The innovations that have led to Kyiv’s remarkable successes against Russia will change combat dramatically.
My most recent trip to Ukraine revealed a burgeoning military reality: The future of war will be dictated and waged by drones.
Amid a front line covering 600 miles, the Ukrainian counteroffensive faces a formidable Russian force, as it tries to break through to the Azov Sea and stop the Russian overland supply line to Crimea. Between the two armies, there are at least 3 miles of heavily mined territory followed by rows of concrete antitank obstacles, with artillery pieces hidden in nearby forests. The Russian military has amassed so much artillery and ammunition that it can afford to fire 50,000 rounds a day—an order of magnitude more than Ukraine.
Traditional military doctrine suggests that an advancing force should have air superiority and a 3-to-1 advantage in soldiers to make steady progress against a dug-in opponent. Ukrainians have neither. That they’ve succeeded anyway is owing to their ability to adopt and adapt new technologies such as drones.
Drones extend the Ukrainian infantry’s limited reach. Reconnaissance drones keep soldiers safe, constantly monitoring Russian attacks and providing feedback to correct artillery targeting. During the daytime, they fly over enemy lines to identify targets; at night, they return with payloads.
Unfortunately, Russia has picked up these tactics, too. Behind the initial minefields and trenches blocking Kyiv’s advance, there’s a more heavily defended line. If courageous Ukrainians make it there, Russian soldiers will send in drones and artillery. All the while Russia’s army—which excels at jamming and GPS spoofing—is working to take out Ukrainian drones. A May report from the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies estimated that Ukraine was losing as many as 10,000 a month even before the start of the counteroffensive.
Yet Ukraine has continually out-innovated the enemy. Its latest drone models can prevent jamming, operate without GPS guidance and drop guided bombs on moving targets. Ukrainian command centers use personal computers and open-source software to classify targets and execute operations.
Ukraine has also pioneered a more effective model of decentralized military operations that makes its tech use varied and quickly evolving. In the war’s early stages, Ukraine’s government put the new Digital Ministry in charge of drone procurement but left important decision making to smaller units. While the ministry sets standards and purchases drones, the brigades are empowered to choose and operate them. Ten programmers can change the way thousands of soldiers operate. One brigade I visited independently designed its own multilayered visual planning system, which coordinates units’ actions.
To win this war, Ukraine needs to rethink 100 years of traditional military tactics focused on trenches, mortars and artillery. But the innovations it and Russia make will carry on far beyond this particular conflict.
Perhaps the most important is the kamikaze drone. Deployed in volume, this first-person-view drone—invented for the sport of drone racing—is cheaper than a mortar round and more accurate than artillery fire. Kamikaze drones cost around $400 and can carry up to 3 pounds of explosives. In the hands of a skilled operator with several months of training, these drones fly so fast they are nearly impossible to shoot down.
Costly materiel, such as combat aircraft that are vulnerable to missile attacks, will be replaced by cheaper drones—operating on land, sea and air. In the future, like murmurations of starlings, ruthless swarms of AI-empowered kamikaze drones will track mobile targets and algorithmically collaborate to strike past an enemy’s electronic countermeasures. Naval drones will take the same concepts into the sea, converging like a shoal of small torpedoes at the waterline of targeted ships. Land-based drones will clear obstacles, demine fields and eventually act as remote machine guns and other weapons.
As I departed Ukraine, what stuck with me were the rolling fields along the Dnipro River, with cinnabar-colored flowers covering the gentle landscape. In the 1930s, Stalin enforced the Holodomor, the forced starvation of about four million Ukrainians in the middle of the breadbasket of Europe. The industry of the tractors cultivating fields only miles from the front line was a powerful reminder of how human civilization can withstand unbelievable hardship—and emerge stronger.
The war in Ukraine shows us the best and worst humanity can offer, from the ruthlessness of the invasion to the bravery of the defenders. It’s also a stark warning of the future wars to come. Just as drones can be deployed to protect soldiers, they can be used to hunt civilians.
The world needs to learn and innovate from the lessons of this emerging form of fighting to be ready to deter and prevent such conflict from ever happening again.
Mr. Schmidt was CEO of Google, 2001-11, and executive chairman of Google and its successor, Alphabet Inc., 2011-17. He is the chairman of the Special Competitive Studies Project and a co-author of “The Age of AI: And Our Human Future.”
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Appeared in the July 8, 2023, print edition as ‘The Future of War Has Come in Ukraine: Drone Swarms’.