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Ukraine creates a branch of its armed forces specific to drone warfare

Ukraine has added a branch to its armed forces dedicated to drones, a sign of the growing importance of unmanned aerial vehicles to modern warfare. 

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy announced the creation of the Unmanned Systems Forces in a video message addressed to his country Tuesday. He said that the new branch would improve coordination, planning and logistics as the country continues its war with Russia. 

“Drones — unmanned systems — have proven their effectiveness in battles on land, in the sky and at sea. Ukraine has truly changed the security situation in the Black Sea with the help of drones,” Zelenskyy said, according to an English translation of his remarks posted on Ukraine’s official website. 

Creating a military service specific to drones is unusual, even though countries including the U.S. and Israel have been using drones in combat for decades. In the U.S. government, drone fighter groups are split among various services and agencies including the Army, the Air Force and the CIA. 

But in recent years, unmanned vehicles have begun to play a larger role in conflicts including the Russia-Ukraine war, the Israel-Hamas war and Yemen’s civil war. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have used drone and missile attacks to target shipping in the Red Sea and oil facilities in Saudi Arabia. 

Bruce Riedel, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied drone warfare, said he wasn’t aware of any other national military with a dedicated drone branch. 

“None that I know of so it is a first,” he wrote in an email. “Israel was the first to develop drone warfare but they don’t have a special branch of service.”

In the Russia-Ukraine war, drone conflict has often meant swarms of dozens of drones attacking at once. One Russian attack in November involved a swarm of 75 Iranian-made drones, according to Ukraine’s air force, The Associated Press reported

Zelenskyy said that, for Ukraine, drones are especially important for repelling ground assaults and for destroying occupying forces and their equipment. He said the new centralized drone branch will focus on effective training, increasing production and deploying specialized units. 

“This is a task for the army, the Ministry of Defense, and the government as a whole,” he said. 

Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the question of how to fit drones into existing military structures is something that every nation is dealing with. Part of the complication, he said, is that drone technology and use is evolving quickly. 

“We’re trying to figure out if ‘drones’ are an adjunct to an air force, an adjunct to infantry or an adjunct to missile power,” he said.

Given the importance of drones to Ukraine’s capabilities, he added, “Perhaps it may make sense for them to organize, train and equip in this way.”

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, escalating a conflict that has been ongoing since 2014. As the invasion enters its third year this month, Zelenskyy has said he’s thinking about other ways to shake up Ukraine’s military including new leadership for the armed forces

Zelenskyy said he expected to see quick results from the drone service. 

“This is not a matter of the future, but something that should yield a very concrete result shortly,” he said. “This year should be pivotal in many ways.”

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