Ukraine’s Experience in Developing Lethal Drones Should Be Lesson for NATO, Says Panel

April 18, 2024 3:41 PM
Bayraktar TB2 of Ukrainian Air Force. Ministry of Defense of Photo

Kyiv’s ability to rapidly create and field software to a homegrown community of unmanned aerial vehicles specialists is a lesson every NATO nation should take away from the war in Ukraine, the coauthor of a UAV effectiveness study said.

Speaking Tuesday at the Wilson Center, Jack Watling, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, said Ukraine, using specialists from its tech sector, has been able to make adaptations “to keep [combat UAVs] effective.”

This time frame can be as short as two weeks, especially if the Russians have downed the UAV and began to adapt their countermeasures to the technology, he added. But the Ukrainians have airframes that allow “rapid insertion of modular [software] change,” he said.

If the software isn’t changed, the paper added, “between six and 12 weeks, the adversary would have gathered sufficient data on the waveforms and techniques being used to start effectively jamming and/or spoofing the system across the front. If a new UAV control technique is used near to a specialized counter-UAV EW asset, such as the Russian Shipovnik-Aero, then the process of enemy adaptation is significantly faster – typically around two weeks.”

While the speed of getting the technology to the warfighter is there, the drawback is scale. Ukraine does not have the industrial capacity to build UAVs in the numbers that the Kremlin can. Moscow, however, struggles with a much slower development-to-fielding process,

Watling said NATO’s militaries likewise cannot make lightning-fast changes either.
He noted that as early as 2020, the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan demonstrated a lesson every military should understand: “If you don’t prepare for [drone’s impact from surveillance to long-range strike], it will go badly for you.” Azerbaijan’s heavy investment in combat drones “allowed them to conduct precision strikes – saving their ground-force strength while inflicting serious damage and casualties against the Armenian-backed forces,” according to an article in the January 2022 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

At the online Wilson Center event, Watling said low-cost and often disposable, “UAVS tend to complement artillery, ISR [intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance]” and existing platforms. He said the impact they have had on counterbattery artillery fire in Ukraine is significant.

Other UAVs for lingering ISR at altitudes between 15,000 and 30,000 feet and for precision strike are not cheap or easily replaced.

As Watling’s and Justin Bronk’s paper “Mass Precision Strike” concludes, “UAV effectiveness is ultimately dependent upon their interaction with artillery, electronic warfare, air defense and other force elements. UAVs may redistribute the balance of missions assigned to different systems, but they do not eliminate the requirement for traditional artillery.”

The cost of UAVs can vary widely, from “toys costing $150” to hundreds of thousands of dollars for long-range precision strike, Watling added.

Another key difference between Ukraine and NATO in drone warfare is Kyiv’s reliance on “a community of specialists” for planning, operating and maintaining drones rather than wide distribution among the force for more complicated operations.

In their paper, Watling and Bronk wrote, “mass precision strike should be managed by a specialist formation. This is not only because of the significant improvement in effectiveness achievable with skilled mission planning. Experience from contemporary theatres shows that almost all UAV capabilities are highly susceptible to hard counters as the adversary learns how the UAV functions; capabilities must therefore be continuously adapted and their supporting mission data files updated. This requires scarce skills such as UAV design and programming and the accumulation of data centrally. It therefore makes sense to concentrate UAV operation if UAVs are parts of a mass precision strike complex.”
Watling said these specialists also may lack basic military skills used by land forces. He added their specialist skills “are fairly scarce” in western militaries because their UAVs software may need to be changed in 48 hours. NATO UAV operations aren’t calibrated for that kind of speedy turnaround.

That speed underlines another fundamental difference in how Kyiv treats changes to UAVS during combat and how NATO regards them during peacetime. The alliance “regards them as aircraft, and aircraft standards are fairly rigorous” regarding training, operations and maintenance for many reasons, primarily safety on the ground and in the air.

Each change, he said, now requires recertification. “The speed of relevance” can disappear through the long process that would have to be constantly redone for every iteration.
Watling added these differences must be addressed legislatively and through regulations. The UAV industry also needs to examine its practices in light of what would be needed when drones with a host of capabilities are in combat.

“We need to get after that. We need to come up with good control mechanisms.”

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox