tend to take cover whenever they hear a drone’s high-pitched buzz.
In addition to current drone missions, participants discussed some fringe and future uses, such as landmine detection, tripwire detection by quadruped drones, and sensor fusion for better targeting.
Innovation is rapid and directly connected to the warfighter.
To give you a sense of the scope and scale of innovation: several participants emphasized that drones that worked three-months ago may no longer be relevant on the battlefield. According to one participant, in about a year the country went from seven domestic drone companies to 200. Of those, dozens are on contract with the Ukrainian government, and they are each delivering one or more different models. The Ukrainian military also seems to have more than one drone operator schoolhouse offering training for less than $1,000 in under two weeks.
The drones are being developed, tested, evaluated, and deployed in real-time on the battlefield. Companies are sending their drones to pilots in Ukraine to get direct user feedback in the operating environment. Many participants agreed that there is almost no way to have an impact with new drones without visiting operators on the front lines and getting their input. Those battlefield tests are generating enormous insights for companies, and the companies are iterating based on what they hear.
Moreover, the ability to test and get feedback from operators is fast. According to one speaker: “It will take you years to test in your country. We do in three days what NATO does in 3 months or 3 years.” Throughout the conference, there were multiple offers to companies to test in theater, even at one point an offer to get a “Battle Tested in Ukraine” sticker.
Ukrainian warfighters appear to have a prominent voice in drone innovation, given the direct connections between drone makers and drone users. This seems especially important given the claim to a three-month innovation cycle on the battlefield. Listening to the participants, I was reminded of a conversation I had in Washington about a year ago when a retired senior decision-maker told me, “We’ve lost the voice of the warfighter in D.C.” It was refreshing to hear the warfighter’s voice so loud and clear, but their perspectives must be viewed in the context of battlefield analysis and not taken in isolation.
The innovation isn’t well coordinated, and that might be OK, for now.
While drone innovations are rapid thanks to the direct involvement of warfighters and companies, this innovation–at best–lightly coordinated. That lack of coordination may contribute to the agility of the Ukrainians and faster iterations in technology, tactics, techniques, and procedures. In general, dynamic targeting (targets of opportunity or targeting by volunteers) is less coordinated than strategic targeting (done to guide the precious few artillery rounds, for example) and experimentation and operations within defined geographic areas may be more coordinated than across the entire theater of war, but it is clear that much experimentation is underway.
Overall, this lack of coordination and the scarce financial resources contribute to a situation where Ukrainians have drones while Russians have drone systems. Put another way, Ukraine is buying individual drones and then integrating them into their operations through human intervention, like pilots manually inputting coordinates. This contrasts with the perception that Russian forces have drones that digitally connect to a common operating picture or firing platform, which makes the Russian systems faster and less prone to human error.
Brave1, which was set up just six months ago by six key ministries and organizations in charge of the war effort, seems to have been established to help address some of the coordination concerns. They are pushing to remove procedures, processes, and regulations to allow for a repeatable and fast innovation and manufacturing pipeline. The ministry is also sponsoring hackathons against specific problems, and supporting warfighter integration, testing, and feedback. Brave1 is perhaps similar to the U.S. DIU in that they are the point of entry to the war effort, help provide the testing ground for drones, connect innovative companies to investors and joint ventures, and match drone companies in Ukraine with suppliers and manufacturers abroad. The Ministry of Digital Transformation and the Ministry of Strategic Industries also seek to bring more structured support to drone innovation and the growing drone industry.
It is hard to assess the effectiveness of Ukraine’s drone warfare, but it felt effective in the room.
There was a palpable and unsurprising enthusiasm for drones at the conference, but participants did not discuss the combat effectiveness of cheap drones. We heard from one speaker that Ukraine spent 25% of its war budget on UAVs in August. Many operators shared anecdotes about their successful engagement of Russians with drones. Beyond those anecdotes, however, there was no assessment of the impact of cheap drones on the battlefield.
While we never discussed the impact of drones on the front lines of the war, we did hear many anecdotes about how frequently drones were failing. Attendees emphasized significant drone losses due to Russian jamming and electronic warfare. EW is now so common that even less experienced drone operators assume that if they have lost their drone, it was because of an EW attack. As a consequence, Ukrainian operators are becoming increasingly adept at fighting through electronic attacks. However, Ukraine is openly seeking drones robust against EW, in particular those with inertial navigation and optical navigation solutions.
Aside from EW, there are several other reasons why drones are lost on the battlefield: inexperienced drone operators are simply losing their drones through operator error; cheap drones have almost no protection from jamming and are easy EA targets; these drones have nearly nothing in the way of cyber protection and require some up-front jailbreaking and tinkering to avoid automatic software updates from the vendor that would render them inoperable; drone batteries are exploding all too often; and some drones are just loud and fly low enough to be engaged by soldiers on the ground. What surprised many participants was when one speaker estimated that 50% of the early drone losses were attributable to friendly fire incidents. With so many drones on the battlefield, drone operators are challenged to identify friends from foes and will attack drones if they don’t immediately recognize them.
