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Ukraine: Drone attacks 'huge change' in warfare, expert says

Roman Goncharenko
August 31, 2023

Every day, Russia and Ukraine use drones to attack each other's territories. US military expert Kelly Grieco told DW what this means for the current war and future conflicts.

A Ukrainian soldier holds up a drone
Ukraine has made heavy use of drone technology defending itself from RussiaImage: Wolfgang Schwan/AA/picture alliance

Drone strikes are routine in Russia's war against Ukraine. Both sides use unmanned aircraft systems to attack each other's territory on a daily basis.

DW spoke with Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, about the role of drones in the war and the future of warfare.

DW: Recently, Ukrainian drone strikes have been taking place deeper into Russian territory. Early drone strikes in late 2022 were from old, refurbished Soviet-type drones. Now, there are drone strikes on Russian territory daily. Do you think Ukraine has been preparing for this, and the recent strikes have been the result of this work in the past year or two?

Kelly Grieco: The Ukrainian drone industry has taken off in this war. According to the Ukrainian government, there are over 80 Ukrainian-manufactured drone companies at this point. And we've seen their capabilities developing and evolving over the course of the war and becoming more sophisticated and long-range.

I think that's important. You can see that Ukraine is looking to these sorts of longer-range drones that they can make inside Ukraine as an alternative to sort of long-range strike capabilities that the West is more reluctant to give to them. We're starting to see sort of the fruition of some of these projects and their ability to hit Ukraine, hit Russia or the Russian-controlled territory.

What do you know about these drones that are being used to strike Moscow? What is special about them?

Understandably, we don't know much about these systems because the Ukrainians are trying to keep that close. What we do know from pictures is there's a range of systems, some fairly large. They are not quadcopters, but larger drones that seem to be remotely controlled. Some have an autonomous capacity to fly, allowing them to fly longer. And they're working on expanding the number of explosives they can deliver.

Military expert Kelly Grieco during an interview with DW's Roman Goncharenko
Military expert Kelly Grieco spoke with DW's Roman Goncharenko from the USImage: DW

These tend to be drones that are slow and steady. And what we're seeing is a problem that's not just true to the Russians, but is true, I think, to all countries right now, which is that it can be hard to spot these kinds of drones that are flying not all that fast and are maybe trying to hide closer to the ground and some of the ground cover. And the Russians are learning that this is harder to detect.

[Russia does] seem to have some capacity to interfere with these drones electronically. That's how I suspect many of the drones crashed near Moscow, [as a result of] drone interference. There's a vulnerability there, but it's certainly delivering a message to the Russian people, as well as the Ukrainian people, about Ukraine's ability to strike into Russian territory.

There has been no war like this before. Let's imagine there are no drones. How far would we be, do you think, in this war now?

Overall, the Ukrainians have many lessons the United States military and other militaries can learn from about drone warfare. I think they've really been at the leading edge in innovation around drone use.

To answer your question about imagining this war without drones, it's hard to imagine because this has actually been an important source of advantage for the Ukrainians.

Drone strikes hit several Russian regions

At the beginning of the war, they were able to use the Turkish-made [Bayraktar] TB2 drones to strike some of those armored columns that the Russians had. It provided them with a strike capability, particularly early in the war. That was very important in slowing down the Russian advance.

And then thousands of quadcopters, which are not as expensive as something like the TB2, that Ukraine is using on the battlefield have really provided an advantage in terms of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance over the Russians and have been very important for its battlefield situational awareness and giving it an edge.

Let's talk about Russia's use of drones. Russia is also developing new systems, not just using the Iranian Shahed drones. There are reports that Russia is already assembling them on its own territory, and Ukrainians fear Russia might be ahead of Ukraine in developing new drones. What do you think of the Russian drone technologies, and how is Russia learning from this conflict to use more drones?

At the start of the war, the Russian forces were very much behind in drone capabilities. They had some more advanced military-grade drones, the Orion, which is a drone for surveillance and reconnaissance. But they were very much behind and sort of understanding the importance of commercial quadcopters and commercial technology.

The day the war started, Ukrainians began this massive online drone campaign to try to fund a drone effort. And the Russians, in a lot of respects, have been playing catch-up throughout this war. It's clear now at this point that the Russians understand the value of drones, and they've had to turn, of course, to the Iranians for some of that technology and capability. They're trying to move more of it into Russia, even if it's the manufacturing.

An apartment block in Kursk damaged by a drone strike
An apartment block in Russia's southwestern Kursk region was hit in a drone strike in late AugustImage: Kursk Region Government/dpa/picture alliance

Where do you think we are headed? There's been a clear shift from one or two to dozens of machines participating in one attack. Do you believe we are heading toward hundreds or even thousands of drones used simultaneously to hit one target?

Yes, I actually think that's where we are headed. I don't know if we'll reach that number in the Ukraine war because I hope, obviously, that this war ends sooner rather than later. But warfare, in general, is headed in that direction.

What you're describing is potentially a swarm capacity, which means that you have many uncrewed drone systems that can communicate with each other, coordinate and then cooperate in their action to attack a target. That's really a huge change in warfare.

We've seen it before, prior to World War I, this emphasis on mass and firepower, and we're seeing that movement in warfare again, moving in that direction of cheap mass and firepower, which is really making the defense very strong.

Kelly Grieco is a senior fellow with the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington. Her work focuses on US grand strategy and defense policy, addressing questions about US foreign policy, international security, military force structure, military alliances, air and space operations and the future of war. She has expertise in US military alliances and the security architectures of the Indo-Pacific and Europe, as well as current and emerging airpower strategies and capabilities. 

The interview was conducted by Roman Goncharenko.