Ukraine now uses drones for air-to-air combat

The static frontline in Ukraine is to a large extent a result of the drone technology which favors defensive operations. Both sides are able to defend themselves, but neither is able to make large breakthroughs. It is therefore interesting that we have lately seen examples of how the Ukrainians use drones to target other drones.

It is hard to hit a drone that is flying at high speed, and it will take some time before drones can make a big difference as air-to-air assets. But it is this kind of technology that is necessary to break the deadlock, and it shows how the measure/countermeasure-dynamic drives the development of new weapons.


Lately, there have been more and more stories about how Ukraine is using drones to hit other drones in the air. So we're beginning to see drones being used in a sort of air-to-air combat role. And that is interesting because the existence of drones on the battlefield is one of the very important reasons why we have the very static situation where neither side is able to create breakthroughs. And these killer drones, they give us an idea about how the Ukrainians are thinking about that challenge and how they're trying to find solutions so they can break the deadlock. So let's talk about it.

The war in Ukraine has often been compared to the World War I because back then there was also a very static situation on the front line with trench warfare. And it is actually a pretty good comparison because what created that very static situation on the battlefield in World War I was the technological developments at the time, where certain times weapons have been developed and they favor defensive operations. And back then it was things like the machine gun and it was more accurate artillery. And they made it really difficult to make any progress on the battlefield because it was easy to sort of stand in your trench and to use the machine gun to shoot at the enemy. But it was really difficult to be the one that had to get up from your own trench and run across the field. So this created a stalemate in World War I that lasted three years because the weapons technology to such a high extent favored the defensive side. So both sides could defend themselves, but neither side was able to advance.

And the situation in Ukraine today is very similar to what we saw back then. Today we also have technological developments that favor the defensive side. And one of the technologies that do that is the drones. And in general, you can say that in land warfare, it is the nature of the battle that it favors the defender. So you have rules of thumb that say things like it takes a three to one advantage to make a successful attack. And if it's a complicated terrain like a city, then you need an even bigger advantage.

That is the nature of land warfare. It's different in maritime and air warfare there. It's generally the attacker that has the advantage. So whoever shoots first will usually win the battle. But in land warfare, it's the defender that has the advantage because they can fight from prepared positions and they can create obstacles that the attacker will have to cross while making the attack. So that's minefields and those sorts of things.

But there is one advantage that the attacker has in land warfare, and that is the element of surprise. It is the attacker that decides the time, the place for the attack. And if they do it well, then they might be able to surprise the defender. And then they can have a temporary advantage until the defender can reinforce the area where the attack has taken place.

But the development of the drone has changed that when both sides have a very high number of civilians drones, then it more or less removes the element of surprise. Because whenever one side is preparing an attack, then the other side will notice right away. So you can't concentrate forces for a surprise attack because they will be hit with the artillery fire before they even get to the front line. So in short, all these drones have taken away the only advantage that the attacker has, namely the element of surprise. And that means that the defender has all the advantages in land warfare when the battle space is so saturated with surveillance drones. And as a result of that, you get this very static situation on the front line where neither side is able to make progress.

There are essentially two elements that go into this. The first one is that you have the drones that create this very transparent battle space because they bring surveillance capabilities to the front line and they are extremely efficient. And the other one is that you need to have a lot of firepower so that you can react to the things that you see. And that's why in Ukraine we have this extremely efficient combination of drones and artillery, because it means you have the surveillance capability and you have the firepower.

That also means that if you want to do something about the situation, there are essentially two things that you can try to change. You can either target the enemy's surveillance capability, so that's the drones, or you can try to limit their firepower. We actually saw the effect of this latter approach a couple of months ago when there was the Ukrainian shell hunger. The Ukrainians still had a lot of drones, so they had the surveillance capabilities. They could see the Russians preparing for attacks, but they did not have the ammunition for the artillery. And suddenly then the Russians were able to make progress. And as soon as the Americans approved the assistance package and the ammunition started to arrive in Ukraine, then the Ukrainians again had sufficient firepower and the Russian progress slowed down.

The reason why the Ukrainian drones for air-to-air combat are so interesting is that it is a very specific attempt at targeting the other element in that equation, namely the Russian surveillance capabilities. And at this point, it's still early days. It's not the Ukrainians. They don't have a lot of it. But over time, this technology is going to be refined and the Ukrainians might be able to get these drones into serial production. So potentially, it is a type of technology that could break the deadlock that we see on the battlefield because it's a countermeasure to that technology, which is favoring the defender.

So it's an example of the kind of technology that is necessary to make it possible to again make large-scale offensive operations. We don't know, of course, if these air-to-air combat drones, if they will turn out to be the answer to the drone problem. But it's an example of how the technological development works. Right now, there is a problem because the weapons technology favors the defender. But then something will be invented that again makes it possible to make offensive operations.

And that's also what we saw during World War I, by the way. There was this very static situation because of the development of the machine gun and more powerful and precise artillery. And that sparked the invention of the tank because it was thought of as a countermeasure to those things. So maybe in a sense, we can say that these drones that the Ukrainians are working on, they can be compared to the invention of the tank.

It's, of course, not the only attempt that's happening right now at trying to figure out what kind of technological development that can sort of work to again facilitate offensive operations. So, for example, we've seen the Russians, they've come up with the concept of the turtle tank. It's basically a tank where you kind of build a metal house on top of it and then you install a lot of electronic warfare equipment on it. And the turtle tank is, of course, not as sophisticated or elegant a solution as having air to air combat drones. It looks pretty ridiculous, frankly. And it also only works against certain types of drones. That's the suicide drones. They don't really work against the combination of surveillance drones and artillery. But the turtle tank is still an attempt at trying to solve the same problem, namely how to deal with the drones so that you can again make offensive operations.

It will be interesting to see if one of the sides, the Ukrainians or the Russians, can suddenly figure out the technology that can enable them to neutralize that advantage that the enemy has in terms of defensive firepower. Because the side that figures this out first can potentially win the war. So there's a lot of stake here. And that's also why this news about the Ukrainian air to air combat drones, they've created quite a lot of concern among Russian military observers because they understand what is at stake if the Ukrainians can actually make this work and have success with this technology.

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