Europen February 28 The skies over Russia are filled with the sound of hostile drones. St. Petersburg, the country’s second-largest city, has imposed a 200-kilometer no-fly zone around its airport. In Krasnodar in the south, an oil depot caught fire. The drone reached the Belgorod and Bryansk regions on the border with Ukraine. One plane even approached Moscow – said to have crashed after felling trees less than 100km from the capital. This invasion is not the first time Ukrainian drones (drones) found a way to penetrate Russian defenses, but this was the first coordinated attack of its kind.Many Ukrainians wonder if they have found the key to overturning Russia’s long-range strike advantage — even without long-range Western munitions such as air traffic management system Missiles, may never come.
Drones have been flying over war zones for more than a century. Israelis flew reconnaissance planes in the 1970s; US precision strike drones were first deployed in the early 2000s. But current use is rapidly evolving. Ukraine deploys drones in at least five different ways: as small commercial reconnaissance vehicles that feed back video footage over short distances; as small improvised loitering munitions, often designed to disrupt rather than disrupt; and as more advanced reconnaissance or electronic warfare drones; as larger loitering munitions designed to destroy heavy armor; and finally attack drones, both airborne and naval, capable of delivering bombs and missiles over hundreds or even thousands of kilometers.
If the former category of hardware comes in many different forms and is mostly produced abroad, attack drones are produced in much smaller quantities and are almost entirely Ukrainian in origin. It is here that military inventors hope to make a breakthrough.
Mykhailo Fedorov, the 32-year-old deputy prime minister in charge of Ukraine’s drone program and digital transformation, said the tipping point could come sooner than people think. A number of changes are about to have a big impact, he said. The military has completed a major reorganization with the creation of 60 new attack drone squadrons, at least one for each brigade, with separate staffs and commanders. It was the first reform of its kind in the world. Ukraine’s military doctrine has been updated to include (classified) guidance on drone use. The Ministry of Defense has formed a new committee to coordinate the work of drone makers. There is a deregulatory drive: to remove barriers to importation and certification. This month was marked by the launch of a new military “cluster” project aimed at linking Ukrainian military technology with international companies and capital.
A defense industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that the military will acquire “significant high-tech capabilities” in the coming weeks and months. That said, it will still fight the Russians, he warned. Their own Iranian-designed drones have been tormenting Ukrainian cities since the start of winter. The war is also testing drone technology like never before: over vast, contested airspace and against sophisticated electronic warfare systems.
There are only a few military systems that perform well. “The Russians are very, very good at what they do,” an industry source said. “They work black magic in electromagnetic defense. They can jam frequencies, deceive Global Positioning System, sending the drone to the wrong altitude so that it falls from the sky. An expert with recent experience observing drone operations said the threat from ground-based air defenses meant it was difficult for Ukrainian surveillance drones to see more than 15 kilometers behind Russian lines.
At an early stage, the Ukrainians appear to be pinning their hopes on controlling drones behind Russian lines aboard Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites, which operate at frequencies and numbers that are difficult for Russian systems to jam. A reported naval drone attack on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in October exploited this gap well. But Mr. Musk is clearly concerned about the escalation effects of such moves, so he has stepped in where Russian technology cannot. Starlink now uses geofencing to prevent the use of its terminals — not only over Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine, but also over water and when the receiver is moving at speeds above 100 kilometers per hour, according to Ukrainian military intelligence sources . “You put it on a boat at sea and it stops working,” he said. As a result, Ukrainian UAV developers now use a range of other, more expensive communication systems, and often multiple systems on the same vehicle. The success of the Feb. 28 attack so close to Moscow suggests that Ukraine may be moving closer to a viable solution.
But while Ukraine may have proved the concept, scaling it up is another story. Ukraine’s attack drone program appears to be some way off the output needed to rival Russia’s long-range strike capabilities, said Seth Franzman, author of “Drone Warfare,” which traces the Use of drones dronein battle. One issue is access to air-launched munitions, with the U.S. reluctant to provide weapons capable of penetrating deep into Russian territory. Ad hoc equipment and ingenuity can only go so far, although the Ukrainians are certainly trying.
Another major bottleneck is engine production, especially the gasoline engines (rather than electric motors) needed to power long-range strike drones. Only a handful of manufacturers in the world can produce them, and Ukraine is racing to buy them from the same markets as its enemies. Deputy Prime Minister Mr. Fedorov said: “We really feel that there is another side here”
A drone maker working out of a heavily guarded factory on the outskirts of a Ukrainian city said Russia’s authoritarian nature gave it a lead in strike capabilities and Ukraine had an obligation to catch up. “Sanctions mean they’re going to start running out of parts faster than we do,” he said. “But we shouldn’t kid ourselves. They start the line a lot faster than we do.”
Russia appears to be betting big on a conventional war of attrition in eastern Ukraine. But even as their armies pushed forward, Russian generals did seem to worry that the war might be deep in their rear. In recent weeks, new air defenses have emerged in Moscow (covering every Russian target is impossible.) Ukrainian drone production facilities have also been targeted by Russian missile attacks. Dmytro Shymkiv, co-owner of promising long-range drone maker AeroDrone, said his company has maintained production secrecy and mobility. The rapid development of drone maker technology is why many in Ukraine are pinning their hopes on a breakthrough. “Necessity has always been the mother of invention,” says the military intelligence source. ■