What Ukraine drone videos tell us about the future of war
Knowledge is power, but also, it's hella scary.
WE CAN LEARN SO MUCH about where warfare is going by watching drone videos from Ukraine.
There are countless examples of these videos, shot from both small drones that can be bought online and larger ones made solely for military use, all with similar themes: background techno music overshadowing the lethal voyeurism, confusion as you try to pinpoint the unwitting soldier below, the release of the explosive, the impact, the blast, the casualty-producing effects of shrapnel and metal and dirt, and then, eventually, the high-definition production of that casualty slumped on the ground—another added to the rolls of the tens of thousands of dead and wounded Russian and Ukrainian soldiers in a six-month-old war that is increasingly likely to last far longer than that.
There is, however, much more to unpack from what you can see on your screen. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether a drone kills or wounds; its mere presence over the battlefield and what it suggests to a soldier is terrifying—that the enemy can see you and thus, can potentially kill you. And there are a lot of drones flying over Ukraine. Meanwhile, the videos themselves—drone or otherwise—often shot from the Ukrainian perspective and captioned in English, help fuel popular support for Kyiv and sow doubt about Russian capabilities.
So, the U.S. military is paying close attention. Aside from the intelligence value of seeing how Russian troops actually operate in the field and the propaganda value of seeing them cower in fear, the videos help American troops and Pentagon brass learn how to counter and potentially defeat the myriad drones they face in the future. But here’s the dirty little secret: This is one of our toughest problems.
“I have ground commanders look at me and say the thing they are most concerned about are drones flying above them,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Clinton Hinote, the service’s deputy chief of staff, on Tuesday. “That was unexpected for me to have the commander of one of our storied ground divisions say that to me. That’s a really sobering thing. People are waking up to it. We will adapt. We will get there.”
What probably has commanders of storied ground divisions far more worried are not the cheap, off-the-shelf quadcopter drones that drop a grenade on an unlucky soldier’s head (though that’s still a nuisance). It’s the drones you don’t even know are there, potentially watching and sending back the exact positions of your troops to an artillery or rocket battery.
Notably, the Russian military showed just how powerful this combination was on July 11, 2014, when it used multiple drones to target a column of Ukrainian soldiers near Luhansk with rocket fire. “Within three minutes, the Russian forces destroyed nearly two battalions and decimated the 79th Airmobile Brigade,” a U.S. Army officer wrote, summarizing the incident.
That was then, of course. Russian soldiers in Ukraine are now resorting to outfitting their own cheap quadcopter drones to drop hand grenades on opposing trenches.
Still, the ability to ‘reach out and touch’ an adversary gets a whole lot easier once you gain the ability to see exactly where they are. Forward observers of the past had antenna radios and binoculars. These days they have those plus lasers and encrypted satellite communications. Down the road, they may well have multiple drones to help locate and destroy targets with great precision.
“Adversaries will most likely use UAS [unmanned aerial systems] to detect, locate, and observe…as part of their targeting process,” wrote Marine Capt. Justin McCann in an award-winning essay for the U.S. Naval Institute in 2016. “The enemy’s most dangerous course of action, however, is to use [radar-homing drones] to deliver munitions or flying a UAS into vulnerable assets. Flying a UAS into an air intake of an F-35B while taxiing, for instance, will neutralize a $251 million asset.”
This is the concern for U.S. troops potentially facing Russia or China. It’s a big one.
There is promising news: A lot of interesting concepts are being pursued on countering these things on the civilian and military sides. And there are many ways being considered: the “kinetic” approaches like shooting bullets, artillery, lasers, nets; and the “non-kinetic” like electronic signals that jam the connection between the drone and the operator or even using good old-fashioned birds. Meanwhile, at the ground level of the U.S. military, troops are practicing drills to avoid being spotted.
But there is an equally interesting amount of research happening in the area of drone swarms—picture one of those fantastic laser light drone shows (ooh! ah!) being refashioned with precision targeting and explosives. “Most foreign governments and non-state actors will likely consider adding swarms to their military arsenal,” cautioned two U.S. Army officers in a recent essay for Small Wars Journal.
That’s a much more difficult threat to mitigate.
“I believe there is always going to be a need for EW [electronic warfare] non-kinetic systems” that can hack enemy drones to stop them, said Army Maj. Gen. Sean Gainey, in a talk last month, adding: “I want to have the ability for a kinetic solution.”
