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Death from above: How drone warfare is shaping the battlefield in Ukraine

Some give little warning before they strike. Others produce a sound likened to a rocket, a screeching motor or an artillery strike, a herald to the destruction that follows.

Drones have been in use since the First World War, with the first models radio-controlled for gunnery practice. In the 1950s, the U.S. Air Force developed the Model 147, which flew missions over Vietnam for photo reconnaissance. The Soviets followed suit, with preliminary models launched in 1974.

The Predator drone became a symbol of the American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, which followed by the hunter-killer successor, the Reaper. It was Reaper drones that were alleged to have killed Iranian general Qasem Soleimani in January 2020.

Drone warfare has also been a calling card of the invasion of Ukraine, with the autonomous aerial vehicles being used on both sides of the conflict to devastating effect.

While some analysts have claimed that Ukraine is the staging ground for the first “full-scale drone conflict,” video from the 2020 outbreak of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia was a preview of what to expect on future battlefields involving drones, and before that, drone operations were prevalent in clashes including those in Yemen, Syria and Libya.

“What makes Libya slightly different is that it was essentially multiple non-state actors backed by foreign parties. Here, in the case of Russia and Ukraine, you have organized militaries in an interstate war throwing drones at each other,” said drone expert and professor at Rutgers University Michael Boyle in a recent interview with CTV News.

“That’s one of the reasons why you're seeing such interest from outside Russia and Ukraine, looking at how this is playing out,” he continued. “Because a lot of states see this as a potential test run for what it might look like if they had an interstate war, for example, over Taiwan, or in any other theatre against Russia.

“They're looking at this as the first time two state actors (are) equipped with reasonably competent drone fleets, versus just throwing them at each other and seeing what's happening.”

Ukraine experienced a bloody beginning to the new year, with a massive drone assault over the weekend killing four and wounding dozens of others. The Ukrainian military said it shot down 45 Shahed-136 drones overnight, a report CTV News is unable to independently verify.

Russia claimed to be targeting Ukrainian drone-production facilities. 

As fighting on the ground on parts of the frontline grinds to a halt in deep winter conditions, or in cases of close-quarters combat seen in Bakhmut, victory and survival may hinge on who has the most advanced weapons and credible intelligence – both acquired with drones.

EYES IN THE SKY OR DROPPING DEATH BELOW

Since Russia’s invasion almost one year ago, the battlefield has seen several different types and classes of drones in use. Some can be disabled in a “hard kill” method, such as shooting it down; others in a “soft kill” – by using electronic warfare to disable internal software.

Boyle said militaries will prioritize the soft kills in order to inspect the machine and trace its internal parts.

“You can trace the supply network back, and that actually gives you pressure points… For example, we know Russian drones are getting parts from Hong Kong, so now how do we pressure those companies in order to make it hard for them to be able to buy drones?” he said.

Boyle said it may be helpful to categorize drones in surveillance and reconnaissance versus tactical strikes, as well as if they are short-, medium- or long-range.

CTV News cannot independently verify the content of this video

ONE-WAY TICKETS

A drone is seen in the sky seconds before it fired on buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Oct. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

SHAHED-136

The Iranian-made Shahed-136 has become synonymous with the war in Ukraine, and is colloquially called a “kamikaze drone” or “one-way attack munition” due to its ability to self-destruct into a particular target.

In technical terms, the Shahed-136, like other similar machines is what is known as a “loitering munition,” but due to its rather cheap design, the Shahed-136 is more like a low-cost long-range cruise missile, according to drone industry insiders, independently verified by CTV News, who spoke on the condition of anonymity

The sound of the Shahed-136 is distinct, like a screech of a motorcycle or chainsaw engine. It was first revealed by Iran in 2021, and supplied to the Houthis in Yemen to be used against Saudi Arabia. The Shahed-136 can be fired off the back of a truck from a rocket-propelled stack in groups up to five – which can overwhelm air defence systems.

 The Shahed-136 flies low and slow, which allows it to evade air defences, and its construction and materials means it is hard to detect and track by radar.

At around 3.4 metres long, weighing more than 180 kilograms and with a wingspan of 2.4 metres, the Shahed-136 is a larger machine, and can fly at 185 km/h with a range of 1,000-plus kilometres

The explosive power of the Shahed-136 is about 10 times that of a regular artillery strike, making it an extremely devastating weapon.

A launch of the Switchblade 600 (AeronVironment Inc.)

SWITCHBLADE 300 AND 600

In March and April this past year, the U.S. sent more than 700 Switchblade drones as part of its aid packages. Made by AeroVironment, the Switchblade 300 and 600 contain warheads to detonate on impact.

