Conflict Defense Policy Defense Technologies Europe & Eurasia Russia Security & Defense Ukraine
New Atlanticist September 14, 2023

Ukraine’s drone strikes are a window into the future of warfare

By Mark Jacobsen

On the night of August 29, Ukrainian kamikaze drones penetrated more than 370 kilometers into Russia in a bold attack on Russian airfields. The attack destroyed two of Russia’s roughly one hundred IL-76 heavy transport aircraft and damaged two other planes. Up to twenty drones may have been involved, reportedly launched from within Russia with either the knowledge or oversight of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence Directorate. That same week, Ukrainians used cardboard drones from Australian firm SYPAQ to damage a MiG-29 and four Su-30 fighters in Russia’s Kursk Oblast. And this week, Ukraine reportedly used drones as part of a mission to destroy Russian S-400 and S-300 air-defense systems in Crimea.

Inexpensive do-it-yourself (DIY) drones such as SYPAQ’s do not have the explosive power of artillery, cruise missiles, or loitering munitions. However, these recent attacks demonstrate that small drones can still have asymmetric strategic impacts. Only a fraction of drone attacks need to be successful, and even small explosives can have outsized effects. Parked aircraft are uniquely vulnerable. Observers should wonder what the advent of these weapons means for the future of warfare.

The capability for inexpensive long-range drone strikes is not new, however. The drone technology for covert actors to cheaply penetrate deep behind enemy lines, avoid electronic and kinetic defenses, and precisely strike military targets has existed since roughly 2012. However, integrating and operationalizing the technology has traditionally required climbing a steep learning curve. This is especially true in a contested battlefield environment.

Innovative Ukrainians are rapidly ascending this learning curve in three ways: spreading knowhow, solving outstanding technical challenges, and building companies to produce turnkey solutions at scale. As the obstacles to adoption fall, observers should expect this technology to proliferate both in Ukraine and abroad. Such attacks will likely now be a routine feature of warfare.

The rise of small drone strikes

Long-range precision strike capability has long been a holy grail for both military forces and violent nonstate actors. The advent of the airplane made long-range strikes possible, but accuracy remained a problem for decades. Even with human aircrew and technological aids such as the Norden bombsight, bombing accuracy remained low in combat conditions, driving a shift away from precision bombing and toward area bombing. Numerous countries experimented with precision-guided munitions as early as World War I, but most methods relied on human input via remote control. Inventors such as Charles Draper led enormous efforts, with substantial government funding, to create inertial guidance systems that would allow a weapon to autonomously navigate to precise coordinates. The development of the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the second half of the twentieth century brought a revolution in precision navigation.

Small drone technology can be understood as the culmination of this quest for precision strike capability. Whereas a national-level effort was once required to solve the problem of precision, anyone can now carry gyroscopes, accelerometers, and GPS receivers in their pockets. Drone autopilots such as Cube or Pixhawk repackage these same mobile phone components in a specialized flight controller. Running free open-source software stacks such as ArduPilot or PX4, these autopilots can precisely and autonomously navigate airplanes, helicopters, quadcopters, ground vehicles, boats, submarines, or rockets to any point on earth. These flight controllers have many positive uses, but they also give any reasonably talented hobbyist the ability to create precision-guided munitions for less than one thousand dollars apiece. Weaponization was inevitable. I wrote in 2017 that parking aircraft worth hundreds of millions of dollars where they might be stuck by drones was “akin to lining up battleships at Pearl Harbor.” With the advances since then, that is even more true today.

The challenge of drones

Nonetheless, these long-range fixed-wing drone strikes have been slow to proliferate, which might raise legitimate questions about whether such warnings are overblown. After all, putting all the pieces together into a working operational system still requires climbing a steep learning curve. Anyone can pilot a ready-to-fly DJI quadcopter, which is why these drones are now ubiquitous on the battlefield. However, long-range missions typically require fixed-wing aircraft, which are harder to build and fly. It takes a talented team of engineers and operators to design and build reliable aircraft capable of autonomous navigation and weapons release. Much like manned aviation, a successful long-range drone flight requires a thousand details to work correctly. A single mistake can result in mission failure, a flyaway, or a crash.

Operating in a military context requires overcoming even more difficult challenges. The Ukrainian-Russian border is flooded with GPS jamming. Although off-the-shelf autopilots can navigate with a compass and inertial guidance systems, the drift rates are high enough to cause a mission failure without sophisticated custom code and other engineering hacks. The jamming environment also means that datalinks are unlikely to work; worse, a careless radio frequency (RF) transmission might be enough to invite a Russian artillery strike on the pilot. Drone engineers and operators must learn to fly “RF dark,” without datalinks at all. Although the technology to do this is readily available, implementing it is difficult. The developers of open-source drone software have deliberately avoided adding conflict-specific capabilities to their codebases, for fear of weaponization, which has forced wartime entrepreneurs to create their own solutions.

At an organizational level, operating drones at scale requires building a bureaucracy to train and equip forces. This presents a vulnerability; just as in the United States’ fight against the Islamic State’s improvised explosive devices, adversaries will attack the network of human operators.

