The first use of armed Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) was during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, when Iran deployed a drone armed with six RPG-7 rounds. Drones have come a long way since then, with armed drones being seen as central to military operations. Drones are called the magic bullet and game changer, a weapon system that would help decide the fate of nations. One of the analyses claimed that Nagorno-Karabakh was the first postmodern conflict in which unmanned aircraft overwhelmed a conventional ground force. Other claimed success of Bayraktar TB2 even led to debates about the utility and future of main battle tanks in high-intensity military operations.
A similar pattern emerged in the early weeks of the Russia-Ukraine war. Ukraine was using drones with telling effect, causing significant destruction, but always unspecified, of Russian military equipment, including tanks. John Parachini, a Rand Corporation military researcher, claimed that it was no longer the tank but the drone that may be the more powerful weapons system. Drones were said to be the weapon system for the future with fantastic kill capabilities.
After the initial euphoria, the narrative slowly changed as reports emerged that drones were becoming increasingly ineffective and the Ukrainians were scaling down their use. A Reuters report noted that objections had been raised to the proposed sale of four MQ-1C “Gray Eagle” military drones to Ukraine as there was a possibility that the drones could be shot down by Russian air defenses and the advanced technology be accessed by the Russians. Many would not have expected it, but the signs of waning influence and effectiveness were there for a discerning observer from the beginning.
In the initial days, a pattern had emerged crediting the drones with victories, citing video footage of the kills. But the number never added up, as they did not add up in earlier conflicts. A detailed study of Nagorno-Karabakh will help understand the pattern. A detailed analysis of Nagorno-Karabakh helps understand the pattern. After the war, Azerbaijan claimed to have destroyed 1,267 pieces of equipment, but photographic evidence was available only for 60 percent of these kills. Seventy-five percent of the confirmed kills were by drones. This corroborated the claim that Azerbaijan’s drones had an exceptional performance, but a detailed look at the data suggests something more. Though Air Defences (AD) accounted for only 6 percent of the total targets destroyed, it was considered adequate to suppress the Armenian AD. A look at claimed kills revealed that drones were used more to target artillery and trucks than tanks. Also, the majority of targets destroyed were of the support elements. Even the tanks destroyed were major of the armored reserves and not of front-line units. The casualties suffered by Azeris also suggest that they fought an attrition battle with a peer enemy and did not have an easy run against an enemy already defeated by massive drone strikes.
A look at Russian losses in Ukraine shows a different pattern, with tanks and armored fighting vehicles accounting for nearly 70 percent of the total losses. Followed by artillery and the frontline appears to be targeted more than in Nagorno-Karabakh, but if the details of verified kills by Bayraktar TB2s are extrapolated to illustrate the efficacy of drone strikes. A pattern similar to that observed in Nagorno-Karabakh emerges. No tanks are claimed amongst the 77 kills except seven armored fighting vehicles. The majority of targets destroyed are trucks and logistics, followed by AD systems and artillery.
Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine are not the exceptions- in that they are not the only conflicts wherein the efficacy of drones is questionable. The drone war in Syria from 2011-2020 had similar results. Turkish and U.S. AD systems repeatedly shot down several Iranian drones. In contrast, Russian Orlan-10 drones were decimated by the Turkish AD systems and the poorly equipped Jaish al-Izzah rebel forces. During the Syrian civil war, Russian AD systems suffered significant losses but neutralized most drone threats. From 2018 to 2020, Russian AD disabled over 150 drones and neutralized approximately sixty drone-and-missile attacks against its Khmeimim air base in 2019 alone. Similarly, during the Turkish counteroffensive in March 2020, Syria used Russian short-range AD systems to counter Turkish drones and managed to stabilize the balance on the battlefield. On the other hand, Russian AD systems could not always intercept incoming drones or survive their attacks though this ineffectiveness was more due to inefficient employment of AD.
The same results were observed during the Libyan Campaign of 2019-2020. Drones failed to penetrate enemy AD systems and yielded no offensive advantage. Between early 2019 and mid-2020, the Government of National Accord (GNA) lost twenty-two of its twenty-four drone operations, while the Libyan National Army (LNA) lost between one-third and one-half of its drone fleet. Notably, the stronger side (LNA) —not the weaker one—used drones more widely and with tremendous success.
A 2020 study found that drones were highly vulnerable to AD and electronic warfare (EW) systems, and that drones could used effective only if they had support from other force structure assets. The study concluded that drones did not have a revolutionizing impact on warfare.
If drones are not battle-winners and remain vulnerable to AD and EW, the question arises as to why Russians failed to counter them. The probable reasons are:
Not appreciating the real threat. The Russian Army may not have realistically valued the danger 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 danger it faces today.
Poor or lack of integration of C-UAS systems. The lack of proper grouping of both tactical and logistics elements has been seen to be an obvious shortcoming during Russian operations. Likely, the C-UAS systems may not have been appropriately integrated and echeloned with the tactical groups.
Not Following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Lapses, as they occurred in Syria in not following the SOP, may have also resulted in some avoidable losses in Ukraine.
