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Drones in Ukraine: How Sophisticated are Russian Drones? Can They Rival the US in Manned-Unmanned Teaming?

Russians do have a handful of new drones and they do tout them as being sophisticated.

By Kris Osborn - President & Editor-In-Chief, Warrior Maven

A lot of the specifics are understandably not available when it comes to what might be learned about the Russian military tactics and their use of drones for natural and understanding operational security issues. 

Russian Drones

One of the things senior US military leaders did say was that their use of drones in the 2014 incursion of Ukraine and Crimea was quite significant and did seem to get attention, as did their use of EW which some are surprised. 

The battlefield hasn't seen much of at least the extent that's been detected or seeing - Russians are known to have a sophisticated electronic warfare attack possibility. As far as what might be needed to defend against this one of the things that's taken place, there's been a decentralized command and control among the Ukrainians. It's very smart. 

Okhotnik Drone

Okhotnik heavy attack drone. Image: Russian Defense Ministry/TASS

If you don't have a centralized hub, that's a target that you can take out. Not only are you not emitting signature that's detectable to an enemy. But you're also were targets to hit you have a built in redundancy. Now, to answer your question about drones, that technology not only exists to a large degree, but it's also proliferating globally, in a very substantial way. 

AI and algorithms enable a measure of autonomy so that unmanned systems can discern sensor information, bounce it against an existing database use AI to make an immediate determination as to what the optimal shooter or the optimal countermeasure might be. 

So there are sensor detection, there's data processing, much of which increasingly happens at the point of collection, instead of needing to come back to a central hub, or database of some kind. That is a phenomenon that is a paradigm changing type of technology, because it massively truncates what they call sensor to shooter time, the Army is having massive breakthroughs with this, the Navy's working on it with Project overmatch. Sure enough, the Air Force is making progress. 

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It's not clear how potential adversaries - how far along are they? And a lot of that is unknown. You can read what the Russians will say in the paper about their drones. They do have a handful of new drones and they do tout them as being sophisticated.

Manned Unmanned Teaming 

However, when it comes to something like manned unmanned teaming, not long ago, I wrote about that they appear to be behind the US has made great progress with what's called loyal wingman, there's a program by the Air Force called Valkyrie. And it's a drone that's already flown alongside an F-35 and an F-22

The concept is to have a low latency and to have a pilot in the cockpit of a fighter jet, control the flight path and sensor payload of a drone, while in flight. You can test enemy air defenses even carry weapons, you can blanket an area with ISR. So that kind of synergy is emerging and exists with the US Air Force. Russia had an article not long ago, but how they were starting this manned, unmanned teaming this loyal wingman program with just from reading the article looked a lot earlier on a lot less mature than the US. 

So it's really a question of how evolved the technology is the US has been making rapid strides in recent years when it comes to AI and measures of autonomy, and even a kind of collective autonomy that's not just one platform going this way or that way., but platforms responding to information with one another in real time to independently make determinations. 

Of course doctrine the humans must be in the loop when it comes to lethal force and decisions about that. There's a lot short of actual lethal force that can be determined autonomously by drones and by AI enabled platforms. So unmanned systems are here to stay.

Kris Osborn is the Defense Editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President - Center for Military Modernization