New systems eliminate surprises, make it harder to gain ground in armored assaults
By Yaroslav Trofimov
September 28, 2023
The Wall Street Journal
CHASIV YAR, Ukraine—Wearing video goggles, a Ukrainian trooper crouched on the top floor of a gutted high-rise and piloted a small drone into the nearby Russian-occupied city of Bakhmut. With a swoosh, the first-person-view drone—which cost roughly $300 to assemble—sped after a target of opportunity, blowing up a pickup truck full of Russian troops. “Before we started flying here, the Russians had so much movement that there were traffic jams in Bakhmut,” said the pilot, a member of the Special Operations Center “A” of the Security Service of Ukraine. “Now, all the roads in Bakhmut are empty.”
With thousands of Ukrainian and Russian drones in the air along the front line at a given time, from cheap quadrocopters to long-range winged aircraft that can fly hundreds of miles and stay on target for hours, the very nature of war has transformed.
The drones are just one element of change. New integrated battle-management systems that provide imaging and locations in real time all the way down to the platoon and squad levels—in Ukraine’s case, via the Starlink satellite network—have made targeting near instantaneous.
“Today, a column of tanks or a column of advancing troops can be discovered in three to five minutes and hit in another three minutes. The survivability on the move is no more than 10 minutes,” said Maj. Gen. Vadym Skibitsky, the deputy commander of Ukraine’s HUR military intelligence service. “Surprises have become very difficult to achieve.”
The technological revolution triggered by the Ukraine war, Europe’s biggest conflict in nearly eight decades, is calling into question the feasibility of some of the basic concepts of American military doctrine.
Combined-arms maneuvers using large groups of armored vehicles and tanks to make rapid breakthroughs—something that Washington and its allies had expected the Ukrainian offensive this summer to achieve—may no longer be possible in principle, some soldiers here say. The inevitable implication, according to Ukrainian commanders, is that the conflict won’t end soon. “The days of massed armored assaults, taking many kilometers of ground at a time, like we did in 2003 in Iraq—that stuff is gone because the drones have become so effective now,” said retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Bradley Crawford, an Iraq war veteran who is now training Ukrainian forces near Bakhmut in a private capacity.
And, in a potential conflict with a lesser power, America’s overall military edge may also not be as decisive as previously thought. “It’s a question of cost,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of
strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. “If you can destroy an expensive, heavy system for something that costs much much less, then actually the power differential between the two countries doesn’t matter as much.”
For instance, each FPV drone, a type of weapon that entered widespread use this summer, costs a fraction of a regular 155mm artillery shell, which is worth some $3,000, let alone main battle tanks priced at millions of dollars.
Yet the drones now have the precision and speed to catch up with any moving armored vehicle and, if piloted expertly, can disable even the most modern tanks and howitzers. Their cheapness also means that they can be used against any target of opportunity, including cars and small groups of soldiers, emptying out the roads within several miles of the front line.
Center “A” is one of many Ukrainian forces operating FPV drones. Since June 1, the center’s FPV crews in eastern and southern Ukraine have hit 113 Russian tanks, 111 fighting vehicles and 68 artillery systems, causing nearly 700 Russian casualties, according to the unit.
During a few hours one recent morning in Chasiv Yar, Center “A” operators used FPV drones armed with World War II-vintage antitank bombs to destroy, in addition to the pickup truck, two parked Russian military vehicles. They also flew a drone into the window of a Bakhmut high-rise after spotting Russian soldiers—likely also drone operators—moving the curtains. A separate observation drone recorded the resulting explosions.
The Russians, too, have formidable—and fast-improving—drone capabilities of their own. Minutes after the Center “A” team tried to establish a position in the Chasiv Yar high-rise, it was spotted by a Russian drone and the building was targeted by mortar fire. The Ukrainian troopers quickly ran from the building and then filtered back in groups of two, at long intervals.
While drones have played an outsize role in Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, both the sheer number of unmanned aircraft and their effectiveness have increased significantly, with Moscow quickly catching up and sometimes surpassing Ukraine’s capabilities. New types of drones, developed domestically and imported, are reaching the battlefield all the time—including naval drones that Ukraine has successfully used to damage Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Many drones that were effective just months earlier have become outdated fast and need to be re-engineered to defeat enemy jamming, commanders say. “Nothing stands firm,” said the commander of the Ukrainian Navy, Vice Adm. Oleksiy Neizhpapa, in an interview. “War is the time when technology develops. Every operation is different, and if you repeat it the same way, it would make no sense because the enemy already has an antidote.”
The last time any side made a rapid breakthrough on the ground was the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions in September and October last year. At the time, the Ukrainians achieved surprise by taking advantage of undermanned and under-fortified Russian positions.
The subsequent Ukrainian advance in Kherson last November was the result of Himars missile strikes disrupting Russian logistics to such a point that the Russians chose to withdraw.
Since last fall, however, Russia has mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops, plugging gaps in defense and laying out extensive minefields and fortifications. Crucially, it has also saturated the front line with drones.
