When I was writing my article[1] about unmanned systems and personnel recovery during the summer of 2021, I couldn’t imagine that we, not even a year later, would experience a war between states in Europe – in particular, being able to witness the use of unmanned systems to support and recover military personnel. While I’m writing this, the war has lasted for 700 days. That is two years of heroic resistance from the Ukrainians and technological advances, especially with remotely piloted aerial systems (RPAS). While many likely think of drones dropping grenades or crashing into trenches, there has been a significant development by both sides utilising and developing unmanned systems to aid isolated and injured personnel (and civilians) on the battlefield.

This short article will highlight what we have seen so far in Ukraine connected to the five tasks (report, locate, support, recover, and reintegrate) and what we may see soon as the war continues.

Unmanned systems being used to report and locate personnel

I have previously written that the need for continuous “eyes on target” to find, fix, and track isolated personnel may require several assets. In Ukraine, there is, at least what it seems, a whole lot of assets that can be used to keep a watchful eye on the battlespace. However, it has been shown that locating an isolated individual may require that the platform return to the operator for it to get outfitted with a note, bottle of water or other supplies. This risk has been shown to pay off in some circumstances when there is a short distance between the operator and the individual needing recovery.[2] The evolution of the battlespace in Ukraine has shown that distances between hostile and safe territory could be as small as a couple of hundred meters.  This, in turn, means that the support task for a remotely controlled vehicle, no matter if airborne or on the ground, is critical from a protection perspective.

The short distances have been favourable for small quadcopters, which have limited reach but are also a challenge since the electrical platforms have a notably short time in the air, between 30 and 60 minutes. The flight time, as well as distance, may, of course, be cut short due to the presence of electronic warfare assets. Assets that will likely affect the possibility of both locating and reporting an exact position for a recovery effort to commence.

Unmanned systems being used in a support role

Both sides have used unmanned systems as logistical support during the war. Drones dropping supplies and unmanned ground vehicles (UGV) drive from safe areas to units at the front line. As a means of support in the personnel recovery system, there are examples of water bottles and tea being dropped on civilians and soldiers.[3] Furthermore, there are several examples of when RPA is used as a guide, where the soldier is told to follow the platform through hostile ground. We have yet to see a platform used to protect the individual from enemies. With platforms being developed to carry multiple grenades or turn themselves into weapons, it stands to reason that each side has the opportunity to protect soldiers in need actively. The challenge is, of course, protecting injured personnel from first-person view drones with explosive warheads.

Unmanned systems as an extraction asset

One could argue that using a RPA as a guide is a sort of recovery. While I agree with such a statement, I want to reconnect with what I wrote in my article about vehicles being able to recover wounded soldiers. There has been a sort of a boom from both Ukraine and Russia in developing small vehicles that are capable of dragging or transporting soldiers from the battlefield. This allows units to send a platform to the isolated individual without risk for additional personnel and drive the person from the area. While developed from a casualty evacuation viewpoint, it is still within the scope of personnel recovery. Seeing how Russian troops have converted various armed vehicles as remotely controlled vehicle-borne IEDs (VBIEDS), one would expect that ingenuity to be seen to recover injured soldiers on the field as well. But it seems the future will tell which side decides to embark on that journey. There still exists potential to be exploited.

Unmanned systems in the reintegration role

While there is little evidence that unmanned systems are used to aid integration, there is more about the results being used for communicative purposes. Especially Ukraine has been able to establish the narrative of being able to help not only Ukrainians but also Russian soldiers willing to surrender.[4] This sends that strong message of being able, or at least having the will, to assist those in need. Which, in a gruesome war where we see how prisoners of war are mistreated (and even executed), is an important message to get across to all troops. An aspect that I did not cover in my previous article is the possibility of using the collected video material to educate and train soldiers. In particular how they may signal to own drones to get help.

What may we see soon on the battlefield?

Ingenuity has shown how unmanned systems can be used in various ways, especially as weapons. However, as the war transitions into a war of attrition, we may see more ways of recovering injured and isolated soldiers from the battlefield. Every rescued soldier may become crucial as the battle continues for a third year. As such, we might witness remotely controlled casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) platforms being tested in combat this year. We will likely continue to witness how flying platforms drop supplies and guide soldiers to safety. This does not, however, mean that unmanned systems will replace human recovery forces. While a popular argument to make about most things in this war, I will not succumb to such a prediction. Instead, I will continue to argue that unmanned systems are an essential enabler to aid humans in recovery operations. Operations that are vital in the long run as this war seems to continue for years to come.

The author is a master sergeant in the Swedish armed forces.

Notes

[1] Michael Winberg, “Personnel Recovery and Unmanned Systems.”, KKrVAHT, 1. häftet 2022, pp. 162-169
[2] Christine Chraibi, 2023, ”Ukrainian military drone leads woman to safety amidst enemy fire”, https://euromaidanpress.com/2023/04/07/ukrainian-military-drone-leads-woman-to-safety-amidst-enemy-fire/
[3] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/world-news/2023/06/08/drones-drop-water-supplies-ukrainians-trapped-flooding-dam/; https://twitter.com/InUKRofficial/status/1748636734324457939
[4] USA Today, ” Ukrainian drone leads Russian soldier to safety after he surrenders | USA TODAY”, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cv2ZeCncg2g,