The New Drone Wars – Three Years Later

FPV racing drones fitted with RPG warheads used by Ukraine’s Omega M2 unit

Back in early 1981, I did a few “odd jobs” between graduating from the Infantry Officer Advanced Course and starting the SF Officers Course. One of these jobs was as an ARTEP evaluator for a mech infantry company on Fort Benning. While I had plenty of book learning about tank-mech infantry teams, I was much more comfortable following a dismounted night attack through a cold January swamp. There was no Moon and a stiff, steady breeze so I felt we were making a stealthy approach. Although the attack was well executed, I learned something disconcerting during the after action review. Our night approach through the swamp was monitored by a high flying AC-130 gunship from 1st SOW. The gunship caught the heat signature of each approaching soldier as they silently slid through that moonless swamp. The lesson I took was that the idea of remaining undetected in uninhabited forests and mountains was a myth. Combine that with the Fort Benning aphorism, “If you can be seen, you can be killed” and I quickly became enamored with the concept of urban guerrilla warfare once I reached 10th Group. We would survive behind the Iron Curtain only by hiding among those we were to liberate from oppression.

So what does this stroll down memory lane have to do with the new drone wars? A lot, actually. It’s the same principle. Armies can be seen and killed from above by a wide range of drones in 2020 just as we could be seen and killed by the AC-130 back in 1980. The difference lies in the proliferation of these drones and the fact that they are less expensive than manned aircraft. They also don’t expose pilots or operators to death or capture. 

First there were our Predators and Reapers hunting down jihadis and the occasional wedding party. We have well over 500 of these heavy drones. We have even more smaller drones down to man packed, hand launched tactical varieties. But we are not alone anymore. China is producing them like gangbusters. Turkey has emerged as a major leader in the development and employment of drones. One of these, the Bayratkar TB2, has had success in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. Erdogan has also deployed the TB2 against the PKK within Turkey and northern Iraq. 

The T2B is a medium altitude tactical drone. It has a range of more than 150 km and can fly at a maximum altitude of 22,500 feet. It has a maximum speed of 120 knots, a cruise speed of 70 knots and endurance of more than 24 hours. The TB2 is powered with a 100 horsepower Rotax civil engine, an engine common to ultralight and homebuilt aircraft. The unit cost of the aircraft itself is less than 100 thousand dollars. Its electro-optical reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting system is now produced by Aselan in Turkey at a cost of 400 thousand dollars per unit. Although it does use GPS, it is not satellite controlled. Ground stations control the TB2 by line-of-sight radio signal. The munitions, also produced in Turkey by Roketsan, are laser-guided, precision, long range and light weight. They include thermobaric and tandem warheads effective against reactive armor. Overall, the TB2 is an impressive piece of kit. 

As I mentioned, the PKK were the first to feel the wrath of the TB2. Those fighters hiding in the hills and mountains of eastern Turkey and northern Iraq have been getting clobbered since the droness were employed against them. I’m sure they learned the same lesson I learned forty years ago in that Fort Benning swamp. The difference is that my lesson was academic, the PKK’s lesson was catastrophically lethal. Erdogan also used the TB2 and other drones against the YPG/SDF over the last few years.

The first time the TB2 gained notoriety in the West was when they were used as part of Turkey’s Spring 2020 counterattack against the very successful R+5 Idlib Dawn offensive. A large number of TB2s, along with a smaller number of the larger, satellite-controlled Anka medium drones were deployed from 1 to 5 March. At a loss of six drones, Turkey claimed it destroyed over a hundred SAA armored vehicles, dozens of artillery systems and hundreds of SAA troops. Take that claim with a grain of salt, but Russia and the SAA agreed to a ceasefire immediately after that.

Turkish drones also played a significant role, along with the imported Syrian jihadis, in stopping Haftar’s LNA from taking Tripoli in early 2020. Until that time Haftar was using Chinese made Wing Loong drones to great effect. The GNA compensated for the shorter range of the newly arrived T2Bs by establishing radio relay sites to extend their operational range. The TB2s used a Turkish EW suite to jam the Russian made Pantsir-1 units and took them out systematically. They then played havoc among Haftar’s forces deployed in the flatness of northern Libya. Haftar and the Wagner Group were forced to withdraw from the outskirts of Tripoli.

