Artillery price

Ukrainian war drones lose central role as artillery rules

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Paris (AFP)- The Ukrainian military’s shrewd use of drones has been a cornerstone of its defense against the mighty Russian invader, but experts say their role is starting to fade as heavy artillery takes over.

At the start of the war, the skies over Ukraine seemed filled with remote-controlled aircraft deployed by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s army to spy on the enemy or go on the attack.

During Moscow’s first advance on Kyiv, “it would have been extremely difficult for Ukraine to block[Russian President Vladimir’s]Putin’s army without drones,” said US Army Lt. Col. Paul Lushenko and PhD student at Cornell University.

“They could aggravate or exacerbate Putin’s strategic and logistical challenges,” he told AFP.

The Turkish-made Bayraktar drone, known as the already world-famous TB-2, added to its stellar reputation while defending the Ukrainian capital.

In addition to providing intelligence on Russian movements, the drones have also helped Ukraine compensate for much of the weakness of its air force compared to Russia’s.

“Reconnaissance and weapons systems, predominantly military, have proven to be a surrogate light air force against a conventional adversary,” said Aude Thomas of the FRS Foundation for Strategic Research.

Although the Ukrainians did not invent drone warfare – the United States used drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, and it participated in conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh – they offered to new approaches.

This, Thomas said, included the use of commercial drones for intelligence, damage assessment and target guidance for artillery, as well as direct hits on enemy positions.

Kyiv has been working on drone optimization since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, creating the “Aerorozvidka” unit made up of computer scientists customizing standard drones for military use.

Today, according to Thomas, the unit produces its own armed drones carrying anti-tank munitions and operated by 50 teams of experienced pilots.

“Lack of tactical intelligence”

But as the war entered its fifth month and fighting moved east into the Donbass, artillery took center stage, making Ukraine’s continued deployment of drones more difficult and more expensive, analysts said.

Russia’s S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft guns are dangerous enemies for drones, with foreign policy analyst Jack Detsch saying some US and Ukrainian officials have become reluctant to send armed Gray Eagle drones into their line of sight.

The Gray Eagles, designed for frontline action with a range of eight kilometers (five miles), risk being shot down after just one or two missions, a costly risk as each drone has a $10 million price tag.

Deadly and expensive: the American drone Gray Eagle HO US ARMY/AFP

Detsch said there was friction over the subject between Ukrainian chiefs of staff and frontline troops who limit daily drone sorties to 30.

For comparison, American single-use drones like the “Switchblade” and “Phoenix Ghost” can cost several thousand dollars each.

Meanwhile, drone development continues, with one of the latest ideas being “drone-to-drone pairing,” Lushenko said, whereby a small commercial drone identifies a target for another drone to strike.

Michael O’Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington DC-based think tank, warned that ‘drones are important but lack tactical intelligence’ and their role in Kyiv’s defense may have been overstated compared to that of the anti-tanks. missiles like the Javelin.

“They’re like cheap, durable planes that are almost as much like precision artillery as they are traditional planes,” he said.

A game-changing development would be a drone big enough to carry heavy loads but small and versatile enough to do without a runway, O’Hanlon said.

Such a drone, he said, “we need it but we don’t have it yet.”