Air Weapons: UAV Use Evolves in Ukraine


May 23, 2024: Earlier this year Ukrainian leader Vladimir Zelensky announced the establishment of a new branch of the Ukrainian military, the Unmanned Systems Forces or USF. Not all drones/UAVs currently used by Ukrainian troops will belong to the SUF. Soldiers would still carry their lightweight quadcopters with them. These UAVs, of Chinese DJI models, are used by the troops to see what’s over the next hill or on the other side of a forest or a town or section of a city. These UAVs can be flown through an open door or window to see what is inside a building. In rural areas the UAV can be flown into a cave and equipped with night vision, or a portable flashlight, revealing what is in a cave. These capabilities were not available before 2013 when the Chinese firm DJI began selling inexpensive UAVs designed for consumer use. The DJI products were cheap, easy to use and constantly improved with new features and less expensive models. DJI was not first with consumer grade UAVs, French firm Parrot was. DJI became the largest UAV provider because it was quicker to innovate and market more UAV models to a wider audience of potential users. Soon consumers, companies and then the military were using these small, inexpensive quadcopter UAVs.

The first military users were soldiers who bought their own quadcopters, often after they noted the Islamic terrorists, they were already fighting using them. The soldiers and Islamic terrorists were learning new ways to use the quadcopters. The military was not always willing to officially accept quadcopters for use by their troops. The soldiers thought otherwise, especially when there was a war going on. Soldiers who had used quadcopters for business or entertainment while civilians often brought their quadcopters with them when sent into combat. Most peacetime commanders prohibited the use of personal quadcopters but quickly changed their minds once they reached a combat zone.

The military wanted more rugged and better equipped quadcopters. One real problem on the battlefield was the enemy using signal jammers to sever the communications between operators and their quadcopters. To get around this you needed a quadcopter with an encrypted control signal and a backup control mechanism that either automatically brought the jammed quadcopter back to where it was launched or simply disabled the operating software and allowed the quadcopter to crash. Jamming and anti-jamming techniques continue to evolve as both sides sought to protect their own quadcopters while disabling those of the enemy. At the same time the number and variety of UAVs in the combat zone continued to proliferate and evolve. UAVs have become an indispensable aspect of combat. The battlefield is under constant surveillance and, when enemy troops or equipment are detected, they can be attacked. Quadcopters equipped with night vision or heat sensing cameras can find targets at night or in bad weather and either attack themselves or call in armed UAVs to attack the target. In many respects surveillance and attack quadcopters have replaced artillery and air strikes because the quadcopters can attack immediately when they find a target. Reporting the target locations to artillery or attack aircraft takes time, often enough time for the target to move away and take cover. Artillery and attack aircraft still have missions they can carry out more effectively but, if you want targets detected and attacked immediately, you need UAVs. This is especially true when you need better information, like exactly where the enemy is. Seemingly empty buildings, caves or trenches can be examined closely by quadcopters to discover who or what is actually there.

As UAV use proliferated during the Ukraine War it became obvious that better trained UAV operators, and more experienced commanders who knew how to deploy them, were major advantages. This is why the Ukrainian Drone Force concentrates on training UAV operators and showing commanders how to best deploy them in combat. Ukraine and Russia have the most experienced users and commanders. The Ukrainians are ahead of the Russians, who were slower to adopt and innovate quadcopter technology. The Russian military is more bureaucratic while the Ukrainians are more entrepreneurial and innovative. With the new Drone Force Ukraine will be sending better trained UAV operators into combat where they will serve under commanders that are trained to get the most out of any UAVs assigned to their unit, including those that are the personal property of their soldiers. The personal quadcopters have to be modified to operate in a jamming environment or kept out of areas where the Russians are using UAV signal jammers.

The Drone Force can also supply units with specialized UAV units containing trained operators and commanded by officers who were trained to get the most out of these units. That means knowing how to handle larger UAVs that can search areas up to a hundred kilometers distant to find targets or just enemy activity in general. The Drone Force will collect data on recent UAV usage and modify UAV design and combat procedures to improve effectiveness in combat. The side that innovates and reorganizes the fastest in response to new situations has an edge in combat. This is what the Ukrainian Drone Force was created for and, along with the million UAVs Ukraine seeks to obtain in 2024, may prove to be decisive this year.

Another advantage with the Drone Force is that it doesn’t depend much on foreign aid because most of the UAVs and equipment are built locally, often in small household workshops throughout the country. Ukraine is a country of innovators and entrepreneurs. That makes the Drone Force possible. One of the more striking successes of Ukrainians UAVs has been the use of long range attack UAVS to hit targets up to 1,500 kilometers inside Russia. These attacks have done serious damage to vehicle fuel production inside Russia as well as damaging or destroying key manufacturing facilities for military equipment. This surprised the Russians who don’t understand the Ukrainian way of coming up with ways to carry out operations the Russians believe can’t be done. Russia has found that its air force and air defense systems are unable to deal with long-range Ukrainian UAV operations.

The Drone Force plans to provide army units with drone units of various sizes to support army operations. These Drone Force units would include UAVs, trained operators, and support equipment. The largest of these units is battalion size, with several hundred personnel and dozens of UAVs and the ability to operate and modify or repair their UAVs.




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