Originally developed as surveillance aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – commonly known as drones – underwent a number of transformations, from aircraft used to carry out tactical airstrikes to weapons included in the arsenal of modern warfare, the same as artillery and aviation. Drones play a key role in the war in Ukraine as well, where in recent weeks they have been primarily used as instruments of terror.
The sound of death from above
British military historian Antony Beevor writes in his book about the Battle of Stalingrad about the noise made by the famous Stuka dive bomber used by the Lutfwaffe, the Nazi aviation. The bomber made a powerful, sharp sound resembling a mobile siren, which was invariably followed by blasts and death. The sound terrorized the Soviet soldiers engaged in the battle that many saw as the turning point of World War II.
The blaring sound of death from above didn’t go away with the end of the second global conflict. It can still be heard today, for instance, on the streets of Kyiv. Or in other smaller Stalingrads, such as Kherson, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia, Kramatorsk, Kharkiv or Mariupol, Ukrainian cities targeted in 2022 by the Russian army. The present-day sound resembling “a lawn mower”, as described by residents of assaulted cities, is not made by bombers, but by a weapon that has been increasingly used in recent years: military drones.
Stuka bombers were piloted by men; today’s drones are unmanned aircraft controlled from dozens or hundreds of kilometers away, which can easily bypass air defenses and cross the frontline. Once they reach the enemy’s territory, they can easily identify military and civilian objectives and take them down. Some drones are used as modern-day kamikaze weapons – they crash into their targets to blow them up. It’s how the Russians have destroyed nearly a third of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure within the space of several weeks.
Drones in the war in Ukraine
The use of UAVs in military operations is not specific to the Ukrainian conflict alone, although this year’s war marked a premiere. For the first time, the Russian army used fully autonomous drones that can identify and destroy their targets by themselves, with the help of artificial intelligence. The officer tracking live feeds transmitted by drones and giving the kill order remotely has been thus taken out of the equation. The shock of the new technologies is all the more powerful, as a UN body presented a report banning the use of “smart” killer drones. However, the report seems to have fallen on deaf ears – the United States and China fear that withdrawing these drones from research and production lines might provide a risky technological edge to other competitors on the emerging global market of military drones. After successfully using drones in Ukraine, Russia seems to have moved to the next phase of integrating drones into its regular military strategies, after having had an opportunity to test the drones in the conflict in Syria. In this case, the Russian military made frequent use of drones for surveillance and intelligence-gathering purposes, connecting drones to its artillery and missile systems in order to track and eliminate targets. The continuous monitoring of the enemy’s positions and movements via a network of drones was another tactic Russia applied in the Syrian conflict.
Nowadays, drones can be manufactured even in countries that lack state-of-the-art technology. Until recently, the Americans and Israelis held the supremacy. Right now, that is no longer the case. Russia’s drone attacks in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities relied on Iranian-made drones. At the start of the war, the Ukrainians used UAVs made in Turkey against the Russian army, the famous TB2 Bayraktar, which have an autonomy of up to 27 hours of flight time and can fly up to seven thousand meters above ground level. Drones are not just easy to manufacture, they can also be retrofitted. Some civilian drones have now been reconverted for military use. The Russians claim to have discovered a military drone on a beach in Crimea equipped with a Canadian-made jet ski engine and equipped with a Soviet-era detonator. The equipment is similar to the one successfully used by the Ukrainian army to attack the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, particularly the flagship Moskva, the crown jewel of the Russian armada. Un unconfirmed theory has tied the latest mysterious thefts of radar cameras from Swedish motorways to an increase in the number of makeshift drones made in Russia.
As regards the Americans, they delivered three types of military drones to the Ukrainian armed forces: the Switchblade 300 series with a range of 10 kilometers and 15 minutes of flight time; the Switchblade 600 series that can travel up to 40 kilometers and has a flight autonomy of 40 minutes. Both are suicide drones. And finally, the Americans have also provided the Ukrainian military with Puma drones for recon and surveillance, as well as a piece of equipment whose specs have not yet been made public. I’m referring to over 120 Phoenix Ghost drones, thought to be suicide drones that can be adapted to the specific conditions of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Ukraine also received drones from Poland and the United Kingdom, although the bulk of their “drone fleet” is made up of civilian drones reconverted for military purpose. An estimated six thousand Ukrainian commercial drones were transferred to the Ukrainian army.
