Three months into the ‘Special military operation’ launched by Russia on 24 February 2022 the Russia-Ukraine war is now here near its culmination. Denied a quick victory Russia continues to slug it out and one impediment that prevents Russia from achieving its goal is the humble drone. Or so most analysts say. But how far has the use of drones influenced the war is not a simple question to answer and needs a hard look at the use of drones and counter drone systems by both sides. The detailed analysis can only be done at the end of the war but some initial observations
Employment of Drones
Use of Drones. As has been observed during recent conflicts, drones have expectedly been used by both sides. They will form an integral and important part of any future conflict. This has been re-inforced by the ongoing war but the extent of their use will depend on a number of factors.
In case of conflict with a peer or a near-peer, the drones are expected to be used extensively but the extent will depend on how well the drones are integrated with the tactical ground forces. Unless a side has well laid out doctrines and plans to exploit drones, they will be used mainly for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) tasks.
Tactical concepts followed. The Russian Army has made an extensive use of multiple tactical UAVs to cue in massed artillery strikes in Eastern Ukraine since 2014 but the use of drones by Russia has been less than expected during the present conflict even though it has a large inventory of the same. In case air power, and drones, is well integrated in overall tactical concepts, it is expected that drones and UAS will be used more.
Degree of Asymmetry between the two sides. In case of an asymmetrical conflict, the weaker side will rely more on drones, including commercially available drones to try and balance out the asymmetry.
Familiarity with Drones. No force, unless familiar with use of drones by way of regular exercises and field manoeuvres will use drones for front line tasks. Russian Army is one such example.
Technological Base. The symbiotic relationship between civil and military technologies means that a state needs a well-established technological base to fully develop its military UAS and drone capabilities. One major drawback for Russia is the lack of such a support base.
Role. While both sides have used drones there is a marked difference in the roles performed by them. Russians have largely used the drones for ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) tasks and for directing artillery fire. On the other hand, Ukraine has used them for ISR as well as for strike missions. The commercial drones have been useful mostly for reconnaissance with the available fleet of military drones carrying out the attack missions.
Efficacy and Impact of Drones. According to John Parachini, a Rand Corporation military researcher, “The tank was key at one point, but now drones may be the more decisive weapons system.” After the hype during Nagorno- Karabakh war such claims were expected but the use and impact of drones in the ongoing war raises some doubts regarding this claim.
The much shared videos and claims notwithstanding, the kills achieved by Ukrainian drones have actually been insignificant, a total of six armoured fighting vehicles, five towed artillery pieces, and no tanks. Though a realistic assessment of their efficacy can only be made after the war when a detailed evaluation of each claim is done, the available details make it clear that drones are capable of making a decisive impact and remain ‘enablers’ at best. They are not ‘war winners’ as of now.
Vulnerability. Drones are highly vulnerable to both hard and soft kill systems and will remain so. Their survivability is questionable in an intense AD environment and with newer C-UAS systems getting developed , will remain so.
Countering the Drones
Russian Army has had extensive experience in countering drones and has a large array of soft and hard kill C-UAs systems but its performance in Ukraine in countering the drones leaves much to be desired. The reasons for the same are likely to be:
Not appreciating the real threat. The Russian Army may not have realistically appreciated the threat posed by the drones and not prepared for its accordingly. The scale and range of drone threat it faced, and countered in Syria and Ukraine in 2014, was much less and the Russian Army may have downplayed the threat it faces today.
Poor or lack of integration of C-UAS systems. Lack of proper grouping, of both tactical and logistics elements, has been seen to be an obvious shortcoming during the Russian operations. It is likely that the C-UAS systems may not have been properly integrated and echeloned with the tactical groups.
Not Following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). A Russian Pantsir 1M system in Syria was destroyed by a Israeli loitering munition. The Russians had identified a few probable causes for the failure of which one was lack of ammunition as the SAM mount was not reloaded in time. The incident could have been avoided by simply following the SOP for reloading the mount at the earliest after every firing. It is possible that such lapses may have resulted in some avoidable losses in Ukraine.
The Way Ahead
Drones are here to stay and will continue to play an important part in any future conflict. To limit their impact on the battlefield the following need consideration:
Understand the Drone Threat. A realistic appraisal of the adversary is the first step in building a capability to counter it.
Surveillance. The major challenge in countering drones is detection, not engagement. It is thus important that a well-integrated surveillance network is built to carry out timely detection of drones and UAS.
Layered and Tiered AD. The AD systems should be able to take on all air threats in successive manner, in all tiers of the air space.
Integration of Kinetic and Non-Kinetic Systems. Drones are best countered by a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic systems wherein they complement each other. It should be ensured that they are well integrated and work in a harmonious manner.
Correct tactical grouping. Availability of a C-UAS system is not adequate until and unless the system is available at the right place at the right time.
The drones are here to stay and will be used increasingly in all future conflicts. They can supplement the manned aerial platforms and perform a wide range of tasks but are not ‘battle winners’. It is important that their use in combat is continuously studied to not only better their capabilities but also more effectively counter them.