February 08, 2024

Evolution Not Revolution

Drone Warfare in Russia’s 2022 Invasion of Ukraine

Executive Summary

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 abounds and drones offer some new capabilities, their impact falls short of the truly disruptive change that constitutes a so-called revolution in military affairs. For the most part, Russian and Ukrainian drones remain piloted by humans, are not broadly networked together, and are small, which means their effects tend to be localized. In part, drones have not offered Ukrainians or Russians a decisive edge on the battlefield because both parties are engaged in a fast-paced two-sided cycle of innovation and emulation. Because many drone technologies are commercial or dual use, they can be easily acquired, meaning that innovations quickly diffuse to the enemy. Russian forces have been fast followers in adopting commercial and do-it-yourself (DIY) kamikaze drones. Similarly, Ukrainian forces have tried to match the quantity and quality of Russia’s military drones, but given the military-specific technologies involved, the Ukrainians have been unable to fully close this gap.

This report is part of a larger project exploring how drones are affecting great-power competition and a potential future war between the United States and China. It focuses on lessons learned from drone operations in Ukraine. It offers a novel typology for the widely varied drones available today—military, commercial, and kamikaze—to enable more precise discussion of their impact; it provides an overview of the Ukraine conflict to date; and it includes an in-depth analysis of major developments seen for each drone type in this war.

Beyond this general assessment about whether a revolution in military affairs has occurred, this analysis yielded a number of insights about the war in Ukraine and drone warfare more broadly.

In the Ukraine war:

  • Ukraine has consistently out-innovated Russia with commercial technologies and software, but Russian forces have quickly adapted and emulated Ukrainian successes. In a key example, Ukraine pioneered the use of first-person view (FPV) racing drones in kamikaze attacks and began creating DIY cheap kamikaze drones. Russia was a fast follower and employed FPV kamikaze drones to contest Ukraine’s summer 2023 counteroffensive.
  • Volunteer networks have performed an unprecedented role in acquiring, modifying, and building commercial and DIY drones for both Ukrainian and Russian troops. Because of a heavy reliance on commercial or dual-use technologies, patriotic civilians have been able to bolster drone production. They have also led broader efforts to professionalize the use of drones by identifying best practices and establishing training courses.
  • Russia has an edge in military drones, which enables its forces to see and strike farther behind the front lines, while Ukrainian forces have gaps in this area. Russia entered the war with a reasonable inventory and bolstered production of its most effective military drones to meet the current demand. Russia now has enough Orlan-10 and ZALA surveillance drones that Ukrainian forces sometimes do not bother trying to shoot them down because the Ukrainians know that the drones will be replaced. In contrast, Ukraine has smaller inventories of military drones—both intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) and kamikaze variants—which limits its forces’ visibility and reach behind the front lines. This gap may eventually close as Ukraine’s government is investing heavily in its indigenous drone industry.
  • In the Ukraine war, drones have operated in stacks rather than swarms. Drones are more effective when operated as a part of larger team of uncrewed systems. Swarms typically consist of a greater number of units that autonomously coordinate their behavior. The drone stacks used by both sides in the war in Ukraine have been coordinated through multiple drone operators using software-based battle networks, traditional means of communication, or commercial communications platforms. Both parties claim to be using artificial intelligence to improve the drone’s ability to hit its target, but likely its use is limited.
  • Russian and Ukrainian forces are using long-range kamikaze drones for penetrating strategic strikes. Ukrainian forces would not have a capability to strike deep targets inside Russia and Crimea without these drones. Russian forces use kamikaze drones to complement their more expensive long-range cruise and ballistic missiles by soaking up Ukrainian surface-to-air missile (SAM) interceptors, identifying the location of air defenses, and creating complex heterogeneous attacks. It is not clear that strategic strikes weaken public support for the war, but they may be diverting scarce air defense assets from the front lines.
  • In the Ukraine war, both sides are experimenting with counterdrone capabilities. Electronic warfare (EW) is the most effective way to stop drones, but Ukrainian and Russian forces are trying counters that range from simple barriers such as wire nets to drone dogfighting. A key part of the drone-counterdrone competition has been finding and attacking drone operators using drone tracking software such as AeroScope and WindtalkerX. Because commercial and FPV kamikaze drone operators must remain near the drone’s operating area, they are vulnerable to discovery and attack.

