21.09.23 War Analytics

Second Front: Who Will Win The First Drone War?

As a situation of relative parity emerged on the front lines in Ukraine, it was drones that signalled the possibility of creating a second front — a constant threat and execution of successful strikes in the Russian rear. However, for the drone war to become a significant factor in the conflict, Ukraine must increase the effectiveness of its attacks and achieve a powerful information effect. Initially, Ukraine had a significant advantage in the use of drones, but Russia has managed to narrow the gap with the support of Iran — a pioneer in drone resistance. Today, in drone warfare, each side has its own advantages and vulnerabilities. The continuing race in drone innovation and creativity in their use will be one of the central themes of this war.

The Second Front

The advent of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has fundamentally changed the nature of modern warfare. Previously, precision striking deep into enemy territory was the prerogative of the military aviation and missile forces, which meant advanced and expensive military technology. The development of global positioning systems (GPS) and mobile technologies has led to a true revolution: gyroscopes, accelerometers, and GPS receivers can be carried in the pocket of any servicemember, and autopilot flight controllers operate on open-source code and can autonomously control air, ground, overwater, and underwater transport.

The war in Ukraine has accelerated the development of DIY drones — cheap, high-precision devices that have exposed the vulnerabilities of traditional weapons. Inexpensive drones lack the firepower of artillery, guided missiles, and aviation, but they provide an asymmetric effect. A successful attack requires a small amount of explosives, which, thanks to the high precision of the strike, hits high-value and strategically important targets such as military bases, aircraft and ships. The drone war, thus, is largely an economic war: it equalises the asymmetry of resources, allowing significant damage to be inflicted with limited means, partially offsetting the initial advantage of a stronger military and economic power.

As a situation of relative parity emerged on the frontlines in Ukraine, drones signalled the potential creation of a second front — a constant threat and successful execution of strikes deep inside Russia.

However, initially, the attacks by Ukrainian drones on Russian territory were largely symbolic in nature. Ukraine managed to target not only Moscow but even the Kremlin, showcasing the vulnerability of Russian territory to a war that Russia had positioned as limited and confined within the borders of Ukraine. Despite their symbolic significance, the strikes on Moscow remained more of a 'mosquito bite' with a significant media impact that would inevitably become routine over time.

Recently, though, the nature of Ukraine’s drone attacks has evolved. They have become more substantial, shifting their focus from symbolic to infrastructural and military targets. However, to transform the drone war into a genuine second front, Ukraine must achieve greater frequency, effectiveness, and informational impact with these attacks. If these raids become daily and effective, it will alter the informational and psychological backdrop of the war. In the Kremlin, however, these risks have already been recognized, leading to restrictions on sharing photos and videos of drone attacks and their aftermath on social media. Progress on this front has been stalled because authorities need to tackle a dual challenge: mobilising citizens to participate in the drone war as informants while simultaneously preventing the dissemination of information about the damage caused by drones. Nonetheless, this task will undoubtedly be accomplished to some extent.

In one way or another, the course and outcome of the drone war will depend on several factors:

  1. The size and equipment of the drone army (here, there will be a continued 'race' not only in terms of quantity but also in precision and vulnerability).

  2. The effectiveness of counter-drone measures.

  3. The ability to maximise the economic and military damage from attacks and their informational aftermath.

Readiness for War: Russia

Counting on unquestionable superiority in aviation, artillery, and missile forces, Russia was not prepared for the drone war. Iran came to the rescue. According to War on the Rocks, out of the 33 drones launched by Russia at Ukrainian territory on September 6th, 25 were of Iranian origin. Iran, which faced its first US sanctions back in 1979, began developing drone technology in the 1980s, at the start of the Iran-Iraq War, according to the experts from War on the Rocks. In this sense, Iran is one of the pioneers of 'drone resistance,' having made significant progress in perfecting its drones and maximising their threat. Moreover, Iran actively imports drones and related technologies from abroad.

By the time the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, Iran had spent over 20 years establishing the Iran Threat Network, which, in addition to ready-made drones, exports equipment, knowledge, and drone production technologies to Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza, as well as the governments of Ethiopia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Tajikistan, and Belarus. Deliveries of UAVs to other countries are a part of Iran's confrontation with the US, who are engaged in so-called grey zone conflicts through proxy actors. According to War on the Rocks, in 2021, approximately 24% of all attacks supported by Iran worldwide were carried out using drones and, in 2022, this figure was about 20%. 'The Iranians' unique selling point in the arms market could be their willingness to offer an entire drone factory. If you were to make such a request to a US arms manufacturer, they'd laugh at you,' notes Fabian Hinz, an expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Defence and Military Analysis Program.

Iran’s collaboration with Moscow has elevated international anti-Western drone cooperation to a new level. According to technology and defence expert Sam Bendett, at the beginning of the war, Russia had around 2,000 drones, a supply that was quickly exhausted. To compensate for this shortage, Russia imported drones, including Iranian UAVs like Shahed-136 and Mohajer-6, as well as Chinese models from DJI. Russia currently possesses more than 100 types of UAVs, with 'Orlan-10' and 'Orion' being the most actively used. However, their supplies (as well as their effectiveness) are limited.

In April, the US published a satellite image of a presumed drone manufacturing plant being constructed in Yelabuga, which is believed to be being built with Iranian support. According to some reports, by mid-2025, Russia intends to produce approximately 6,000 Shahed drones in Yelabuga. In drone warfare, quantity matters, and Russia is banking on it. However, Russia is also continually improving Iranian designs. In July, parts which Russia uses in its own reconnaissance UAVs were discovered in 'Russian' Shahed-136 drones.