The newest deployment of the TB2 is in the current Armenian-Azerbijani war. The Azeri and Armenian forces are generally similar in equipment, manpower and training. However, the Azeri’s employment of TB2 drones has been devastating to the Armenian armor and artillery in Nagorno-Karabakh. The Azeris are advancing with the help of those TB2 drones. There is a constant stream of drone kill porn on the internet. This time it is Armenian targets being snuffed rather than footage of Predators snuffing jihadis.

The proliferation of attack drones, especially Turkish drones, is changing ground warfare. In Syria, Russia rushed additional air defense capabilities to SAA front line units to blunt the threat of Turkish drones. Movement, dispersion and concealment methods required modification. A hull down position for an AFV is nothing to a drone. After the March 2020 drone attacks in Idlib, the Russians sent wreckage of those Turkish drones back to Moscow to develop an effective countermeasure. They have now rushed the KRET Krasukha electronic jamming system to their base in Armenia where the system reportedly caused nine drones to loose connection with their control stations and crash. The Krashukha also blocks GPS signals to prevent drones from automatically returning to base. The TB2 doesn’t appear to have that feature, but many drones do. In my opinion, this is the most promising countermeasure to the widespread use of drones. The Russian military, due to their massive investment in radio-electronic combat (REC) is in the best position to pursue this countermeasure. We could someday soon see serious deployment of REC at the company and battalion level. Sure we can change our TTPs (tactics, techniques and procedures) to reduce our vulnerabilities to the threat of constant areal surveillance and attack, but that would be debilitating to normal operations. We best get to stepping in developing and widely deploying an effective EW capability. China is right up there with Turkey and the US in the development of drone warfare.

Comment: I wrote this essay a little over three years ago. Both my essay and especially the ensuing discussion foresaw a few of the remarkable advancements in drone warfare. But none of us foresaw how Ukraine would become the lead nation in the development of drone and counter-drone warfare. Of course back then we all saw Putin’s Russia as far too clever and prudent to foolishly invade Ukraine so clumsily. The TB2 Bayraktar had a heyday early in the war in Ukraine until Russian air defense and EW capabilities caught up. The Bayraktars have recently made a reappearance on the Kherson front. The Ukrainians have established an effective EW, air defense and counter-air defense bubble over the front lines which allows the Bayraktars to loiter over the battlefield at a sufficient altitude to surveil Russian troop movements and spot for attack drones and artillery strikes.

Beyond this example, the real advancement has been in the application of small commercial drones for reconnaissance and attack on an ever increasing scale. They have become indispensable in directing conventional and precision artillery fire. FPV attack drones are even supplanting artillery and ATGM fires. The development of better EW and counter-EW technologies has shaped these advancements. FPV attack drones, resistant to jamming, are striking further and further behind the front lines often with other drones serving as communication relay sites. 

As I said in the original essay, we best get to stepping in developing and widely deploying not just an effective EW capability, but an effective counter-EW capability, a robust and responsive R&D capability and a production capability which can produce these technologies quickly, in large amounts and cheaply. That’s surely not our current MIC. Both Ukraine and Russia are making great strides in addressing these needs. Ukraine, at least, is also making great strides in developing and implementing a supporting force development plan. Dedicated units have been created and manned with a dedicated training infrastructure. A supporting doctrine is also rapidly being developed  and implemented throughout the force. We must do the same.

But Russia is not far behind Ukraine in advancing the field of drone warfare. Today she launched a 75 drone raid on Kyiv. No missiles. No bombers. Just drones. We must also be prepared to face the same.


This entry was posted in The Military Art, TTG, Ukraine Crisis. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to The New Drone Wars – Three Years Later

  1. F&L says:

    Imagine what the Third Reich SS could have achieved regarding their programs of elimination of ethnic and other undesirables if they had in hand our present day 24-7 electronic synopticon surveillance, computer database and especially sniper & explosive-weilding drone technology. Big savings on trains, gas Chambers, zyklon-b, crematoria.
    And try to imagine, say, 75 years from now. I have yet to receive a pizza delivered by drone.

    • drifter says:

      Drones. Newfangled nonsense. What’s with kids these days. Heck, back in the day, you could pick up the TV remote, and it would control which, uh, … Let’s bring back the Germans being the enemy. Kill the Germans. We can all agree on that.

