Defense One Radio, Ep. 99: The role of drones in Russia’s Ukraine invasion

Two drone researchers explain some of the lessons we’ve learned about drone-assisted warfare after almost three months of war in Ukraine.

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Guests include:

  • Faine Greenwood, unmanned systems researcher;

  • Samuel Bendett, adviser with CNA Strategy, Policy, Plans and Programs Center, where he is a member of the Russia Studies Program.

A transcript of this episode is below.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is very visibly sending thousands of missiles and rounds of artillery at buildings, malls and homes across the democratic country. But not so visibly, there’s been a much quieter drone war taking place across much of Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February. 

And just this week, Ukraine’s military said it used its drones to sink two Russian patrol boats in the Black Sea. It shared black and white footage of the alleged incident, which showed one of the boats turning at a sharp angle to steer away from something just before the drone’s missile impacted in a fiery explosion. 

Two days later, Russia’s military claimed it had shot down more than a dozen of Ukraine’s drones—though it didn’t specify if they were larger ones like were used in those Black Sea incidents, or if the drones Russia shot down were small, off-the-shelf types that we’ve discussed many times in the course of this podcast. 

Russia-watchers and policy wonks knew drones would play a part in Ukraine’s defense in the face of the invading Russian army. But almost none of them thought Russia would struggle to contain the drone threat as poorly as it has for the first two months of the war. 

Today we’re gonna talk about some of the things we’ve learned about the still-growing use of drones—and that’s drones of all kinds—during Russia’s invasion so far. It’s been almost 10 weeks since it began. And that’s been enough time for apparently benevolent supporters on both sides to send over drones like you’d buy at CostCo, or Best Buy, or on Amazon. It’s also been enough time for a major manufacturer like the Chinese drone maker DJI to feel compelled to issue a major announcement suspending sales of its drones for consumers in both Russia and Ukraine. That update was announced just last week. 

The next day, I rang up two drone researchers to help unpack some of the lessons we’ve learned about drone-assisted warfare after almost three months of war in eastern Europe. 

Greenwood: My name is Faine Greenwood. I am a researcher and consultant on drone technology focus, especially on civilian drones. And I've been doing a lot of research on how small drones have been used during the Ukraine war so far.

Bendett: I'm Samuel Bendett, and I work at the Center for Naval Analysis’ Russia Studies program. I'm also an adjunct senior fellow for the Center for New American Security. I look at the development of Russian military technology, the use of Russian weapons and systems and conflicts and pay really close attention to the Russian and Ukrainian news for the UAVs, drones and other technology. 

Watson: I want to begin with Sam. And I'd like to go back to February 24, day one of Russia's invasion. At that point. How did you expect Russia would use its drones and unmanned systems? And how close have they come to meeting your expectations in the nine weeks since?

Bendett: That's a great question. We knew that the Russian military has been practicing and using unmanned aerial vehicles in the sky to provide intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance capabilities, to adjust fires, to provide target acquisition. This is something that they were exercising for years in Russia. This is something that they were using in Syria for a number of years. In the opening days of the war, there was certainly a lack of this mass scale capability even though we know the Russian military had and had prepared for it. And that was a bit surprising. The drones began appearing, I think, after the first week, as they were shot down by Ukrainian defenders, indicating to us that in fact, Russians are following this concept of operations. And then they started to use tactical, short-range and long-range drones for gathering information and the Ukrainian defenders and for adjusting their own attacks. Again, we expected the Russian military to use these on a much larger scale. And I think we're seeing that right now, two months into the war—not in the opening days.

