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How the use of drones in Ukraine has changed war as we know it


In the conflict in Ukraine, drones have become a weapon of choice. Just this week, there have been drone strikes on Ukrainian grain silos and further afield on a Moscow skyscraper. And these weapons are profoundly changing the ways that wars are being fought. We turn now to Kelly Grieco, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. Thanks so much for being with us.

KELLY GRIECO: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: What are we seeing that's new in the use of drones in the war in Ukraine as contrasted to, say, the way they've been used in the U.S. war on terror?

GRIECO: Yes. Well, when we - most of us think about the global war on terror, we imagine the Predator or the Reaper drone. And those were very expensive military-grade aircraft that were fairly large drones that were used to strike terrorist leaders. What we're seeing in Ukraine is largely very different from that. We're seeing an explosion of drones used, primarily relying on cheap, small commercial aircraft to provide eyes on the battlefield. That's first and foremost how both sides are using them, is really for reconnaissance and to improve their ability to target artillery. But they've also been using them as well to strike.

SIMON: What kind of weapons have they been carrying?

GRIECO: Yes. So these smaller commercial-grade drones, they've been modified to be able to carry things like a grenade. And so it's really a contrast on the battlefield in that you have these sort of trenches that might make you think of the First World War, but then a drone is flying overhead and drops a grenade into it. So we have this sort of mix of old and new on the battlefield.

SIMON: How are drones used to guide artillery?

GRIECO: That's actually been one of the most effective uses of drones. So they spot for artillery so that they're able to make the fire more accurate. The drone can fly over and identify targets and then send back coordinates so that artillery can be adjusted. And we see, again, both sides doing this regularly.

SIMON: Drones, of course, typically are not recovered. Are they considered disposable?

GRIECO: Yes. So I think this is really one of the most important changes that we've seen in the Ukraine war in that the United States has always had this preference for expensive and exquisite technology. That's really been, traditionally, an American advantage on the battlefield. What we're seeing instead is this transition to much cheaper and, as you said, more expendable technology. So the kinds of drones that are being used, for the most part, cost, you know, a few thousand dollars. And according to some studies, the average drone lasts about three days on the battlefield and Ukraine is reportedly replacing them at a rate of about 5- to 10,000 a month. So this is a very different model of drone warfare today.

SIMON: How are they changing the nature of wars as we've been able to see it so far?

GRIECO: Well, I think there are a couple different ways that that is happening. I think the first and foremost is the democratization of air power. Traditionally, air power has been the preserve of major militaries and really only the great powers because you had to really climb these high hurdles in terms of science and technology and organization and finance. You know, aircraft and air forces are very expensive. But with this diffusion of commercial-grade drones, we're seeing that you can place those kinds of capabilities - the ability to operate in the sky, to spy from the sky, to drop munitions - in the hands of, you know, smaller, medium-sized militaries and, frankly, even individuals.

SIMON: Well, what are the costs of the idea that punishment can now be inflicted without risk?

GRIECO: Yes. I mean, I think that's one thing that we've been struggling with, you know, for the last 30 years, even when we started using drones in a very significant way in the war on terror, this notion that it somehow dehumanizes war in some way. I would just point out that even that, I think, is a bit of a simplistic story in that if you look at operators in the global war on terror, U.S. operators of those drones, they have very high rates of PTSD. So it's not entirely true that there isn't a human element still in war with drones in that even their use has costs to the side using them.

What is changing, though, is the ability for more actors to use them in a way that could be aimed at targeting societies, punishment campaigns. We've certainly seen Russia doing that over the winter with their strikes on energy, and we're now seeing Ukraine, it seems, moving in a bit of that direction as well with these strikes on Moscow.

SIMON: Now, what we've seen of drone warfare going to change the way the U.S. military looks at their strategic options and initiatives?

GRIECO: Yes. I think we're certainly seeing that in the Pentagon. But I think it's important to remember this is also going to really impact the warfighter. You know, I remember talking to a U.S. Army officer and commander shortly after he had returned from the recapture of Mosul in 2017, where he advised the Iraqi military. And during that campaign, the Islamic State for the first time had used cheap commercial quadcopters modified with grenades to attack command posts, and it had proved really challenging. And as he reflected on that, to me, he said, you know, I've done five tours in Iraq and Afghanistan now, and I can tell you that war is chaos. And I had to constantly look for the enemy in front of me and behind me and to my left and to my right. This was the first time I ever had to look up at the sky. That's going to be the future for the U.S. military.

SIMON: Kelly Grieco, senior fellow at the Stimson Center. Thanks so much for being with us.

GRIECO: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.