NurPhoto via Getty Images / Nicolas Economou

Send in the Quadcopters: Arm Ukrainian Citizens with Simple Drones

Ukrainians are already using consumer-grade drones to spot Russian forces. We should send more of them.

In a recent Facebook post, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense called upon citizens in Kyiv to help monitor the city for Russian soldiers—and particularly people with drones. “Do you have a drone? Then give it to an experienced pilot! Or do you know how to fly a drone? Join the joint patrol with Unit 112 of the Kyiv City Special Brigade!” It’s a great idea with tactical and strategic implications—and the United States and allied countries should help by sending simple commercial drones and spare parts to Ukraine. It wouldn’t cost much either: cheap off-the-shelf drones available on Amazon can be less than $100 (though higher-end drones can easily run a few thousand dollars each).

Such drones allow defenders to put eyes in the air, to look above buildings, trees, and other obstructions that limit line of sight, providing priceless information about an enemy’s location and forces. Drone operators can track Russian troop movements and activities, revealing vulnerable units and supply lines. 

All this allows defenders to better plan and execute actions—the time and place for an attack, and the best locations to erect or strengthen barricades and other defenses. Situational awareness also enables more complex tactics, such as seemingly spontaneous swarming attacks in which defenders attack Russian troops with Molotov cocktails, simple sabotage operations, or just thrown rocks from all directions, then quickly disperse. Drones can also sound alarms about approaching forces, to help know where and when to run.

Of course, the information coming from a drone is put to best use by troops and leaders skilled and equipped to interpret, evaluate, and add the information into the military’s broader operating picture. But any airborne eyes are better than none for even the civil defense units that are being hastily assembled in Ukrainian cities. As fighting moves into urban areas, such groups are likely to find themselves in narrow spaces. Most groups likely lack even the most basic intelligence and surveillance capabilities of a conventional military, such as dedicated scouting units or personnel.

As U.S. forces facing the Islamic State learned, drones can do more than watch: they can be modified to drop grenades or antipersonnel weapons. Indeed, much of the Ukrainian military’s existing drone fleet consists of modified commercial drones, the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 being a notable, successful exception. (Ukrainian officials have said they have received more TB-2s since fighting started.) Armed drones would allow civil defenders to carry out attacks at much longer ranges. The use of waypoint navigation – a drone flying a predesignated path based on GPS – means defenders may effectively have fire-and-forget missiles. Of course, given limited drone payloads, the harm would be relatively small and focused on softer targets like infantry. 

But once Ukrainians demonstrate that a tiny aircraft might be carrying a lethal payload, Russian troops must worry others do too. Even without explosives, simply harassing and buzzing about Russian soldiers may distract or interfere. The soldiers may wonder if it’s a random civilian or the Ukrainian military preparing for an attack. 

And in a war that will be won as much by feeding narratives with images and video, footage captured by drones can become ammunition for the defenders’ messaging campaigns. Videos and pictures can be uploaded online easily to platforms like YouTube or Facebook. Civilian drone operators are already doing so. The larger strategic value is to encourage broader resistance to Russian forces, increase the costs for possible Russian occupation, and complexity the battlespace. (Russia’s own drones have been surprisingly absent from the conflict.)

Encouraging civilians to support the military effort necessarily puts them at risk. Civilians will typically not even have basic military training and may make simple mistakes like standing in the open when throwing a Molotov cocktail. Drones can help reduce that risk. High-end consumer drones can be flown from miles away. That allows defenders to operated them from positions of relative security. Drones could be flown from cars, trucks, or other vehicles to readily flee. 

There is some risk that using certain Chinese-made drones could help Russian forces spot Ukrainian operators. But reportedly, technology used to locate DJI drone operators only narrow to a radius of a few miles. In a crowded city, that’s meaningless. Likewise, Russian counter-drone systems may allow the same, though again it’s unclear how useful the systems are. Of course, individuals have to make their own decisions, and decide whether the risks outweigh the potential benefits. 

There are definite strategic benefits. One net strategic effect is to complexify the battlefield. While Russian forces worry about continued fighting with conventional Ukrainian forces and the inherent challenges of urban conflict, drones add one more worry. Even if the direct effects are minimal, Russia would need to devote some attention and resources, to potentially include air-defense assets. Depending on the Russian ability to respond, drones may also lower Russian morale, providing a clear illustration of the inability of Russian forces to pacify Ukraine. Enough drones could feed a belief among Russian forces of being in a panopticon in which they may be watched at any time, anywhere but never know exactly. The United States experience in the Middle East is illustrative. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, has frequently warned about how cheap drones have flooded American forces and contributed to casualties. 

Of course, the mechanics of drone provision need to be worked out a bit. Simply handing out drones on the streets of Kyiv is not the best idea. Rather, the United States should work with and through the Ukrainian military, as the military already appears to be organizing and supporting irregular forces. The military may use those networks to distribute drone assets to areas in need. The United States and allies also need to consider the type of drone, and particularly whether they have geofencing. Generally, geofencing is a good thing – it prevents drones from flying over sensitive areas like military bases or nuclear power plants– but Russian forces may be occupying those locations.

Drone delivery should also be supported with training, perhaps pointing to publicly available drone tutorials. This should include basic flight operations, and safety issues. Advanced training could cover integration of drones within broader urban and civil defense tactics. In addition, the Ukrainian military may modify or provide training on how to modify drones to carry different payloads or resist jamming or other defenses. In limited cases, the Ukrainian military may even provide bomb-laden drones to civilians, provided they trust their safety and capability. 

As everyday Ukrainians take up arms in defense of their homeland, that defense should take to the air. Send a thousand Ukrainian eyes buzzing through the sky.

Thanks to Sam Bendett for providing useful input on the essay.

NEXT STORY: Give Putin a Way Out of This