Greenwood: So I was certainly expecting Ukraine to use small consumer drones pretty widely because I knew about how drones have been used on the border in the Donetsk region since 2014. Since that war, since the Russian invasion of 2014, Ukrainians have been really innovative and successful with using both cheap consumer drones, as well as custom-built, DIY Drones. There's a pretty big contingent of people with aeronautical knowledge and also people who were in that hobby drone community that really started to kick off globally in 2010. So there was a lot of existing expertise that since 2014, has been used to develop specialized drone units who were using drones quite widely on the border during the war, that kind of a colder war with Russia for many years. So I was expecting that to happen. Now, I think what I have been surprised by has been the extent of it; I've really been surprised to see how widely-used the drones have been. I expected perhaps to see a [smaller] number of incidents; I didn't expect to see hundreds and hundreds. I've been tracking them and the spreadsheet that I've been compiling since the war began. And it's been pretty stunning to see how extensively they've been used. And finally another interesting thing is that drones are being used very widely by journalists within Ukraine. A lot of journalists have been using drones for setting the scene. There's been a lot of incident instances of that as well, which has been interesting to witness.

Watson: Faine, you found a few videos of Russian-backed elements unboxing, Chinese-made DJI drones, like last week or so you shared them on your Twitter account. DJI then announced on Tuesday, April 26, that they're pausing sales of their drones to Russia and Ukraine. But in the videos, those drones were pretty much all from donors, is that right?

Greenwood: Yes, that's what they claimed to be from. And really, we've had evidence Russians using DJI products since the beginning of the war. I look back at some of the earlier examples from the very beginning—there have been cases reported by the Ukrainians and then also examples of information videos posted by Russians to telegram channels of DJI drones being used. I think people have been aware for quite a while and I've been fairly regularly posting. But I do think there has been an increase, at least in the publicly available information about this in perhaps the last two, three weeks. And I think the claims from these DPR [Donetsk People’s Republic] and LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic] Telegram accounts are that these are being donated by civilian groups. There was even a post a few days ago that I found rather interesting, I believe from either DPR or LNR, I'd have to look it up, claiming that there were issues with the Russian authorities or Russians allowing them to bring these DJI drones to the troops in Ukraine. So there might be some sort of attempts to—not just drones, I think it also tends to pertain to other materials as well; but it's interesting that it implied that there might be some pushback from the Russian higher ups about these donations from civilians of various kinds of equipment. Again, it didn't seem to be restricted just to drones; but that was an interesting observation.

Watson: It reminds me of what I had read last week from Ukrainian officials. They were talking about the openness of American drone companies moving in there because Ukrainian officials believed strongly in the security vulnerabilities of DJI drones. And in particular, they had noted an episode where it was a system DJI puts out for drone monitoring, I forget the name of it at the moment.

Greenwood: Aeroscope. 

Watson: Okay, there we are. And Ukrainian officials had said, it didn't turn on as it should have, which seemed to indicate, you know, in their eyes, a degree of collusion with the Chinese made product and the Russian Federation. 

Greenwood: Yeah, so that Aeroscope story was really big in the early days of the war. Now, here's the thing we really far as we can tell—and I believe DJI’s perspective on this—it wasn't actually a technical issue related to them, I think, failing to update the firmware. The power went out, the Aeroscope lost power; they tried to go back on, they were then getting an error message about firmware updates. And again, this is secondhand information, so what I heard actually happened. I think they might have assumed this is tampering, which I can't really blame them for. But the fact of the matter was that DJI then worked with them to get the system back up and running. That's what DJI has told me and has told others, and that's what I believe to be true. And to this day, I don't think any of us have seen really compelling evidence of Aeroscope being used to ID people on either the Russian and Ukrainian side. It doesn't mean it's not happening; it simply means we don't really have concrete evidence at this point in time of that happening. I get the impression that DJI is very reluctant to take a side, and I don't get the sense that DJI would be doing something quite as, let's say, sloppy as intentionally disabling Aeroscopes. But I think the general consensus is, too, that it may not even be technically possible for DJI to disable Aeroscopes remotely, even if it wanted to. 

Watson: What are your thoughts on this kind of development with, you know, shutting down sales, I guess it's suspending temporarily sales to Russia and Ukraine.