The 300 is intended to kill combatants in the open or passengers in an armoured vehicle. It’s a lightweight machine weighing 2.5 kilograms, with a wingspan of 69 centimetres and a flight range of 10 kilometres.

It uses a colour camera that feeds data to the operator and a GPS system for precise strikes. The 300 contains an explosive charge equivalent to a 40-millimetre hand grenade. It can fly missions up to 15 minutes.

The 600 is intended for larger anti-tank strikes, and can be fitted with an anti-tank warhead to pierce armour. The 600 is larger than the 300, weighing 23 kilograms with a flight range of 40 kilometres and can fly missions up to 40 minutes.

Both the Switchblade 300 and 600 are highly portable and can be fired from a tube on the ground, making it simple to use in fighting hot zones. Soldiers can deploy the drones and quickly move on to a new position.

TACTICAL SURVEILLANCE

A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is seen during a rehearsal of a military parade dedicated to Independence Day in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

BAYRAKTAR TB2

The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone is meant for combat reconnaissance and precision strikes. The machine known as a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drone has a 12-metre wingspan and is 6.5 metres long, making it easier to spot.

The drone weighs 700 kilograms and can carry a payload (explosives) of an added 150 kilograms. The most common payloads of Bayraktar TB2s are laser- or GPS-guided lightweight munitions.

A remote video terminal operated by a soldier in the field sends data to a ground control station, manned by a pilot, payload operator and a commander. The unit can control three Bayraktars simultaneously.

With a price tag of approximately $5 million USD, the Bayraktar TB2 is relatively cheap compared to other options. The priciest component of the drone is the infrared camera, made by L3 Wescam, a company headquartered in Hamilton, Ont.

The Bayraktar TB2 was a core part of the initial assault in February, but as Russian air defences improved, the majority of them were shot down.

This handout photo taken from video released by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, shows a Russian serviceman preparing a Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone to launch at an undisclosed location. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service photo via AP)

ORLAN 10

The Russian-made Orlan 10 is also a medium-range drone that is a workhorse. It can be used for reconnaissance, search and rescue, observation, monitoring, target tracking, strikes and jamming signals in the area in which it flies.

It was revealed in 2016 and relies on many foreign-sourced parts, including Japanese cameras.

With the sanctions placed on Russia since the beginning of the invasion, sourcing parts to build and repair Orlan 10s has been limited.

With a wingspan of three metres and length of two metres, the Orlan 10 is a smaller drone that has a daylight and thermal imaging camera, along with a video and radio transmitter.

It can be fitted with cellular or Wi-Fi signal jammers to create dead zones, has a mission time of 18 hours and can withstand extreme weather, including temperatures as low as -30 C.

Like the Bayraktar, the Orlan 10 flies low and slow, resulting in hundreds of the drones being shot down since the war began.

OFF THE SHELF

A Ukrainian serviceman flies a drone during an operation against Russian positions at an undisclosed location in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (AP Photo/Roman Chop)

DJI MAVIC SERIES

Another staple of the Ukrainian war effort has been commercially available drones – either rigged to carry small, handmade explosives or used for observation and scouting.

A popular model is the Mavic line from Chinese technology company DJI, based in Shenzen.

With a 4K camera, seven-kilometre range and mission flight time of 27 minutes, the Mavic is an easy-to-use machine that can fly up to 64 km/h.

While the ease with which it can be controlled by a cellphone or through a Wi-Fi signal is a plus for Ukrainian troops forced to be adaptable on the battlefield, the Mavic also can easily be jammed or spoofed.

Many are lost, damaged or broken on their first flight, but with a price tag in the low thousands, it has quickly become a focus point for crowdfunding and charity initiatives.

The U.S. Department of Defense included DJI on a blacklist this year because of the company’s alleged ties to the Chinese military, noting potential security risks stemming from the drone’s collecting of vast amounts of sensitive data – from infrastructure images to sensor readings of body temperature and personal information from users' smartphones – and the fact that DJI customers must use company software that may have privacy pitfalls.

Oleg flies a drone while testing it on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, June 8, 2022. Drones are been extensively used by Russian and Ukraine troops on the war. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

R18 OCTOCOPTER

A homegrown effort for the Ukrainians, the R18 “Octocopter” was developed by the non-government organization Aerorovidka, which started after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Made by hobbyists who hailed from all walks of life, the Aerorovidka found battlefield success in the Donbas during the earlier conflict, and its makers brought their experience to the current invasion.

