A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 27, 2023

Why Ukraine and Russia Have Different Drone Strategies, Similar Problems

Ukrainian and Russian troops on the ground believe small drones are crucial and will do almost anything to get them. The Ukrainians are more organized, having formed 60 drone strike companies and trained 10,000 military operators. Their domestic production is innovative and useful. Russia's is chaotic, of low quality and hurt by economic sanctions.

Both face resistance from senior officers trained in the Soviet army who are skeptical and want big drones with big payloads but the troops are simply working around the military chain of command by utilizing private contributions and networks, meaning the drones are now an essential war time fact of life. JL

David Hambling reports in 19fortyfive:

It is harder to get quadcopters in Russia. New laws restrict drone imports due to fears they could be used by terrorists. The quality of Russian drones is well below that of a DJI quadcopter, and Russian drone makers still rely on Chinese components yet the price is much higher. Small drones have become an essential part of Ukraine’s military operations. Most of Ukraine’s acquisition has taken place outside of military channels, through volunteers and nonprofits. “The military does not accept them, our generals call them ‘wedding drones.’” They want bigger drones with longer ranges and bomb loads. (But) Ukraine’s High Command formed 60 drone strike companies and trained 10,000 drone operators. Three nations seek to equip their armies with small quadcopters — the U.S., Ukraine, and Russia. All want to field effective battlefield scouts, but their different organizations, cultures, and budgets have led to different approaches to the challenge.

Given that quadcopters are consumer items you can easily buy over the Internet, you might think getting them to the front lines is simple.

It has not been simple for any of the three players. 

Ukraine: Army of Drones and Quadcopters 

Small drones have become an essential part of Ukraine’s military operations in the last year. The drones locate and identify enemy units, direct artillery, and gather intelligence, as well as dropping grenades.

However, most of Ukraine’s acquisition has taken place outside of military channels, occurring through volunteers and nonprofit organizations. DJI, a major producer of these tools, does not allow sales to either Russia or Ukraine, as they disapprove of their products being used in warfare. Therefore, they must be acquired through backchannels.


“I don’t have Mavics in my budget,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Ukrainian Pravda at the end of 2022, referring to the DJI Mavic series of quadcopters widely used by both sides in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. “The military does not accept them, our generals call them ‘wedding drones.’”

Apparently the generals wanted bigger drones with longer ranges and greater bomb loads. Senior officers carried over from the Soviet era perhaps do not believe their troops who tell them these “wedding drones” are highly capable eyes in the sky.


This shortfall has led to initiatives to sidestep the normal procurement process — initiatives such as the Army of Drones, coordinated by the Ministry of Digital Transformation and the Ukrainian presidency. A mixed assortment of hardware has been acquired piecemeal through this program from foreign donors, volunteers, and domestic companies and sent to front-line units.

According to Ukraine Pravda, three charities alone purchased over 10,000 quadcopters for Ukrainian forces in 2022. These are mainly DJI Mavics and Autel drones but also include a wide variety of other types, including hundreds of U.S.-made Skydios. The Skydio 2+ is a highly capable machine with a 27-minute flight time, and it retails for about $1,100.

In March 2023, Ukraine’s High Command announced the formation of 60 new drone strike companies, showing they are finally taking small drones seriously. An image of the first company shows hundreds of small drones arrayed in front of larger bombers.


The Ukrainian acquisition process has been chaotic, bottom-up, and evolutionary. Users and volunteers have developed drones and accessories like 3D-printed release mechanisms for dropping grenades. 

Ukraine has emerged out of this messy process with what looks to be the world’s largest drone air force, and it has trained some 10,000 drone operators. Going forward, increased radio jamming means that consumer drones may no longer be able to do the job, so the requirement is likely to focus on military-grade drones.

Ivan Tolchinsky, the Ukrainian founder and CEO of drone makers Atlas Dynamics, says his AtlasPRO drones, already widely used by Ukrainian forces, are resistant to jamming but built at low cost, so operators use them.

“They get very expensive drones here, but they’re not flying because they’re scared to fly them because it’s too expensive,” says Tolchinsky. 

Tolchinsky believes small drones have to be expendable to be useful. He aims initially to produce 1,000 a month, with the goal of scaling up and selling more drones for less money. 

“I don’t want to sell one drone for a million dollars, I just want to sell a million for one dollar,” says Tolchinsky.


The strong ecosystem of Ukrainian drone suppliers should help to keep prices down, and the can-do attitude on the front line has helped ensure that soldiers get what they need. But this is still a long way from a coherent, organized procurement process. 

U.S. Army: Waiting, and Paying, for the Best Quadcopters 

Meanwhile, the U.S. Army recently acquired its first ever quadcopters, which it directed to its Short Range Reconnaissance (SRR) requirement. The drones are Skydio RQ-28As developed from the company’s civilian models. The first batch of 30 was handed over at Fort Benning in Georgia in December.

