In early June, rumors were circulating that four U.S.-made UAVs, the Gray Eagles, would be included, as the United States rushed to support Ukraine militarily and financially.
These are armed drones that are larger than the famous Predator drone that has become the symbol of the global war on terror. However, the planned sale of these few expensive, complex drones has faced some hurdles due to concerns that they may be shot down and their complex systems may fall into Russian hands.
The Pentagon doesn't go into detail about Gray Eagle sales, but Ukraine's overall difficulty in deploying drones to fight against Russia shows the limits of drone warfare. A lot of guesswork has been made over the past few decades about how drones will “change our lives”, from accounts of pizza-delivery drones to speculations about “drone swarms” that may be more deployable than enemies in combat.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, the world witnessed how both countries had air defense systems that could hit them, and how armed drones in both countries could be effective in conventional warfare. In the past, countries with large numbers of drones fought primarily against insurgents, drones, or groups without drones. For example, this was true of the American intervention in Afghanistan.
According to the first reports from Ukraine, two dozen Turkish Bayraktar UAVs, smaller than the Predator UAVs, managed to defeat the Russian forces. These drones hailed the public in an assessment to change the "character of war". But now there are fewer stories about Bayraktar's success in Ukraine. It is unclear whether the drones are operating near the new front lines of Donbas or if the missile supply has been depleted.
Because drone warfare is stealth, armies do not accept that their drones may not perform as intended. If drones are used in a war where everyone has a smartphone, it's likely that someone will record them. This is because drones are often visible or audible from the ground and are typically noisy, like a flying lawnmower. According to the Associated Press, on June 22, a video was uploaded online showing a Ukrainian kamikaze drone crashing into a Russian refinery.
Western countries are trying to sell a variety of drones to arm Ukraine, including kamikaze drones like the small switchblade made in the United States. These are not going to quickly change the course of events. The limitations of drone warfare appear to be on display in eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian fighters are engaged in a difficult confrontation with Russian forces. Conventional weapons cause destruction, as do large amounts of artillery. Ukraine cannot afford to use or lose a limited number of advanced armed drones.
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The “era of UAVs” has not yet arrived because the countries using them are not deploying enough or are afraid of losing in battle. They did not change the course in conflicts like Libya, where they were used. Despite widespread employment, drones did not stop the Taliban in Afghanistan. Broader political policies can be blamed for this outcome, and argue that countries do not give drone operators the free rein to successfully use them.
However, current restrictions on the use of drones in conflicts depend on the availability of drones and the operational procedures for their deployment. Countries that practice drone warfare need a large number of armed drones and should not worry about losing any of them. Unmanned aerial vehicles are designed to be used for tedious, dirty and risky missions, especially when a nation does not want to risk losing its pilots.