Eric Schmidt of Foreign Affairs tells his readers how drones fill Ukrainian skies above the 600-mile front line. The tactics Ukraine pioneered are now being mimicked by Russia and it’s turning the tide in Putin’s favor. Schmidt writes:
It’s winter in Ukraine again. The snow is piling up, the temperature is dropping, and the days are short. During the long nights, nearly two years into the full-scale war, the skies above the entire 600-mile frontline are filled with Ukrainian and Russian drones. In past centuries, the machinery of war would grind to a halt when harsh conditions pushed human endurance to its limits. The two most famous military campaigns in this part of the world—Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 and Hitler’s in 1941—succumbed to devastating casualties as the season changed. Today, the hapless infantry who still fill trenches and strongpoints across Ukraine are contending with the same unforgiving winter. But the drones that have come to dominate this war are limited only by their battery lives—shortened by the cold—and the availability of night-vision cameras.
In the early months of the war, the frontlines shifted rapidly as Ukrainian forces pushed back the Russian offensive. Ukraine held the upper hand in drone warfare, adapting commercial technologies and introducing new weapons to keep Russian forces on the back foot. Since October 2022, however, little territory has changed hands. The Ukrainian army has scored some recent wins, including precise attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and on targets deep inside Russian territory. The Russian army, too, has faced headwinds, losing the equivalent of almost 90 percent of the soldiers and equipment it began the war with, according to some reports. But Russia has also adjusted its strategy, and the conflict is now moving in its favor. Moscow shifted its defense industry to a war footing, and current military spending is more than twice prewar levels. It has also launched thousands of drones—including the Iranian-designed Shahed model now assembled in both Iran and Russia—with new capabilities to target expensive Western-supplied defenses in Ukraine.
After Russian troops first marched on Kyiv, Ukrainian forces were praised for the technological ingenuity that helped them thwart their more powerful invader. Now, Russia has caught up in the innovation contest and Ukraine is struggling to maintain the flow of military assistance from its external partners. In order to undercut Russia’s advantage in this phase of the war, Ukraine and its allies will need to not just ramp up defense production but also invest in developing and scaling technologies that can counter Russia’s formidable new drones. […]
Tides are Turning
In other ways, however, Kyiv has lost its advantages in the drone war. Russian forces have copied many of the tactics that Ukraine pioneered over the summer, including waging large coordinated attacks that use multiple types of drones. First, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance drones hover high above the ground to survey the battlefield and identify targets from afar. They then relay the enemy’s location to pilots operating low-flying, highly maneuverable FPV drones, which can launch precision strikes against both stationary and moving targets, all from a safe distance from the frontline. After these drones eliminate initial targets, military vehicles fight through minefields to begin the ground assault. Since late 2022, Russia has used a combination of two domestically produced drones, the Orlan-10 (a surveillance drone) and the Lancet (an attack drone), to destroy everything from high-value artillery systems to combat jets and tanks. Ukraine surpassed Russia in drone attacks early in the conflict, but it has no combination of drones that match Russia’s dangerous new duo. […]
Winning the Drone War
The prognosis could change with a decisive shift on the battlefield, but for now neither Russia nor Ukraine is expecting a swift end to the fighting. To avoid a protracted war, the West needs to back a concerted military effort to push back Russian forces and a diplomatic effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table. The alternative is years of further suffering for those in the war zone. While I was in Kyiv in December, ten Russian missiles were launched and intercepted by air defenses, including U.S.-supplied Patriot missiles, in the middle of the night. Fifty-two people in my neighborhood were injured by falling debris—including six children.
Ukrainians’ deep love for their country fuels their resilience and determination, even as they face constant reminders of the deadly reality of war. Putin is betting that internal divisions and divided attention will turn Western capitals away from the Ukrainians’ fight for survival as the conflict enters a difficult new phase. Only by neutralizing the advantages that Russia has gained can Ukraine and its allies prove him wrong.
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