In June, as Ukraine kicked off its counteroffensive, every time its forces gathered more than a few tanks and infantry fighting vehicles together, their columns were quickly spotted by ubiquitous Russian drones and then targeted by a combination of artillery, missiles fired from choppers and swarms of drones. Minefields channeled these columns into kill zones.
The Russian military faced the same fate when it gathered a large tank force of its own in an attempt to push into the city of Vuhledar in January, and in subsequent smaller attempts at armored offensives. Noticed by Ukrainians from the air, these columns were also swiftly destroyed.
After initial heavy losses of Western-supplied tanks and fighting vehicles, Ukrainian troops have now switched to operating in small groups that are ferried toward the front line using armored personnel carriers, and then attempt to advance one tree line after another. Drones of all kinds have become increasingly important in the Ukrainian war. A Center ‘A’ operator sits next to a Ukrainian-made RAM strike drone.
Continuing to move forward, the Ukrainians seized several villages on the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk regions, and, in recent days, broke through Russian lines south of Bakhmut to take the villages of Andriivka and Klishchiivka. During the Russian offensive between November and May, Moscow scored no notable gains except for Bakhmut. “Unfortunately, most of our offensive is now on foot,” said Lt. Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the commander of HUR. “You could see a mirror picture last fall, when the Russians were carrying out their own offensive, above all in Bakhmut. The same way, the use of heavy armor was minimal, everyone was waging war on foot. I don’t think anything will be different now.”
The bloody war fought by Ukraine is the kind of conflict that the U.S. military hasn’t experienced since Korea in the 1950s. Modern Western military training and defense procurement have been shaped by decades of counterinsurgency operations against much weaker opponents in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan. That has led to a focus on costly and sophisticated weapons systems that don’t survive long in a full-scale conflict with a comparable adversary. “A lot of Western armor doesn’t work here because it had been created not for an all-out war but for conflicts of low or medium intensity. If you throw it into a mass offensive, it just doesn’t perform,” said Taras Chmut, director of Come Back Alive, a foundation that raises money to provide Ukrainian units with drones, vehicles and weapons. Even the most expensive tanks have proved vulnerable to ancient land mines, after all.
The corollary, he added, is that the focus should be on providing front-line troops with a larger quantity of cheaper, simpler systems. That is a historical lesson that harks back to World War II, when the Soviet T-34 and American-built Sherman tanks were significantly inferior to German Tigers and Panthers but could be mass-produced, fielded in much greater numbers and more easily repaired in the field.
The use of technology is transforming how Ukraine is fighting the war. Center ‘A’ troopers prepare an FPV drone for a launch near Chasiv Yar, Ukraine.
Western military planners are taking notice. “We have a lot of lessons to learn. One is that quantity is a quality of its own,” said Maj. Gen. Christian Freuding, the head of Ukraine operations at the German Ministry of Defense. “You need numbers, you need force numbers. In the West we have reduced our military, we have reduced our stocks. But quantity matters, mass matters.”
When it comes to tanks, in particular, the lesson of the Ukrainian war is that tank-on-tank battles have become a rarity—which means that the relative sophistication of a tank is no longer as important. Fewer than 5% of tanks destroyed since the war began had been hit by other tanks, according to Ukrainian officials, with the rest succumbing to mines, artillery, antitank missiles and drones.
While Ukraine relies on Western-made tanks, artillery and missile launchers, it increasingly operates a fleet of Ukrainian drones made by some 200 domestic manufacturers. They range from cheap FPVs to long-range winged drones that carry out almost daily strikes deep inside Russia, which Kyiv isn’t allowed to target with Western munitions.
On a recent day in the Zaporizhzhia front line near the town of Orikhiv, a crew of three Center “A” service members set up a position in a tree line and launched a winged observation drone from a sunflower field. Another Ukrainian drone team had established an outpost a few hundred yards away.
One crew member piloted the drone itself, another rotated and focused the camera, looking for targets, and the third was using his laptop to receive intelligence feeds from other sources.
Russian jamming of the GPS signal—increasingly a problem for Western-made weapons such as Himars missiles, precision shells and guided bombs—meant the pilot had to fly the drone visually, using a satellite map on his screen and comparing it with the camera feed. The target was a Russian 152mm self-propelled artillery piece southwest of Robotyne that was spotted earlier in the day and hit by artillery using cluster munitions that disabled its treads.
As the target was found, the crew alerted colleagues operating a Ukrainian-made winged explosive drone nearby, which, at a cost of some $40,000, was deemed worth expending to blow up a much more valuable artillery piece. “If we let the howitzer sit there, the Russians will just tow it away under the cover of darkness, and repair it easily,” said the pilot, who goes by the call sign Banderas. “Here, we can find the target, and then we can destroy it ourselves without asking anything from our artillery.”
Yaroslav Trofimov is the chief foreign-affairs correspondent of The Wall Street Journal. He has covered the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021 and has been working out of Ukraine since January 2022. He joined the Journal in 1999 and previously served as Rome, Middle East and Singapore-based Asia correspondent, as bureau chief in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and as Dubai-based columnist on the greater Middle East. He is the author of two books, Faith at War (2005) and Siege of Mecca (2007).