      • English Outsider says:

        It’s the Russians are the enemy now. Or the Chinese, now Ukraine’s a dead duck. We’re only allowed to go for the Germans these days if they try to use NS2.

        So much simpler in the old days. The French always used to be the enemy of default. More civilised, that. They never used to mind much and it kept us all busy.

      • Keith Harbaugh says:

        Drifter, I know you’re joking, but the Germans made such great contributions to culture and science.
        For example, this awesome chorus:

    • Fred says:


      What did Mao manage without those technical gizmos? Did he do ‘better’ at the numbers than Stalin, who sure beat out the Austrian corporal?

      • F&L says:

        Give Mao a BA and he’s Obama.

        Tse Tung spells Gnu Test, Test Gun and Sung Tet.

        There’s Get Nuts in there too if you go bananas.

        I was just trying to spare you moustaches and save on little red books. Some people think Trump is a new Hitler and Kamala knew Mao. And by the way, Uncle Sam was no slouch with B-52s, dead Kennedys, and agent Orange. Speaking of which, Agent Orange might return in human form in 2024. Highly toxic.

  2. voislav says:

    One thing that I loved about the World War Z book was the resource-to-kill ratio. What is the cost of the system you are using for a mission? How does it compare to the cost of the target? This is where Ukraine excelled early in the war, frankly, revolutionizing ground combat compared to 10 years ago with cheap, expendable drones that are not worth the expense of the surface-to-air missile to shoot it down. If the system is cheap enough, attrition rate is almost irrelevant.

    Russia has allegedly started using self-guiding (AI) Lancet drones that do not require a connection to home, so are very resistant to jamming. I’d expect Chinese to be developing the same. US, unfortunately, seems to be lagging behind, but honestly I haven’t spent any time looking up recent US military combat footage. Surprisingly to me at least, Israel seems to be lagging behind as well, their invasion of Gaza seems to be very conventional, I am not seeing much in terms of FPV drones, they seem reliant on larger drones.

    I think this will affect armoured vehicle design as well. I suspect Russians cancelled their Armata family of vehicles because they found in Ukraine that larger vehicles offer limited increase in protection, but major increase in detection footprint (visible, thermal, microewave from active protection systems etc.). Ukrainians found the same with Bradley’s and western MBT’s. The key for next generation vehicles will be minimal footprint and automation to minimize crew size, as well as anti-drone defense systems.

  3. Keith Harbaugh says:

    Reposting this at a better place:

    Here is an account of some high-tech, U.S.-made weapons being used in the Ukraine-Russia and Israel-Hamas conflicts:

    “Israel’s appetite for high-tech weapons highlights a Biden policy gap
    The Israel-Hamas war has brought a boom in cutting-edge military technology from U.S. makers — and a brewing diplomatic headache for the White House.”

    “This surge of interest echoes the one driven by the even larger conflict in Ukraine,
    which has been a proving ground for new AI-powered defense technology —
    much of it ordered by the Ukrainian government directly from U.S. tech companies.

    AI ethicists have raised concerns about the Israeli military’s use of AI-driven technologies to target Palestinians,
    pointing to reports that the army used AI to strike more than 11,000 targets in Gaza since Hamas militants launched a deadly assault on Israel on Oct 7.”

  4. kodlu says:


    Good article and a timely update. Just a small detail, it is actually Bayraktar TB2 not T2B. They manufacture a number of other (more expensive) drones as well, such as the Akinci, and TB3, and are developing an unmanned jet fighter (kizilelma = red apple).

    • TTG says:


      Thanks for the correction. Three years ago I puzzled over the designation and think I followed somebody else’s error… or I’m dyslexic.

