Adapting on the Fly: The Impact of Cost-Effective, Customizable Drones for Ukrainian Forces

23 May 2024

Drones on the frontlines of Ukraine’s ongoing fight against the Russian incursion have showcased in real-time the unprecedented changes drone warfare brings to the modern battlefield. Emphasis rests on the failure of the West to adapt its drone systems adequately for future combat, analysts warn, explaining that the described failings are overt and damaging over the long term. 

Drones and  Power Competition

A recent publication from the Wall Street Journal highlighted how American drones have failed to make a significant impact on the battlefield in Ukraine. The piece points out that American drones have failed to “perform in combat” and that this is a bad sign for the Pentagon, “which needs a reliable supply of thousands of small, unmanned aircraft.”

The adoption challenges in combat settings extend beyond American weapons systems, stretching to North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners. For example, the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, which initially helped Ukraine achieve military successes, especially in the first months of the war, have seen a significant decrease in use as the war has progressed. Rather, Ukraine’s defense forces have turned to the use of China-made drones, a factor that has geopolitical implications for the power competition between the Western-led NATO military alliance and China-aligned nations.

A Systemic Weapons System Issue

The issue Western-made drone adoption faces in combat has been linked by thought leaders to a systemic issue in the weapons industry. In a recent interview with Emily Chang of Bloomberg, Palmer Lucky, founder of Anduril Industries, warned that American weapons systems have not necessarily adapted to conflicts of the future and are not “necessarily” causing China to “quake in their boots.”

Lucky noted that, in his view, a lot of current American weapons systems are quite “bad” and overly “expensive.” Cost-prohibitive systems reflect down to drones, making the induction of drone systems into warfighting strategy fall behind the pace of warfare, which is evolving underneath rapid innovation.  In prolonged, high-intensity conflicts such as the war between Russia and Ukraine, warfighters note strategic shifts directly linked to the rapid introduction of 21st-century technological enhancement.

Electronic Warfare

As far back as December 2023, The Telegraph noted that Russia's electronic warfare tactics are contributing to its gaining ground against Ukraine. Soldiers are making incremental improvements daily, seeking to gain an advantage over the adversary. The production of drones and their timely deployment to the battlefield are critical. Any significant delay in development risks rendering them obsolete and ineffective by the time they reach the front lines.

Drone Costs Changing Dynamics

With Russia enhancing its air and electronic defenses, Ukraine has had to adjust its drone strategy accordingly. In an interview with Frontsight media, Norman, a drone unit commander from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade, said that at the start of the war, Ukrainian soldiers were able to deploy drones wherever they wanted. Norman noted that things were disorganized and soldiers could deploy drones, standing anywhere. But now, operations must be highly organized to effectively operate with electronic warfare.

This shift has, as the Washington Post noted, seen  “cheap drones” deployed in Ukraine which have subsequently transformed modern warfare — and initially gave Ukrainian troops an advantage on a battlefield where they are perpetually outnumbered and outgunned.”

Eyewitness Accounts

Dmytro Lysenko, the late drone pilot from the 109th Brigade who died in May fighting on the front in Donetsk Oblast, shared that the most optimal drone has been the Chinese-made DJI Mavic 3 Pro drone. The Mavic 3 is affordable at around $2000-3000 dollars per drone (depending on where it is sourced from), and it has a good set of versatile functions from having a quality camera with a “good zoom” that can be used for reconnaissance to being able to drop explosives.

Lysenko shared with Frontsight Media shortly before his death that, at the peak of the battle for Avdiivka, Ukrainian pilots often had to fly over 8 kilometers around the battlefield in order to circle back in to avoid Russia’s electronic warfare systems that would jam the drones. He further pointed out that Ukrainian units often lack drones and are easily lost in battle, sometimes due to jamming or poor weather.

The Royal United Services Institute think tank estimated in 2023 that Ukraine was losing around 10,000 drones per month. Drones are considered so precious to Ukrainian soldiers that they will often walk through an active battlefield or even a minefield to try and recover a drone that crashed in the field, eyewitnesses related to Frontsight Media.

