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Get Ukraine More Drones

Vital tools in the defense against Russia’s invasion.
by Jim Swift
March 23, 2022
Get Ukraine More Drones
Bayraktar TB2 UAVs is seen before the test flight at the military base located in Hmelnitski, Ukraine on March 20, 2019. (Composite, Photos: by Press Office of the President of Ukraine / Mykola Lararenko / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

In the fall of 2020, Azerbaijan went to war against Armenia. On paper, the Armenian force was stronger. They had armor, missile defense, and occupied well-defended positions. What Azerbaijan had was a drone fleet.

In the early stages of the war, Azerbaijan used 11 slow Soviet-era An-2 aircraft that had been converted into drones and sent them buzzing over Nagorno-Karabakh as bait to Armenian air defense systems—tempting them to fire and reveal their positions, after which they could be hit by drones.

Azerbaijan used surveillance drones to spot targets and sent armed drones or kamikaze drones to destroy them, analysts said.

The entire war was over in 44 days, with Armenia suing for peace. And the world’s military professionals went to work trying to understand what had happened:

During the six-week conflict, Azerbaijan deployed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones and loitering munitions, many of them Israeli-made, to shrink the battlefield and chip away at Armenia’s armored forces as well as the logistical tail that hadn’t even reached the front lines.

The lesson was clear: Drones are a force multiplier—a way for even modestly sized militaries to pursue combined arms strategies.

And looking at the battlefield in Ukraine, it’s pretty obvious that the Ukrainians are using drones to good effect as well.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes, from smaller than a remote-control helicopter you might buy from Amazon to the size of an F-16. We won’t know exactly what drone technologies were given to Ukraine until the war is over—if ever—but we can see signs that they’re making a difference.

The most important factors for drone success are pilot availability, drone size, fuel type, reusability, take-off and landing access, maintenance, and choosing the right platform for the mission.

One drone we know the Ukrainians have deployed effectively are TB-2 drones from Turkey, which have destroyed armor and harassed convoys that weren’t already broken down or stuck in the mud.

Only Ukraine knows how many TB-2s they have: reports vary, from 20 to 50 units. And it’s unclear how long Ukraine will be able to keep these TB-2s in the air. They’re about “as stealthy as a crop duster,” as the New York Times put it, and easy to shoot down. But at least to this point, Ukraine has been able to use TB-2s to real success, as they effectively double the size of its conventional, manned air force.

If anything, the drones are probably more valuable to Ukraine than manned aircraft. They lack the ability to fight air-to-air, but they more than make up for that deficiency. Their greatest virtue: A downed drone does not also equal a downed pilot. So long as you can keep your drone pilots safely hidden away, they are a non-depleting resource, meaning that your drone capabilities are limited by munitions, fuel, and launching/landing access.

Ukraine may not be limited to TB-2s. If we wanted to really help the Ukrainians, the United States, United Kingdom, and Italy could give them some MQ-9 reaper drones. As Dave Deptula writes at Forbes:

Imagine if Ukraine had access to UAVs that had four times the payload, 12 times the range, the ability to fly across the entire country of Ukraine, and the ability to stay aloft for over a day at a time, not just a couple of hours.

We could also probably give them a ​​RQ-4 Global Hawk or two as well, but that might not make sense because our Global Hawks (along with other, manned platforms) are able to provide a lot of useful intelligence without even crossing Ukraine’s border.

No reason to put these assets at risk in contested airspace when they can still deliver intelligence from friendly airspace.

At the other end of the spectrum is a Norwegian company called FLIR that makes an extremely small microdrone called the Black Hornet, which can fly about a mile and remain airborne for 25 minutes. Many countries, including the United States, have purchased these pricey little buggers. Their most attractive feature for Ukrainian use is that they’re relatively easy to fly. They work in daylight and at night, can be recharged, and are smaller than an RC helicopter.

What can a Black Hornet drone do?

Earlier this month, a Pentagon official said on background that Ukraine was “terrific” with drones, and they needed more of them, rather than fixed-wing aircraft.

That’s where the mid-sized drones can make a huge difference. The microdrones and big boys are great, and we should be giving Ukraine as many as they want, but both the huge wingspans of major drones and the limited flight times of microdrones impose a lot of mission constraints.

The United States and our allies have a bunch of mid-size drones, like the RQ-7 Shadow. It can fly nearly 80 miles from its home base, recognize targets from over 2 miles away, and fly for nine hours. With armaments and other sensors, that flight time diminishes, but it can fly for as much as seven hours with an effective load and if there are forward bases to take control of it, then its effective range from takeoff increases dramatically.

And the United States has offered Ukraine at least 100 units of the Switchblade systems, a small drone that functions as a loitering munition:

The Switchblades are essentially robotic smart bombs, equipped with cameras, guidance systems and explosives. They can be programmed to automatically strike targets miles away, and they can be steered around objectives until the time is right to strike. The company says the 600 can fly for 40 minutes and up to 50 miles.

They are single-use weapons, which is why they have been dubbed “kamikaze drones.” But they are orders of magnitude cheaper than the Hellfire missiles fired by U.S. Reaper drones. The 300 can cost as little as $6,000, by some estimates.

For Ukraine, financial cost is apparently no object, since the West is arming them. Plus, drones carry lower operational costs than traditional fixed-wing aircraft: You need fewer personnel, from pilots to maintenance crews and less space for launch and recovery.

The key questions are how quickly can Ukrainian pilots master these new systems, and how much more of this tech can they get? It looks like we’re already giving lots of it to them.

We ought to give even more.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.