  5. F&L says:

    I’ve no idea how accurate this pasted post is below. I came across it while trying to relocate a Tgram post about fancy Russian anti-drone warfare systems being sold as the fruit of original Ru R&D but which were reportedly bought online from Chinese sources, modified, and marked up for sale to Ru MOD for 4 x cost. I couldn’t find it, but this popped up.
    Shipovnik-AERO (In Russian)
    The superiority of Russian electronic warfare over Ukrainian
    The Economist writes that the Russian Armed Forces have complete superiority in electronic warfare (EW) over the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Which remained electronic warfare equipment mainly from the Soviet era. Below is an excerpt from the article.
    Initially, the divergence had limited impact, but as relatively static lines of contact emerged, Russia was able to place its formidable electronic warfare capabilities where they could have the greatest effect.
    In March, Ukraine discovered that its GPS-guided Excalibur projectiles had suddenly started drifting away from their targets due to Russian interference. Something similar began to happen with the JDAM-ER guided bombs that America supplied to the Ukrainian Air Force, while Ukrainian long-range GMLR missiles launched by HIMARS also began to miss their targets. In some areas, most GMLR rounds go astray.
    Even more troubling is the growing ability of Russian electronic warfare to counter the plethora of low-cost unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that Ukraine uses for everything from battlefield reconnaissance and communications to bombing targets such as tanks or command posts.
    Ukraine has trained an army of approximately 10,000 UAV pilots, who now play a constant game of cat and mouse with Russia’s increasingly experienced electronic warfare operators. But losses from Russian electronic warfare systems, which either disable their guidance systems or cause interference in radio communications with their operators, sometimes exceed 2,000 per week. The affected drones hover aimlessly until their batteries run out and they fall to the ground.
    The skies above the battlefield are now swarming with Russian drones. Ukrainian soldiers estimate that Russia is deploying twice as many attack drones as Ukraine in the Bakhmut area.
    Russia’s growing success in the drone war is due in part to the density of electronic warfare systems it can field, thanks to years of investment. A report published in May by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the London think tank RUSI said the Russians were deploying one large electronic warfare system for every 10 km along the front line. They believe that among many Russian electronic warfare systems, the truck-mounted “Shipovnik-Aero” (pictured👇) turns out to be especially lethal for Ukrainian UAVs. The system has a range of 10 km and can take over control of a drone, receiving the coordinates of the location from which it is being piloted, with an accuracy of one meter, for transmission to an artillery battery.
    Based on its much lower level of technical and operational skills, Ukraine has struggled to develop domestic electronic warfare capabilities to match those of Russia. Some progress has been made. The nationwide electronic warfare system “Pokrov” is being deployed. It can both jam satellite navigation systems such as Russia’s GLONASS and spoof them, replacing genuine signals with false ones, tricking the missile into thinking it is in a location where it is not.
    Pokrov should be highly effective against the Iranian-designed Shahed-136 UAV, but less so against cruise missiles, which rely more on terrain-matching systems that compare the terrain below against a library of stored images rather than navigating the entire flight. In addition to “Pokrov”, so-called “Frankenstein air defense systems” are also emerging, created with typical Ukrainian ingenuity by combining Soviet systems with more modern technologies.
    But what’s missing when it comes to competing with Russia in electronic warfare is help from Ukraine’s Western allies. With newer systems, there is a certain reluctance, especially on the part of the Americans, to show Russia their capabilities, because useful information, such as frequencies and channel switching methods used, will most likely be transferred to the Chinese.

    • LeaNder says:

      I’ve no idea how accurate this pasted post is below
      A report published in May by Jack Watling and Nick Reynolds of the London think tank RUSI said the Russians were deploying one large electronic warfare system for every 10 km along the front line.
      One can search the RUSI site. The authors co-wrote several reports about the war including one in May. PDF file linked to first page of EW chapter:

      One can search the Rusi site. Those authors no doubt co-wrote several reports about the war together including the one May 23:
      Meatgrinder: Russian Tactics in the Second Year of Its Invasion of Ukraine

      They co-wrote another one in September 23:
      Stormbreak: Fighting Through Russian Defences in Ukraine’s 2023 Offensive>7i>

      And early a summary on the war 2022-23
      An early analysis of the evidence sheds light on Russia’s unconventional operations in its war against Ukraine.</i

      • English Outsider says:

        LeaNder – some observations on current use of FPV drones and EW countermeasures here. Obviously can’t answer for the predictions but the videos, if genuine, show Ukrainian and Russian ECM in use. (Approx 15 mins to 22 mins.)

  6. scott s. says:

    Knowing nothing about US Army EW doctrine, I punched some online pubs like FM 3-12 and I see capability mainly at Brigade level EW platoon in the Military Intel company. But it seems like their organic capability is primarily defensive – EW support and SIGINT. It doesn’t seem like Electronic Attack (EA) has been given much capability. That’s pretty much in line with my USN experience, ESM and SIGINT at the platform level, with defensive countermeasures such as chaff but EA mostly allocated to the air wing “Growler” det tactical jammers.