More general lessons about drone warfare include:

  • The accessibility and affordability of drones is creating new capabilities at a scale that previously did not exist and transforming the battlefield. The three primary examples of this are the ubiquity of commercial drones on the front lines, FPV kamikaze drones for beyond-line-of-sight antipersonnel and antivehicle attacks, and long-range kamikaze drones for strategic strikes. All of these missions could be completed by more expensive military systems, such as military drones, traditional manned air forces, and antitank weapons or artillery. The biggest difference is that because the commercially derived versions employed in Ukraine are cheap and plentiful, there are deeper stockpiles of uncrewed aircraft than have previously been available, enabling drones’ widespread use.
  • Surveillance and targeting missions remain more important than drone strikes. Despite the prevalence of videos on social media showing commercial quadcopters dropping grenades on soldiers or crashing into tanks, the most consequential mission for drones has been collecting intelligence and obtaining targeting information. Ground forces at all echelons are employing different types of drones to improve their situational awareness, planning, and operations.
  • Commercial drones are making it more difficult to concentrate forces, achieve surprise, and conduct offensive operations. By providing greater visibility into enemy troop movements beyond the front lines, drones have made it difficult for the Ukrainian and Russian militaries to mass forces. Offensive operations are difficult but not impossible in this environment. If strong defenses are in place, prolonged periods of bombardment can weaken the enemy and gradually enable territorial gains.
  • Kamikaze FPV drones offer cheap precision strike capabilities but are tactical beyond-line-of-sight weapons that primarily extend the reach of ground forces. FPV drones are essentially very cheap antitank weapons, but their range is roughly six times that of the most advanced antitank weapon. Their biggest drawbacks are their small payload capacity, which limits their destructive power, and the fact that FPV drones, unlike modern antitank weapons, are not automated fire-and-forget systems. Instead, FPV drone pilots require training and must be very skilled to effectively steer the fast drones and crash them into vulnerable parts of an armored target. Even though experienced or lucky FPV operators might destroy a tank, more often FPV attacks at best will disable large vehicles, which can then be destroyed by follow-on artillery or air strikes.
  • Even large numbers of small drones cannot match the potency of artillery fire. Collectively, drone strikes supplement indirect fire weapons, but they are not substitutes for howitzers. Common artillery shells pack a bigger explosive punch and can be fired rapidly in large salvos. Thus, artillery barrages far outstrip the firepower that many small drones can collectively deliver.
  • Drones provide affordable airpower, but they have not replaced traditional air forces or been able to obtain air superiority. A core mission of most air forces is obtaining and maintaining air superiority—that is, the freedom to conduct operations in the air, which include protecting against enemy aerial attacks and conducting offensive air-to-ground operations. Obtaining air superiority typically entails destroying an opponent’s air force through air-to-air engagements or attacks against air bases and suppressing or destroying ground-based air defenses. There have been a few instances of drone dogfighting and kamikaze drone strikes against Russian bomber air bases, but these missions have been few and far between. Russian forces have conducted effective suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) operations involving drones near the front lines but have not disabled Ukraine’s long-range air defenses. Because neither side has obtained air superiority, they have both relied on standoff attacks instead of direct attacks against deep targets.
  • Drones are not more survivable than crewed aircraft, but instead enable greater risk acceptance. Drones are vulnerable to many countermeasures, especially electronic warfare, guns, and SAMs. Like countries discovered the hard way with bomber aircraft in World War II, the drone “will not always get through.” Because drones are cheap and do not have humans aboard, both sides have been willing to send them on risky missions that may have a low probability of succeeding.
  • Drones do not have to be survivable if they are cheap and plentiful because one can have resiliency through reconstitution. Because they are vulnerable, drones must be cheap enough and easy enough to manufacture that they can be readily replaced. Instead of hardening commercial drones against electronic attacks, which would notably raise the costs, both parties have opted to instead buy more cheap drones. The logic of resiliency through reconstitution also applies to military drones.

In the Ukraine war, drones have become an increasingly important weapon, but they have not revolutionized warfare. Nonetheless, Ukrainian forces have extensively employed drones to gain an asymmetric edge over a superior Russian force. Russian forces have been fast followers and emulated Ukraine’s use of commercial drones to a surprising degree given the reluctance of the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) to officially embrace private- sector technologies. Russian forces have employed their military-grade and kamikaze drones as a part of the reconnaissance fires complex, allowing them to increasingly leverage their greater firepower. Throughout the war, there have been rapid cycles of adaptation as both sides have learned from each other, adopting tactics and technologies that have been used successfully and developing counters to improve defenses. This pattern is likely to continue as the war drags on. It is clear that drones alone will not determine who prevails in this conflict, but they will certainly play a prominent role in the ongoing war in Ukraine and in other battlefields in the future.

