At first glance, Andriy Pokrasa doesn’t really have the look of a national hero. A lanky teenager, he wears scruffy t-shirts and thick black glasses and spends his free time on a decidedly uncool hobby. But for a few days in February 2022, the 15 year old was transformed into one of his country’s most effective fighting forces. Working with his father, Pokrasa used his drone to spot invading Russian tanks, then passed their coordinates on to Ukrainian artillery units. Within minutes, the armour was reduced to charred husks. Pokrasa, for his part, proudly claims to have helped destroy over 20 enemy vehicles.

Long the coming force in military circles, the conflict in Ukraine has finally proven just how effective drones can be. Just like Pokrasa and his father demonstrated, they’re increasingly useful in spotting enemy positions, with the Kyiv government receiving $20m-worth of reconnaissance drones from friendly donors. That’s echoed by offensive capabilities too. From dropping bombs to shooting missiles, both Russia and Ukraine have used drones to wreak havoc on unsuspecting ground troops. It should come as no surprise, in short, that the international market for military drones is expected to surge over the coming years – rising to $17bn by 2027.

But if drones themselves are quickly finding a foothold in defence ministries the world over, anti-drone technology is battling to keep up.

Taken aback at how quickly unmanned aerial systems (UASs) have changed the battlefield, armies have been slow to adapt. And while some tactics have proved effective at diluting the airborne threat – with kill counts to match – truly effective counter-UAS (CUAS) strategies can only come about through close collaboration across military forces. Even then, staff officers and their colleagues in the field will need to keep an eye on the sky, as the enemy fights to mitigate the impact of CUAS on their operations.

Droning on

Beyond the obvious – an unarmed child taking on enemy armour and living to tell the tale – Pokrasa’s story is perhaps most amazing for the drone he actually used. Far from being a piece of high-tech equipment, he used a simple civilian machine – the sort hobbyists can buy for just $300. That alone has transformed the influence of drones over the skies of Eastern Europe, with both Russia and Ukraine using thousands of off-the- shelf devices to help with reconnaissance. That’s shadowed by more sophisticated equipment too. As far as Kyiv is concerned, probably their most ferocious aerial weapon is the Bayraktar TB2, made by Turkey and often carrying laser-guided bombs. Russia, for its part, boasts so-called ‘kamikaze’ drones that smash directly into Ukrainian positions.

But if those are the drones – which Ukrainian intelligence sources claim have helped dispatch 70 Russian tanks since the start of the war – what can be done to stop them? The answer, says Riki Ellison, chairman and founder at the Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, encompasses an overlapping set of systems. A favourite tactic involves jammers, blocking a drone’s radio frequencies and preventing the operator from flying it. Though not cheap, Ellison says this approach will soon see UASs “dropping like flies”. From there, he spotlights a number of more active technologies. That covers everything from firing mini-drones into the sky, physically hitting enemy UASs, to zapping at offending machines with lasers. Given all these techniques, Ellison is optimistic that drones have little to fear from CUAS. “The problem,” he says, “has been solved.”

To a certain extent, Ellison’s confidence is borne out by the facts. According to one July report, Putin’s army lost 600 drones in the five months after hostilities began. But speak to other experts and the situation becomes rather more muddled. “We have observed, at least on our side, that there is a lot of marketing going on,” argues Dr Cristian Coman, lead for counter drone activities at the NCI Agency, Nato’s technology and cyber centre. “But there are very few capabilities that really are effective and really do what they claim.” Certainly, Coman’s point makes sense if you follow the Ukraine war closely. To give one example, a clip that did the rounds on social media in 2022 showed a drone dropping a bomb right through the hatch of an unsuspecting Russian tank. Quite apart from the explosion’s devastating accuracy, that such an attack could happen eight months into the war hints at the limited effectiveness of much of CUAS technology.

More to the point, Coman stresses that there are a range of technical problems with many anti-drone platforms. That starts, he says, with jamming. If the would-be jammer is further from the drone than the device’s controller, Coman explains, it risks the latter winning out in the battle for control. Even more fundamental, he adds, is the fact that many drones are autonomous. That means they could still cause chaos – finding foes and dealing damage – even if the operator is unable to fly it. Similar difficulties stalk alternative CUAS systems too. Lasers, for instance, don’t always work in smoky conditions. Given the average battlefield, that’s hardly ideal.

