Air Defense and the Limits of Drone Technology

Editor’s Note: Drones are often heralded as revolutionizing warfare, but recent experiences in Ukraine and elsewhere suggest that these systems have many vulnerabilities. Drawing on their longer research, Antonio Calcara, Andrea Gilli, Mauro Gilli, and Ivan Zaccagnini argue that drones are highly vulnerable to air defenses and that highly-trained humans are vital for drones to be their most effective.

Daniel Byman


After two decades of hype, the war in Ukraine is prompting a reevaluation of the utility of military drones. Ukrainian forces used Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones to great effect in the early days of the conflict, and the United States has discussed selling Ukraine MQ-1C Gray Eagles. But as the war has progressed, these platforms have become less effective. According to a Ukrainian air force pilot interviewed by Foreign Policy magazine, Turkish TB2s “were very useful and important in the very first days [of the war], stopping those columns [of armored vehicles], but now that [the Russians have] built up good air defenses, they’re almost useless.” Another Ukrainian air force pilot echoed this sentiment, telling Breaking Defense, “[I]t’s very dangerous to use such expensive drones [like the Gray Eagle], in our case, because of [the] enemy’s air defense …. It’s not Afghanistan here.” Along the same lines, military analysts writing for The Drive note that U.S. defense planners have a similar assessment. “[T]he U.S. Army has reached many of the same conclusions about the [Gray Eagle]’s ability to survive even in environments with relatively limited threats,” they write. “The U.S. Air Force has been looking to move away from the MQ-9 Reaper, the Gray Eagle’s larger cousin, for the same reasons.”

These assessments contradict the dominant narrative that military drones are a war-winning weapons system. Early on during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, for instance, some observers cheered Turkish drones as a decisive weapon, so much so that there have been popular fundraising initiatives to purchase more TB2s for Ukraine. Similar narratives emerged during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war between Armenia and Azerbaijan and during the battle for…