Ukraine Readies to Produce ‘Dozens of Thousands’ of Drones Per Month

With no end in sight to the war between Russia and Ukraine, the latter hopes to churn out even more drones—and calls upon Western nations to do the same.

Updated Oct. 30 at 11:15 a.m. EDT with commentary from Mikhail Kokorich, founder and CEO of Destinus.

Ukraine is ready to take its military drone production to the next level, according to comments from Oleksandr Kamyshin, the Ukrainian minister of strategic industries who oversees the country’s defense industry.

Speaking at the NATO-Industry Forum in Stockholm this week, Kamyshin said Ukraine is preparing to produce thousands of the uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) every month. The aircraft have been widely deployed by both Ukraine and its Russian adversaries over the course of the war in Eastern Europe, which entered its 21st month this week.

“By the end of this year, it would be dozens of thousands [of drones] a month,” Kamyshin said. “And that’s something we grow even faster than conventional warfare ammunition and warfare weapons.”

What Ukraine Already Has in the Sky

Kamyshin did not provide an estimate of Ukraine’s current drone output. But the country’s forces have relied upon a wide variety of the aircraft, including suicide or kamikaze drones, such as U.S.-made Switchblade loitering munitions; large combat UAVs such as Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2; insect-sized surveillance drones such as Norway’s Black Hornet; and hobbyist or first-person-view drones from China’s DJI.

Frequently, Ukraine deploys the aircraft in swarms, with the goal of overwhelming Russian air defenses and hitting key targets—the idea is to “exhaust” the enemy, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy put it.

Often, air defenses will neutralize smaller swarms. But occasionally, one or a handful will get through, striking enemy soldiers or assets. Drones have also allowed Ukraine to hit targets deep within Russian territory—including in Moscow.

“There is such a wide range of different types of drones, with such wide accessibility, that they are becoming a new category separate and different from manned aviation, yet integrated with ground operations,” Audrey Kurth Cronin, director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Security and Technology, told FLYING. “Just because drones fly in the air does not mean they are just like advanced aircraft. That is not the case.”

Buying Local

Toward the beginning of the conflict, Ukraine largely relied on foreign-made drones. However, in recent months the focus has turned to boosting local production. Kamyshin at the NATO-Industry Forum said all of the country’s defense production capabilities have increased greatly. But they’re still short of what’s required.

“Speaking about shells, for instance, we produce times more now than for the whole (of) last year,” he said.

One way the country has ramped up drone production is through the “Army of Drones” initiative, which launched in July 2022 through a partnership between Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation and United24, a Ukrainian government-run fundraising platform.

The initiative has loosened import restrictions and taxes for UAV technology, which has fostered a friendly environment for local drone manufacturers. Companies and individuals can donate money or “dronate” certain models directly to the military. American actor Mark Hamill, best known for playing Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars franchise, serves as ambassador of United24 and is helping to raise funds himself.

Ukrainian drone units supported by the Army of Drones damaged or destroyed 86 Russian artillery targets between September 25 and October 2—a one-week record according to Digital Transformation Minister Mykhailo Fedorov. 

And per the commander of Ukraine’s 24th Mechanized Brigade, one of the initiative’s largest beneficiaries, the unit wiped out $40 million worth of Russian hardware in September alone. But the commander, speaking to CBS News under the codename “Hasan,” said his forces will need even more drones.

Brigadier General Yuriy Shchyhol, head of Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and the official leading drone procurement for the military, told CNN in June that some 30 companies were mass-producing drones for defense. The goal, he said, is for the military to purchase 200,000 UAVs by year’s end. Earlier this month, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said more than 200 domestic firms have begun producing drones in some capacity.

Are ‘Dozens of Thousands’ Enough?

According to Russian-born physicist, entrepreneur, and CEO of Swiss aerospace and defense specialist Destinus, Mikhail Kokorich, Ukraine’s proliferation of drones could have a significant impact on the war.

Kokorich left Russia to found a series of aerospace companies, including Destinus and space transportation firm Momentus, throughout the 2010s. He is also a founding member of the Anti-War Committee of Russia, a group of Russian expats who oppose President Vladimir Putin’s regime and the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Kokorich told FLYING that heavier deployment of loitering munitions or kamikaze drones would bring about major changes in battlefield tactics.

