Helping Ukraine Win the Drone War

Fabrice Pothier

4 mins - 17 de Octubre de 2023, 08:00

When visiting Ukraine’s drone factories, you are struck by the mix of Do-It-Yourself ingenuity with cutting-edge technology. It's the same engineers and entrepreneurs tinkering in workshops who test their creations live on the frontlines directly against the Russian enemy. As always, war is driving innovation – with Ukrainian forces successfully integrating drones into their operations since the beginning of the conflict. However, the grim reality is innovation happens on both sides. Over the last year, Russia has largely caught up with reconnaissance and attack drones. Coupled with a traditionally superior jamming technology, the Russian invading forces are saturating the front lines with UAVs, while using long-range drones to target civilians. 

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Every month, Ukraine is losing over a thousand drones. They urgently need to regain their advantage in this critical domain, to enable their precision artillery and allow longer range strikes against Russian forces and military infrastructure. This will only be possible with the support of Ukraine’s allies. Ukraine has the capacity to assemble the drone airframes in the quantity needed. What it lacks, is the critical components that make drones agile and lethal: sensors, optics, and anti-jamming systems. These areas are dominated by Chinese companies. With Chinese support for the Russian war effort increasing, including the provision of dual-use technologies, the situation is worrying. Even more so as the reliance on Chinese components also clashes with Ukraine’s move towards NATO standards and systems. 

This is where Ukraine’s partners come in. While the focus over the past year has been on providing weapon systems and munitions, it should now be augmented with efforts to channel critical components to Ukraine’s hundreds of drone manufacturers. A new "Ramstein for drones" should be urgently organised. This could be led by the European Union, which has the capacity to mobilise private sector companies from the technology sector on the scale needed. As it did for vaccines during the pandemic, and more recently for munition supplies, the European Commission should flex its muscles as market regulator and call on all NATO certified technology companies to announce their inventory and scale up production. 

This work could reach beyond EU members, bringing in major NATO allies like the US, UK, and Canada, as well as G7 members like Japan, whose companies produce many of these critical components. This new Ramstein would cut both ways: channel needed components to Ukraine, while agreeing on more restrictive export measures for those indirectly shipped to Russia. Still to this day, many components found in Russian drones being used to kill Ukrainians come from Germany, the United States, or other NATO allies.

The new grouping could do more than coordinate components, it could also provide badly needed resources to train drone operators. Drone training academies in Ukraine are relatively cheap operations but they lack the scale to train the number of operators needed on the frontlines. 

There are already important initiatives on drones taking place, such as Eric Schmidt’s plan to build a million-strong drone army in Ukraine. A "Ramstein for drones" would complement and not eclipse these efforts. As Ukrainian authorities have learnt from their difficult experience with Starlink, it is vital not to be dependent on any one provider. For Ukraine, having a robust supply of critical components to scale-up domestic production is a smart way to diversify and can provide a good long-term return on investment.

The long-awaited Ukrainian counter-offensive has been slower and more painful than expected. The jury is still out on what the Ukrainian forces can achieve before winter rolls in. Short of a major strategic breakthrough, new gains will not fundamentally change what has become a war of attrition. Winning this war will hinge on each side’s capacity to build a military industrial depth. Russia can count on its extensive, albeit ageing and corrupted, domestic military industrial capacity to continue throwing drones and missiles at the problem. Meanwhile, Ukraine is betting on its own drone production to compensate for its limited capacity for long-range strikes and air inferiority. It is down to us to shift the odds in Ukraine’s favour. Doing so relies on harnessing the West’s industrial depth and expertise in dual-use technologies. It is time for Europe and the wider democratic to lean on their tech champions, and ensure they stand clearly on the side of freedom. 
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