Greenwood: So my thoughts on the matter are that, again, with the limited data we have now, it sounds like it's merely suspending business operations and they're not going to be importing or bringing in new equipment or new supplies, which honestly, from my point of view, might be something that benefits Ukraine more than Russia, because Ukraine wasn’t reliant upon internal vendors for DJI products at this after the war began. I mean, Ukraine has largely been reliant on I think, upon people bringing drones DJI drones over the border anyway. And they’ve got a lot of people that are willing to do so for volunteer organizations and all; there's plenty of ways for that to happen. Whereas Russia, of course, doesn't really have that advantage as much of having an easily accessible border filled with volunteers willing to do that. Now Russia, of course, is a huge country, there's lots of DJI users in the country, I'm sure there's lots of DJI supplies in the country, it might take awhile for those to run out. But the fact of the matter is that I think they might be impacted more, especially as you know, supplies of existing DJI products that are available for sale on the market in Russia run out. Now, here's the thing we just don't know a lot of DJI means by that other than we can assume safely assume that means that won't be bringing in work of any kind. Does that mean they're going to even maybe geofence activations? There are ways that they can prevent drugs from being activated in certain locations. Because in that process, the DJI drone does need to connect to the DJI servers. However, the fact of the matter is that again, for the Ukrainians, that's not probably not a huge impediment to get around, because if you're trying to get a drone in Ukraine, you can just activate it outside of Ukraine, then hand it over across the border. Now, the big other big move they can make, and again, it doesn't seem like they've done that yet, or that they're planning to do this, but this has been discussed in the beginning—is they could put a geofence over both Ukraine and Russia, which would then prevent drones that are connected to the internet from flying in those areas. Now they haven't done this yet. We don't know they're going to do it; I kind of suspect they won't, but I could be surprised. They have precedent for doing this. They did this in Syria in I believe 2017; I believe parts of Iraq in 2017. So they've done it before, but I would be surprised if they do it now. And I think that was the main geofencing wild card questions that I think about what will happen with DJI products. And remember, even if a geofence is put up, it's pretty easy to get around a geofence. Especially if you have some technical savvy—there are hacker groups and hacker organizations that will sell you—actually I think some of them are giving them away for free to people in Ukraine in Russia, that allow you to get around these geo-fences and kind of disable that. And also, it's possible, of course, to use the drone not connected to the internet and that you would now get that geofence update. You could continue using the drone. So there are certainly ways to get around that.

Watson: Looking to the recent past—and Sam, I'm going to turn to you—what linkages, if any, do you see to the lessons of the Armenia and Azerbaijan conflict? It was sort of known for its use of drones and loitering munitions and Soviet weaponry. Are there any kind of linkages that you see to the current situation in Ukraine?

Bendett: The Russian military paid very close attention to what was happening in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. There were a lot of lessons learned and lessons written out. Again, some of those lessons were applied in Russia, but obviously not at scale. And that's another one of the kind of mysteries about the first month of this conflict, in that a lot of the potential that was built up up to February 24, wasn't really utilized for one reason or another. So right now, what we're seeing in Ukraine is Russian utilization of a small number of its medium-altitude, long-endurance drones—the equivalents to Bayraktar, such as the Orion drone; but they've been very few strikes, and very limited usage. We're also seeing limited usage by the Forpost drone as well, which has been converted to combat version. This is the drone that usually provides intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance up to a distance of about 250 kilometers. We're also seeing limited use of Russia’s loitering drones, and that's the KYB drone that has been sighted. And there's evidence of at least three or four of these crashing; some did not explode as planned; others may have been jammed, or covered by different types of Ukrainian air defenses, or even maybe electronic warfare. One of the biggest advantages for the Azerbaijan military in the Nagorno-Karabakh war has been large-scale use of these drones with ground forces in combined operations. We're seeing some use of these type of roles in Russian armed forces that are fighting in Ukraine, but not by a significant margin. And so the majority of the Russian drones used and shot down and lost over Ukraine are still sort of like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance drones like the Orlan-10 and the Eleron, and others sort of that belong in the same ISR family. 

