A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 4, 2023

W/hat Ukraine's Military Innovations Reveal About the Future Of War

Ukraine's invention of new weapons and its reimagination and repurposing of existing ones - from drones to 3D printing to information technology -  is literally changing how wars will be fought in the future. JL 

Annika Burgess reports in ABC News:

Hobby drones that loiter over tanks, dropping Soviet-era grenades with 3D-printed tailfins directly into the hatch. Remote-controlled, kayak-shaped "kamikaze" boats. And simple synchronised systems that mine social media to collect information about the enemy's movements. Through both desperation and ingenuity, the conflict in Ukraine has become a laboratory for future wars, with civilian and military-led innovation playing a vital role on the battlefield. On the ground, DIY and improvised weapons have shown that imagination can sometimes win over sophistication.

Hobby drones that loiter over tanks, dropping Soviet-era grenades with 3D-printed tailfins directly into the hatch.

Remote-controlled, kayak-shaped "kamikaze" boats that have reportedly been spotted bobbing their way towards Russian naval bases in the Black Sea. 

And simple synchronised systems that mine social media to collect information about the enemy's movements. 

Through both desperation and ingenuity, the conflict in Ukraine has become a laboratory for future wars, with civilian and military-led innovation playing a vital role on the battlefield. 

There have been major announcements in recent weeks about the array of "game-changing" expensive, high-tech equipment Western allies are sending Kyiv.

But, on the ground, DIY and improvised weapons have shown that imagination can sometimes win over sophistication. 

Ukrainian soldiers launch a drone.
Ukraine is showing that commercial drones are changing the way wars are fought. (AP: LIBKOS)

Ian Langford, a retired military officer and national security expert, said this sort of agility would be one of the determinants of who was ultimately successful.

"We're now in that phase in the conflict where attrition and exhaustion start to become a key consideration for both actors," he said.

"Whoever is able to out-innovate the other will, to some degree, be ultimately superior."

Ukraine has been providing a glimpse into just how much capacity is available with commercial, off-the-shelf technology. 

Mr Langford said both sides have had to "rethink their understanding of what lethal threats are".

Meanwhile, military industries worldwide are paying close attention to see what they can learn about future warfare.

Ukrainian soldiers watch drone feeds from an underground command centre.
Ukrainian soldiers watch drone feeds from an underground command centre in Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region. (AP: Libkos)

The evolving game of drones 

While creativity in conflict has a long history, Julia Muravska, a UK-based defence analyst, says the innovation landscape in Ukraine has been particularly dynamic over the past year. 

"Innovation, both when it comes to adapting technologies for military use and using them in creative, new ways on the battlefield, has been a key feature of this fully fledged war," she told the ABC.

Especially in the drone space, developments have been "truly significant".

Both sides have used a wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) — or drones — for reconnaissance and assault purposes.

A graphic showing three types of drones used in Ukraine.
Types of military and commercial drones being used by Ukraine for combat and to collect intelligence.(ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Initially, Ukraine's main military drone, Türkiye's Bayraktar TB2, was seen as a game changer, helping to destroy many Russian artillery systems and armoured vehicles.

It has an estimated price tag of $US2 million ($2.8 million), which — while still hefty — is significantly cheaper than classic combat drones used in other conflicts, such as America's $US32 million Reaper.

But the modern-day war has exposed the vulnerabilities of larger, expensive drones, as they are likely to be shot down by advanced air-defence systems.

"Drones are by their nature vulnerable to enemy attack and are routinely lost on the battlefield, so that's why being able to use cheap, commercially available drones to carry out military tasks is so essential," Ms Muravska said. 

"And vast quantities of them are needed."

A propeller-driven drone sits atop a small circular stand on display in a large warehouse
At one point, the Bayraktar TB2s were so popular in Ukraine that a song was written in their honour. (Reuters: Umit Bektas)

Cheap, Iranian-made Shahed-136 "kamikaze" drones emerged as Russia's weapon of choice around September last year, with Moscow using swarms of them. 

Weighing up to 50 kilograms and with a wingspan of around 2.5 metres, they cost as little as $20,000 and can fly low enough to often go undetected.  

Despite Kyiv claiming it has managed to shoot down a large percentage of the Shahed-136s during attacks late last year, enough got through to cause major damage to Ukrainian power plants and reign terror on civilians.