With eight arms and multi-rotor propellers, each with their own engine, the R18 takes off vertically, and has a range of 10 kilometres, and can carry five kilograms in weight – mostly modified grenades that can be dropped onto soldiers below.

The R18 uses thermal imaging at night to target enemy tanks, armoured vehicles and trucks, and has a mission endurance time of 15 minutes.

CANADIAN CONNECTIONS

Canada has long been a hub for drone technology, but the industry has dried up and been bought off in recent years, and the country is now a top exporter of light armoured vehicles.

Nevertheless, Canadian technology has made its way into the battlefield in Ukraine.

Kyiv-based think tank Statewatch released a report last month that said it found antenna components from Tallysman Wireless Inc. inside Shahed-136 drones.

The Ottawa-based company denied being complicit in their use in Ukraine, stating it does not sell any of their products to Iran or Russia, and that its distribution network is barred from selling to countries, individuals or companies that are the target of sanctions.

Canada added a fifth round of sanctions on Iran in November last year that included two entities – Shahed Aviation Industries and Qods Aviation Industries – accused of supplying Russia and Hezbollah with drones and technology.

An attack on the Russian Black Sea Fleet near Sevastopol on Oct. 29, saw nine aerial drones and seven unmanned marine craft slam into their targets.

When another unscrewed surface vessel (USV) washed ashore in Crimea, naval warfare expert H.I. Sutton observed that it was likely propelled by a recreational water jet that bore almost identical markers of a Sea-Doo, made by Quebec-based Bombardier Recreational Products.

The company said it played no part in creating the Ukrainian vessel.

Russia claimed the aerial drones used in the Sevastopol attack also used parts manufactured in Canada, but provided no evidence.

A national flag can be seen in front of Ukraine's the Motherland Monument in Kyiv, Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

RUSSIAN VERSUS UKRAINIAN TACTICS

For Russian warfare expert and member of the Russia and Eurasia Programme of Chatham House in the U.K. Keir Giles, how Moscow’s troops have approached the invasion of Ukraine, including the use of drones, is familiar.

“In terms of doctrine and approach, we've seen Russia falling back on all of the old familiar habits. As soon as it became clear to the Russian command that Ukraine was not going to fall into their laps in the way that had been envisaged in the Kremlin, they reverted to classic, old-style brute force tactics,” Giles said in an interview with CTV News.

“The current iteration that we have of Russia's tactics, the attacks on critical civilian infrastructure in Ukraine in order to remove everything that sustains life in Ukraine and trigger a humanitarian catastrophe, is actually straight from the Russian manual.”

Giles said the tactics and strategic operation of destruction Russia is employing in Ukraine is an attempt to replicate “on a much larger scale” the tactics that it found “successful” in Syria.

“If you simply make life impossible for the civilian population, then sooner or later your adversary has to quit because they are no longer in a position to wage war,” he said.

Boyle agreed.

“I think what's actually happened is that the war has shifted towards a strategy of mutual hurt,” he said. “It has been a strategy of, ‘We're not going to win this on the battlefield in direct capturing of territory.’”

Ukraine’s adaptability on the battlefield is also exemplified in it uses its drones, compared to Russia's strategies.

Speaking on the U.S. supplying Ukraine with the Switchblade model of drone, Boyle said the way Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s forces are using them is “interesting.”

“They’ve been quite literally picking off the leadership (of the Russian military) with Switchblade drones, which is a very interesting way of degrading your enemies’ capacity,” he said.

Ukraine also revealed its capabilities for long-range strikes when it hit air bases inside Russia with Soviet-era modified drones in December, killing at least three soldiers, injuring four and damaging two long-range bombers.

The drones were likely Tupolev Tu-141s, last used by the Soviet air force on the front line for photo reconnaissance, pulled out of storage, outfitted with explosives and sent on a one-way mission into Russia, according drone industry insiders, independently verified by CTV News, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Armed Forces of Ukraine has also set up aerial reconnaissance units called “Ochi,’” which means "eyes" in Ukrainian, meant to spot Russian aircraft and artillery.

The Ochi units can be the difference of life or death in close combat.

“Ukraine has adopted flexibility because of necessity,” Giles said. “Because if you do not have a choice in a war of survival, then yes, you adopt the best means possible and never mind procedure or doctrine.”

As for Russia, Giles does not mince words on its efforts on the battlefield.

“What we've seen in Ukraine in the very early stages of the campaign is the thin crust of competence and modernity of the Russian forces breaking away,” he said. “And underneath it, it seems we have the same old seething morass of corruption and backwardness.” 

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