All wars have their iconic weapons, from the AK-47 to the I.E.D. In Ukraine, it’s the drone.
A vast number and variety of drones — unmanned aerial vehicles — have been used on both sides of the war, including large military-grade machines and smaller consumer models. Drone operators are the new snipers, even though they are often miles from the battlefield.
Consider a video that circulated widely on social media in the past few weeks: A drone hovers above a bomb-shattered neighborhood in Ukraine.
Below it, several troops in Russian uniforms get into a truck. The drone releases a small explosive, which plummets toward their parked truck.
Then the driver throws the vehicle into reverse. Just as the truck begins to roll, the explosive drops straight through the truck’s open sunroof and detonates.
The windshield explodes out over the hood, and the interior is engulfed in smoke. Injured men in the wreckage writhe and clutch their wounds. (The Times has not confirmed the authenticity of the video, which was shared on Twitter late last month by Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Ukrainian government.)
For the past 20 years, the United States has used unmanned aerial vehicles to wage war in far-off places. That combination of distance and military secrecy has kept the bombs and the blood away from American eyes. In Ukraine, drones have brought international audiences right up to the front lines, documenting the destruction of cities and capturing footage of attacks against Russian ships and tanks, men and matériel. This mix of off-the-shelf drones and their larger military-grade brethren has experts watching the conflict closely and pondering what it means for future wars.
In Ukraine, winning and holding international support is as critical to the war effort as battlefield victories, which makes information operations vital. “These machines — in conjunction with social media and the internet — give a virtual panopticon of the conflict,” said Zachary Kallenborn, who studies drone warfare at George Mason University. “There’s awareness now all over their country and all over the world. It can influence military operations but also public opinion.”
Drones are attractive to armies because they deliver one of the most costly and complex aspects of warfare — aerial operations — on the cheap. But they’re only a tiny part of the firepower used against the Russian Army; Ukrainian artillery has been the most destructive, according to some estimates.
Unmanned aerial vehicles have been used in Ukraine to surveil enemy troops and attack them with small explosives or in kamikaze attacks. They’ve been used to document the vast destruction that Russian artillery has inflicted on cities like Mariupol. They’ve captured what is said to be the execution of civilians. A drone may have been used to distract the Russian flagship Moskva while two missiles screamed in to sink it.
Drones have been used to pick targets for artillery fire and adjust the accuracy of those strikes. A wide range of drones has helped the Ukrainian Army punch above its weight on the battlefield, and the footage of attacks against ships and troops, tanks and helicopters has given Ukraine an easily shareable stream of videos for the global information war.
“What we are seeing now is a proliferation of images and videos put out by Ukraine and its allies, which are meant to depict power and precision,” John Kaag, a philosophy professor and co-author of a book on drone warfare, told me.
Drones carry their own moral hazards, as recent Times investigations into civilian deaths have shown. “What a video surveillance can reveal is that a target was hit or not hit,” Dr. Kaag said. “What it can never reveal is the legitimacy of that particular target.” Little wonder that drone operators are also vulnerable to the moral injury and post-traumatic stress that can affect troops on the ground.
What’s more, watching drone footage can be desensitizing, and moral injury from the battlefield can be contagious to spectators. It’s easy to cheer the destruction of yet another Russian tank and forget that the crew members being incinerated in the dramatic explosion are someone’s sons, possibly conscripted into a conflict beyond their control.
Also lost in the slew of drone footage coming out of Ukraine is the inability of outsiders to assess their authenticity and the larger situation just outside the drone’s field of view. Misinformation is its own currency in war. But what is clear is that drones have come of age and will be a permanent fixture in future conflicts.
We have been seeking to master unmanned flight nearly as long as planes have flown. Early drones took to the skies as early as World War I. More modern drones have been used by the United States since the Vietnam War. But it was only after the Sept. 11 attacks that modern combat drones began to project military power, after the C.I.A. first strapped a missile on Predator No. 3034 and flew it over Afghanistan in 2001. And for a short time, the United States was essentially the world’s lone drone superpower.
Since then, the world’s combatants have rushed to send their own drones aloft.
Conflicts in the years since have seen more and more drones making war, including ISIS fighters doing battle in Iraq and Syria, Turkish troops surveilling and striking fighters in Kurdistan, an assassination attempt in Venezuela and rebels in Yemen launching attacks against Saudi infrastructure.
Perhaps the closest conflict to the war in Ukraine in terms of drone use was the clash between Azerbaijan and Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, where Azerbaijani drones destroyed hundreds of Armenian tanks, munitions and armored vehicles. Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense not only used its drone fleet effectively on the battlefield; it also frequently posted videos of the attacks on its website.
The lessons from all these conflicts? They can be used in creative ways that surprise the enemy. Civilian and military drones all have a place in modern warfare. The Times reported this month on a crowdfunding campaign by the Ukrainian government that solicited donations of commercial drones and sought people with skills to fly them.
Drone warfare is pushing human pilots to the side. Some next-generation military drones rely on artificial intelligence to circle over an area, pick out enemy units and destroy them. In the coming years, drone technology will improve, and the cost of drones will decline. As they do, the frightening truth is that troops and civilians in future conflicts will find fewer and fewer places to hide from the gaze of both man and machine.
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