Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: A Complex and Significant Aspect of the Russia-Ukraine War

February 18, 2023


Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), more commonly referred to as drones, are among the most critical developments in military and reconnaissance technology in the 21st Century. They have seen widespread use in various armed conflicts as well as intelligence operations around the world. UAVs are a revolutionary development in warfare because they offer more tactical precision in comparison to human pilots, have a more comprehensive operational range and can be used without risking human life. UAVs have featured prominently in public discourse in recent months owing to their usage in the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent long-term conflict. UAVs have been by both sides extensively with mixed results. In previous conflicts, drones were primarily used in situations where air superiority was established - such as in the USA's counter-insurgency in Afghanistan. This is the first conflict in which drones are being used on a large scale where there is no clear air superiority for either side. Neither Russia nor Ukraine possesses full control over the skies. Therefore, the conflict has been referred to as “the first full-scale drone war” (Washington Post, December 02, 2022). This paper analyzes the usage of drones in the Russia-Ukraine conflict and evaluates how drone usage affects the course of the war. It also explores the broader implications of Iran’s drone manufacturing that the war illuminates.

Kamikaze drones

The widespread sanctions on Russia have prevented access to drones from most manufacturers. Therefore, the Russian military has relied on imports from another country ostracized by the West - Iran. Although not officially acknowledged by the Russian government, the Russian military has reportedly used the Shahed-136 drone to carry out Kamikaze attacks on civilian and military targets in Ukraine. The Shahed-136 is a loitering munition, also known as a Kamikaze drone. This means it can wait over a selected target area until a precise target is located. It contains a built-in explosive and hence is expended upon usage. According to British Intelligence, these drones entered Russian usage in September 2022 after an order was secretly placed in June. They were initially used in the Kharkiv theatre of the war to compensate for the relative lack of Russian artillery power in the region (Wall Street Journal, September 17, 2022). The Shahed-136 is officially called the Geran-II by the Russian armed forces. They attack in swarms and hope to overwhelm the Ukrainian defences through these large numbers (Kadam 2022).

These drones have had a mixed impact on the conflict. Firstly, due to the cheap cost of production and deployment - the cost of defending against these drones for Ukraine far exceeds the cost of deployment of the Shahed-136 for the Russians (Boffey 2022). For instance, Ukraine managed to destroy every drone Russia launched around the New Year. However, the cost of deploying a Shahed-136 drone is merely 20000 dollars while the cost of destroying the drone with a surface-to-air missile costs significantly more, ranging from “$140,000 for a Soviet-era S-300 to $500,000 for a missile from an American NASAMS” (New York Times, January 03, 2023). Moreover, they have been used to great effect in attacking Ukraine’s power grid and energy infrastructure, as well as civilian targets. On October 10, 2022, 24 Shahed drones were launched at several cities, including Kyiv, targeting mainly energy facilities. In a concentrated attack on Kyiv, Russia launched 47 Shahed drones causing widespread damage to energy facilities and residential buildings (The Iran Primer, October 12, 2022). Such drones cause more material damage than the loss of human lives. Hence, they are considered preferred choices in these kinds of conflicts, where limited objectives of damage to infrastructure are met with.

These drones carry a smaller payload than conventional missiles and are likely to cause lasting damage to Ukrainian infrastructure. Analysts have also noted that the primary goal of these drone attacks may be to induce terror and reduce morale amongst the general Ukrainian population. Mykola Bielieskov from Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies has said that using these drones will not affect Ukraine’s territorial gains (and hence the general course of the war) (ABC News/Associated Press, October 18, 2022). Moreover, the cost of deploying anti-drone measures is of no concern to the Ukrainians as long as they keep receiving extensive financial and military support from Western allies. Even if the cost of downing a drone is very high, Ukraine can afford to do it, considering its advantageous financial position with Russia. Economic sanctions on Russia play a significant role in this disparity in spending power.

