Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered the creation of a standalone drone force within the Ukrainian army to overcome a squeeze on manpower.
The new military branch will focus on the development of unmanned land, air and sea vehicles (UAVs), and battle plans for their use.
“This is not a matter of the future, but something that should yield a very concrete result shortly,” the Ukrainian president said in his daily overnight address on Tuesday.
“This year should be pivotal in many ways. And, obviously, on the battlefield as well. Drones – unmanned systems – have proven their effectiveness in battles on land, in the sky and at sea.”
The move appears to be central to Mr Zelensky’s plan for Ukraine to produce one million drones this year.
It also reflects concerns expressed by Gen Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, who recently described the development of unmanned systems as a “central driver” of the war.
The country’s top military commander, who is reportedly facing the sack, said the deployment of drones was crucial to overcoming Russia’s advantages in manpower and weaponry, as well as Kyiv’s waning Western support.
“Perhaps the number one priority here is mastery of an entire arsenal of (relatively) cheap, modern and highly effective, unmanned vehicles and other technological means,” he wrote in an essay published by CNN.
Gen Zaluzhny and Mr Zelensky are currently jostling over plans to mobilise 500,000 new troops to plug gaps in their country’s battle-stricken forces.
Drones have become integral to Ukraine’s battle plans in the almost two years since Russia launched its full-scale invasion.
Britain has pledged £200 million from its recent promise of £2.5 billion in military aid to Kyiv for UAVs alone. Rishi Sunak described it as the “largest ever commitment of drones”.
In the early days of the conflict, cheap, commercially produced Chinese drones, such as the DJI Mavic, were used for surveillance and later adapted to drop explosives on Russian tanks and personnel.
But more recently, domestically produced first-person view (FPV) drones, piloted using virtual reality goggles, have become pivotal in narrowing Moscow’s advantage in long-range attacks while Ukraine itself suffers from shell shortages.
FPV drones are crude-looking and relatively inexpensive, costing anywhere from between £250 to £1,700, and have been responsible for destroying Russian military hardware worth millions of pounds.
Seaborne drones powered by jet ski engines and loaded with 500 pounds of explosives have been used to devastating effect to target the Russian navy’s Black Sea fleet.
A swarm of 10 so-called “Magura” drones recently sank Russia’s Ivanovets guided-missile corvette off the coast of occupied Crimea – in the first Ukrainian attack of its kind to completely destroy one of Moscow’s warships.
Kyiv has also developed a string of part-autonomous, part-remote controlled ground-based drones to protect its battle-depleted units.
The developments aim to replace front-line machine gunners, while making deliveries of ammunition and medical evacuations safer.
Last year, Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, who is spearheading the country’s “Army of Robots project”, said these systems were key to saving the lives of his countrymen and offsetting Russia’s supremacy in manpower.
‘Every drone saves lives’
“[Drones have] changed the security situation in the Black Sea … repelled ground assaults [and have achieved] the large-scale destruction of the occupiers and their equipment,” Mr Zelensky said.
“The current list of tasks is clear: special staff positions for drone operators, special units, effective training, systemisation of experience, constant scaling of production, and the involvement of the best ideas and top specialists in this field.”
Mr Fedorov hailed the announcement by his boss as “important and historic”, adding; “Most importantly, every drone saves the lives of our heroes.”
Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, told a news conference in Brussels: “Moving our defence industrial base forward has to be about traditional base forward, like 155mm artillery shells, but also it has to be about modern technologies that we’re seeing adapt and evolve on the battlefield in real time.”
Jens Stoltenberg, Nato’s secretary-general, said: “I welcome the efforts to modernise the Ukrainian armed forces in the midst of a war of aggression by Russia … These efforts are conducted with the support of Nato allies, I think it also demonstrates the importance of working with Ukraine to ramp up their industrial base because this is now a war of attrition.”
Mr Stoltenberg also praised Turkey for playing its role by announcing the opening of a new factory to produce Turkish drones in Ukraine.
He said: “That’s an example of how many Nato allies are supporting Ukraine with direct deliveries of weapons and ammunition but also by investing in and ramping up their capacity to produce their own weapons.
“I think we need to recognise the war in Ukraine is a challenge because it is a combination of First World War trench warfare, combined with modern technology from the 21st century, including drones. And that’s exactly the challenge we are addressing together with Ukraine.”