Climbing the learning curve

Despite these challenges, numerous nonstate actors are making significant progress. The Islamic State developed a nascent fixed-wing DIY drone program, and Syrian insurgents most likely used such drones to launch attacks on the Russian airbase at Khmeimim in January 2018. Yemeni Houthis have used both airborne drones and autonomous boats to attack Saudi targets.

The Ukrainians have been particularly adept at using both air- and sea-based drones. Although many of these drones are military-grade, low-cost DIY systems are clearly also part of the mix, and the line between high-end and low-end systems has blurred. In February, Ukrainian drones penetrated deep into Russia and came within sixty miles of Moscow. In May, two explosive drones targeted the Kremlin in what Russian officials called a “terrorist attack.” Although Ukrainian officials denied involvement, US intelligence agencies believe otherwise. Ukrainians have also used drone boats to great effect, recently damaging a Russian amphibious landing ship at the Black Sea port of Novorossiysk. Last month’s attacks on parked aircraft are only the continuation of this trend.

The future of Ukraine’s drone warfare innovation

The Ukrainians are now innovating at a breathtaking pace. Three trends will make these attacks more frequent and successful.

First, the Ukrainians are spreading technical knowhow through both formal and informal channels. Government-led initiatives such as the Army of Drones have trained more than ten thousand drone operators in the past year. A large, decentralized network of engineers, operators, and businesspeople now collaborate on research, development, distribution, and employment. As Ukrainians circulate “best practices” for employing drones, the barriers to entry will fall.

Second, Ukrainian engineers are creating specialized technologies to make drones more effective on the battlefield. For example, Ukrainians have modified open-source flight control software to include sophisticated algorithms to detect GPS jamming and fall back on alternative means of navigation. Some of these systems include vision-based navigation, which is still at the technological frontier and difficult to use in practice. Ukrainians are also developing artificial intelligence-based algorithms for keeping locks on mobile targets even without a human operator.

Third, Ukrainians and foreign partners are creating new companies to provide inexpensive drone strike technology at scale. A network of more than two hundred decentralized and often independently funded drone startups now operate in Ukraine. They often manage their own international supply chains. Foreign suppliers, rightfully eager to support Ukrainians in their righteous fight against Russian aggression, are now providing turnkey solutions that lower the obstacles to drone employment. The cardboard drones supplied by Australia’s SYPAQ are a case in point. Ukraine-based One Way Aerospace, co-founded by British and Australian veterans and a Ukrainian engineer, is now pitching low-cost kamikaze drones.

In the crucible of Ukraine, knowhow is spreading rapidly, and insatiable demand has unleashed powerful market forces. As a result, long-range DIY drone strikes have become a feature of modern warfare. Even as state-controlled military forces acquire and employ higher-end autonomous systems, nonstate actors and grassroots auxiliaries will be able to acquire their own inexpensive precision strike capability. Although Ukrainians and their foreign supporters are focused on their own war, their tireless innovation will usher in a new generation of DIY drone technology. In future wars, the learning curve might not be so steep.

Mark Jacobsen is a nonresident senior fellow in the Forward Defense program of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Jacobsen is the deputy director of Blue Horizons at the Air Force’s Center for Strategy and Technology, an educational program that prepares battle-ready entrepreneurs for the US Air Force.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the US Government.

Further reading

Image: SYPAQ’s Corvo Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) costs only $3,500 per drone but the low-tech framework that is assembled like an IKEA unit holds a military-grade guidance system that soldiers can programme with a target location. SYPAQ’s Corvo Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) costs only $3,500 per drone but the low-tech framework that is assembled like an IKEA unit holds a military-grade guidance system that soldiers can programme with a target location. Conflicting reports suggest it is either made from waxed cardboard or lightweight foldable foam board. The materials mean that is harder for radar to detect than metal drones. The drone can carry up to 6.6 pounds, making it useful for dropping off ammunition. It can also be used for reconnaissance, as soldiers can simply "cut a hole" in the drone to place a camera in it. Ukraine has had access to the drones through funding announced by the Australian Government in July 2022. SYPAQ hosted a parliamentary delegation from the country in March. They inspected the production line for the Corvo. Drones have been delivered as flat-packed “capability bricks” of 100 aircraft each month. Russian military bloggers have complained that the drones were used to attack a Russian airfield in Kursk, around 70 miles from its border with Ukraine. Ukraine has stepped up its drone operations as it conducts a counteroffensive in the South and East, aiming to repel Russian forces who have invaded their territory. However, Ukrainian officials have not officially confirmed the use of the drones in any attacks. SYPAQ Chairman, George Vicino, says: “As a veteran I am so proud that SYPAQ is supporting the Ukrainian Armed Forces as they fight for their country’s sovereignty.” Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko also praised the programme that is delivering the drone. “What’s important is that not only the Australian government decides to extend the program for this particular producer but would further extend its assistance this year and would be able to procure defence industry weapons and equipment