From surveillance and reconnaissance to airstrikes
The USA was the first to use modern UAVs in military operations. It happened in the Yugoslav Wars, when the US Army’s supersonic jets failed to gather and deliver accurate data regarding the positions of Serbian troops. Therefore, the military brought in drones to identify and surveil moving targets. Yet the deciding factor that made drones a regular part of modern warfare was the launch of the war on terror, when for the first time the US Air Forces and the CIA worked together to fit a drone with missiles. The year was 2000, which occasioned a (failed) attempt at taking out Osama bin Laden. As part of Washington’s war on terror, the Americans also used drones in at least seven countries in an attempt to eliminate suspected terrorists on the White House’s radar. Most of these drone attacks were carried out during Barack Obama’s term in office. On the one hand, this practice shielded politicians from the responsibility of deploying troops to military hot zones. The USA’s ground operations in Iraq would have arguably unfolded differently back in 2003, if the military had been able to employ drones on a scale comparable to today’s modern tactics.
Since then, the Predator UAVs (which were originally designed for aerial reconnaissance, later upgraded and modified to carry Hellfire missiles) went down in history for their high effectiveness in swiftly taking out hotbeds of insurrection.
The next generation of US-made drones, the Reaper, specialized in the high-precision elimination of enemy targets. Capable of carrying additional ordnance and boasting superior endurance, the Reaper was believed to have been used in taking out Iranian General Qassim Suleimani near Baghdad Airport in January 2020. American UAVs could also be spotted in the conflicts in Libya and Syria, but also in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, which are all technically at war with the USA and its allies. According to some estimates, over 2010 – 2020, the USA launched over 14,000 drone attacks, killing tens of thousands of people, of which over a thousand were civilian casualties.
The first large-scale use of UAVs in an international conflict was registered in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict of 2020. Azerbaijan’s victory was attributed to the use of drones, which caused massive damage to Armenia’s anti-air defenses and ground forces. The Azeri military employed several types of drones, including Bayraktar, which were said to have been operated by Turkish military.
The use of drones in the fight against terrorism or in fighting off insurgents marked a certain phase in modern warfare, one which present-day drones have long outgrown. UAVs are now used in direct combat. They are part of the military arsenal the same as tanks, jets or submarines. Adding to their military effectiveness is also the ruthlessness of such states as China, which unlike the USA has no qualms about exporting the technology needed to build third-generation state-of-the-art military drones. The technology has now been made available not just to governments, but also to criminal or terrorist organizations, who cannot afford buying military jets, but now can build their own drones capable of killing targets that until recently were out of reach.
It’s impossible to put on the same footing – using sound arguments – Russia’s drone attacks and the USA’s. The Russians are systematically targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. It’s a targeted attack against civilians, who are now facing the prospect of a winter spent without electricity or heat. These attacks have been labeled acts of terrorism. Conversely, the USA’s attacks target certain people and their inner circle, political and military leaders with criminal backgrounds. The former are deliberate airstrikes designed to affect a large number of people, to shatter morale by leaving people out in the dark and cold. American airstrikes also claimed civilian lives, but these were collateral casualties, as the real mission was to eliminate certain threats. In the case of Moscow’s military campaign, the mission is not eliminating a military threat per se, but simply terrorizing the population.
“Drones are here to stay, we just have to get used to the idea”
It is common knowledge a lot of equipment was designed for military use, and the drones make no exception. The early drones actually coincide with the advent of modern warfare: one of the first historically documented drones was a hot-air balloon piloted remotely, built by Austrian engineers in the second half of the 19th century. The balloon was used to drop explosives over Venice. With the invention of aircraft, armies started experimenting with unmanned aircraft as early as World War I and the years that followed. Even today, research and innovation in the field of drone development are more often than not military-oriented.
But this should not prevent us from seeing the bigger picture. In fact, drones serve an inherent purpose in industry and communications that exceeds the military sector in scope. Suffice it to think of the role drones played in delivering supplies to remote areas, or their contribution in the film industry. They were even successfully used in peacekeeping military operations and for accomplishing administrative tasks far from the frontlines. “Drones are here to stay, we just have to get used to the idea”, a researcher studying UAVs said, insisting there is no turning back and all we can do is come to terms with the new reality. What is important, however, is to limit their use for aggressive purposes, destructive to mankind and civilization, to the greatest extent possible.