Introduction

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine initiated a conventional war of a scale and intensity that had not been seen in Europe since World War II. In many ways, the fighting in Ukraine seems anachronistic, with large-scale artillery barrages and the heavily defended front lines that resemble the trench warfare of World War I. In other respects, however, the war in Ukraine gives a glimpse at how future battlefields may look. One of the most notable differences between Ukraine and past wars is the extensive use of drones or uncrewed systems by both parties, earning this conflict the moniker of the “first full-scale drone war.” In the early days of the war, high-flying Ukrainian TB2 drones dropped guided bombs on advancing Russian forces, arresting their march toward Kyiv. In recent months, Russian ZALA surveillance drones and Lancet-3 loitering munitions have worked together to find and destroy Ukrainian howitzers. While military drones have played an important role, over the front lines commercial off-the-shelf drones are omnipresent. Ground forces at all echelons use small commercial quadcopters to monitor their environs and to direct artillery fire. Over time, both Russian and Ukrainian forces have also employed different types of kamikaze drones—those that crash into their target—for strategic attacks against cities and deep targets.

The prevalence of drones in Ukraine and other recent conflicts has led some observers to conclude that drones are revolutionizing warfare. Others maintain that drones are incremental improvements to existing technologies. According to this view, drones perform the same roles and missions as traditional weapons systems but remove the human from the platform. Critics also point out that drones are not superweapons but remain quite vulnerable to electronic warfare (EW) and air defenses, while typical defensive measures such as dispersion and concealment continue to dilute drones’ lethality. Thus, according to the skeptics, drones are not fundamentally shifting the character of war.

This report concludes that drones have transformed the battlefield in Ukraine, but in an evolutionary rather than revolutionary fashion. While tactical innovation abounds and drones offer some new capabilities, this falls short of the truly disruptive change that constitutes a revolution. For the most part, Russian and Ukrainian drones remain piloted by humans, are not broadly networked together, and are small, which means that their effects tend to be localized. In part, drones have not offered Ukrainians or Russians a decisive edge on the battlefield because both parties are engaged in a fast-paced two-sided cycle of innovation and emulation. Because many drone technologies are commercial or dual use, they can be easily acquired, meaning that innovations quickly diffuse to the enemy. Russian forces have been fast followers in adopting commercial and do-it-yourself (DIY) kamikaze drones. Similarly, Ukrainian forces have tried to match the quantity and quality of Russia’s military drones, but given the military-specific technologies involved, they have been unable to fully close this gap.

The most important roles for drones in the Ukraine war have been as intelligence platforms and artillery spotters. The proliferation of drones over the front lines has made it hard to concentrate forces and launch surprise attacks. Yet while offensive operations are difficult, they are not impossible. Moreover, mass artillery fires still dominate battlefield outcomes. Drones enhance artillery firepower by making it more accurate but, as noted analyst Michael Kofman has observed, by themselves drones are not a “substitute for mass.” Because small drones can only carry meager payloads, even large drone swarms cannot rival the potency of artillery salvos. Similarly, small drones cannot match the volume of fires that bombers could provide if either side had air superiority. Drones are clearly an important military innovation and are increasing the effectiveness of Russian and Ukrainian artillery and ground operations. Over time, as drones become more autonomous and are more broadly connected with other weapons, they may fundamentally reshape military doctrine and organizations and truly revolutionize warfare. But thus far in Ukraine, drone warfare has been an evolution, not a revolution.

This report is part of a larger project that is exploring how drones are affecting great-power competition and a potential future war between the United States and China. A forthcoming report by Stacie Pettyjohn, Hannah Dennis, and Molly Campbell examines this broader issue. A first step in answering this question involved analyzing three recent conflicts that employed drones, including the war in Ukraine, and determining what lessons they provide. The Ukraine case study merited its own report because the volume of pertinent information on this war could not be incorporated into the broader comparative historical analysis. This report also serves a broader audience that is following and trying to understand developments in the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.

Over time, as drones become more autonomous and are more broadly connected with other weapons, they may fundamentally reshape military doctrine and organizations and truly revolutionize warfare.

A few caveats are in order. This report is not a full political or military history of the war in Ukraine. Instead, it synthesizes information on how both Ukrainian and Russian forces have employed drones across time and attempts to identify key insights from this analysis. It builds on foundational studies from organizations such as the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and CNA that document and analyze the conflict and the impact of drones in it. Many of these studies, however, focus on one side or one moment in time and do not systematically compare Ukrainian and Russian troops’ use of drones, and how this unfolded in different phases of the war. This report aims to fill these gaps and to offer an initial analysis that can be built on and revised by future researchers.

