Exploding ‘kamikaze’ drones are ushering in a new era of warfare in Ukraine

The Russian kamikaze drones, also known as loitering munitions, will soon be joined on the battlefield by ones sent to Ukrainian forces by the United States, making the war the largest direct conflict between two countries in which they’ve been deployed on both sides. Researchers who specialize in the field say it shows that these drones are becoming the norm in modern warfare, and are likely to make the conflict more deadly and unpredictable.

“It’s going to be more of a psychological effect,” said Ingvild Bode, an autonomous weapons researcher at the University of Southern Denmark. “There’s no place to hide.”

Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and the ensuing war has already been a proving ground for high-tech weaponry. Ukrainian troops have used portable antitank missiles to destroy countless Russian vehicles, while social media has been used by Russia’s government to try to muddy the facts on the ground with disinformation. On Twitter, regular people around the world have been verifying photos of Russian troop movements and reporting them to Ukrainian authorities to aid in the war effort.

Drones have also played a key role in the war. Ukraine’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, the size of a small airplane and equipped with laser-guided missiles, is wreaking havoc on Russian tanks and trucks and helping to stymie the invasion. There’s some evidence Ukraine might also be using the Polish-produced Warmate drone — which can be reused as a surveillance drone or equipped with explosives to become a loitering munition — said Wim Zwijnenburg, a drone expert with Dutch arms control NGO Pax. Russia has used its Eleron-3 reconnaissance drones to scout out Ukrainian positions.

The smaller, exploding drones now in use by both Russia and Ukraine differ from older, more traditional drones. Instead of taking off, launching missiles and then returning to a base, they fly above the battlefield and turn into missiles themselves, divebombing vehicles or groups of soldiers and exploding on impact. Some can be carried in a backpack and launched in the midst of combat, making them especially deadly in urban or guerrilla warfare.

Generally they are cheaper and easier to use, too. The Russian KUB-BLA drones spotted in the Kyiv area can fly 30 minutes at 80 miles per hour before hitting a target. The Switchblades en route to Ukraine from the U.S. are even smaller, and can fly themselves while an operator looks through a video feed to choose a target.

Most loitering munitions are still human-controlled, but could be upgraded with software that allows them to pick their own targets. That’s generated concern among arms-control experts who worry about allowing computers to make decisions about who to kill, something that could lead the world toward a future where deadly, autonomous weapons are the norm in both big and small conflicts.

Loitering munition drones have been used in previous wars. They’ve seen intermittent action in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, and were instrumental in Azerbaijan’s defeat of Armenia in the 2020 war between the two countries.

Russian forces likely deployed the same KUB-BLA drone that showed up in the Kyiv area in Idlib, a city in northwestern Syria to kill high-level targets and blow up pickup trucks carrying people of interest, experts said.

Russia’s invasion started with long-range cruise missiles slamming into Ukrainian cities, power plants and military bases. Long columns of tanks and trucks rolled over the border, but were quickly slowed down by supply issues and stiff resistance from Ukrainian troops. Now, Russia has settled into surrounding Ukraine’s cities, bombarding them with missiles and artillery guns.

Though both sides are using loitering munitions, they could be especially useful to Ukrainian forces, who are using smaller teams of troops moving quickly around the battlefield in vehicles to hit Russian tanks and defensive positions before pulling back to safety, the experts said.

The U.S.-made Switchblades that Ukraine will soon get are easier to hide and can be moved quickly, said Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. They also increase the range at which Ukrainians can target Russian enemies, allowing them to disable command and control vehicles in the field and target high-value Russian targets, like generals.

“All those things are very, very useful for insurgents,” Lee said. “You can do a lot of really damaging stuff, especially if you use them smartly.”

Those small, mobile squads have already proven adept at taking out Russian tanks and trucks with portable antitank missiles like the U.S. Javelin and British NLAW. The Switchblades will only make them deadlier.

Only a handful of Russian loitering munitions have been spotted so far, and the U.S. has only agreed to send 100 Switchblade systems, which come with 10 drones each. In comparison, NATO has sent more than 1,700 portable antitank missile launchers.

But increased use of loitering munitions could have an effect that goes beyond the specific instances that they’re actually used, Bode said. There is evidence that some Russian troops, facing Ukrainians armed with deadly high-tech weapons and suffering staggering casualties, are losing the will to fight. Loitering munitions could make that worse.

“The Switchblade in particular is also specifically designed to engage targets in concealed locations,” Bode said.

Bradley Bowman, a senior director at the hawkish think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said loitering munitions reduce the time it takes to identify, locate and kill a target, and they are hard for an enemy to detect, giving off little heat signature.

“In urban combat,” he said, “where the distances are short and you’re up close and personal with your adversary, closing that kill chain more quickly can be the difference between life and death.”

As the war continues, it’s likely bigger and deadlier loitering munitions will be deployed, too, Bode said. Russia also has the Lancet-3 drone, which like the KUB-BLA is launched by a catapult and is bigger than the Switchblade drones the Ukrainians are expected to receive. The Lancet-3 has been used in Syria, and experts expect it to show up in Ukraine sooner or later, if it hasn’t already.

The widespread rollout of loitering munition drones has lead some of the warfare experts to warn about the potential for these tools to fall into the wrong hands, like terrorists. They’re particularly useful for assassination attempts, Lee said, pointing to when Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro was unsuccessfully targeted by two Chinese made DJIM600 drone’s strapped with C-4 explosives.

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