Watson: We're talking about unmanned systems. So it's hard not to talk about Turkey's contributions here has have those models, you mentioned them. They're sometimes called the TB-2; have these lived up to or exceeded your expectations?

Bendett: I think in the context of this war, and in the context of what we're seeing on social media, I think certainly we've got to the expectation. Again, this is not an invulnerable vehicle, it did get shut down by more advanced air defenses in Libya, in Syria and in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict. Russia, Russian military certainly destroyed a number of these TB-2s as well. But the TB-2 has had a very significant psychological effect as well, because as has been noted earlier, each TB-2 strike against a Russian military column was multiplied exponentially in social media, creating the impression that the TB-2s are invulnerable to fair defenses and congest operate at will. But there's also the other side of this, and that is a successful use of TB-2s that can penetrate air defenses can create a very significant dilemma for the Russian military and the Russian government. Because today, there's supposedly evidence of a TB-2 crashing, deep inside Russia several 100 kilometers from the Ukrainian border; and so the question is how did it get there? Did it actually penetrate Russian air defenses? And was it able to fly unimpeded until it was shot down on its way to completing the mission? Each TB-2 successful strike, successful mission kind of multiplies its own mythology that this drone is a perfect solution for many militaries looking for this type of capability. Again, it's not invulnerable. It does have its own vulnerabilities. But if used successfully and if obviously, if it’s part of a successful information campaign, this drone certainly has become one of the key assets for the Ukrainian military. I also want to kind of circle back to what Faine was saying and the earlier questions. The Russian military was saying that they wanted to incorporate quadcopters in their forces back in 2019. And then 2020, there was news coming out of the Ministry of Defense that actually talked about these types of quadcopters now sort of entering different units across the Russian military. I think the big question is, what kind of quadcopter that the Russian military was talking about—whether it was talking about its own quadcopter, which is manufactured by Zala, which is part of Kalashnikov; we've seen some of the Zala drones in use by the Chechen forces—or whether it was actually talking about Chinese-made DJI drones that have been somehow converted to military use? And now what we're seeing instead of this almost organic meshing, organic integration of commercial tactical, DJI drones with more military grade Russian drones, which fly higher and longer, they can conduct their own set of eyes on missions, and I think we're, even with the DJI pull out of the Russian Ukrainian markets. This isn't the end of the DJI use in the Russian military, not by a longshot.

Watson: By most accounts, Russia is coming out of this conflict, or at least what we understand of it after nine weeks, as a significantly diminished military. What do you expect, Sam, from sanctions, as far as the future of Russian unmanned systems research and development and fielding, etc?

Bendett: It's definitely a moving target. There's every indication that the Russian defense industrial complex and its more high-tech, IT components are going to be impacted by the sanctions because a lot of the acquisition of key materials, key software and hardware, was actually part of the global supply chains that the Russian military was also using—imported components microchip, semiconductors, and other key components for the missiles for the aircraft or drones for for other military systems. So there's going to be an impact. How exactly effective and how big of an impact it will be, I think remains to be seen. Everything is in flux right now within the Russian government as it's trying to find solutions applied to the capability gaps in software, hardware, and other IT components. What's important right now is the is a switch in the government rhetoric in Russia, with lots of members of government actually talking about switching wholesale, to the domestic solutions wherever, whenever possible, especially when it comes to software hardware and more high-tech solutions, and other Russian government members saying that the time has come to end the reliance on any significant imports of Western technologies, because that has created massive vulnerabilities for the Russian defense industrial supply chains and end-user manufacture. So we're going to see this kind of churn in the next couple of months and some industries will be able to adapt faster than others. On the civilian side, I should note that some projects were frozen; some projects were stopped; some projects were canceled; some projects are not going through—we're talking about IT, software and hardware projects. The same is probably true on the military side, although we don't have a good aperture on that because a lot of these projects are classified. A lot of the weapons and systems are spoken for this year, that means the money and the material has been allocated earlier. And so they will not be an interruption or disruption. But six months to nine months from now, we may see some of the significant effects from the sanctions having an impact on the defense industrial sector.