A group of protesters in the street holding Iranian flags and anti-drone signs.
Iranians who live in Ukraine have staged protests against Iran's government and deliveries of Iranian drones to Russia.(Reuters: Gleb Garanich)

Weaponised hobby drones 

For Ukraine, the focus has been more on home-grown solutions.

Deane Baker, from UNSW Canberra's Future Operations Research Group, said there had been an attitude of "anyone can have a go". 

"What's happened in Ukraine is that they just grabbed a hobby capability and weaponised it, and it actually opened up a level of the battle space that was really not being occupied," he said.

One of the most common examples, Professor Baker said, was equipping small drones with explosives, which were dropped into the hatches of Russian tanks with "surprising precision". 

"We've seen videos of these commercial drones dropping essentially a 40-millimetre grenade into the hatch of a Russian tank and taking out a massive, hugely expensive and hugely important enemy weapon system with just a couple of thousand dollars' worth of equipment."

A graphic of three types of commercial drones and three types of bombs that can be attached.
Some of the low-cost drones being used in Ukraine and fitted with different types of explosives.(ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Equipping cheap drones with grenades has become common, but Ms Muravska says getting to this point has required considerable ingenuity.

"The quest for the most optimal explosive, the best type of commercial drone to attach it to, and the best way to operate it to afford maximum targeting accuracy is always ongoing," she said.

"It takes effort and ingenuity — and it is taking place both within the military as well as the civilian tech and volunteer community."

Inventing an 'army of drones'

In November last year, Ukraine's Defence Ministry announced its armed forces had tested seven prototypes of Ukrainian-made drones in that month alone, Ms Muravska said.

"And there are constant and very successful fundraising campaigns to purchase commercially available drones for use on the front lines," she added.

The experimentation and adaption are coming from a mix of start-up companies, individuals and the military itself, with some units and brigades having their own drone workshops or "tech hubs".

Last year, a 17-year-old high school student from Kyiv built two working prototypes of his landmine-detecting drone for Ukraine. 

A teenage boy stands in front of the New York skyline with a Ukrainian flag around his shoulders.
Ukrainian teenager Igor Klymenko was awarded the Chegg.org Global Student Prize for his landmine drone invention. (Chegg.org)

Ukraine has been focusing on boosting this type of domestic production to build what officials have cast as an "army of drones".

Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov this week said the military planned to spend nearly $US550 million on drones in 2023, and 16 supply deals had already been signed with Ukrainian manufacturers.

He has also said the country planned to develop air-to-air combat "exploding drones".

Kayak or floating drone?

Drone innovation has also been witnessed in the naval space. 

In October, Moscow said an attack on a Black Sea fleet in the Crimean port city of Sevastopol, which damaged one warship, involved seven Ukrainian maritime drones.

Photos of a suspected unmanned surface vessel (USV), which was described as a "kamikaze" drone boat, were shared on Russian social media.

The vessel in the images resembled a small, kayak-shaped boat, which analysts said appeared to be fitted with a jet-ski motor, cameras, tracking devices and warheads. 

Professor Baker described it as "essentially a kayak with a motor".

"It doesn't take a great deal of sophistication, just a bit of imagination," he said.

"It's really interesting to see that level of innovation happening, and we'll see what sort of impact it has in the long term."

A graphic showing a small kayak-shaped boat suspected of being an unmanned surface vessel.
The suspected unmanned explosive boats appeared to resemble a grey kayak-shaped vessel fitted with cameras and tracking devices. (ABC News graphic: Jarrod Fankhauser)

Unverified videos showing footage apparently taken from the vessel as it approached Russia's naval fleet were also circulated by Ukraine.

"When you integrate autonomous systems and remote-control devices like the boat, and then you weaponise it by putting on a payload of explosives that can point detonate, then you've suddenly got yourself a floating, directional guided bomb," Mr Langford said. 

He said the use of USVs was not new, but they were rarely seen in "Western conflicts".

More sophisticated versions are commonly used by groups like ISIS and Hezbollah.

The 'eyes' of the military 

Beyond striking capabilities, the way drones have been incorporated into wider weapon systems for tracking and surveillance has been equally important. 

Ms Muravska said they had served as the "eyes" of the military.

The NGO Aerorozvidka, which describes itself as a team of "technically aware citizens", has spearheaded drone innovation in Ukraine, creating the widely used R18 bomb-dropping octocopter.

Its team has also been working alongside the military to operate "situational centres", using drones to gather information that is fed into its Delta software system.

The software also uses social media and interactive mapping to give a clear picture of the battlefield and track Russia's movements and threats.


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