Recent Trend in Rus-Ukraine War
Increasing inefficiency of larger drones as the AD becomes more organised and lethal. There has been a scaling down of the use of TB2 drones by Ukraine; even the proposed transfer of drones by the United States is under review. According to TASS, Russia has shot down over 1,200 Ukrainian drones to date (22 August 2022).
A greater reliance on smaller and improvised UCAS and loitering munitions. One of the smaller drones being used effectively is the R18 drone which has a 4km range, 40-min flight time and capacity to drop 5kg bombs.
Gaps in defences being exploited better by smaller drones. The large variety of smaller drones makes it difficult for Russians to intercept and jam all frequencies. Similarly, their smaller size and low radar/heat signature make them a difficult target for legacy AD systems.
Military drones are expensive to replace: a Bayraktar TB2 costs about $2 million. Ukraine had 20 TB2 drones at the start of the war and has lost at least 12 of them. It is not economical to replace them. Comparably commercial drones cost between $ 2,000 to $6,000 each. Simple economics dictate a shift to cheaper, more readily available commercial drones.
The shift to smaller drones notwithstanding, the capability of such drones won’t last forever – if Russia deploys broad-spectrum electromagnetic (EM) jamming. One drawback of these systems, which may be the reason for Russia not using them adequately, is that they may disrupt their (Russian) small drones as well. And until Russian forces bolster and fine-tune their EW capabilities, they will continue to face a swarm of lightweight drones.
Learning the Right Lessons
The era of unchecked air dominance is over. With the increased use of UAS, control of air space will become more challenging in the future. The UAS threat means that the ground forces will forever have to operate under adverse air situations. This integration of ground-based AD will become critical for ensuring the success of any plan.
EW is crucial in counter-UAS operations. However, it is not the panacea and needs to be integrated with other AD systems, including kinetic response, to counter drone threats effectively.
The drones supplement the manned aerial platforms and perform a wide range of tasks but are not ‘battle winners.’ The use of drone in combat must be studied regularly to better their capabilities and counter them.
- David Hambling, “The ‘Magic Bullet’ Drones behind Azerbaijan’s Victory over Armenia,” Forbes, November 10, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2020/11/10/the-magic-bullet-drones-behind—azerbaijans-victory-over-armenia/; and Arshaluys Mgdesyan, “Drones A Game Changer in Nagorno-Karabakh,” Eurasia Review, November 2, 2020, https://www.eurasiareview.com/02112020-drones-a-gamechanger-in-nagorno-karabakh/
- Uzi Rubin, The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War: A Milestone in Military Affairs, The Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, December 2020, https://besacenter.org/nagorno-karabakh-war-milestone/, pp 4, 5.
- Prakash Nanda, “The Big ‘Show-Down’ Of Drones – Decoding Why Super-Power Russia Is Losing The UAV War To An Impuissant Ukraine,” Eurasian Times, 21 April 2022
- Ike Stone, “U.S. drone sale to Ukraine hits snag,” Reuters, 18 June 2022 accessed at https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/us-drone-sale-ukraine-hits-snag-sources-2022-06-17/
- Antonio Calcara, Andrea Gilli, Mauro Gilli, Raffaele Marchetti, Ivan Zaccagnini; “Why Drones Have Not Revolutionized War: The Enduring Hider-Finder Competition in Air Warfare,” International Security 2022; 46 (4): 130–171. doi: https://doi.org/10.1162/isec_a_00431
- Defending Ukraine – Listing Russian Military Equipment Destroyed By Bayraktar TB2s, Oryx, 22 August 2022 accessed at https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2022/02/defending-ukraine-listing-russian-army.html
- Dan Gettinger, Drones Operating in Syria and Iraq (Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Center for the Study of the Drone, Bard College, December 2016), pp. 14–15, 134
- Antonio Calcara et al, “Why Drones Have Not Revolutionized War: The Enduring Hider-Finder Competition in Air Warfare”, 130–171.
- Jason Pack and Wolfgang Pusztai, “Turning the Tide: How Turkey Won the War for Tripoli” (Washington, D.C.: Middle East Institute, November 2020), p. 5, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/ffles/2020-11/Turning%20the%20Tide%20-%20How%20Turkey%20Won%20the%20War%20for%20Tripoli.pdf; and Chris Cole and Jonathan Cole, “Libyan War Sees Record Number of Drones Brought Down to Earth,” Drone Wars, July 1, 2020, https://dronewars.net/2020/07/01/libyan-war-sees-record-number-of-drones-brought-down-to-earth/. Also, Data are from Drone Crash Database (Oxford: Drone Wars UK, 2022), https://dronewars.net/drone-crash-database/;
- Shaan Shaikh and Wes Rumbaugh, The Air and Missile War in Nagorno-Karabakh: Lessons for the Future of Strike and Defense, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, 8 December 2020 accessed at https://www.csis.org/analysis/air-and-missile-war-nagorno-karabakh-lessons-future-strike-and-defense
- Alia Shoaib, “Ukraine’s drones are becoming increasingly ineffective as Russia ramps up its electronic warfare and air defenses,” Business Insider, 3 July 2022 accessed at https://www.businessinsider.in/international/news/ukraines-drones-are-becoming-increasingly-ineffective-as-russia-ramps-up-its-electronic-warfare-and-air-defenses/articleshow/92633146.cms