Gainey is the head of the Pentagon’s nascent Joint Counter-small Unmanned Aerial Systems office, an outfit of about 75 people charged with developing the training and doctrine U.S. troops may need—and are no doubt learning now—from the ongoing war in Ukraine.
He estimated the U.S. military services have around 60 different anti-drone systems currently out there, a “quite challenging” training proposition. But, a joint school dedicated to countering the drone threat was created in 2021. And Gainey envisions an Army in which every soldier learns and practices their own personal counter-drone drills (sort of like the “5 and 25-meter checks” to spot roadside bombs). To be sure, air defense soldiers will be dedicated to taking out the high-flying drones, but the average G.I. will be trained on ‘drone buster’ guns to take out the small ones.
Yet this former grunt-turned-observer tends to think the proliferation of drones will be similar to that of roadside bombs; a cat-and-mouse game between the makers of the killer devices and those who try to stop them through physical or electronic means, and we’ll all be caught in the middle for a very long time.
Aside from Ukraine, Gainey offered a movie that best captures the drone future: Angel Has Fallen. “My son kinda looked and asked, are we good?” Gainey said with a laugh.
“The technology that we are working on is designed against the hardest problem set that is out there,” he said.
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THAT’S ENOUGH ABOUT DRONES for the moment, though it is sure to come up in future issues. Moving on to an incident I found particularly interesting when looking for history to unpack this week occurred in 1942: the first and only attack on the U.S. mainland during World War II.
“A real understanding of history means we face nothing new under the sun.”
On Sept. 9, 1942, less than a year after the Pearl Harbor attack, Japanese pilot Nobuo Fujita launched a seaplane off the deck of a submarine heading towards the Oregon coast. The 30-year-old warrant officer later dropped a total of four incendiary bombs in the hope they would light forest fires, but they fizzled due to damp conditions. Fifty years later, he returned to the forest where his bombs were dropped, according to the city of Brookings, Oregon, planting a little redwood tree that he called a “symbol of friendship and peace.”
History Net has a full account of Fujita’s life and exploits here.
🚨 Open Sources
I’m going to keep this one short and sweet, but I did want to put a few things on your radar:
A new report out in Politico reveals that the F-35 has components used in its engine made in China. Deliveries of the jets have been halted for now as Lockheed Martin investigates. But the weird thing is, this isn’t all that surprising to readers of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War by Peter W. Singer and August Cole, which has a fictionalized scenario of Chinese parts in an F-35 being used to disable the jet amid a conflict. I asked Singer for his comments on what he called the latest #GhostFleet moment to come true:
“One of the key lessons of Ghost Fleet was how vulnerabilities baked into our systems and supply chain could have drastic, even battle-losing, consequences,” Singer told THE RUCK. “Like so much of our work, it was a bit more of a forward-leaning idea back when we started in 2013. Indeed, part of why we included the research endnotes in the novel was to show how the vulnerabilities weren't something we made up, as well as defend against the inevitable pushback by interested parties, trying to claim whatever was the bad thing couldn't happen. Now, the idea of supply chain vulnerability and exploitation is more accepted. But the problem is still there.”
If you haven’t seen it yet, the Pentagon’s latest report on sexual assault in the military is deeply concerning. Oh, to hell with that: It’s downright disturbing. “Rates of sexual harassment, gender discrimination, and workplace hostility increased for women through the Active force,” it concluded. [PDF]
Aside from pointing out the obvious—that having a significant portion of U.S. military service members fearing their fellow service members is quite bad, the message that reports like this and the headlines they generate of a sexual assault report showing a ‘tragic’ rise in cases tend to hurt military recruiting and they certainly don’t help counter messages from adversaries who are all too eager to tout a “record number of sexual assaults” in the U.S. ranks.
Here is a recent Congressional Research Service report with a worrying title: Russian Military Actions at Ukraine Nuclear Power Plants. The four-page insight report provides a sobering look at the potential issues raised by Russia’s recent shelling of Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. [PDF]
Finally, I was on a new podcast called Military Cheat Codes. This was recorded a while ago when I was still the editor-in-chief of Task & Purpose. The hosts are way too nice, and I don’t think I can accept being called the “voice of a generation,” but I’m certainly humbled by it. You can find links to listen here.
Thanks for reading,