February 08, 2024

New CNAS Report: “Evolution Not Revolution: Drone Warfare in Russia's 2022 Invasion of Ukraine”

Washington, February 8, 2024 —Today, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) released a new report, Evolution Not Revolution: Drone Warfare in Russia’s 2022 Invasion of Ukraine by Stacie Pettyjohn, senior fellow and director of the CNAS Defense Program.

The new report examines the evolving role of drones in the war in Ukraine. It underscores that drones have indeed transformed the battlefield by providing accessible and affordable capabilities at a scale that did not previously exist. The report shows that drones are making it difficult to concentrate forces, achieve surprise, and conduct offensive operations. While drones are not more survivable than crewed aircraft, they enable greater risk acceptance. Moreover, drones do not have to be survivable if they are cheap and plentiful, as they can attain resiliency by reconstitution.

Nevertheless, the overall impact of drones has been more evolutionary than revolutionary. Drones connected to ground-based fires units have made common artillery shells precision weapons. First-person view kamikaze drones can accurately hit mobile targets, making the frontlines even more lethal. Even large numbers of small drones cannot match the potency of artillery fire and thus cannot serve as substitutes for howitzers. Also, while drones provide affordable airpower, they have not replaced traditional air forces nor been able to obtain air superiority.

Some additional key findings of the report include:

  • Ukraine has consistently out-innovated Russia with commercial technologies and software, but Russian forces have quickly adapted and emulated Ukrainian successes.
  • Volunteer networks have performed an unprecedented role in acquiring, modifying, and building commercial and DIY drones for both Ukrainian and Russian troops.
  • Russia has an edge in military drones, which enable its forces to see and strike farther behind the front lines, while Ukrainian forces have gaps in this area.
  • In the Ukraine war, drones have operated in stacks rather than swarms.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces are using long-range kamikaze drones for deep strategic strikes.
  • Both Russia and Ukraine are experimenting with counter-drone capabilities, but Russia has long invested in electronic warfare, which remains the most effective counter.

This is the first of two CNAS reports on drones and the future of warfare. The second, coming out this spring, includes a comparative analysis of three wars involving drones, including Ukraine, the Libyan Civil War, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The forthcoming report will also consider how drones could be used in a potential war against China in the Indo-Pacific.

For more information or to schedule an interview with Stacie Pettyjohn, please contact Alexa Whaley at awhaley@cnas.org.


Evolution Not Revolution

This report concludes that drones have transformed the battlefield in the war in Ukraine, but in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary fashion. While tactical innovation a...

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