To explore these issues, the author drew heavily on secondary sources, including think tank reports, newspaper and magazine articles, and videos and photos posted on social media. The videos and pictures posted by Ukrainian and Russian sources are a part of a larger information and propaganda war that is trying to shape public opinion. Thus, they are certainly biased and must be treated with caution. The author has used these as evidence that different types of drones have been employed against specific targets or have been involved in different phases of the war. Unsurprisingly, almost all the videos show successful drone strikes, but they are clearly not a representative sample. Because observers cannot know the percentage of attempted strikes represented by these videos, the videos do not shed much light on the overall efficacy of these weapons. Additionally, the author conducted interviews with U.S. government and NATO officials and with experts on the Russian and Ukrainian militaries but did not undertake field research in Ukraine. All interviews were conducted in confidentiality, and the names of interviewees are withheld by mutual agreement.

The remainder of this report is divided into four sections. The first section offers a typology of drones that have been used by Ukrainian and Russian forces. The second provides a brief overview of the major phases of the war between February 2022 and August 2023 and notes major developments related to drone warfare. The third section is a functional discussion focused on the different types of drones, with each section describing the most significant drones for both Russia and Ukraine, how they have been employed, and what has been used to counter them. The functional discussion concludes with an overview of the battle networks that have linked drones to other forces. The final section offers conclusions about how drones have been used in the Ukraine war and explains why this does not constitute a revolution.

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  1. This is similar to the conclusion that Shashank Joshi reached in his special report. Shashank Joshi, “Ypres with AI,” The Economist, July 8, 2023, https://www.economist.com/special-report/2023/07/03/the-war-in-ukraine-shows-how-technology-is-changing-the-battlefield.
  2. Isabelle Khurshudyan, Mary Ilyushina, and Kostiantyn Khudov, “Russia and Ukraine Are Fighting the First Full-Scale Drone War,” The Washington Post, December 2, 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/12/02/drones-russia-ukraine-air-war/; John Hudson and Kostiantyn Khudov, “The War in Ukraine Is Spurring a Revolution in Drone Warfare Using AI,” The Washington Post, July 26, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/07/26/drones-ai-ukraine-war-innovation/.
  3. Eric Schmidt, “The Future of War Has Come in Ukraine: Drone Swarms,” The Wall Street Journal, July 7, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-future-of-war-has-come-in-ukraine-drone-swarms-kamikaze-kyiv-31dd19d7; Hudson and Khudov, “The War in Ukraine Is Spurring a Revolution in Drone Warfare Using AI”; and Stephen Witt, “The Turkish Drone That Changed the Nature of Warfare,” The New Yorker, May 9, 2022, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/05/16/the-turkish-drone-that-changed-the-nature-of-warfare.
  4. Stephen Biddle, “Back in the Trenches: Why New Technology Hasn’t Revolutionized Warfare in Ukraine,” Foreign Affairs, August 10, 2023, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/ukraine/back-trenches-technology-warfare; Antonio Calcara et al., “Why Drones Have Not Revolutionized War: The Enduring Hider-Finder Competition in Air Warfare,” International Security 46, no. 4 (Spring 2022): 130- 171, https://direct.mit.edu/isec/article/46/4/130/111172/Why-Drones-Have-Not-Revolutionized-War-The.
  5. This is similar to the conclusion that Shashank Joshi reached in his special report. Joshi, “Ypres with AI.”
  6. Joshi, “Ypres with AI.”
  7. Military innovation is defined as a “change in operational praxis that produces a significant increase in military effectiveness,” and therefore is a lower bar than a revolution in military affairs. Adam R. Grissom, Caitlin Lee, and Karl Mueller, Innovation in the United States Air Force: Evidence from Six Cases (RAND Corporation, 2016), 1,https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1207.html.
  8. Samuel Bendett (@sambendett) and Michael Kofman (@ KofmanMichael), “Drones in Ukraine – swarms, groups and volunteer-driven tech,” Twitter Spaces, August 2, 2023, https://twitter.com/i/spaces/1mnxeRpLMAAKX?s=20; Dmitri Alperovitch, “How Drones Are Changing the Nature of Warfare in Ukraine,” July 24, 2023, in Geopolitics Decanted, produced by Silverado, podcast, MP3 audio, 56:28, https://podcast.silverado.org/episodes/how-drones-are-changing-the-nature-of-warfare-in-ukraine.

Authors

  • Stacie Pettyjohn

    Senior Fellow and Director, Defense Program

    Stacie Pettyjohn is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Defense Program at CNAS. Her areas of expertise include defense strategy, posture, force planning, the defense budget, ...

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