China’s recent decision to restrict exports of drones will blind Ukraine’s reconnaissance advantage in the war with Russia and constitutes an active intervention on Moscow’s side. The U.S. and its allies should respond by developing an industrial base that makes unmanned aerial systems. Failing to do so would all but guarantee that Russia gains the upper hand.
The Ukraine war is the first drone war. Unmanned aerial systems, or UAS, are crucial to Ukraine’s strategy and are at the forefront of a transition in military technology that closes the gap between the potential and actual effect of precision-guided munitions. Modern militaries have fielded extraordinarily accurate weapons for decades. First employed during the U.S. bombing campaign in the 1972 Easter Offensive in Vietnam, precision weapons have become increasingly accurate and long-range. But accuracy is useful only if a target can be identified and rapidly engaged.
Unmanned aerial systems also are fixtures of modern militaries, first used in 1982 at large scale to operational effect in suppressing Syrian air defenses in Lebanon. They searched for long-range heavy guns during the Gulf War and were used by the U.S. and its allies as a key strike asset against jihadists during the global war on terrorism.
Ukraine’s military success represents an evolution beyond standard Western—and, before the current war, standard Russian—military practices. Outmanned and outgunned, the Ukrainians face an enemy with far more cannons, rocket launchers and ammunition. Their solution, developed since the 2014 Donbas war began, has been to fight smarter.
The Ukrainian UAS reconnaissance system integrates a handful of weapons with tens of thousands of small drones, including handheld machines, larger, four-rotored quadcopters and a handful of fixed-wing craft. Ukrainian UAS units drive forward, deploying drones within a few hundred yards of the enemy. Starlink satellites transmit real-time images of Russian units. This live battlefield data, which the Russian military struggles to disrupt, is fed back to artillery units. When a target is engaged, Ukraine’s drone operators can fire weapons and assess the battle damage immediately. This system enables strikes deep into the Russian forces by deploying long-range artillery fire to destroy air defenses, electronic systems, and other high-value targets.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.