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Drones and defence innovation in Ukraine: consolidating wartime ingenuity

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, have become a visible and operationally significant component of Ukraine’s determined defence of its territory and the pain inflicted on Russia. Beyond the impact of drones, an important aspect of their use has been the civilian and military-led innovation that has enabled their effectiveness on the battlefield.

For its part, Russia has been deploying numerous Iranian-produced Shahed-136 ‘kamikaze’ drones against critical energy infrastructure, such as power plants, energy grids, oil facilities, and gas pipelines. For Ukraine, UAVs have been critical to the logistical and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) tasks that have underpinned its effective defence and serial counter-offensives. Specifically, unmanned systems have been used for identifying and tracking enemy targets (such as military equipment, weapons storage facilities, and temporary bases), coordinating troop movements, directing strikes, and providing information to the armed forces.

For this, Ukraine has relied on foreign-supplied and home-grown UAVs, as well as civil and military technologies. In fact, embracing innovation has enabled Ukrainians to artfully integrate commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions with military systems, draw on civil society, and establish active civil-military cooperation.

This culture of innovation has proven effective, and sometimes decisive, on the battlefield. Importantly, it can support a robust domestic defence industrial base, essential for Ukraine’s long-term security. The Ukrainian approach to wartime innovation, exemplified by unmanned technologies, has valuable lessons on fostering and sustaining defence innovation. To realise this potential, the flurry of ingenuity occurring in wartime Ukraine needs to be actively nurtured and supported by partner nations.

Within weeks of Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian civilians with techie knowhow leveraged their skills and crowdsourced funding to set up ‘drone workshops’ or ‘drone laboratories’ across the country. There, they have focused on finding creative ways to adapt commercial drones, parts, and materials for military use. This includes equipping grenades to be carried by consumer delivery drones and dropped on Russian targets with enough precision to strike individual trenches and main battle tanks.

The core theme of Ukraine’s wartime innovation, apparent in robotic and autonomous systems (RAS), has been the close collaboration and communication between civilian developers and military end-users. This has enabled the free flow of feedback and iterative improvements to how the technology is used and designed. This ethos of experimentation and embrace of technology also extends to Ukraine’s armed forces. For example, the Dnipro-1 unit of the National Guard operates its own workshop dedicated to explosives for drones, while the Kyiv-based civilian Dronarnia workshop churns out customised UAVs to online orders from military officers. Meanwhile, military recruitment stations have redirected enlistees with engineering backgrounds to solving thorny challenges like improving logistics and communications. There is also the example of a motorised brigade leveraging the IT and software skills of its new recruits to set up an inhouse ‘tech hub’ charged with, amongst other tasks, improving UAV flight and developing counter-UAV capabilities.

Although Russia’s war has been a catalyst, Ukrainian ingenuity is rooted in pre-war research and development (R&D) activities, as well as societal, political, and demographic trends and factors. At a basic level, these include a historic preponderance of STEM disciplines in the labour force, an active and diverse civil society, an embrace of digitalisation by both the government and the public, and a growing sense of national identity, bolstered by Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Embodying many of these features and wartime realities is Aerorozvidka (aerial reconnaissance in Ukrainian), an NGO that describes itself as a ‘team of technically aware citizens’ working with units across the armed forces. Originating in the first wave of volunteers who rushed in 2014 to fight Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass, Aerorozvidka has evolved into a civic organisation with the mission to deliver ‘netcentric and robotic military capabilities’ to the defence forces. It now includes ‘hundreds’ of members from a wide range of backgrounds, with many serving in the military. In addition to customising COTS drones, Aerorozvidka has developed the R18 UAV equipped with a grenade for destroying Russian targets, while also running several training and R&D programs for the military.

This is far from an exhaustive list of agile innovations making their way onto the battlefield. If properly resourced and embedded across defence, this creativity and experimentation can underpin a robust and resilient Ukrainian defence industrial base. This will enable Ukraine to generate battle-winning capabilities that will equip its armed forces for its strategic and security objectives.

Many of these ‘success stories’ are, by necessity, improvised and ad hoc, representing pockets of activity. While stretching well beyond UAS, they also seem to focus on robotic and autonomous systems and communications. Therefore, there is a broad scope and rationale for Ukraine’s partners, in NATO and beyond, to support its grassroot defence innovations. This support is essential for creating a sustainable and robust innovation ecosystem, bolstered by lean and transparent processes and legislative frameworks. It can take many forms, including joint R&D projects, direct support to start-ups, and capacity building. Tools for achieving this, such as NATO’s Defence Accelerator for the North Atlantic (DIANA) or the Hub for EU Defence Innovation at the European Defence Agency (EDA), exist at both national and institutional levels. With enough political will, these can be made available to Ukrainian entities.

For its part, the Ukrainian experience can provide valuable insights for its partners on key challenges and themes in defence innovation. This includes active engagement of civil society and the commercial sector, adaption of commercial technologies for defence needs, effective and close collaboration with the armed forces, and networked, non-hierarchical communication and implementation structures. There are also technology-specific benefits to be gleaned from supporting Ukrainian defence innovation, such as leveraging the rich data gathered during UAV missions.

This will surely require effort, commitment, and trust from both Ukraine and the international community. Nevertheless, the time to begin a structured cooperation between Ukraine and its partners on defence innovation is now.

Dr Julia Muravska is an independent defence analyst with 13 years of experience leading research in the fields of defence industry, policy, and technology applications. Until late 2022, she was a Research Leader in Defence and Security at RAND Europe. Julia holds a PhD in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).

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