“It poses a significant threat to heavy machinery, as they become vulnerable to these devices, and there aren’t yet very effective methods for detection or counteraction against such threats,” said Kokorich. “The psychological impact is that it demoralizes troops, knowing that danger can strike at any moment.”

The precise targeting enabled by kamikaze drones—even over great distances—can render assets that were once useful obsolete. At scale, these shifts in importance could be more seismic.

“[Loitering munitions diminish] the significance of much heavy and light machinery—which becomes easily accessible—and amplify the role of individual personnel, soldiers, and the need for camouflage, making warfare more stretched out over distances, as these drones render battle lines transparent over long ranges,” said Kokorich.

Increased use of strategic drones that can fly tens, hundreds, or even thousands of miles, hitting targets deep behind enemy lines, could also pose problems for Russia, the Destinus CEO explained. Intercepting them with shoulder-launched missiles, for example, requires the defender to be within close range.

“Defenses like the S-300 [anti-aircraft missile system] are not very efficient and expensive for such protection…Entirely new defense systems will be needed,” said Kokorich. “This, of course, creates vulnerabilities, including for Russia and its infrastructure assets. It’s clear that Ukraine will try to ensure that Russian attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure do not go unpunished.”

While producing “dozens of thousands” of drones may move the needle for Ukraine, even more aircraft could be needed. While some survive their missions, the UAVs can be shot down or intercepted by air defenses far beyond the frontlines—or simply explode on impact, in the case of kamikaze drones—making many of them single-use. The Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based defense and security think tank, estimated that Ukraine loses 10,000 drones per month.

“The latest plans by Ukraine to build many thousands of drones per month reflect this attrition and the importance of maintaining a robust drone arsenal,” Dr. James Rogers, executive director of the Cornell Brooks Tech Policy Institute at Cornell University, told FLYING.

Rogers advises the United Nations and NATO on the global proliferation of drones and disruptive technologies. He continued, “In essence, drones are vital to Ukraine’s offensive power and to keep up the fight against Russia’s illegal war.”

Shmyhal earlier this month said the country was leaning heavily on DJI drones. It has reportedly received “millions” of aircraft and spare parts from the Chinese company. But obtaining drones from China has been a much slower process since the country curbed exports in August. Per Shmyhal, Ukraine’s DJI drones are mainly acquired through European intermediaries.

Kamyshin told Politico that Ukraine is also trying to increase its output of air defense systems and is looking for Western partners to invest. The country will need them to defend against the onslaught of Russian drone attacks.

Earlier this month, Ukraine struck a deal with German arms manufacturer Rheinmetall for the supply of drone reconnaissance systems. This week, the pair took the partnership to the next level with the launch of a joint defense venture.

Like Ukraine, Russia deploys loitering munitions. It uses ready-made models, such as the domestically produced Lancet-3M, as well as smaller, improvised UAVs built from modified racing drones. 

The country has a penchant for replicating Iranian Shahed drones (with Iran’s help, according to U.S. intelligence officials) and building lethal UAVs with engines from AliExpress, which is owned by Chinese conglomerate Alibaba. And, of course, DJI models are also part of the equation. Anton Siluanov, Russia’s finance minister, recently admitted “mostly all” of the military’s drones come from China.

“This war can be for decades,” Kamyshin said in an interview with Politico earlier this week. “[The] Russians can come back always.”

Kamyshin also expressed to Politico his desire for Western nations to step up their own drone, missile, and shell production. In his view, current levels are not sufficient to sustain support for parallel conflicts in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, where Israel and Hamas militants are fighting their own battle.

“The free world should be producing enough to protect itself,” Kamyshin said. “That’s why we have to produce more and better weapons to stay safe.”

In Israel, drones played a key part in Hamas’ multimodal invasion on October 7, managing to infiltrate the country’s Iron Dome counter-drone systems and fly over the billion-dollar barrier along the Israel-Gaza border. 

The U.S.-designated terrorist group’s unexpected success lent credence to a growing concern among militaries worldwide: that a small country, blockaded and deprived of key resources for decades, could still strike effectively with rudimentary drones. The attack demonstrated how even cheap, cobbled-together UAVs can pose a threat and reemphasized the need for effective counter-drone systems. It could be a sign of things to come.

“Drone use in Ukraine/Russia and in the Hamas-Israel war shows us that drones are just another weapon of war,” said Cronin. “We are developing new tactical and strategic theory as to how to use drones effectively, and that theory is being tested in the two ongoing conflicts.”

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