Russian Drones are Destroying Ukraine's Best Weapons

Russian offensive operations continue to significantly undermine Ukraine’s air defense infrastructure, resulting in the loss of critical and difficult-to-replace assets.

A recent episode evidences this trend when a Russian UAV identified and facilitated the attack against two Ukrainian Patriot missile launchers, followed by a successful attack against a battery of the Ukrainian NASAMS SAM system.

The Russian military shared on social media on Saturday images of what appears to be an accurate attack against a Norwegian-made National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) launcher located 50 kilometers behind the front line in Zaporizhzhia Oblast in southern Ukraine. The NASAMS AIM-120 missile managed to impact at a distance of 50 kilometers.

Ukrainian resistance to the advance of Russian attacks

This incident marks the probable second loss of a NASAMS launcher. Before the suspension of aid by pro-Russian US congressmen in October, the United States had provided Ukraine with twelve NASAMS batteries, consisting of several radars, at least one control station and between nine and twelve launchers each.

Despite these setbacks, Ukraine plans to receive between 15 and 18 additional NASAMS launchers donated by Canada, Norway and Lithuania, thus avoiding an immediate deficit. However, this recent attack is still alarming. Until this spring, Russian forces had difficulty hitting moving targets more than a few kilometers from the front line in a war that has lasted more than 25 months.

In a particularly destructive period for Ukrainian air defense, artillery and aviation, Russia has managed to neutralize Patriot systems, its first highly mobile artillery rocket system, and two Mil Mi-17 assault helicopters. These Ukrainian forces were at a considerable distance from the front line, moving or preparing to do so.

It is clear that Russia’s ability to identify and destroy targets far from the front line using an integrated network of drones and artillery is rapidly evolving.

Russia began its expansion of the war against Ukraine 25 months ago, applying a rapid attack strategy based on the integration of data from multiple sources, including surveillance drones and other reconnaissance systems, with the fire control of its artillery units.

Russian targeting networks have often not worked as expected despite intentions, largely due to human factors. In essence, the Russian senior leadership’s distrust of newly acquired information has limited the ability to respond quickly on the battlefield.

Russian tactical adaptation improves the precision of its attacks

The resistance to providing contextual information that allows executors to act on their own judgment has been an ingrained cultural characteristic of the Russian military chain of command, as noted by Mykhaylo Zabrodskyi, Jack Watling, Oleksandr Danylyuk, and Nick Reynolds in their 2022 analysis for the Royal United Services Institute of London.

However, this dynamic began to transform last year, with a notable acceleration of reforms this year. Russia has stepped up the deployment of advanced surveillance unmanned aerial vehicles that provide high-quality data over more reliable networks to a growing number of artillery batteries and rocket launchers on the front lines, as well as attack drone teams.

Blair Battersby, a non-commissioned officer in the British Army, said in a report to the US Army Training Command that “Russia is taking advantage of new technologies to strengthen the connection between sensors and weapons operators.” This means that Russian commanders grant greater autonomy to their front-line units, allowing them to make operational decisions independently.

With a greater ability to monitor the battlefield and conduct strikes at greater distances, with greater speed and precision, Russia is neutralizing a historical weakness and eroding a key Ukrainian strategic advantage. This tactical change decreases the mobility and freedom of action previously enjoyed by Ukrainian forces due to the slow pace of Russian target acquisition processes.

Ukrainian commanders must recognize that their units and equipment can no longer be considered safe within 50 miles of the front line, especially during daylight hours when exposure to the elements increases their vulnerability. This new reality underscores the urgent need to adapt their tactics and strategies of concealment and mobility in the face of an increasingly precise and lethal threat.