In the early days of the war in Ukraine, drones emerged as an unexpected source of victory against Russian forces.
Stories of the success dominated the news cycle, played in multiple video clips widely distributed on social media, showing Ukraine’s drones decimating chaotic Russian advances.
Ukraine’s ad-hoc drone air force, from small consumer drones typically used for surveillance to the famous Turkish-designed Bayraktar TB2 drones, have been credited with gutting Putin’s tanks and armor.
But Russia has learned from the humiliation of drones in the first months of the invasion. Experts told Insider that drone wonder weapons are becoming increasingly ineffective because Russia has upgraded its defense systems and is shooting down and jamming many of Ukraine’s drones.
“What is happening now is that Russia’s electronic warfare and air defenses have become better organized and deployed compared to the first few months of the war,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst and expert on military robotic and unmanned systems, in the Naval Analysis Center. .
Russian forces are using early warning radar to identify drones and electronic warfare systems to jam and disrupt their communication, Bendett said.
They also use various weapons such as machine guns and air defense systems such as the Tor missile system to shoot down the drones.
Recent footage from the Russian Defense Ministry claimed to show a Krasukha-S4 electronic warfare system in action, taking out a Ukrainian drone.
According to Mark Cancian, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ukraine was previously able to use drones so effectively because Russia had not organized its defense systems.
“The drones were able to play that role because the Russians were slow to establish an air defense system. They were slow to establish the combined arms operation (armor, infantry, artillery, reconnaissance, engineers, air defense) that their doctrine required,” he said. .
Russia has better organized and positioned its ground-based air defense in the Donbas region, where the focus of the war has shifted.
Ukrainian forces are now limiting the use of drones because they are more easily thwarted by Russian troops, and losing drones can be costly.
While single-use drones like the Switchblade and Phoenix Ghost cost several thousand dollars each, TB2 drones can cost anywhere from $1 million to $2 million each.
Ukraine has received some 50 TB2 drones from the Turkish arms company Baykar since the Russian invasion began.
Ruthlessly effective in the early days of the war, TB2s have begun to be shot down by Russia, and the Ukrainian military is curtailing their use.
Reports recently surfaced that the US plans to sell US-made General Atomics MQ-1C Gray Eagle armed drones to Ukraine, which have higher capabilities than the TB2.
However, two unnamed Ukrainian Air Force pilots told The War Zone that they are not advocating the drones due to their high price tag of $10 million each, as they are likely to be shot down on their first mission.
According to Cancian, Russia’s air defenses are almost entirely short, and medium-range missiles and drones are especially vulnerable because they fly low and slow.
“Ukrainian pilots I have spoken to say that as a result, the role of drones is now limited,” he said.
Instead, Ukrainian forces have advocated modern fighter jets from their Western allies.
While Ukraine’s drones are becoming less effective in this new phase of the war, Russia is flying as many, if not more, of its drones, especially for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions, CNA expert Bendett said.
The Ukrainians lack the weapons to shoot them down, with one soldier telling The Sunday Times: “We can’t see the Russian drones, but they can see us. All we can do is hide.”
Bendett said the coming weeks will likely see the Russian military seek to better organize and continue to push forward with its offensive.
“He’s trying to get the Ukrainians into pockets around certain cities and towns and he’s just trying to push and grind the Ukrainian defenses in general. Drones are playing a key role in providing intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to the Russians so they can carry out attacks. from the ground and the air,” Bendett said.
“So we’re going to see drones on the Russian side, assuming it’s probably going to be even more important in the future, assuming the war continues as it is now.”