June 21, 2024 | FDD's Long War Journal

Ukraine’s new Unmanned Systems Forces takes shape

June 21, 2024 | FDD's Long War Journal

Ukraine’s new Unmanned Systems Forces takes shape

The Ukrainian military announced last week that it appointed Colonel Vadym Sukharevskyi as the commander of its inchoate Unmanned Systems Forces (USF). Sukharevskyi shared some interesting details on Kyiv’s plans for the USF, including how it will recruit operators and scale and standardize the use of this rapidly evolving technology.

The USF’s formation and status

Since February, Sukharevskyi, a 39-year-old decorated combat veteran, had been serving as the deputy commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) responsible for unmanned systems. Rustem Umierov, Ukraine’s defense minister, officially appointed him as USF commander on June 10.

Sukharevskyi’s appointment follows a February 6 decree in which President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directed Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers and General Staff to develop proposals for the USF’s creation. In the Ukrainian system, the AFU includes three branches (vydy): the Ground Forces, the Air Force, and the Navy, as well as various independent combat arms (okremi rody syl and okremi rody viys’k). Zelenskyy’s decree puts the USF in the second category, along with, for example, the Special Operations Forces and Support Forces.

On May 7, Defense Minister Umierov announced that the cabinet had approved a draft presidential decree to implement the USF’s formation. He said the Defense Ministry would prepare a corresponding draft law and submit it to the government for consideration.

On June 11, the day after Sukharevskyi’s appointment, Ukrainian officials gave a presentation in Kyiv on the USF’s formation. Sukharevskyi said the government would soon send the draft law to the Ukrainian parliament while indicating the USF’s budget remains a work in progress.

The USF currently has over 3,000 personnel, the commander said, and it is actively recruiting to fill its ranks. Sukharevskyi’s appointment coincided with the launch of a USF Telegram channel and website encouraging volunteers to sign up. In addition, officers from the Ukrainian General Staff’s Main Directorate of Unmanned Systems are being reassigned to the USF.

The USF’s role in unmanned-systems warfare

The USF will include dedicated combat units for air, land, and sea systems, according to Ukrainian officials and the USF website. Sukharevskyi said he plans for USF units to reach full combat capability by year’s end, and potential operators are currently being trained.

Sukharevskyi noted that the USF will be responsible for planning operations involving unmanned systems. Presumably, he was referring to deep strikes on targets such as oil refineries and air bases using long-range, one-way attack unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as well as attacks on Russian ships in the Black Sea using uncrewed surface vessels (USVs). Thus far, Ukraine’s military intelligence directorate and internal security service have taken the lead on these operations. Exactly how the USF will coordinate with these organizations and others remains unclear.

As Sukharevskyi explained during an interview in May, the USF’s central task is to “systematiz[e]” and “scale up” Ukraine’s “successes” with unmanned systems. He noted that although social media is replete with videos of Ukrainian first-person view (FPV) drone strikes destroying Russian military vehicles, this “success isn’t replicated across the entire front.”

Ukrainian UAV units vary in their access to equipment, levels of staffing and training, and performance. Units typically get some of their drones and equipment through crowdfunding, meaning some are better supplied than others, in part, because they have famous commanders and potent social media presences. While Ukraine has ramped up training UAV operators with significant support from private initiatives, units are still often understrength. Meanwhile, technical and tactical adaptations generally occur in a bottom-up fashion, encouraging innovation but also unevenness across the force.

A core task for the USF, therefore, is to “establish a unified tactical doctrine to maximize results across all units,” Sukharevskyi explained. In addition, Kyiv hopes the USF will ensure units are well supplied and equipped, including by harnessing battlefield information to optimize capability development and procurement. The USF could also help Ukraine rationalize its drone procurement by prioritizing successful designs from the ever-growing medley of products on offer, not all of which are effective. At least for now, though, Sukharevskyi insists that the diversity of options is a good thing.

Recruitment and training of drone specialists will be another key priority, Sukharevskyi noted during his June 11 press conference. He said Ukraine would open several recruitment centers to bring people into the USF. Working with the private training schools, the USF will strive to “systematize” UAV pilot training.

One challenge will be ensuring the USF’s creation does not exacerbate staffing issues in Ukraine’s existing UAV units. During the June 11 press conference, Sukharevskyi stressed that the USF will not strip drone units from front-line brigades or higher-level commands. Instead, USF units will “support” and “strengthen” existing units.

However, while 80 percent of the new unit’s personnel will be fresh recruits, the rest will be hand-picked from existing units, Sukharevskyi said. He promised that these individuals would be carefully selected to cause “minimal” disruption to combat readiness. But with competent commanders and pilots for UAV units reportedly in short supply, that may be easier said than done.

To help fill its ranks, the Ukrainian Ground Forces launched an initiative in May to recruit UAV operators, promising two months of training and placement in the unit of their choice. And earlier this month, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry announced it was partnering with the private Victory Drones project to provide training for recruits.

Ukraine’s bet on unmanned systems

Kyiv views innovative technologies, particularly unmanned systems, as a way to gain an edge over its larger adversary. General Valerii Zaluzhnyi championed this view while serving as Ukraine’s top general, arguing that evolving technology could allow Ukraine to “break out” of a grinding war of attrition that favors Russia. His successor, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, has similarly emphasized the importance of unmanned systems.

“The Unmanned Systems Forces can be our asymmetric answer to the aggressor’s quantitative superiority,” Ivan Havrylyuk, now serving as first deputy minister of defense, declared in February.

USVs have helped Ukraine beat back Russia’s Black Sea Fleet despite Ukraine having essentially no navy. Unmanned ground vehicles have seen less use but are starting to play a more significant role, particularly in casualty evacuation and forward-edge logistics. Most importantly, both sides use (and lose) an enormous number of UAVs every day for functions ranging from reconnaissance and strikes to remote mining and small-scale supply deliveries. Shortages of artillery shells and anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) have rendered Ukraine especially reliant on FPV drones.

Technological innovation alone likely will not prove to be the game-changer that some Ukrainian officials may hope. It will not obviate Ukraine’s need to redress its current manpower shortage or its inability to scale offensive operations. FPV drones are, at best, a partial replacement for artillery and ATGMs and tend to be more effective in defensive rather than offensive operations.

Moreover, all weapons come with weaknesses and trade-offs, and a new system’s effectiveness tends to decline over time as it prompts the development of countermeasures, as has happened repeatedly in Ukraine. As with other weapons, unmanned systems will be most effective when integrated into a combined-arms concept that harnesses each arm’s strengths while compensating for its weaknesses.

Nevertheless, unmanned systems will undoubtedly continue to play a central and growing role on the battlefield in Ukraine and beyond. Time will tell whether the USF can help Ukraine step up its game in this critical area of warfare.

John Hardie is the deputy director of FDD’s Russia Program and a contributor to FDD’s Long War Journal.


Military and Political Power Russia Ukraine