Greenwood: Yesterday, actually, there was this great tweet by the Ukrainian government claiming showing a picture of soldier holding one of the anti-drone “guns,” claiming that they were able to—the Ukrainian special forces were able to take a drone down, presumably flown by the Russians, that they determined the place of its launch and the presence of an enemy sabotage and reconnaissance group nearby. And then they were, again, the implication is that they used those coordinates to actually take out that Russian group. I think that's the first case that I've seen. Sam, feel free to jump in here. But I think that's the first case that I've seen so far, one of these anti-drone guns being used in the field. It's also an interesting case of where, presumably, again, the implication here is that the Ukrainians pulled the data off the drone and used that to identify who had launched it, which is actually really easy to do with these consumer drones. Because while the link between the drone and the controller is encrypted, the data that's on the drone, or usually is contained on an SD card, is not encrypted. So if the drone has been shot down, anyone can pull that SD card off and look at what's on there, which is obviously a security vulnerability, a considerable security vulnerability. So that's what this tweet implies. I'm just interested in what you made of that tweet as well, Sam, and if you have any other thoughts on that?

Bendett: Yeah, I'm actually surprised that we’re not seeing a lot of Russian tactical counter UAS systems on the frontlines, as well. But prior to the war, the Russian defense sector developed at least three or four counter-UAS rifles—and one that should have made their appearance in Ukraine. Apparently, some were tested in Syria and apparently Russian MOD claimed that the tests were rather successful. So again, it was surprising that there was no open source evidence that Russians were also using these counter-UAS rifles. They're not always effective. But again, they create the semblance that the defenders or the attackers are actually having an entire lineup of systems and weapons that can counter anything thrown at them. And so while we know that the Russian military is using electronic warfare systems, some of them for use probably against Ukrainian drones, we’re not necessarily seeing the equivalent of the counter-UAS rifles that Faine mentioned. It's also interesting to look at the tally, the official tally of drones shot down by the Ukrainian and the Russian military. Ukraine, I think, says that up to 180 or 200 Russian droned went downed; Russian military, in their daily briefings, in the Ministry of Defense at this point today said over 600 Ukrainian drones were lost. And if we look at the number of actual military drones probably flying in the skies over Ukraine, I think the bulk of those losses—if we assume that those numbers are actually true and accurate—I think the bulk of those losses are going to be these commercial, off-the-shelf drones like the DJIs, which are used in great numbers, which tells us something about the conduct of the war and the use of advanced technologies, that no matter how much a military wants to utilize military grade hardware, the use of commercial technologies is probably inescapable in a conflict like Ukraine and in other conflicts, that these drones are going to be organic—if not DJI, then made by other manufacturers—they're going to be organic to any conflict going forward because they're so easy to use. They're easy to manipulate. And as Faine just mentioned, it's easy to extract information from them once they're lost.

Greenwood: I think early on in the war, I think there was a bit of skepticism around them. ‘Oh, the Russians couldn't possibly be using DJI products, they know, they're insecure, they know there are security risks related to them. And the Russians won’t be silly enough to do that.’ And that was proven wrong pretty quickly. And for the reasons that Sam just laid out. The fact of the matter is, I think people are reading the cost benefit on the potential danger of the RF signature from a small drone being detected and used to target you. And the risk of your drone gets downed, people use the data on the drone to find you—I think people are weighing that risk, and the benefit of having a super cheap, easy to replace, easy to use—because anyone can learn to fly DJI drone, like I can teach you how to fly a drone fairly competently in like, an hour. So I think they're just, they've decided that the benefits outweigh the risk in a lot of these cases. And that's why they're doing this even though it's obviously not the greatest idea from a security perspective. And so I think that's something to really keep in mind. I completely agree with Sam, they're gonna become kind of ubiquitous, because they just make so much sense. 

Watson: Faine Greenwood and Sam Bennett, thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it.

Greenwood: All right, thanks.

Bendett: Thank you.

Greenwood: Have a great day.

Bendett: Bye.