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Ukrainian UkrJet reconnaissance drones at an airfield near Kyiv in August 2022

Unmanned and lethal Meduza's field guide to the drones being used in Ukraine

Source: Meduza
Ukrainian UkrJet reconnaissance drones at an airfield near Kyiv in August 2022
Ukrainian UkrJet reconnaissance drones at an airfield near Kyiv in August 2022
Sergei Supinsky / AFP / Scanpix / LETA

It was exactly one year ago that American intelligence first noticed Russia transferring military equipment from the country's interior to its Western border. At the time, many believed the troop buildup was the Kremlin’s response to the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ first use of a Bayraktar drone in the Donbas combat zone: on October 27, 2021, one of the Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) had launched a high-precision strike on artillery positions in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (and likely missed its target). The Kremlin called the attack a violation of the Minsk agreements — and just a week later, began the concentration of forces that culminated in Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. As many experts anticipated, the conflict has become a full-fledged drone war — but few predicted which drones and which tactics would prove to be the most effective.

In this article, our editors attempt to assess the military situation in Ukraine based on the available data. Meduza opposes the war and demands the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.


In late 2021, Ukraine received several dozen Bayraktar reconnaissance and attack drones, ground control stations, and high-precision ammunition from Turkey, making the Bayraktar the Ukrainian army’s primary combat drone. At the time, the Turkish weapon had a mixed reputation: while it appeared extremely effective in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, when the Azerbaijani Defense Ministry regularly published photos of strikes on Armenian forces, the drones appeared vulnerable to air defense systems (built in part by Russia) in Syria and Libya.

Ukraine’s experience fighting Russian invaders has mostly confirmed that Bayraktars are unreliable as a main striking force when facing an army with an advanced air defense system: judging by confirmed photo and video evidence, Ukraine has lost at least 15 of the drones, while only a few videos show them successfully carrying out strikes. Even Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky himself has spoken about the Turkish weapons’ relative ineffectiveness.

Since the spring, Ukraine has used Bayraktars primarily as reconnaissance tools: thanks to the weapons’ powerful electro-optical systems, which can distinguish targets from dozens of kilometers away, the drones can conduct reconnaissance missions that allow the Ukrainian military to launch targeted strikes from other weapons without having to get close enough to trigger air defense forces. This is likely how Ukraine launched its attack on the Moskva warship in May.

A Bayraktar strikes Russian military vehicles on Snake Island in May 2022
Ukrainian Navy


Before the start of the full-scale war, Russia didn’t have any UAVs as powerful as the Bayraktar; in addition to drones themselves, it lacked the serial motors that allow drones to carry large loads, as well as high-precision bombs and small missiles.

Russia’s unmanned air fleet before the war was made up primarily of Orlan-10 and Orlan-30 reconnaissance drones, which were assigned to the army's artillery units. The weapons’ main benefits were their low cost (for example, they used foreign-made civilian cameras for their electro-optical systems) and their high flight range, which allowed them to conduct long-term reconnaissance missions. In addition, the drones were equipped with extra tools such as Krasnopol laser-guided artillery weapon systems and Leer electronic warfare systems, which can intercept cell phone data.

The main problem with the Orlan drones was the way Russia used them: the vehicles effectively belonged to Russia’s large artillery units (and effectively became the Russian army’s main tool for trying to crush the Ukrainian army in the Donbas this summer) — and thus were unavailable to assist the army’s forward units by conducting reconnaissance. In addition, like Ukraine’s Bayraktars, Russia’s Orlans were vulnerable to air defense systems: at least 92 Orlan-10s and Orlan-30s are confirmed to have been downed by Ukraine’s air defenses (several thousand were manufactured in total).

The Ukrainian Armed Forces, in turn, has been taking advantage of NATO-provided reconnaissance drones, which constantly “hang” around Ukraine’s borders and over the Black Sea. This intelligence-gathering (as well as that of Western reconnaissance aircraft) likely plays a key role in keeping Ukraine’s military leadership informed of Russia’s plans and troop distribution.

Russian Defense Ministry / TASS
Ukrainian fighters fire at a Russian reconnaissance drone in Kyiv in March 2022
Fadel Senna / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Ukrainian fighters fire at a Russian reconnaissance drone in Kyiv in March 2022
Fadel Senna / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
A Ukrainian soldier with the pieces of a shot-down Russian Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone
Ueslei Marcelino / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Small UAVs

Both the Russian and Ukrainian armies quickly realized their advance forces needed man-portable drones that would allow them to conduct reconnaissance, provide target information to artillery and tank forces, and, on occasion, independently launch strikes on detected targets. In fact, the Ukrainian army figured this out during the fighting in the Donbas in 2014–2015. Ever since then, both the Ukrainian Armed Forces and various NGOs have been working to keep the country’s forces stocked with commercial drones. The Russian military, meanwhile, didn’t officially start using small drones until February (though the self-proclaimed “Donbas republics” began using them earlier). In the spring, however, thanks to various “volunteers” as well as regional governments (with the tacit approval of the Russian Defense Ministry), the weapons became a part of Russia’s arsenal.

Eight months after the start of the full-scale war, it’s no longer possible to imagine the conflict without small drones: infantry would be fighting blindly, mortar launchers and artillery would be unable to strike protected targets (such as trenches and foxholes) even with massive ammunition expenditure, and armored vehicles would be defenseless in the face of anti-tank weapons. Both sides have also begun using small drones to drop improvised munitions — usually various types of grenades with 3D-printed stabilizers.