Last autumn and winter, the primary targets of Russian drone attacks were Ukraine's energy infrastructure, but by March 2023, Russia began targeting Ukrainian power grids with enhanced warheads. From July, Russian drones shifted their focus to bombing grain silos. Meanwhile, daily Russian attacks have intensified since the spring, with up to 15-40 Shahed drones launched at a time. According to Airways, key drone launch bases are located in Primorsko-Akhtarsk (a port city in the Krasnodar Territory, on the eastern coast of the Sea of Azov) and the Bryansk Region.

The use of Shahed drones in Russian attacks on Ukrainian territory, 2022–2023

Readiness for War: Ukraine

One of the factors contributing to the failure of Russia's campaign on Kyiv in the early weeks of the war was the support provided by Ukrainian special forces using reconnaissance drones. Operators of these drones were drawn from the 'Aerorazvedka' group, which consists of 'technically savvy civilians' assisting Ukrainian military personnel in cybersecurity and drone utilisation. The group began to conduct aerial reconnaissance after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2014 and currently employs various types of drones, including those they have developed themselves — the R18 octocopter. Using these multirotor drones, Ukrainian forces drop modified grenades, often of Soviet origin, onto Russian vehicles. Faine Greenwood, an expert in unmanned aerial vehicles at Harvard's Humanitarian Initiative, refers to members of 'Aerorazvedka' as 'some of the world's leading experts in creating, modifying, and using small and cheap drones.'

At the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian drone manufacturers started to collaborate actively with the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF), resulting in the adaptation of civilian drones and the creation of new models for military purposes. 'Ukrainians are now adopting innovations at dizzying speeds,' notes Mark Jacobsen in an Atlantic Council report. This has become possible thanks to government support, an influx of financing, and the creation of a large decentralised network of engineers, operators, and businessmen who collaborate on research, development, and employment in this sector. Ukraine currently has a network of over two hundred decentralised and often independently funded unmanned aviation startups, many of which have their own supply chains. Additionally, Ukrainian engineers are continuously improving technologies to enhance the efficiency of drones.

The Ukrainian government initiated the formation of a 'Drone Army' — a campaign to raise funds for the purchase of hundreds of commercial drones, as well as the financing of technical maintenance and staff training. Within the program, 10,000 drone operators have already been trained, and the government allocated $867 million to establish 60 ‘Drone Army’ strike squadrons. In August 2023, Yuriy Shchyhol, the head of Ukraine's special communications service, stated that 'Ukraine plans to produce and purchase approximately 200,000 combat UAVs within a year.'

In addition to civilian systems, Ukrainian forces use a range of military drones. Some were developed during this war, others have been in use for years, and some have been added to the arsenal after spending years in storage. These drones vary from small mobile units (such as the American kamikaze drone 'Switchblade,' capable of carrying a warhead weighing only a few kilograms, and the ‘Black Hornet’ reconnaissance drone, sourced by Ukraine from Norway, which is possibly the world's smallest) to systems weighing several tons, capable of flying hundreds of kilometres. Ukraine has become a testing ground for cutting-edge drone systems, with manufacturers in direct contact with the military and able to improve their designs during the course of the conflict. The Ukrainian armed forces are using Australian "cardboard" UAVs, British drones created by 3D printers, and German reconnaissance drones equipped with artificial intelligence in real combat conditions.

The Ukrainians are skillfully employing both aerial and maritime drones. While aquatic drones, known as Unmanned Maritime Vehicles (UMVs), are not new, Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine became a catalyst for their widespread implementation. Ukraine has demonstrated the significant asymmetric advantage that a small fleet can gain through innovative use of UAVs against larger, conventional weaponry.


The situation when it comes to defence against drone attacks is challenging. The United States, as the primary supplier of air defence systems, has made significant progress in countering Iranian drones. According to War on the Rocks, out of the 28 UAVs that carried out attacks on American diplomatic and military facilities in Iraq and Syria from 2021 to 2023, at least 20 were neutralised. During Russia's recent attacks on critical Ukrainian infrastructure, air defence systems supplied to Ukraine (German Gepard and American HAWK) shot down at least 90% of the (Iranian-made) drones. However, such effective air defence systems are costly and provide the Russian side with an asymmetric advantage. For example, a missile costing $500,000 is used to destroy a drone that costs only $20,000 to produce.

Moreover, the increased intensity of Shahed drone attacks on strategic infrastructure has forced the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) to withdraw air defence systems from the frontlines. According to experts at War on the Rocks, Ukraine's recent experience demonstrates Iran's and its allies' ability to produce drones at a pace that exceeds the industrial production capacity of air defence installations while requiring significantly fewer resources.

Strangely enough, the Russian military has been more successful in the fight against drones: they have developed electronic warfare (EW) tools, which have caused Ukraine to lose up to 10,000 drones a month. EW disrupts GPS navigation systems or interferes with radio communications between drones and their remote operators. In areas of intense combat, such as Bakhmut, Russian jamming was so intensive that DJI Mavics and similar civilian drones could only maintain communication with their operators at distances of a few hundred metres. Ukraine’s Western allies have discussed the possibility of creating anti-EW systems, but concluded that it is more rational simply to increase the number of drones since their low cost allows for risky operations without fear of losing expensive equipment.