    Maybe things have improved in more recent times. I see Army has L-M working on something TLS-BCT but the PR stuff on it sounds more defensive/SIGINT oriented.

  7. walrus says:

    All this begs the question of the development of drone destroyer drones.

    By that I mean something that can loiter in an area and provide close in protection against enemy drones. At least this might work against what I would term Generation One drones – derivations of circa 2020 commercial designs and perhaps Generation two -purpose built military designs with AI.

    To me, the scary stuff is perhaps what I’ll term Generation three or four as foreshadowed by William Gibson in one of his novels – swarming tiny drones with a group AI capability that will make concentrated multiple attacks on anything found by a member of the swarm.

  8. leith says:

    Troopers from the 112th, Kyiv’s Territorial Brigade, claim they knocked one down with AK-47 fire.

    • TTG says:


      I believe it. We knocked a BAT target rocket out of the sky with the M-16A1 rifle fire of an understrength rifle platoon. Didn’t even engage the M-60s before we downed it.

  9. drifter says:

    The Bayraktar TB2 was knocked out of the war early on. Drones have evolved into munitions in preference to platforms.

  10. Kim Sky says:

    this might or might not be of interest to this topic…

    I used to follow global guerrillas by jon robb…

    he opted out in 2018 with an article called “the long night is coming”

    started up a group to do research on drones and electronic whatever, whatever, I didn’t join because you have to pay a bit of cash.

    he’s an interesting thinker!

  11. F&L says:

    How about giant nets on the ceiling which fall onto the looters at the release of a switch?
    No? I can think of something else that will keep people from doing this in the future, and it doesn’t involve firearms, but think it better not to describe it. (In other news this evening police report the capture of two large komodo dragons in Van Nuys. In another shopping mall reports are that bombsquads safely defused suspicious packages. And Acme news still cannot verify the reports of explosions last week that are said to have maimed numerous looters. Videos of the horrific blasts seen on the net are possibly deep fakes, said a source which wished to remain anonymous. However at least 7 teenagers from the … community have been missing since the videos were first seen. Burke Goalie and Felicity Flash will now give us the highlights of today’s sports.)

    Flash Mobs Ransack Nike Store In La

  12. Keith Harbaugh says:

    “Pentagon’s AI Initiatives Accelerate Hard Decisions on Lethal Autonomous Weapons”

    “the Pentagon is intent on fielding multiple thousands of relatively inexpensive, expendable AI-enabled autonomous vehicles by 2026 to keep pace with China.
    The ambitious initiative — dubbed Replicator —
    seeks to “galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many,”
    Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said”

    • TTG says:

      Keith Harbaugh,

      I bet the big defense contractors are shivering in their boots over the thought of small, smart, cheap, and many… especially the cheap.

      • F&L says:

        Drones + AI are going to be the Eli Whitney interchangeable parts plus Henry Ford plus nuclear armed ICBMs and stealth fighters and bombers of the mid to late 21st century.
        Henry Hissingher found it very troubling. The internet + smartphones are the new gestapo and Cheka.

  13. English Outsider says:

    TTG – on the use of Bayracktars in Idlib.

    I heard that the Turks initially used the Bayraktars there for surveillance purposes only. So the Syrians got used to them being there and didn’t pay them much attention.

    Then the Turks armed the Bayraktars and used them on Syrian tanks. This took he Syrians by surprise and led to them being driven back almost to Aleppo. After the initial disorganisation the Syrians then drove the Jihadis back to their original lines.

    I don’t know if that was a true account but saw no reason to doubt it.

    Might I ask, what’s happening now in Idlib now that Erdogan and Assad seem no longer to be sworn enemies, at least for the moment. Are the Uighurs and their families still there? An old query but I don’t come across any useful information on the subject.

  14. ked says:

    here’s a nifty example of what’s coming forth in the counter-drone space these days. it seems to address many of the issues that make it a challenge, drawing together a suite of innovations from a variety of tech dev activities. I agree w/ the author that the primary sensor is probably a thermal seeker. also impressive are the very small, very hi perf turbojet engines.

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