Ukrainian activists gather commercial drones for the Ukrainian military in Lviv in April 2022
Aleksey Filippov / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Ukrainian volunteers provide target information to a platoon of snipers in Marinka on the outskirts of Donetsk. May 2022
Wojciech Grzedzinski / The Washington Post / Getty Images
Ukrainian snipers move into their firing positions in Marinka on the outskirts of Donetsk, guided by information gathered by a drone. May 2022
Wojciech Grzedzinski / The Washington Post / Getty Images
A photo taken from a drone in May: the remains of Russian armored vehicles that were destroyed by Ukrainian artillery in March in Bucha. The strike was set up with the help of a drone.
Jorge Silva / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Ukrainian soldiers prepare munitions for a small drone. September 2022
Juan Barreto / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut equip a commercial drone to drop homemade munitions. September 2022
Juan Barreto / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
Mobilized soldiers in Russia’s Zabaykalsky Krai learn to use a commercial drone outfitted to drop grenades. October 2022
Yevgeny Yepanchintsev / TASS

Kamikaze drones

The biggest shortcomings of small drones are their short battery life, their sensitivity to the weather, and their inability to carry large loads. At the same time, troops need strike systems that allow them to reduce the amount of time between identifying a target and striking it. Reconnaissance drones aren’t always able to do their job because their opponents frequently change their positions: while reconnaissance drone operators convey information about enemy artillery or mortar positions and troops calculate where to aim, their targets often relocate. Mobile targets — such as artillery and multiple launch missile systems — must be struck immediately if they're to be struck at all.

On this front, the Russian military has an advantage: relatively cheap (compared to Bayraktars) kamikaze drones with television guidance systems (the KUB-BLA and the ZALA Lancet from the Kalashnikov Concern arms manufacturer) were developed and made operational before the full-scale war. Judging by the frequency of their use, however, these drones weren’t manufactured on a large scale until after the February invasion. Now, Russian forces actively use kamikaze drones against Ukrainian air defense systems in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Iranian drones

The brain fog of war ‘We all know they’re Iranian, but the government won’t admit it,’ Russian arms expert blurts out on live TV

Iranian drones

The brain fog of war ‘We all know they’re Iranian, but the government won’t admit it,’ Russian arms expert blurts out on live TV

At the same time, the Russian army still appears not to have acquired kamikaze drones with television guidance systems from Iran, though it still could — and a large amount of these weapons in Russian hands could change the course of the war.

The Ukrainian military clearly has a shortage of kamikaze drones: The U.S. has provided it with Switchblade-300 systems, which are unable to strike protected targets, but not Switchblade-600s, with larger stronger armor-piercing warheads. Ukrainian forces appeared unimpressed with the Switchblade-300s, which haven’t shown up in footage from the battlefield in several months.

American Switchblade 600 kamikaze drones at a showcase in Paris in June 2022. Ukraine has not received these drones, though Washington has promised to provide them.
Michel Euler / AP / Scanpix / LETA
Kamikaze drones from Kalashnikov Concern at a showcase in Russia in August 2022
Maxim Shemetov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
Russian forces launch a KUB-BLA kamikaze drone in Ukraine in June 2022. In recent weeks, Russia has increasingly been using these drones to attack mobile targets behind the front lines
Alexander Ermochenko / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

‘Strategic’ kamikaze drones

Before the full-scale war in Ukraine, Russia’s command appears to have believed that the best kamikaze drone is a missile. Moscow spent massive amounts of money on missile armaments — from small air-based missiles with external guidance systems to strategic and cruise missiles. After the war started, however, the country rapidly exhausted its supply. After that, Russia began relying on an approach that was pioneered by Iran in the Yemeni Civil War: large kamikaze drones launched by Tehran’s Yemeni allies successfully carried out strikes on Saudi Arabian oil facilities being guarded by American air defense systems. Now, Iran is providing Russia with similar drones by the hundreds, and Russia is using them to attack strategic Ukrainian infrastructure (primarily energy infrastructure).

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These drones (officially called Shahed 131 and Shahed 136) are controlled using GPS and GLONASS (Russia's analogue to GPS). They carry warheads weighing approximately 30 kilograms (about 66 pounds) and are notable for their simple design and low price. At the same time, they easily evade Ukrainian air defense systems; unlike missiles, the Iranian drones don't announce themselves when launched. This means that in order to detect the drones, defense systems must constantly monitor the surrounding airspace with radar, which reveals the systems’ own location to the Russian army. In the past, Ukraine’s army is believed to have preferred an ambush approach, only turning on its radar once it knew Russian forces had launched a missile or taken off in a plane.

A circuit board from the guidance system of a downed Shahed-136 kamikaze drone in kharkiv, October 2022.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
A Ukrainian police officer examines the ruins of a Shahed 136 kamikaze drone.
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
The aftermath of a Shahed 136 kamikaze drone airstrike on a warehouse in Kharkiv. October 2022
Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA
A Shahed-136 kamikaze drone dives towards a target in Kyiv. October 2022
Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP / Scanpix / LETA
The aftermath of a kamikaze drone strike in Kyiv. October 2022
Gleb Garanich / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Commercial drones used by journalists

Drones have also allowed many of the war’s key moments — as well as evidence of war crimes committed by the Russian military — to be filmed and photographed.

A drone shot of Russian soldiers at a captured Ukrainian position, May 2022
Pavel Klimov / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

This image may be disturbing.

A drone shot of a downed Russian helicopter and the body of the pilot in the Kyiv region. April 2022
Efrem Lukatsky / AP / Scanpix / LETA
A drone shot of destroyed homes in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv. May 2022
Carlos Barria / Reuters / Scanpix / LETA

Story by Meduza

Translation by Sam Breazeale

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