IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Big guns and small drones: The devastating combo Ukraine is using to fight off Russia

The mix of old and new technologies on the battlefield have formed a potent combo, and NATO and its allies are adding to the arsenal.
Modern artillery combined with drones have helped Ukraine push back on Russia's invasion.
Modern artillery combined with drones have helped Ukraine push back on Russia's invasion.Max Butterworth / NBC News

PARIS — They were developed more than a century apart, but an unusual combination of decades-old and cutting edge technology — heavy artillery and remote-controlled drones — is helping Ukraine’s army make inroads into Russia’s eastern occupation.

The cannons, howitzers and other heavy guns provided by NATO members and allies are similar to the weapons that have been battlefield staples since World War I, lobbing explosive shells farther than the eye can see. They are being used to great effect to suppress Russian positions and allow Ukrainian infantry counterattacks in the Donbas region

Heavy artillery is typically deployed against enemy infantry and equipment. It uses an “adjusted fire” approach, meaning small changes to trajectory are made between each salvo until a target is hit. For decades, that meant armies sending personnel to the front lines and radioing instructions to the gunners several miles back. 

The importance of artillery is underscored by international efforts to ship more guns and ammunition to Ukraine, with many NATO members contributing some of the newest and most advanced versions of these weapons.

But experts say Ukrainian forces are going one better by harnessing widely available drone technology to provide real-time surveillance data on Russian targets and fire their heavy weapons with unprecedented accuracy.   

“Each drone provides the opportunity to destroy enemy troops,” said Valerii Iakovenko, founder of DroneUA, a Ukrainian tech firm that advises the government on drone use.

Iakovenko said the Ukrainian military was using more than 6,000 drones, largely manufactured in China. Although varying according to model, most of the unmanned aerial vehicles are commercially available multirotor craft typically used in the media, agriculture and engineering sectors. They can operate for up to 30 minutes and as far as 7 kilometers (4.3 miles) into enemy territory. 

“This is the first time ever where we see such a level of robotics used during conflict,” Iakovenko said.

Ukraine Russia Military Operation UAV Capturing
A Russian soldier shows seized UAVs which they claim to belong to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in Kherson, on April 12, 2022. Sputnik via AP

Small teams of soldiers control the drones from off-road vehicles near the front line, relaying location and topographic data to artillery batteries via military channels on Telegram. 

“They are providing real-time information: ‘OK, guys, 100 meters to the left, 50 meters to the right,’ that kind of thing,” Iakovenko said.

Ulrike Franke, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on UAV use in conflict, said the Ukrainian military had shown greater innovation than its Russian adversary in integrating the tech into its armed response. 

“We’re not looking at just drones but drones used in conjunction with other systems such as artillery,” she said. 

“That’s what makes new technology potentially revolutionary, not just having it in the field but how you use it. For drones used with artillery, that’s a system used in a novel way that has a real impact,” Franke said.

Ukraine’s use of drones has gone beyond helping target artillery. Franke said the reported role of UAVs in the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva — in which Turkish-made, fixed-wing drones were allegedly deployed as decoys to trick the vessel’s aerial defense system — showed their versatility during conflict. The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Wednesday that Ukraine had used drones to attack Russian air defense and resupply ships

“They are defending their territory, which normally makes you more innovative, and civilian volunteers are more likely to use them in a way that the military wouldn’t normally,” Franke said. 

As well as providing artillery with greater accuracy, UAVs are also being used in eastern Ukraine to limit friendly fire incidents and avoid collateral damage, according to Iakovenko. 

“Ukrainians are fighting on our own land. Our target is to win with the least damage to infrastructure and to avoid any possible civilian casualties,” he said. “Drones allow them to strike with the maximum precision and to limit infrastructure damage.” 

He conceded, however, that Russia was also using UAVs to good effect in the conflict. Although figures are harder to come by, the more than 50 drones Russia is documented to have lost since invading suggests they are a key part of its military operation. 

The surveillance and reconnaissance benefits provided by drones would mean little without the heavy artillery to back them up, and this was a problem for Ukraine in the conflict’s opening days.

Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the major challenge initially for Ukraine and its allies was acquiring Soviet-standard shells to fit the D-30 howitzers that Kyiv already possessed. These shells are 152 mm in diameter and cannot be fired in NATO-standard heavy guns, which have a 155 mm gauge. 

“Once you rule out Russia and China, there aren’t that many places to get it,” Cancian said of Soviet-standard weaponry. 

“That’s one reason why the U.S. and others are giving Ukraine NATO-standard, because there are lots of countries around the world that make that,” he said.

In recent weeks, the U.S., France and Germany have all provided heavy artillery systems to Ukraine. Canada has provided M777 cannons, which can fire guided shells, and the U.S. is reportedly set to follow suit, Cancian said.

Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine colonel, said the heavy weapon arriving from NATO allies would allow Ukraine to regularly replenish its ammunition stocks.

“That’s hugely important, particularly if you think the war is going to last a long time,” he said. 

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 152mm 'Msta B' howitzers during
Ukrainian servicemen fire a 152mm 'Msta B' howitzer during military exercises on the Devichki shooting range in Oct. 2016.Vladyslav Musiienko / LightRocket via Getty Images file

Philip Wasielewski, a fellow at the Philadelphia-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, said the use of GPS targeting along with poor Russian tactics made heavy artillery potentially decisive in deciding the pitched battles in eastern Ukraine. 

He said Russian forces had “demonstrated a lack of military attention” in several instances, including a failure to use camouflage and having infantry columns dig in while not moving. 

“We’ve seen multiple videos of the Russians not dispersing,” Wasielewski, a former CIA officer, said. “We’ve seen artillery being able to take out tanks, which is normally not done. 

“But the Russian tanks have been moving in columns so close to each other, sometimes you can’t miss them,” he said.

Although the antitank and antiaircraft weapons systems provided by allies made headlines during the conflict’s opening stage, Wasielewski said that artillery — coupled with the GPS and associated targeting data provided by drones — was likely to be decisive in the war’s outcome. 

“It used to be that you had to fire several times with one gun to get your artillery close to the target,” he said. 

“The Ukrainians — and the Russians too to an extent — have shown excellent ability to exploit new technology to make artillery much more precise than it has ever been,” Wasielewski said. “And a shell exploding, whether in 1914 or 2022, is still a terrifying thing to behold.”