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  • A Ukrainian soldier launches an R-18 drone, used for reconnaissance and bombing Russian positions. (Photo: Аеророзвідка / Aerorozvidka)
    A Ukrainian soldier launches an R-18 drone, used for reconnaissance and bombing Russian positions. (Photo: Аеророзвідка / Aerorozvidka)

    From the outset, Ukraine was outgunned and out manned by Russia, forcing it to find force levelers — small handheld drones are one of them.

    Drones are reshaping the 21st century battlefield.

    “This war is a war of drones, they are the super weapon here,” Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s minister of internal affairs, told Newsweek.

    Both sides have increasingly used drones for reconnaissance over the front lines, but Ukraine has also fashioned them to drop bombs and conduct kamikaze attacks to devastating effect.

    Initially, Ukraine used the Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar drone to thwart Russia’s invasion, according to the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

    In the second half of 2022, Ukraine unleashed its “army of drones” incorporating both smaller, tactical drones as well as civilian drones modified for military use, the Institute notes.

    The United States also sent more than 1,000 “kamikaze” Switchblade drones, sometimes referred to as “loitering munitions.”

    Many of the small drones are commercially made for hobbyists and purchased through fundraising from 110 countries around the world

    The government, recognizing their importance and cost-effectiveness, is making it easier to import the machines and upgrade them for warfare.

    Ukraine’s Ministry for Digital Transformation in March announced relaxed regulations and ended import duties and VATs to make it easier to obtain drones and their components.

    The United States began using larger, winged drones, or UAVs as their known, in 2001. The MQ-1 Predator, with a 48-foot wingspan and 27-foot length, became a symbol of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    But large, slow-flying, loitering drones have proven less successful because they are easy to spot and shoot down in heavily defended combat zones.

    Ukraine has, for example, effectively neutralized Russia’s use of Iranian-made Shahed kamikaze drones, which are slow, low-flying, and easily identifiable by loud motors.

    Troopers assigned to 1st Squadron, 3rd Cavalry Regiment, operate the Drone Defender designed to jam signals of small drones. (Photo: U.S. Army)

    The smaller drones, in contrast, are more numerous and harder for radar to track because of their size.

    Ukraine’s “Army of Drones,” a fundraising campaign launched last summer, has drawn support from the likes of Star War’s actor Mark Hamill.

    The group has raised more than $108 million to fund the purchase of drones and train solider how to operate them, according to the BBC.

    The campaign has provided more than 3,300 drones, including hobby drones sent through the mail by supporters.

    The most common drone costs about $2000, but armed with high explosives it can take out multi-million dollar armored vehicles.

     “Drones are our eyes, we can see the occupier very well from the top so we can adjust artillery and find and neutralize the enemy,” one instructor, who goes by the name Slava, told the news network.

    As the use of drones has increased, both Russia and Ukraine have developed countermeasures to shoot them down or jam their signals. That’s increased the demand for special, militarized drone versions.

    ‘At the onset of the war in 2022, The New York Independent reported that Russia’s World War II-era military tactics would be severely tested by Ukraine’s precision weapons and electronic warfare.

    That’s proven to be the case as the three-day “special military operation,” turned out to be a full-on war. The fighting has been part World War I trench warfare, with a twist — high-tech drones hovering overhead.

    Ukraine has proved the worth of small drones. Today, quadcopters with four rotors are carrying out reconnaissance, guiding artillery fire and destroyed tanks. But the U.S. military is taking the concept one step further.

    The U.S. Navy is researching the use of drone swarms, involving hundreds or even thousands of tiny weapons controlled in unison to attack and overwhelm enemy ships and positions.

     China, Russia, India, the UK, Turkey, and Israel are reportedly working on the same technology. In 2021, Israel became the first nation to use swarming drones in combat, according to the MIT Technology Review.

    In April last year a Navy drone swarm carried out an attack on a ship in a war game exercise for the first time. Critical systems like radar antennas, deck guns and weapons systems were targeted.

    Ukraine’s small drones have destroyed more than a hundred Russian armored vehicles (see video above); a swarm of a thousand drones might take out an entire battalion in one strike, according to the Review.  

    Ukraine’s military will spend nearly $550 million on drones in 2023, and 16 supply deals have already been signed with Ukrainian manufacturers, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov announced in January.

    Reportedly, 10,000 drone pilots have been trained for the upcoming counter-offensive.

    There’s no question that light, tactical drones will be integrated into battlefields of the future. Ukraine is demonstrating that every day.