Ukraine is also deploying kamikaze drones in its counter-offensive efforts. Due to USA's and its allies' resources, Ukraine has a much wider arsenal of weaponry available. The US-manufactured Switchblade-600 drone is under use by the Ukrainian military. According to several sources, Ukraine has used Kamikaze drones to attack Russian military positions in Crimea and Sevastopol. Moreover, Ukraine has also allegedly used Kamikaze drones to attack Russia (BBC News, January 03, 2023). According to experts, these Kamikaze drone strikes inside Russian territory are not meant to or capable of winning the war. Instead, they are intended to change the public opinions of the Russian people. As perceptions matter significantly in modern-day conflict situations, the role of drones contributes considerably to such perception-building processes. A Western defence official was quoted as saying by the Financial Times, “These attacks [. . .] will certainly make the Russians less confident [. . .] They will have to think about how they distribute military assets and keep them safe. The Russians will be doubting their ability to defend their strategic assets in [the country]” (Financial Times, December 07, 2022). Drones with long-range capabilities provided by Ukraine’s Western allies are capable of assaulting strategic locations in the Russian heartland.

The human cost of Russia’s Kamikaze drone attacks on civilian areas in Ukraine - especially on Kyiv in recent weeks and months - is also not to be neglected. On December 17, for example, one civilian was killed, and two more were injured in a drone strike on a school, hospital and church building in the Ukrainian city of Kherson (The Print, December 19, 2022). What is important to note is the propensity of these cheap Kamikaze drones to destroy civilian infrastructure and cause death or injury to the Ukrainian population. Therefore, the human rights dimension of these drone attacks is very significant and must be followed closely as the conflict progresses. If relatively fewer civilian casualties are noted during this conflict, any increase in casualties in the coming times will strengthen human rights dimensions in conflicts.

Role of Iran and its implications

As mentioned earlier, Iran played a significant role in the drone conflict in the Russia-Ukraine war by supplying drones such as the Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6 to the Russian military. These drones are manufactured by the Qods Aviation Industry Company - a public state-owned corporation in Iran specializing in manufacturing UAVs.

Iran supplies Russia with two types of drones: The Shahed-136, an inexpensive and single-use Kamikaze drone, and the Mohajer-6, an expensive and advanced drone. The Ukraine Ministry of Defence reported that the Mohajer-6 drone was built for surveillance, reconnaissance, and assault capabilities. It is meant to be a multiple-usage drone. It also contains parts and technology from several foreign countries, including Australia, Germany, and so on, which the Iranians have illegally procured through unofficial channels (Militarnyi, October 21, 2022). According to the Institute for Science and International Security, there is a long precedent for Iran bypassing international mandates meant to prevent the development of Iran’s military.

What has been the impact of Iranian drones on the course of the war? Would the war's course be significantly different if Iran’s drones weren’t part of the equation? According to Prime Minister Zelenskyy of Ukraine, Russia and Ukraine “would now be closer to peace” if Iranian drones weren’t in action (The Guardian, November 10, 2022). As mentioned earlier, the cost of shooting down an Iranian drone is significantly more than deploying one. This necessitates a redirection of funds from the Ukrainian counter-offensive efforts towards defense. Moreover, the damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure from these drones is detrimental to the country’s critical systems, such as healthcare, clean water and so on, as well as to the morale of its citizens.

In what represents a deepening of the alliance between Russia and Iran - the two nations have reached an agreement that permits the Russians to manufacture drones of Iranian design on Russian soil with the guidance of Iranian technology experts (Washington Post, November 19,  2022). This could result in a sharp increase in Russia’s inventory of cheap kamikaze drones of Iranian design while simultaneously allowing Iran to remain under the radar. Iran has officially maintained neutrality in the conflict and denies supplying drones to Russia. By providing these drones, it runs the risk of further alienation from the West, from which it already faces an extensive range of sanctions. Hope for a new and robust Iran-US nuclear deal is dwindling, given Iran’s drone exports to Russia. International dual-use technology regimes, in particular, must take note of this development in recent times.

