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OPINION: Ukraine’s Ferocious Drone Arms Race

Deadly semi-autonomous drones are likely to flood Ukraine in the next six to 12 months. If Putin gets them first, experts predict a “catastrophe” for Ukraine and a woefully unprepared West.

by moneylab

What keeps Ukrainian drone experts awake at night? One thing: “smart” semi-autonomous drones.

Ukraine is in a ferocious race to be first to deploy deadly, highly advanced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), drones, en masse against Russia. If Ukraine loses this critical race, experts worry that it will inevitably lead to significant battlefield setbacks and high levels of casualty for Ukraine.

Smart drones (that use AI to enhance their capabilities) could also give Russia a big battlefield technological advantage over the West, which Putin could potentially use to attack the Baltic countries or other neighbors.

Despite the real and present danger, experts say the West is moving at a glacial pace to help Ukraine and to ramp up its own drone capabilities.

“It will be a catastrophe when the enemy starts mass producing this,” says Dmytro Prodanyuk, co-founder of the Wild Hornets, a Ukrainian nonprofit drone maker. “Military equipment at the front will become helpless. We lack the funds to develop this quickly. It’s a big problem. Ukraine needs help.” (Disclosure: The author is a Wild Hornets volunteer.)

NATO could be overwhelmed in a land war

The threat is not just for Ukraine. “NATO ground forces don’t have the capacity or experience to operate in a drone-saturated battlefield,” one Western military analyst told me. “In a land war with NATO, Russia’s drone elements would be overwhelming and inflict a lot of damage.”

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Smart semi-autonomous drones are not Terminator machines that run amok without human supervision. That kind of artificial intelligence is still likely far off in the future.

The drones use AI or machine learning technology to help their pilots to rapidly identify enemy targets and then strike them with automated guidance, akin to a “fire and forget” missile that locks onto a designated target and automatically homes in without the need for human intervention.

Such smart drones could be made to be virtually impervious to electronic warfare and hit targets with pinpoint accuracy. Strike success rates for FPV (first-person view) attack drones could shoot up from the current 30 percent to 80 or 90 percent, Prodanyuk said.

Such drones would need only limited pilot training, meaning they would be far easier to use by even more troops. The war zone could become a killing field of vast aerial armadas raining down on everything within 20 kilometers of the front line.

Smart drones likely en masse in six to 12 months

The threat is looming fast. Smart drones are likely to start flooding the battlefield within six months to a year, Prodanyuk said.

A Ukrainian FPV attack drone with automated guidance was shown striking a Russian tank in a video published online on March 20. The video was released by Ukrainian volunteer Serhii Sternenko with a call for donations to fund a further 1,300 such drones.

Russia is also working on the technology, with seemingly strong government backing. Ukraine, for its part, has pledged to make one million FPV drones in 2024 (though the final number could be even higher – perhaps two or three million). Ukraine is also mass producing long-range (1,000 kilometer plus) aerial strike drones, while its sea drones have helped put a third of Russia’s Black Sea fleet out of operation.

But much of Ukrainian smart drone development relies heavily on crowdfunding, such as campaigns like Sternenkos campaign, the Wild Hornets’ and the Ukrainian government’s United24 fund.

With Ukraine’s limited government resources, crowdfunding still buys a significant portion of drones used even by crack, well-resourced units such as Ukraine’s HUR military intelligence agency, the special forces’ 73rd Maritime Special Operations Centre and SBU military counterintelligence.

The West is a generation or two behind

Little help has come so far from Ukraine’s allies. The West has given Ukraine some drones, but only in paltry quantities many of which have limited effectiveness. Germany announced a $540-million aid package in March that included 10 high-tech Vector recon drones, a measly number considering Ukraine itself has bought 338 of these drones since Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion.