“I am so proud of my team for delivering an innovative solution in just under three years from prototype to delivery,” Carson Wakefield of the U.S. Army Unmanned Systems Office told The Defense Post.

The Skydio RQ-28A boasts features not found on the civilian version, including a thermal imager for night operations and software to automatically pass data to military systems. It also features a 35-minute flight time. The Army might have further required upgrades to meet requirements for high and low temperatures and for electronic interference. 

The changes come at a cost. According to the Army’s current procurement budget  one SRR set — comprising two drones, a ground control unit, digital communications and a day/night sensor package — costs $39,806. That’s roughly $20,000 for each drone in the air.

However, the RQ-28A is already slated for replacement by a more advanced system, SRR Tranche 2, that will meet the Army’s full requirements. Three vendors are in the running for the contract: Teal Drones with their Golden Eagle MK2, Vantage Robotics’ Swift, and Skydio with a new R47 drone.

SRR Tranche 2’s extra features will include night-time obstacle avoidance, advanced autonomy, military grade (M-Code) GPS, and more jam-resistant communications, plus a flight time extended to 45 minutes. The new drones will not be in service until 2026, and the extras come with a price. According to the Army, a new SRR set will rise in price to over $240,000, or around $120,000 per drone. 

SRR Tranche 2 may produce the most sophisticated tactical quadcopter in the world, but it will not be expendable. The price tag also means that relatively low numbers will be acquired — 1,100 Tranche 2 sets over the four years’ procurement. 

Being more capable and more jam-resistant, the new drones should survive better than their cheaper cousins. But each loss will be a heavier blow. You might laugh about a $1,000 drone stuck in a tree, but not a $100,000 one. You might not even want to fly it if there is a serious risk it won’t come back.

By 2027, the U.S. will have a tiny fraction of the drone force that Ukraine is fielding today. And while Tranche 2 looks sophisticated by 2023 standards, things move fast in the drone world.

Russia: Desperate for Drones

Russian-backed separatist militias have used consumer quadcopters since 2014. It was Ukrainian drones that drove Russian forces to seek their own quadcopters after their 2022 invasion. They use the same Chinese-made DJI and Autel drones as the Ukrainians use, bought by family members of charitable groups. 

Russian military charities are often organized by the mothers or grandmothers of serving soldiers. They pool their savings to buy essential equipment, medical supplies, and drones for the boys at the front. Price gouging appears to be an issue, with middlemen pushing prices up by a factor of four or more. 

Russian officials insist that military units can acquire DJI drones simply by asking their commanders, but this does not seem to be the reality on the ground. 

“Volunteers are still the main source of quadcopters for the Russian forces,” says Samuel Bendett, an expert on Russian uncrewed systems and an adviser to the CNA and CNAS think tanks. “It looks like the MoD would like its soldiers to think they can request a quadcopter via official channels, but it’s not clear how many are using such channels.”

It is also getting harder to get quadcopters in Russia. Bendett says the Russian Duma is drafting new laws to restrict done imports, apparently due to fears they could be used by terrorists. This has caused concern among volunteer groups trying to acquire drones for Russian troops. 

The problem could be solved if Russia could make its own drones to rival the Mavic or the Skydio. Defense contractors Almaz-Antey announced in May that they would produce more than 2,000 Dobrynya quadcopters a month. However, Russian companies often inflate claims, and it is not clear Almaz-Antey can deliver. 

Further, Bendett suggests that the quality of these drones is likely to be well below that of a basic DJI quadcopter, and he notes that Russian drone makers still rely on Chinese components for their domestically produced quadcopters. Yet the price is likely to be much higher.

“In general, even a simple drone will cost a lot more when made by a Russian defense enterprise given the usual overhead,” says Bendett.

In April, Putin chaired an event for Russia’s drone industry. Bendett says that this type of interest from the top could kickstart the industry into action. But there is no real indication when Russian tactical quadcopters will arrive, or in what numbers. 

“Until then, the Russian forces will rely on DJIs from volunteers,” says Bendett. 

Lessons for the World 

The three acquisition processes seem to fit national stereotypes. Ukraine is resourceful and forward-thinking but underfunded and struggling with post-Soviet processes. The U.S. military can call on the most advanced tech companies to get the best, but it takes a while and it costs a lot. Meanwhile Russia staggers along, its leadership making grandiose claims while its army survives on what it can get from home. 

There needs to be a balance between affordable systems and more capable ones. A new report by British thinktank RUSI says that Ukraine is losing 10,000 drone a month. That would take out the entire U.S. SRR fleet is one week. Some will argue that this shows consumer quadcopters are too vulnerable for the modern battlefield, and drones that are more robust to jamming are needed. Others will argue that drones will be consumed like ammunition, so they need to be cheap and expendable.

How will drone acquisition progress in the rest of the world? One thing is for sure: Nobody will want to enter a conflict without their own eyes in the sky. Expect a flurry of drone acquisition programs, starting now.


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