Although drones are on everyone’s lips, and some think that small unmanned aerial systems will lose their advantage soon[1], a lot is still happening regarding technical development and the evolution of tactical procedures that a modern military needs to be aware of and adapt to. This article will try to encapsulate some trends that this author believes the armed forces within NATO must track and replicate for the future.

The birth of drone combat air patrols

First of all, it may not be a hundred per cent accurate to call it combat air patrols (CAP); however, what we see developing in the air over Ukraine resembles the function of a CAP. In short, small unmanned platforms protect the skies above ground troops by hunting and neutralising enemy drones. What was first seen as quirky drone vs drone dogfights that later evolved into failed attempts to bring down helicopters quickly turned into a way of intercepting reconnaissance drones and loitering munitions. Ukraine seems to have found a way to close, or at least shrink, the air defence gap against the famed hunter-killer duo, the Zala 421-16E and the Lancet loitering munition, turning the hunter into the hunted—a costly turn of events that affects the Russian Reconnaissance Fire Complex (ROK).[2]

Meanwhile, Russia seems to focus on bringing down the infamous ”Baba Yaga” with all means necessary, including losing precious Mavics. I say precious because of the effort put into recovering broken systems and scavaging the battlefield for spare parts (I will return to that later).

With both sides ramping up the production of First Person View (FPV) aerial platforms[3] and using various means to avoid the opponents jamming[4], we will likely continue to see unmanned systems being used in the form of swing roles between air defence, reconnaissance and ground attack.

The development to be looked for is the utilisation of onboard countermeasures and teaming between multiple unmanned platforms to protect a high-value asset (i.e., the reconnaissance drone).

Unmanned logistics at the front

Uncrewed ground vehicles (UGV) have gone into style for six months. Russia has especially been keen on developing various support vehicles to evacuate wounded and deliver supplies to the front. In April, former defence minister Shogiu stated that crewless evacuation vehicles were very much needed in Ukraine.[5] Since then, both Russian and Ukrainian efforts have been made to develop and supply various types of remotely controlled vehicles to minimise the risk of losing soldiers while providing the front and evacuating the wounded.[6] What remains to be solved is how to keep the casualty alive and not inflict more injuries during the transport.

Although some are experimenting with airborne evacuation of wounded, it is unlikely that we will see a combat-ready platform within the coming six months. Instead, we will likely continue to see aerial systems being used to send small supply packages to soldiers in the trenches. Even if an FPV is limited to carrying a few kilograms of payload, it would be possible to use multiple FPV drones to supply the front with water, food and ammunition. The platform itself can be used later on by the soldiers in the trench, either as a weapon or as a means to supply other parts of the front or even send objects to the rear.

What we are basically looking at is a combat version of drone delivery that multinational companies like Amazon have been developing for several years.[7] Add an app to every soldier’s smartphone; there won’t be any difference from when you are sitting on your couch ordering groceries.

The hunter drones from video games are coming.

You probably know what I am talking about if you are an avid gamer. The automated seeker drones by air, ground or sea that home in on their target and then follow until they are within a killing radius. The manufacturer of the Lancet drone, ZALA Aero Group, has already boasted about their latest version, Izdeliye-53, being able to follow and attack targets autonomously. Although it is still up for debate if that particular drone is autonomous, several other manufacturers in Russia and Ukraine are working vigorously to add automatic guidance functions to their aerial platforms. Simultaneously, several types of remotely controlled vehicles for both land and sea are being developed with the intention to become ”kamikaze drones”, which means that we may shortly have various platforms being able to lock on to their targets, not having to rely on commands from the operator and thus becoming more resilient to jamming.

Scavenging the battlefield for spare parts

As previously mentioned, the last couple of months have shown a rise in the usage of various types of grappling hooks to recover lost drones or grab weapons off the battleground.[8] Scavenging and ”recycling” damaged or abandoned systems are nothing new or unique to the ongoing war in Ukraine. Recovering various types of vehicles or even using captured weapons have also been seen in other wars. The evolution lies in using unmanned systems to recover systems from places where soldiers can’t go safely. With the high attrition of drones and the high cost of replacing them, it is no wonder that both Ukraine and Russia are trying to recover spare parts to keep their fleets airborne.

However, the phenomenon doesn’t come without risk. Russian soldiers have learned the hard way that not all Ukrainian drones can be recovered since they have been fitted with anti-tampering devices such as magnetometers and gyroscopes.[9] Thus, it turned a potential source of spare parts into a deadly anti-personnel mine—something to have in mind for future EOD/IED exercises.

Nevertheless, we may continue to see scavenging operations as a way to replenish drone stocks and, of course, as a collection method to gain valuable technical intelligence on how the enemy’s systems are built.

However, it is not only about technology but also about culture

The war has developed since the DJI Mavic was reinventioned on the battlefield and the Bayraktar TB2 days of 2022. The traditional arms industry and local tech startups compete to deliver the ”next big thing” to the theatre. While Russia had a head start with platforms like Uran-9, Inhokodets[10], and Orlan-10, projects like Brave1[11] have helped even the playfield and bring forth innovations that seemingly add new capabilities to the Ukrainian armed forces every month. The most significant takeaway in the unmanned war is the ability and courage to try new ideas and realise them quickly. Not having long processes trying to create the perfect product but instead building and testing ideas that can work well enough.

The second most significant lesson would be to have soldiers be able to not only adapt to the changing environment but also dare to go ”unorthodox” when given new weapons. We see it daily when soldiers use various types of munition on multiple types of drones, modifying systems to gain the upper hand on the enemy. That mindset and courage must also be fostered in our soldiers today before they enter the battlefield of tomorrow.

The author is a Master Sergeant in the Swedish Armed Forces.


[3] Ukraine alone is said to aim for a production of 2 million drones this year.
[10] Also known as Orion. A Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) aerial platform.