The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and the swift victory by the Azeri military, largely thanks to loitering munitions and tactical UAVs, put the spotlight on how unmanned aerial systems (UAS) could help win not only battles but wars. One could argue that the success did not only shape the Nagorno-Karabakh war but also the yet-to-come war between Russia and Ukraine. Although the world saw the potential in unmanned systems and loitering munitions, few countries saw the need to develop their systems, and fewer bought some.

Instead, the focus of the industry and the armed forces in the Western democracies has been on developing loyal wingmen to support the next generation of fighter jets. No one, or at least few, could foresee how a war between states would yet again show how UAS could be used for tactical advantages. In some cases, it seems to have been a decisive tool in turning the tide of battle (although not the war).[1]

The Estonian Ministry of Defence states that UAS have a limited life expectancy in war (up to 16 hours). This and the infamous 10,000 drones lost per month have convinced people that smaller platforms must be seen as expendable munition instead of an aerial system needing specific certifications. This also implies that the view of training needs to be changed from a pilot with air safety knowledge to an operator of a weapon built to kill and that we need to train the chain of command how to “pull the trigger” when used in combined weapons tactics.

However, like the second Nagorno-Karabakh War, the discussion about UAS, UGV or USV has centred around “things.” Either that some “things” like battle tanks are (yet again) obsolete or that all ground units now need to have more “things” like First-Person-View (FPV) drones to be effective in combat. Although this is a meaningful discussion, there is much more to discuss regarding uncrewed systems, regardless of whether they are remotely controlled or fully autonomous.

Two years of war have shown that drones are not a revolution of the battle space but an evolution.[2] That implies significantly more than just the evolution of the technology used to construct the various platforms. It may be an evolution of warfare, seeing how drones deny the adversary terrain and shape the battlespace within multiple domains.

Unmanned systems, regardless of the physical domain, transcend being a mere object and should be viewed through a wider lens – the lens of multi-domain operations.[3] Ukraine has already turned unmanned systems into its own branch within the armed forces. It has also become an industry that keeps the Ukrainian economy flowing and the war effort on track. Since the beginning, it has been a powerful asset in Ukrainian information operations. The mere presence of unmanned systems has changed how vehicles are protected and how and when soldiers on the ground move. On top of all that, we have seen how soldiers surrender to UAVs, which guide them to Ukrainian forces and that unmanned systems can be used to evacuate both civilians and military personnel.  I would argue that the existence of unmanned surface vessels (USV) challenges the concept of “fleet in being” or at least acknowledges that remotely controlled platforms themselves can be a “fleet” whose potential presence forces an adversary to re-distribute resources to protect its assets.

The war in Ukraine shows that unmanned systems are, in fact, multi-domain assets. As such, we must not get caught up just talking about the physical object but also how to use the whole concept of unmanned and autonomous systems. Not only how to use drones to find, fix, track and finish but also to exploit information gained and push it into the information space. Countries, including Sweden, are now racing to develop unmanned systems for future war and equipping their armed forces with whatever systems are available today. In the collective West, we must also develop a shared understanding of how these systems affect the warzone and shape every aspect of the war effort, including the non-military. From a Swedish point of view, this would mean coordinating the use of unmanned systems between multiple agencies, such as the police and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB). As such, not only sharing a common picture but also sharing assets and injecting the collected data into the information domain to benefit the whole defence effort.

Finally, when drawing conclusions about unmanned systems in Ukraine, we must acknowledge the importance of crowd-sourcing as both a gap-filler and a catalyst. Sweden brings a critical geographic position, soldiers, and military hardware to NATO. We also carry a mindset of “total defence,” which means that we should already be primed to assimilate the idea of crowd-sourcing as a means to an end. Systems must be implemented to enable civilians to aid in the war effort without risk to ongoing military operations or personnel. Done right, Sweden can lead the way in establishing systems for sustainable military operations with unmanned systems.

In short, unmanned systems are more than just a “thing” to be directed at an enemy soldier. They must be incorporated into a broader context to reach their full potential as enablers. As such, we need to break the fixation on which specific product to buy and focus on how we can utilise a wide range of systems that evolve with the war instead of trying to predict the “next big thing”.

The author is a master sergeant in the Swedish Armed Forces.


[1] Cult of the drone: At the two-year mark, UAVs have changed the face of war in Ukraine – but not outcomes,
[2] Stacie Pettyjohn, Evolution Not Revolution Drone Warfare in Russia´s 2022 Invasion of Ukraine,
[3] Multi-Domain Operations in NATO – Explained,