Unmanned and lethal Meduza's field guide to the drones being used in Ukraine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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).
Meet The Beet!
Dear readers! Allow us to introduce you to The Beet, our new weekly newsletter focused on Central and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia. Featuring original reporting and deep analysis, The Beet covers social, political, and cultural developments in these often-underreported regions, without centering Moscow, the “West,” or the latest news. Subscribe to The Beet today and get the Meduza you’ve been missing, direct to your inbox.
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.
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.