'War of the robots' — how the race to acquire drones is shaping the Ukraine-Russia conflict

DJI Matrice 300 reconnaissance drones, seen during test flights in the Kyiv region on August 2, 2022, prior to being sent to the front line. (Photo by SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images)

Russia and Ukraine have widely employed unmanned systems in their ongoing conflict. The nation that can best ramp up production and field these types of platforms in larger numbers will have an edge as the war evolves, according to a leading analyst.

The technology has been used for strike missions — including kamikaze drone attacks — as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to locate and help target enemy forces.

Ground robots have only been used in limited numbers in the Ukraine-Russia conflict. But unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and uncrewed maritime vessels are “seizing the show,” said Samuel Bendett, a military analyst and member of the Russia Studies Program at the U.S.-based CNA think tank.

For example, Ukraine in recent days reportedly used robotic platforms to attack Russian naval forces near Crimea.

“The attack by unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned aerial vehicles on the Russian Black Sea Fleet over this weekend is such an interesting example of how these technologies are evolving with Ukraine once again seizing the initiative and using the technologies … in a combination, in a group” to hit Russian forces, Bendett said Tuesday during a panel hosted by the Brookings Institution.

Both sides are embracing unmanned platforms, he noted.

“Both Russians and Ukrainians prior to the war, during this conflict and going forward consider the application of unmanned systems, possibly with a much greater degree of autonomy, as absolutely essential to future warfare. Both Russians and recently Ukrainians are stating that … the war of the near future is going to be the war of the robots. And the side that is able to scale up the production of these combat drones — whether they be aerial, ground or maritime — and really mass manufacture them is actually going for the win,” he said.

“Going forward, whether or not both sides will be able to sustain this momentum, whether or not both sides will be able to field a large number of these systems is a good question. It’s an open-ended question. Certainly, both sides are committed to using these technologies in the war, and so questions again remain: What are the capabilities that these systems can have? How are they going to evolve? And whether each side will be able to really well integrate these technologies into their existing force structure,” he added.

Prior to the conflict, Moscow’s unmanned arsenal looked better on paper with its extensive collection of ISR platforms. However, the Ukrainians in some ways have used unmanned systems more effectively — especially commercial drones during the initial months of the war — although Russia is catching up, according to Bendett.

“One of the biggest stars of this war, if we look at this objectively, is the acquisition by both sides of commercial drones,” he said.

“Ukrainians seized the initiative; they were the first who were very capable in supplying their military and their volunteers on the front with these commercial drones” including DJI systems, Bendett said. “Eventually, Russia actually caught up with respect to providing this capability and offering this to its military.”

The technology has been used as an artillery spotter, among other missions.

Off-the-shelf systems like quadcopters are “absolutely ubiquitous and widespread” in Ukraine, Bendett noted.

“They fill again a very significant tactical gap in both the Ukrainian and Russian capabilities by providing ISR coverage a few kilometers to a few miles out,” he said.

“This flow of commercial quadrocopter technology isn’t going to stop, it is likely to accelerate. And what’s important also is that both sides are professionalizing the use of commercial technologies amongst their forces,” he added.

However, commercial systems aren’t the only UAS in the headlines. Both sides are also employing armed drones designed specifically for military use, including loitering munitions.

The Ukrainians have been using the Baykar TB2 against Russian forces. The U.S. is also supplying them with Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost kamikaze drones, as well as other systems such as “unmanned coastal defense vessels.

The Russians faced a shortfall of UAS strike platforms when the conflict began, Bendett noted.

“What became very clear in this war is that, despite all the preparation, despite all the writings and discussions in Russia about the use and utility of combat UAVs and loitering munitions, Russia in fact had very little of those technologies available on hand,” he said.

To help fill that capability gap, Russia has turned to foreign suppliers such as Iran, which has supplied its Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 platforms to Moscow.

These Iranian systems perform much better against stationary targets than mobile targets, according to Bendett.

“This is also a very capable terror weapon since Russia can send waves of … drones against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure targets such as electrical power stations and heating power stations and other elements of the infrastructure in order to terrorize and force the Ukrainian population and government to come to terms,” he said. “The open question remains: If Russia is capable of acquiring hundreds and perhaps even thousands of more of these drones and assemble them in Russia under its own name, how would this war actually change?”

Russia’s defense industrial base may face “significant issues” in trying to manufacture its own armed UAVs on a larger scale, and it could continue to rely on Iranian systems, Bendett noted.

Meanwhile, Ukraine is looking for ways to acquire more UAS. Turkish defense firm Baykar is planning to build a drone manufacturing plant in Ukraine, according to Reuters.

While manufacturing capacity is expected to play a key role in this “war of the robots,” additional advantages will accrue to whichever side can better integrate its commercial and military technology into a single network that can analyze data and assist ground forces, artillery, long-range systems and other capabilities, Bendett noted.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comments from Samuel Bendett about Ukraine’s use of unmanned systems.