How to help solve Ukraine’s drone shortage problem

Drones and other unmanned systems are a “central driver” of the Russia-Ukraine war, Kyiv’s top general observed in an

How to help solve Ukraine’s drone shortage problem

Drones and other unmanned systems are a “central driver” of the Russia-Ukraine war, Kyiv’s top general observed in an op-ed published this month. In terms of battlefield innovation, Ukraine’s “number one priority” is the “mastery of an entire arsenal of (relatively) cheap, modern and highly effective, unmanned vehicles and other technological means,” he wrote.

By leveraging their resources, technologies and production capacity, the U.S. and its allies can help Ukraine meet this challenge.

In addition to artillery shells, one of Ukraine’s most urgent battlefield needs is an enormous number of one-way attack unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as “kamikaze drones.” First and foremost, this means first-person view — or “FPV” — drones, combining cheap commercially available quadcopters rigged with munitions. Both Russia and Ukraine widely employ FPVs as improvised loitering munitions used to attack vehicles and personnel at or near the front line. But while the Ukrainians adopted FPV drones first, Russia now has the edge thanks to its advantage in production capacity.

With Western-provided shells currently in short supply, Ukraine will need to lean even more heavily on FPVs as a partial replacement for artillery. The Ukrainians are making many thousands of FPV drones every month, but they’re still well short of Kyiv’s goal of 1 million per year. Although Ukraine has received some loitering munitions from the United States and other Western countries, they’re far more expensive and aren’t produced at anywhere near the sufficient scale.

Ukraine also needs more long-range attack drones designed to strike targets far behind the frontlines. Here, too, Moscow currently has an advantage thanks to its Iranian-provided Shahed UAVs, which Russia began producing itself last year. According to Ukrainian intelligence, Russia can now make as many as 350 Shaheds per month.

Although U.S. companies don’t yet mass-produce anything like the Shahed, Ukrainian industry has begun making a variety of long-range attack drones and continues to develop new designs. Kyiv’s forces have repeatedly employed such UAVs to strike airbases and other deep targets both in occupied territory and inside Russia.

If Ukraine can sufficiently scale production, it could beat Russia at its own game. In 2024, Kyiv aims to make 11,000 one-way attack UAVs with a range of at least 300 kilometers. These drones can supplement Ukraine’s limited stocks of Western-supplied missiles.

Ukraine has an innovative and rapidly developing UAV industry, but a lack of resources is slowing progress. Western assistance can help Ukraine scale production and obtain access to advanced technologies and components. Europe intends to do its part. Latvia is leading a UAV coalition for Ukraine, while Lithuania has expressed interest in helping Ukraine produce drones. But the United States has an important role to play, too.

So, what’s to be done?

First, the Biden administration and Congress should incentivize U.S. defense companies to partner with Ukrainian firms. One option is the transfer of Ukrainian intellectual property to American companies for production at scale in the United States. U.S. firms could also invest in localization of production in Ukraine. This sort of cooperation is already beginning to happen, but U.S. government support could help it blossom.

In concert, the United States and Ukraine should consider establishing a working group that brings together government, military, and industry officials focused on unmanned systems. This forum would help institutionalize key relationships and promote defense-industrial cooperation. It would also benefit the U.S. military and American companies by helping them absorb lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Kyiv, for its part, is eager to engage in such a forum.

In the meantime, Congress should consider permitting Kyiv to spend a portion of its U.S. security assistance funding inside Ukraine to procure UAVs that American industry currently struggles to supply in sufficient quantities. This approach, after all, would not be some dramatic departure from current U.S. practice with other democratic partners.

Foreign Military Financing, or FMF, provides partner nations with grants or loans with which to procure U.S. defense articles, services, or training. Washington pledged over $1.6 billion in FMF for Ukraine during the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years. In its supplemental request for fiscal year 2024, the Biden administration asked Congress for $7.2 billion in FMF funding, including $1.7 billion for Kyiv and other European countries affected by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The rest would go to Israel and Indo-Pacific countries, including Taiwan.

Unlike Israel and Taiwan, however, Congress has not authorized Ukraine to use FMF funding for “offshore procurement.” Kyiv must spend all its FMF money in the United States, whereas Jerusalem and Taipei can use some of their U.S.-provided funds for purchases from their own defense industries.

As a general rule, there are good reasons for requiring partners to spend FMF money in the United States. Foreign demand for American-made weapons spurs the U.S. economy, employs Americans, builds valuable defense-industrial capacity, and strengthens political support for arming key partners to deter and defeat common adversaries.

Sometimes, however, U.S. interests are best served by making an exception to the rule. Ukraine’s urgent need for large quantities of cheap drones is just such instance. If and when Congress finally passes the supplemental, it should take that opportunity to revisit this issue.

With this additional funding, Kyiv not only could buy more UAVs but could also swap out Chinese-made drones and components for Ukrainian-made alternatives. In addition, Ukraine could scale up its integration of more expensive features, such as thermal imaging cameras, jamming resistance, home-on-jam capability, and machine vision. This would give Kyiv a boost in the ever-evolving race between Russian and Ukrainian drone technology and provide an offset for Russia’s superiority in electronic warfare and proliferation of small counter-drone jammers.

Vladimir Putin wants to weaken and control Ukraine. If he succeeds, Europeans and Americans will regret it for years to come. Washington and its allies can avoid that outcome by providing Kyiv with additional security assistance, which should include ensuring Ukrainian forces have the drones they need to fight Putin’s unprovoked invasion.

John Hardie is deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Bradley Bowman serves as senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power.

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