As we reach the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, you could be forgiven for thinking that the on-going conflict in eastern Europe has become the epicentre of the use of drones.
However, while the use of UAVs by Ukrainian and Russian forces has been very significant, it is important to be aware that there are real and important differences between the use of mainly small drone systems by parties in that conflict, and the use of large armed drones by other states such as the US, UK, Israel and Turkey even since the beginning of 2023.
Drones use in the Ukraine war
Over the past year, hardly a report on the war has failed to mention Ukraine’s use of surveillance drones to zero in Ukrainian artillery and rocket attacks on Russian forces or more recently, Russia’s use of Iranian so called ‘suicide drones’ to attack Ukrainian targets.
Early on in the conflict, Ukraine deployed a number of larger armed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones. Media reports at the time lauded the use of these as a game-changer and some even went so far as to suggest that use of armed drones would be strategically significant in the conflict. However it quickly became apparent that the Bayraktar drones were very vulnerable to air-to-ground missiles as many were shot-down or crashed (see our crash database) and they quickly disappeared from the battlefield. Some suggest that a few Bayraktars remain hidden and are being used covertly or kept for future operations but it is impossible to verify such claims.
Russia has at least one type of the larger armed medium altitude, long endurance (MALE) drone in its inventory – the Inokhodets or Orion (not to be confused with the much smaller and ubiquitous surveillance drone, the Orlan). However, like the Bayraktar, the armed drone seems to have disappeared from the skies after one was shot down in April 2022.
Both sides have also occasionally used very old, soviet-era unmanned aircraft such as the Tupolev Strizh or Reys as missiles.
More recently, Russia has also used systems acquired from Iran. These have mainly been the Shahed 131/136 which are technically loitering munitions that can only be used once, and have gained the moniker of ‘suicide drones’ in the press. Alongside Russia is known to have acquired Iranian Mohajer-6 armed drones (one was filmed being fished out of the Black Sea after it was shot down/crashed) and, according to US sources, the Shahed 191 /129 armed UAVS, but these have not been seen in use.
Alongside the use of loitering munitions, both sides have primarily used small, short range drones for reconnaissance and surveillance as well as targeting of artillery and rocket systems. While the use of drones in this way has been very significant – indeed perhaps the most significant use of drones for this purpose in any conflict until now – it is very different to how some states are using armed drones elsewhere.
Armed drone attacks outside of Ukraine virtually ignored
Even since the beginning of 2023, let alone the start of the Ukraine war, there has been significant use of armed drones by the states including the US, Israel and Turkey to conduct unlawful attacks. These strikes, however, only get a fraction of the amount of media attention that drone use in Ukraine has, and are virtually ignored by the international community. Read more