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Samuel BendettJeffrey Edmonds
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Four months into the war in Ukraine, the Russian military has failed to achieve its original objectives of quickly taking Kyiv, the capital of the country, and installing a pro-Russian regime. Ukraine’s organized and effective resistance has pushed Russian forces out of the Kyiv and Kharkiv regions. Despite heavy casualties, the Russian military has launched a second major offensive to consolidate and expand control of the areas it holds in Donbas, in order to control all of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts.

Throughout this conflict, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and drones have played an important part in each army’s tactics. This paper highlights what we have seen to date regarding the use of unmanned and autonomous vehicles. It follows an earlier CNA paper outlining the possible Russian military systems we expected to see in this war.

Military and commercial UAV use: commercial drones emerge as a key combat multiplier

Currently, both Russian and Ukrainian forces are using military drones to strike targets on the ground, along with numerous surveillance models—both civilian and military—that provide situational awareness of the battlespace. A key evolution of today’s commercial drone technology as relatively cheap and easy to us resulted in its widespread use in numerous conflicts around the world, including the ongoing war in Ukraine.3 The use of commercial, off-the-shelf technologies is not new: civilian drones have been used in combat since 2011. The size and scale of commercial UAV usage in Ukraine speaks volumes about how easily this technology crosses into the military sphere.

By using multiple drone types and models, a defending force can complicate the attackers’ plans by constantly exposing their location and movements, and then striking targets either from the ground (via artillery, multiple-launch rocket systems, or missile batteries) or from aircraft, helicopters, and heavy combat UAVs. The Chinese-made DJI Mavic drones have played a significant role in Ukraine because of their ease of use, likely flying in large numbers, evidenced by daily social media posts and videos of Ukrainian artillery striking Russian positions that were filmed by what looked like a commercial UAV.4 The actual number of such drones is difficult to estimate, but the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) daily war briefings include ever-rising numbers of Ukrainian drones downed by Russian forces (over 1400 as of early July 2022), indicating that Ukraine is likely operating a large number of small military and commercial drones.5 Although the claim may be inflated as part of the Russian disinformation campaign, numerous social media posts showing the Ukrainian military observing and striking Russian positions probably support at least part of the MOD’s claim about this large number of “eyes in the skies” over Ukraine.

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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Cleared for Public Release


  • Pages: 12
  • Document Number: DOPDOP-2022-U-032953-Final
  • Publication Date: 7/6/2022
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