Drones Level the Playing Field as Ukraine Battles Russia

Rutgers–Camden researcher Michael Boyle explains capabilities of mini machines to become great equalizers

April 6, 2022

By Tom McLaughlin

Reports from Ukraine sound like a Hollywood blockbuster: A team of Ukrainian drone operators on quad bikes ambushes Russian forces, grinding the invaders’ convoy to a halt. Drone operators, comprising IT specialists and hobbyists, modify and deploy their machines and become unlikely heroes in the battle to preserve their nation’s existence.

While it sounds like the stuff of lore, drones are shifting the balance of military engagement.  Rutgers University–Camden researcher Michael Boyle predicted this in his 2020 book, The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace.

Besides blunting Russian air superiority, Boyle said, there has been a shift in the balance of drone use.

“It is a game changer,” said the associate professor of political science. “You are seeing drones used by two actors in Ukraine that are not militarily equals, yet drones are leveling the playing field between them in some ways.”

Boyle explained that the most important lesson we are learning in Ukraine is that drone use has shifted radically from where it was 10 years ago. At that time, only a handful of actors had the technology, with the largest fleets held by the United States, Israel and the United Kingdom. Most of the attention centered around the U.S. and Israel using drones for targeted killings of terrorist operatives. These instances occurred in uncontested airspace – where no aircraft was flying– but now advances in drone technology have increased their usage in contested airspace as well.

“As I argue in my book, drones have the ability to democratize the airspace,” said Boyle. “They allow actors into the airspace who otherwise wouldn’t be. This war is further proof of that argument.”

Besides blunting Russian air superiority, he said, there has been a shift in the balance of drone use. While Ukraine uses their drone fleet to attack Russian forces, it has done even more with them to limit the Russia’s mobility and make it more difficult for their forces to maneuver. “Drones can scope out an area without being noticed,” he said. “This then allows you to use artillery and ground forces weaponry more precisely.”

Boyle noted that both sides are using drones for protective surveillance and tactical reconnaissance. While Russia has a stronger drone fleet on paper, with multiple fixed-wing drones that look like mini planes, Ukraine is using its drone arsenal well, including commercial drones retrofitted for their purposes.“These are models that you and I can buy at Best Buy,” said Boyle. “If commercial drones can see down the road, you can use them just as effectively as a military drone.”

Michael Boyle

“It is a game changer. You are seeing drones used by two actors in Ukraine that are not militarily equals, yet drones are leveling the playing field between them in some ways.” – Michael Boyle, associate professor of political science

Additionally, Ukraine has military-grade drones from Turkey – one of the largest military drone sellers in the world – and Switchblade drones – sometimes referred to as “suicide drones” – from the United States. Switchblade drones, he explained, are “loitering munitions,” packed with explosives designed to hit targets with razor-sharp precision. “The drone doesn’t launch a missile; the drone is the missile,” he said. “When it locks onto a target, it dives to the target and explodes. This has allowed Ukraine to make targeted strikes against groups, individuals or fixed positions.”

Boyle posited that weaker states with hostile neighbors have learned that commanding a drone fleet must be a top priority. Moreover, you don’t have to spend top dollar to buy anything too sophisticated. “You don’t need to have perfect drones; you need to have good-enough drones,” he said. “This may be enough to stymie your opponent.”

He added that Ukraine isn’t going to win the war solely by using drones, but it may stop Russia from advancing. This might buy just enough time to get Russia to the negotiating table. “You have turned the war into a war of attrition,” he said. “That’s the best way to think about what Ukraine has done.”

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