12 MAR 2024

Adapt or Die Part I

Drone Warfare and Development in Ukraine 

The following content was originally featured in the 7th issue of the European Resilience Newsletter, by Jack Wang & Uwe Horstmann. We appreciate their dedication to accelerating the European Defence Tech ecosystem. To access the complete newsletter and learn more about the contributors, please visit: https://resiliencetech.project-a.com/ .

This issue features guest author Matthias Lehna. Matthias is a Business Developer at Quantum Systems. He boasts a diverse background including fourteen years in the German armed forces and roles in NATO operations, UN peacekeeping, and military innovation at the Cyber Innovation Hub der Bundeswehr. His extensive experience in defense and security, including serving the chairwoman of the defence committee at the Bundestag, enriches his current position, where he closely follows developments in drone warfare.

Drone Warfare and Development in Ukraine

This report combines an on-the-ground perspective with an analytical approach to drone warfare in Ukraine and is based on the insights Matthias Lehna made during a business research trip made in December 2023. This first part of this two-part series explores insights from a visit of the Drone Training Center of the Armed Forces with an overview of used types of drones at the frontline. Part 2, will be about the leverages of knowledge transfer to enhance the impact in the field of resilience technology and a possible future of Drone Warfare in Ukraine.

Nestled in the vast, windswept fields next to one of the many small villages in Zhytomyrska Oblast, a region that lies two hours west of Kyiv, is a location that marks one of the epicenters of a modern revolution in warfare: Unit 190, the Drone Training Center of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, a former subsidiary of the Zhytomyr Military Institute. The road to the center is itself indicative of the contrasting realities of Ukraine. Moving away from the urban bustle of Kyiv, you have to navigate through a network of smaller, less maintained roads, eventually arriving at a long, open field path.

Upon arrival, the Drone Training Center presents a scene of organized chaos, reminiscent of a high-tech outdoor laboratory rather than a traditional military facility. Scattered over several hundred meters are groups of vehicles, buzzing with activity. The air is filled with a low hum –whirring propellers and distant murmurs of tactical discussions. This is where Ukraine’s new breed of warriors – the drone operators – refine their skills.

One of the key figures at the center, Dschenja, a veteran drone operator in a rank of a sergeant, shares his journey that mirror the evolution of drone warfare in Ukraine. Starting as a volunteer in the early days of the conflict in Donbass, post-Crimea annexation, Dschenja’s experience spanned a decade of technological and tactical advancements. His early days with a modified DJI Phantom drone equipped with a rudimentary GoPro camera seemed almost primitive compared to the sophisticated machines now in use.

The career of Dschenja stands for the evolution of usage of drones in Ukraine. Understanding the early challenges, the improvisations, and the gradual but significant shifts in drone technology – from basic surveillance to complex, multi-faceted military roles help to understand the needs of Ukrainians today. The early days of modifying commercial drones, integrating them into military operations with improvised attachments and payloads characterize the experience of Ukrainian drone development. This grassroots level of innovation was crucial in the early stages of the conflict, providing a quick and effective response to the immediate needs on the ground.

This background is one of the many cases, why the types of drones in operation at the center are diverse. In a best case scenario there would be an army equipped with systems, each tailored to specific operational, or tactical purposes. The reality is that the demand is higher than the support. A mix of different quality of drones is the consequence.

The different types of drones for Ukraine Defense

Drone technology has become a cornerstone in Ukraine’s defensive strategy, particularly in the context of the current situation where traditional warfare has often reached a stalemate. Drones, with their versatility and advanced capabilities, offer a way to break this deadlock, providing strategic advantages in reconnaissance, intelligence, and even direct combat. Drones have emerged as a crucial component in the Ukrainian military’s arsenal, particularly in the current conflict environment where frontlines have stagnated. These unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are the only elements capable of conducting operations in such conditions.

The current drone warfare is dominated by three primary types of UAVs:


Small, compact, and cost-effective, used mainly for tactical operations. They are predominantly used for close-range reconnaissance and tactical support. Their compact size and ease of operation make them ideal for rapid deployment in varied terrains.

Fixed-wing Drones:

Known for their extensive range and payload capacity, these are equipped with advanced sensors for reconnaissance, fire adjustment, and target identification, serving at operational and strategic levels. Characterized by their longer range and larger payload capacity, these UAVs are the workhorses of the aerial intelligence units, capable of sophisticated surveillance and target identification over extended areas and harsh conditions.

FPV (First Person View) Drones:

Recently evolved into effective combat weapons, these are deployed with high efficiency. FPV drones are one of the reasons of the current stalemate. Initially used in recreational drone racing, these units had been adapted into effective combat tools, offering unprecedented agility and precision in battlefield conditions, hunting every moving system.

Additionally, there are Deep Strike capable drones, predominantly used as strategic assets for penetrating deep behind enemy lines.

The government’s role in fostering this technological leap was significant. Initiatives like the ‘Army of Drones’ program, led by Minister for Digital Transformation Mychajlo Fedorov, aimed to catalyze the development and deployment of a wide range of UAVs. The program not only facilitated the procurement of commercial drones but also encouraged local innovations and adaptations. This state-level support was a clear indication of the strategic importance placed on drone technology in Ukraine’s defense apparatus.

Drone Warfare Dynamics

As seen above each drone type has its unique characteristics, but a universal principle underlies drone warfare: a cat-and-mouse game of technological one-upmanship. New advancements initially shift the battle dynamics until countermeasures are developed, leading to a continuous cycle of innovation. In other words: “Adapt or die”.

Check out Part 2, exploring the significance of knowledge transfer and how disruptive innovation plays a crucial role in Ukraine’s ongoing situation.