The UK and Latvia are leading a “Drone Coalition” that has promised to give Ukraine one million drones. But no timeline was given, and few concrete steps appear to have yet been taken, apart from a UK pledge to send 10,000 drones and a Latvia contribution of $11 million – enough for about 25,000 FPV drones.

Part of the problem appears to be that Western countries are themselves a generation or two behind in adapting their own militaries and arms production to the new era of drone-centric warfare.

NATO lacks drones and production

Virtually no NATO members have their own aerial, land or sea drone fleets or significant drone-making capacity. None have yet followed Ukraine’s lead to create a separate drone branch in its armed forces with the aim of training thousands of drone pilots and forming drone units in almost every brigade. Some Ukrainian brigades have taken to this with such enthusiasm that their units have been expanded to battalion size.

Ukrainian troops undergoing training in the West have been astonished to find NATO instructors disparaging drone use and not offering any training related to the tactics and strategy of drone use – a tool Ukraine’s infantry considers as indispensable as a rifle or a shovel.

The Ukrainian stance is validated by real-life data and reports from the war. Drone use by both sides has exploded since last summer, with the internet full of videos of $400 FPV drones destroying multi-million-dollar tanks, advanced air defense and other expensive hardware.

Drones inflict 80-90% of Russian losses

Ukrainian FPV and other aerial drones are responsible for inflicting 80 to 90% of identified Russian equipment losses on any given day, according to data from open-source analyst Andrew Perpetua.

FPV drones have played a critical role in helping Ukraine make up for ammunition shortages caused by stalled U.S. military aid. They were decisive in Ukraine’s bringing Moscow’s fall and winter offensive around Avdiivka to a grinding halt, helping to turn it into one of history’s most lopsided battles in terms of armor losses.

The battle saw 764 Russian tanks and armored vehicles damaged or destroyed against less than 100 Ukrainian, a ratio of almost 8-to-1 in Ukraine’s favor of, according to a March 25 tally of confirmed losses.

Ukraine currently maintains a lead over Putin’s forces in the number of successful FPV drone strikes on targets, including nearly seven times more Russian equipment targets hit during the first nine days of March, according to the Tochnyi team of military analysts.

But Russia is racing to catch up. Its monthly number of strikes has increased nearly 100-fold since last August, Tochnyi found.

West slow to react

Western nations have been slow to pivot to the radical transformation of the battlefield or Russia’s aggressive arms-making expansion and advances.

UK’s Deputy Chief of the Defence Staff, Lt Gen Sir Robert Magowan, starkly told lawmakers this week the under-resourced UK military “couldn’t fight Russia for more than two months.”

A Russian mass use of smart drones would likely tip the balance even further in a conflict with NATO, aWestern analyst said. This could especially be the case if NATO forces, fearing nuclear escalation, were to rely primarily on ground forces and refrain from using longer-range missiles and air power, their main area of military advantage.

“There will be problems for everyone”

Military strategist Benjamin Jensen, formerly of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, called this month for a rethink of approaches to military aid to Ukraine, particularly on drones.

He recommended a shift away from the current system of just sending Western weapons. Instead, he said Ukraine’s own ground-breaking drone-making should be supported, derived as it is from two years of hard-won peer-to-peer battle experience.

Jensen said the U.S. should buy drone parts en masse and supply them to Ukrainian drone-makers to reduce costs and speed supply. “Most important, the approach would build an indigenous [Ukrainian] cadre of drone experts, thus accelerating military innovation and adaption,” he said.

Back in Kyiv, Ukrainian drone maker Prodanyuk could not agree more. “Ukraine’s friends should understand the threat to Ukraine and themselves if Russia mass produces semi-autonomous drones. Ukraine is fighting this threat, but we urgently need more funds for drone research and to scale production. If we don’t have it, there will be problems for everyone.”

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

Alex Roslin is a Ukrainian-Canadian journalist writing a book on Russia’s war against Ukraine, and a volunteer with the Wild Hornets. He tweets about the war at @ArmedMaidan.

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