Why is Iran supplying drones to Russia? The war in Ukraine also serves as a valuable opportunity for Iran to test its drone technology in an active war setting. The long-term implications of the war could see Iran as a leading manufacturer of drone technology, which it could use in various proxy wars, such as in Lebanon or Yemen, to increase its sphere of influence in the Middle East. Iran is also expected to use the income from the sale of drones (they have never found a buyer as big as Russia before) to develop more advanced weaponry and become a competitor to local arms exporters such as Turkey or Israel.

Moreover, it could also represent the development of a new anti-US axis between nations who have been ostracized by the West, such as Russia, Iran and possibly China in the future. According to Hussein Ibish of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, “Iran regards its alliance with Russia as a key strategic advantage in their international relations” (CNBC,November 11, 2022). An increasingly isolated Iran needs to ensure that Russia does not lose the war to prevent the weakening of one of its only allies.

Is drone warfare hyped?

It is evident through the preceding discussion that there has been extensive usage of drones in the Russia-Ukraine war. However, drones are unlikely to win the battle for either side. According to Ryan Bohl of ‘Rane' intelligence forecasting company,  “Overall, [the drones] are not a game changer because while they can carry out precision strikes against civilian infrastructure and individual units, they can’t reverse the loss of territory that Russia has been enduring since the Kharkiv offensive” (CNBC, November 11, 2022). As Ukraine becomes more adept at shooting down Russian drones and optimizes its energy infrastructure to protect against kamikaze drone swarms - Russian drones will become less influential in the war effort. The most significant long-term impact of Russian drone strikes on civilian areas in Ukraine is the escalation of animosity and the breakdown of trust between the two countries. This has directly impeded ceasefire negotiations.

Drones are highly unlikely to change the war for the Ukrainians as well. Although Ukraine has managed to carry out drone strikes against targets deep inside Russian territory, these strikes are unlikely to impact the Russian military effort on the ground. All evidence points to this - the war will be decided by the clash of Ukrainian and Russian ground forces, with drones playing a crucial role in surveillance and reconnaissance.

However, this is not to say that the Russia-Ukraine conflict isn’t a watershed movement in the evolution of drone warfare. Never before have drones been used to such an extent in any conflict by both sides. This war heralds a new age in the history of action - replacing humans with machines. According to Ukrainian Vice Prime Minister Mykhailo Federov, “we have been convinced once again the wars of the future will be about maximum drones and minimal humans” (The Atlantic, November 23, 2022). Already, countries involved in the conflict, both directly and indirectly, including Ukraine, Russia, Iran and the US, are channelling significant amounts of resources into drone research to get the upper hand in the war and all future conflicts.


The ongoing conflict has certainly seen a significant increase in the use of drones compared to previous conflicts. The deployment of drones has been described as the most extensive and sustained use of unmanned aerial systems in military conflict to date. However, almost after a year of this conflict, it is safer to assume that it is not necessarily a "drone war." It is just one of several military technologies (e.g., artillery, tanks, missiles, and electronic warfare systems) being deployed by Russia and Ukraine in war theatres.

Both sides have employed a range of drones, from small consumer-level quadcopters to more sophisticated systems capable of carrying out precision strikes. They have been used for various purposes, including surveillance, reconnaissance, target acquisition, and even offensive operations. Indeed, the technology has given both sides increased situational awareness, allowing them to gather real-time intelligence on enemy movements and positions. It also provided a way for both sides to strike at enemy positions without risking human lives, making them an attractive option in a conflict where the stakes are high. So, while it may not be accurate to call the ongoing conflict a "drone war," drones in the conflict have certainly been significant and set a new precedent for using unmanned systems in military conflicts. This war may not be won by drones but will be remembered in the history books as the war which first introduced drones as a significant force in warfare.

Author Note
Siddharth Kaulgud, Research Intern (December 2022- January 2023), Society for the Study of Peace and Conflict, New Delhi.