That all said, Ukraine has few other options to establish air dominance given its budgetary constraints, making the acquisition and deployment of these cheap drones worth the known losses.
These aren’t necessarily high-tech drones: you can go get one at Best Buy.
News reports frequently cite Ukraine’s use of “emerging technologies,” but while drones are everywhere in Ukraine, AI is not yet a part of the picture. While some developers think there is more AI-enabled innovation to come and that AI will be important in the electromagnetic fight using techniques like optical navigation, right now warfighters are either fed up with the hype or disappointed with AI being delivered to the battlefield. As one said, I don’t need this “AI nonsense.” The combat potential of AI in the Ukrainian drone context remains unproven.
Operators in Ukraine prefer to use drones that are available in Best Buy today from Chinese Shenzhen DJI Sciences and Technologies Ltd. (called DJI). Where there was widespread interest in moving away from Chinese drones, Ukraine struggles to do so, and for some good reasons. Among them is the claim that it will take four to five months to sign a contract with a European drone company, whereas it takes just a few days to sign one with DJI. Moreover, some models are less than $10,000, have excellent cameras and solid data links, can be upgraded with readily available electro-optical/infrared capabilities, and are easy for new pilots to operate.
It is time to scale.
The Ukrainians and the Defense Innovation Unit participants alike are eager to address the next major hurdle: scaling the production and deployment of drones on the battlefield. For Ukrainians, this looks like external manufacturing partnerships, establishing stable supplier networks, financing production lines, and formalizing R&D partnerships to address the fast past of innovation and the need for counter-EW technologies.
Drone companies are also eager to scale but cite predictable and timely orders, trade policies, the lack of allied standards, and intellectual property protection as hurdles. Regarding order timeliness, U.S. vendors told stories of waiting for almost half a year to get a contract, fulfilling the order within weeks, and then receiving complaints from senior leaders about how long it took to get a drone (the senior leader didn’t realize the delay in contracting). There is clear frustration among vendors about the time and complication of getting contracts and orders, and that frustration is amplified by fast-changing technological needs on the battlefield. Regarding trade policies, U.S. regulation of drones as “dual-use” technologies creates significant problems for drone companies looking to get investment from international partners (even from five-eyes countries) or to otherwise partner with companies from allied nations. Hard-won investments must be made against a backdrop of uncertainty because there is no guarantee that the drones developed for Ukraine will be marketable to other NATO countries since NATO has not yet set a common standard. In the interim, as drone companies attempt to iterate and improve their technology on the battlefield, they must contend with the risk that by revealing their capabilities and limitations in field tests, they may be putting the company’s intellectual property at risk.
Future Outlook and Replicator. . .
Going forward, the operators and leaders at the conference made clear that low “SWAP-C” (for size, weight, power, and cost) is a priority, alongside drones robust against electronic attack. Anything large is a target, anything heavy makes life hard if not impossible for the drone operators, and Ukraine simply has a small budget. Additionally, leaders are very keen to acquire platforms to counter the Shahed Iranian drones used by the Russians, which are both hard to defeat and target Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.
Those priorities drive Ukraine to buy DJI drones, even though they may not want to, and DJI drones are said to dominate on the battlefield. One participant claimed that DJI is selling equally to the Russian and Ukrainian markets. Moreover, drone developers claimed that Chinese subsidiaries also dominate the drone component market. There were also indications that DJI’s dominance may be credited to restrictive export policies in the U.S. coupled with supportive financing for DJI in China.
For international drone companies, as one participant put it, “Ukraine is a test bed, not a money-making opportunity.” Ukrainians appear to recognize the opportunity to attract drone developers and sow the seeds for a post-war drone industry. They advertised the opportunity to test new platforms in the war, they advertised some of the unique platforms they have developed, and they are openly seeking R&D partners, prototyping partners, and most especially, manufacturing partners outside the country (since manufacturing centers within the country are targets).
Furthermore, there is a prediction that the ecosystem of drone companies that proliferated in the war is headed toward rationalization. Many of the current drone companies are creating fully integrated drone stacks––they make the hardware and software––so there is a lot of perceived overlap, and participants predicted that companies will not survive as the market matures. Some are advocating for more open standards that might enable an ecosystem of interchangeable software and hardware solutions to continue the fast pace of innovation.
Even with the rationalization, there is still a sense that more innovation (and more drone companies) will be needed to meet the goals of the U.S. Replicator initiative. DIU representatives briefly addressed the initiative Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks rolled out in September. The sense given was that the program would be grounded in warfighter needs, and in particular the need as identified in the Indo-Pacific Theater. With those capability gaps centered, the question becomes which attritable systems can be put against these problems. The first tranche of attritable systems will also necessarily be systems that already exist, since the team has only 18-24 months to meet the secretary’s goal of acquiring “thousands.” But these purchases will be in batches, since DIU is hoping to establish a long-term on-ramp for drone solutions that can account for the rapid changes in technology as they have seen in Ukraine.