Drones are key in Ukraine’s fight against Russia. Now it wants 1 million more of them


The Ukraine-Russia war has become a proving ground for what drones can do in conflict.

Ukrainian forces have used small, first-person view (FPV) drones to blow up Russian tanks on their soil and longer-range devices to damage military aircraft in Russia. Drone attacks this winter have hit oil refineries deep inside Russian territory, as well as a major steel factoryExplosives-laden naval drones have slammed into Russian ships. 

With the war now in its third year, Ukraine is leaning hard into drones as a combat strategy, ramping up its domestic production and counting on allies to deliver one million of them in the next 12 months.

A Ukrainian soldier launches a "Furiia" model reconnaissance drone near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier launches a Furiia model reconnaissance drone near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Thursday. The device is intended to monitor Russian troop positions from above. (Inna Varenytsia/Reuters)

Why? Because these relatively cheap, flexible tools are helping stave off the advance of Russian troops by targeting opposing soldiers. 

FPV drone operators fly them along the front lines so they can hone in on and hit the opposing forces, said Samuel Bendett of CNA, a security think-tank in Arlington, Va.

“Individual soldiers are not safe on the battlefield,” he said.

But that’s just as true for Ukrainian soldiers, who must avoid the threat posed by Russia’s own drones

WATCH | Canada-built drones earmarked for Ukraine: 

Canada sending hundreds of military-grade drones to Ukraine

Defence Minister Bill Blair announces the government is sending more than 800 military-grade drones to Ukraine as concerns mount that Kyiv is faltering on the battlefield, and that it can no longer rely on the United States for support.

A need ‘to tilt the balance’

Two weeks ago, Canada announced it will send more than 800 drones to Ukraine that can spot targets “at long range”  — and also strike them.

Yet that’s just a small fraction of the drones Ukraine wants to have on hand.

A group of Western nations — including Latvia, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands — aims to send one million drones, including small FPV drones, to Ukraine by the end of next February.

Latvian Defence Minister Andris Spruds has said Ukraine needs these tools “to tilt the balance” in the war, particularly when it’s struggling to acquire the ammunition it needs to fight back against Russia.

A Ukrainian soldier keeps watch for Russian drones in Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region in January 2024.
A Ukrainian soldier keeps watch for Russian drones in the sky in the Zaporizhzhia region last month, while a soldier nearby uses construction equipment to dig a trench system. (Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images)

How likely is it that Ukraine will get the million drones it’s seeking? It depends on who you ask.

“I think it’s a good target to have, as Ukraine has used drones to make up for munitions,” Alexander Lanoszka, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, said via email. 

But Lanoszka pointed out that European allies have so far failed to deliver promised amounts of ammunition to Ukraine.

Bendett said the headline number of one million is not inconceivable as Ukraine is already producing a variety of drones, including thousands of units that can be used to strike targets at a distance.

He said with that many drones, Ukraine could potentially launch tens of thousands of them at targets each month — and even if half or more failed, that would still leave a whole lot of drones doing damage.

A Ukrainian soldier walks through a field carrying a reconnaissance drone
A Ukrainian soldier carries a Leleka reconnaissance drone after it was used in a front-line area in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region last month. (Reuters)

More drones, more pilots

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, recently told Reuters that Kyiv had ordered production of 300,000 drones in 2023 — and one-third of those were sent to the front. 

He said that number did not include the additional and “significant contribution” of equipment from volunteer groups.

A civilian is seen learning how to operate a first-person view (FPV) drone at a training facility in Kyiv, Ukraine, in February 2024.
A civilian learns how to operate a first-person view (FPV) drone at a training facility in Kyiv last month. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Private organizations have also helped train many of the drone pilots working on the front lines.

One of them is the Dronarium Academy, which helps people learn how to fly drones, understand their limitations and use them in battle.

“The war has definitely changed us,” founder Ruslan Bieliaiev said in an emailed statement, noting the Dronarium started its work in 2017.

“From the very beginning, it became clear to us that this is a new format of war and drones would play one of the decisive roles.”

Bieliaiev said thousands of pilots have trained on several types of drones over the course of the war with Russia. The students span all branches of the Ukrainian forces, he said.

This photo, submitted to CBC News by Ukraine's Dronarium Academy, shows a drone in flight, with a person in the foreground.
Many of the people flying drones in Ukraine’s war with Russia have been trained by private organizations. The Dronarium Academy is one such organization. (Submitted by Dmytro Slediuk/Dronarium Academy)

The future is now

Col. Kristen Thompson, a U.S. air force military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, credits Ukraine’s nimble use of drones with helping it hold its own against Russia.

“Ukraine’s ability to acquire and crowdsource commercial drone technology, tactically modify drones in the field based on real-time feedback and alter tactics to defeat anti-drone systems have proved to be crucial to its war effort,” Thompson wrote in a recent analysis.

A Ukrainian soldier is seen firing toward a Russian reconnaissance drone spotted in the air at a spot near Marinka, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian soldier fires on a Russian reconnaissance drone spotted in the air near Marinka, Ukraine, last month. (Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

It’s expected drones will continue to be a key part of Ukraine’s war effort for some time to come. Last month, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the creation of a new drone-focused branch of the military. 

Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at Ukraine’s National Institute for Strategic Studies, predicts this move will help the military get a more accurate picture of how drones work best in battle. In a report last month, he writes it could also make it easier to co-ordinate the training of drone pilots.

Military minds outside the country have also been watching what’s happening on the Ukrainian battlefield to inform their own thinking on conflict and drones.

Last month, the U.S. army said it would stop trying to develop a next-generation scout helicopter — despite having spent $2 billion US on its efforts to date — because events in Ukraine had made the project obsolete.

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