On Monday, The Washington Post ran a lengthy article focusing on the frustrations between the U.S. and Ukrainian militaries as Ukraine prepared for its 2023 counteroffensive. The U.S. advisers were frustrated that the Ukrainians didn’t accept their plans for how to best use the gear that American and other Western allies had provided. The Ukrainians were frustrated that the Americans didn’t acknowledge the challenges and limitations Ukraine was facing on the ground.
Even as U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, were pressing Ukraine to use the kind of combined arms tactics that Western militaries had been training to conduct for decades, Ukrainian military officials, including Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, were protesting that they lacked air support and simply didn’t have the experienced troops to make these strategies work. The U.S. wanted Ukraine to mount one big attack. Ukraine worried about Russia concentrating forces and wanted to make multiple attacks to keep them spread out.
But in the end, it’s not clear that any of it mattered. And the reason is drones.
We’ve been talking about drones almost from the day Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine began, when the large Bayraktar TB2 drone helped deliver some of Ukraine’s very first successes. In May 2022, The New Yorker called the Bayraktar “the drone that changed the nature of warfare” and noted that “In the defense of Ukraine, Bayraktar has become a legend, the namesake of a baby lemur at the Kyiv zoo, and the subject of a catchy folk song, which claims that his drone ‘makes ghosts out of Russian bandits.’”
But a year later, Defense News ran an article titled, “Are the once-vaunted Bayraktar drones losing their shine in Ukraine?” In that article, the Bayraktar was said to be of “limited utility” against improved Russian air defenses. Over that year, the drone that had once been all over Ukrainian reports of field actions had all but disappeared. “For the TB2, I don’t want to use the word useless, but it is hard to find situations where to use them,” said one Ukrainian commander.
Similarly, when Russia first obtained Shahed-131 and Shahed-136 drones from Iran, they became a terror for Ukraine. Rather than directing the drones at military targets, Russia launched them in nighttime waves against Ukrainian cities. On the first several of those nights, the drones were absolutely devastating, and were responsible for hundreds of civilian casualties. However, over time the Shahed drones became less effective. A big part of that was that Russia insisted on shooting them at cities where Ukraine was able to install more and more air defense systems, but as Ukrainian gunners also got more experience with shooting down the relatively slow-flying drones, they became easier targets even where there wasn’t an air defense battery on hand.
But there’s another reason the Bayraktar and the Shahed are getting less press these days. It’s the same one we talked about in August:
Over the weekend, four of those [Russian] Su-30 jets, along with a MiG-29, were destroyed by a squadron of aircraft launched from Ukraine. Those aircraft were made from cardboard and rubber bands.
It’s even more visible on yesterday’s chart of losses recorded by OSINT analyst Andrew Perpetua.
Look at what’s been taken out along the left side of the chart: tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, supply trucks. Now look along the right-hand column and see what left them dead or damaged on the battlefield. On this single day, at least 45 large pieces of mobile equipment were immobilized by drones that probably maxed out in price at around $1,000. There’s just one custom-made Russian Lancet drone on the list. Everything else was taken down by either an FPV drone driven by someone wearing VR goggles or a quadcopter drone dropping an explosive. The quadcopters started out as dominant, but now the FPV drones are far and away the most common.
When I made the first field guide to drones in this war in November 2022, FPV drones did not even get a mention. A year later, they aren’t just the most common drone on the field, they are the most important weapon in this fight.
Right now, FPV drones are extremely cheap. Training someone to use one requires about as much effort as teaching them to play Mario Kart, and they can carry explosives powerful enough to take out a tank. Skilled FPV operators—and both sides are growing an ever-larger group of skilled operators—can fly one of these drones into an open hatch, through the door of a house, or into the most protected areas of a trench.
If they spot you, they can kill you. And they can hover a few hundred feet in the sky, unseen and unheard, until they spot you.
Drones in 2023 are where trenches were in 1914. There are a lot of them. They are getting more numerous by the day. They are defining the nature of combat. And no one knows how to stop them. Current levels of anti-drone equipment, whether that’s specially designed guns or electronic warfare, are patently unable to put a dent in what’s happening at the front in Ukraine.
FPV drones are playing a huge role in making every potential advance into a nightmare.
Yes, minefields certainly played a role in stopping Ukraine from making a genuine breakthrough along the southern front. So did artillery. But that’s only because those minefields were backed by ubiquitous surveillance drones guiding both FPV drones and artillery strikes.
It doesn’t matter whose strategy you use. Russian meat waves, Western combined arms, or Ukraine’s something-in-between: Any effort to break through right now is at the mercy of hundreds, if not thousands, of FPV drones swarming every moment like nightmare hornets.
Someone will figure this out. We can only hope it’s Ukraine.
Here we are again in Avdiivka with a map from Deep State that looks very much like the last Deep State map we saw of this area over a week ago.
Looks are deceiving in this case. In fact, they are deceiving for a couple of reasons.
Since the last time we visited Avdiivka, Ukraine has pushed across those rail lines east of Stepove (top center in this map) and threatened a concentration of Russian forces in that area. Then Russia spilled back across the rail line at three points, capturing most of Stepove and driving about half a kilometer out into the fields to the south. Then Ukraine came back and pushed Russia back again. And that’s the second deceptive thing because as far as I’m aware, Ukraine’s position at the moment is much better than this map reflects. Ukrainian forces surged through Stepove and those empty fields, driving Russia back across the rails at the north end, liberating most of the remains of Stepove village, and largely clearing the wooded areas on the flanks of the rails.
What may be more surprising is that they did this not with FPV drones, not with liberal use of artillery, and not with the kind of small unit infantry tactics we’ve seen frequently in this area. Most accounts of Ukraine’s advance in this area single out just one type of vehicle.
In the past few weeks, there has been increasing praise for the Bradley from Ukrainian sources. Unlike Western tanks, which have sometimes been magnets for Russian drones and artillery as soon as they appear on the scene, the Bradleys have been agile, effective, and done a fantastic job of protecting their crews.
And don’t forget, they’re also great on the inside. (A definite warning for those who watch this video to the end.)
The U.S. happens to have a lot more Bradleys available (an estimated 2,000 in storage). If only we could send them.
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