Braving Minefields For Drones

Vasyl Shyshola, a commander of an aerial reconnaissance unit (128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade), explained to Frontsight contributor David Kirichenko, in an analysis written for The Kyiv Post, that he and his men would “often walk through a minefield to try and recover a drone because of how few they have.”

Shyshola shared how if Ukrainian soldiers are storming a Russian trench, there is immense pressure on the drone pilot to not make a mistake and lose the drone.

“Commanders overseeing a storming of a trench line will be watching the drone feed and giving commands to the soldiers in the middle of the battle,” said Shyshola. If the drone is lost, the soldiers on the ground will be left without guidance and are more or less blind.

He further remarked that sometimes the drone unit would not have any more drones in reserve, but if they do, they can quickly redeploy a drone to restore visibility but explained that this is never guaranteed.

‘Drones Over Funding,’ One Operator Prefers

When asked about making costly modifications to improve a drone*,* Oleksiy Tymofeev, a drone unit commander from the 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade fighting in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, said he would prefer to receive another drone instead of investing money to make expensive modifications because of quantity plays a more important role.

“You can make modifications such as adding tech to the drone to have AI software increase the accuracy, but that doesn’t mean it will not easily get lose signal once jammed out there, and the higher costs will make it more painful to lose,” said Oleksiy, in an interview with Frontsight Media.

Therefore, he prefers to have multiple drones that are cheaper and that will improve his odds of hitting a target rather than relying on a more expensive drone. Due to Russian jamming, Ukrainian drones will often only be able to move one mile before their screen goes gray and they lose signal.


Multiple units that Frontsight contributor David Kirichenko spoke with on the Eastern and Southern fronts informed him that they get the overwhelming majority of their drones from foundations and volunteers. A top Ukrainian military commander, Lt Col Pavlo Kurylenko, was quoted in the Telegraphstating, “We’re only holding back the Russians with crowdfunded drones.” With drones in such short supply, demand far outstrips supply.

Resulting To Psyops For Funding

In the "Russia Contingency'' podcast hosted by Mike Kofman and Rob Lee, the hosts pointed out how drones have become such a contingent part of Ukrainian defense strategy that units rely on psyops to procure them if they can’t finance them by other means.

Because some units have to crowdfund their drone procurement with help from volunteers and even rely on donations to purchase drones, there's an increased emphasis on producing impressive video footage from drone attacks. This focus on visuals doesn't necessarily correlate with hitting the most strategic targets. Shyshola’s drone unit was more recently formed in the fall of 2023. The group quickly realized that they needed to set up a social media presence to share videos of their strikes to try and raise funds to buy more drones. So, some of the soldiers have to spend a lot of time editing videos and managing their social media presence because this will mean they can procure drones that they desperately need.

Lessons For the West

As the WSJ pointed out, “Made-in-America drones tend to be expensive, glitchy, and hard to repair.” American drones are reportedly unable to fend off “Russian jamming and GPS blackout technology.” As a result, these drones will continue to be ineffective on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Costs must be lower, and the tech must be quickly adaptable, as operators and defenders have noted. Ukrainian units need to constantly tinker and make changes to the drones, operators explained. If the parts are expensive to replace, the drones won’t be usable. If Ukraine was forced to use more expensive drones, it wouldn’t be able to sustain the 10,000 rate per month losses it is currently sustaining.

Analysts note that American drone makers will need to be able to both bring down drone costs and manufacture them at a greater rate. If they are able to achieve this, then American drone suppliers would have a significant impact on the drone element of the war effort and the drone power competition overall, showcasing their prowess as elements of large-scale warfighting strategy and game-changers of individual battles.

One Ukrainian drone commander who spoke with Kirichenko explained that macro-to-micro scale best:

“If I had more drones, I would use them in batches to conduct a swarm attack to overwhelm the enemy."