“There is a lot of marketing going on. But there are very few capabilities that really are effective and really do what they claim.”

Dr Cristian Coman


The predicted value of the international market for military drones by 2027.


Net growth

Amid the shifting fronts and bloody fights, one recent story from Ukraine sticks out. At the end of May, just as the defenders at the blasted Mariupol steelworks finally surrendered, Fortem Technologies, a US-based tech company, announced it was sending the country some help. Known as SkyDomes, these devices are built to disable enemy drones – but unlike many other CUAS systems, they don’t use fancy lasers and jamming equipment. On the contrary, Fortem’s machines rely on something far simpler. Soaring into the air, they fire nets at approaching drones, tangling them up and causing them to crash. Faced with smaller drones, a SkyDome can even drag their prey, hound-like, back home to their operator.

In their elegance and efficiency, Coman says these net-based platforms could represent a major shift in the airborne battlefield. In tight urban environments, in particular he says they “seem to be one of the most reliable and attractive options for the operational community”. That, in turn, speaks to a broader point. Long struggling in the drone wars, Coman argues that machines like the SkyDome speak to a growing awareness that an effective riposte is needed. Ellison agrees, noting that military insiders have hunted for suitable CUAS technologies for a while – at least since the 2014 invasion of Crimea showed how powerful drones could be.

“If I build a localised air picture in my unit, I can filter that picture and feed that into the bigger air defence surveillance picture.”

Dr Cristian Coman


The amount that has been donated to Ukraine from international donor countries and individuals by August 2022 for the purchase of reconnaissance drones.

The Telegraph

Of course, better machinery alone cannot keep the skies clear of enemy aircraft. Rather, Coman says a genuinely successful strategy means working closely with partners across military intelligence. To explain what he means, he cites the “technical interoperability exercise” the NCI Agency lately undertook in the Netherlands. “If I build a localised air picture in my unit, I can filter that picture and feed that into the bigger air defence surveillance picture,” he says. Ellison makes a similar point. As he puts it: “You’re looking for the entire picture to get your intel.” Beyond Nato’s work, moreover, there’s evidence something similar is happening in Eastern Europe. According to one July 2022 report, Russian CUAS operators are now working increasingly closely with infantry and engineers, dampening attacks by Ukrainian drones.

Bye in the sky?

Even as the battle for Ukraine remains in flux, CUAS continues to develop. As so often in the military space, AI offers a number of exciting possibilities. Coman brings up another project at the NCI Agency, this time using machine learning to recognise the signature of enemy drones. Again, Nato aren’t the only ones going down this path. Blighter Surveillance Systems, a British manufacturer, recently announced it would supply a number of A422 radars to the Zelensky government in Kyiv. Equipped with machine learning capabilities, they could help Ukrainian anti-drone operators spot targets at a distance of 20km. Even better, these radars are particularly suited at finding drones and other small opponents. Yet, as Coman once again makes clear, leaning entirely on technology may be counterproductive. Better combined arms planning is certainly one part of the puzzle, but that still leaves a number of unanswered questions for counter-drone operations. If users have to sit somewhere to operate their SkyDomes, for instance, how well should they themselves be defended?

And in a war like Ukraine’s, where manpower is at a premium, how many troops should be dedicated to counter-drone activities over other tasks? Nor are these simply theoretical questions. In August 2022, a Ukrainian drone dropped a trio of modified hand grenades on a Russian CUAS complex.

And even for the most dedicated anti-drone force, there’s no guarantee that a CUAS operation will necessarily be effective. Both Coman and Ellison characterise the situation as a game of cat and mouse: as soon as anti-drone technology improves, drone manufacturers will rush to render the system moot. Among other things, Coman highlights firewalls, and how they can be used to make drones a lot harder to find. “People in the field are really creative when finding solutions,” he says. This is undoubtedly true. But if the tale of Andriy Pokrasa proves anything, it’s that in war, remarkable results can come from the most unlikely of sources. That, at least, is something CUAS operators can take heart in.