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Data driven analysis on FPV drone usage in the Ukrainian Russian conflict

As published on Twitter/X 03.01.2024:

The use of FPV drones from both Ukraine and Russia has long been a constant feature of daily updates from the front lines. The following research has been conducted on Ukrainian and Russian drone usage, using data collected between August and December 2023 by @AndrewPerpetua, and aims to evaluate the usage of FPV and Lancet drones. 

To begin with, it is known that Ukraine has sourced a significant number of FPV drones from various companies and private initiatives, with some of these coming from foreign sources. Accurate figures attributed to foreign producers are difficult to obtain and therefore any estimate would be speculative. Russia, however, has heavily publicized its own increase in FPV drone production and several research articles have already covered this topic [1]. To date, the topic of loitering munitions, particularly the production of Lancet drones, has been covered in both Russia and western media outlets but extrapolation from recent data is yet to be conducted [2].

We will begin by examining the total number of attacks on infantry over the recent four month period in question. These attacks were all carried out using FPV (First Person View) drone technology and were done so by both this war’s belligerents. Any attacks carried out by reusable drones will be excluded. I have decided to use data from August 2023 to December 2023 as these months marked a period during which Andrew Perpetua identified and catalogued individual FPV and Lancet strikes. 

This data shows a progressive increase in drone strikes against infantry. Until November 2023, the Ukrainians were consistently able to score more strikes on infantry than the Russians. This situation changed in December, but not with the expected dominance one might have expected following Russia’s 2023 production of FPV drones on a large, state-driven scale. Lancet figures are irrelevant within this context since the cost of a single Lancet drone only justifies its use on high-value targets, with open source evidence consistently demonstrating its use in this regard. 

A greater difference is apparent in the comparison between Russian and Ukrainian strikes against vehicles. Ukraine holds a position of complete dominance over their Russian adversary in this area.  Russia registered a similar trend, but with a notably lower number of strikes.  

Any previously anticipated Russian FPV dominance is thus not a reality supported by recent evidence. This could be due to a lack of training, or an increase in Russian assaults along the front lines. The Ukrainian 2023 counter-offensive, however, was still on-going in August and September so a higher number of successful Russian strikes against Ukrainian forces should have been observed in order for this expected dominance to exist. In addition, the use of Lancets followed a similar statistical trend during this time. Its impact, notably, has not been, based on these figures, decisive .

Analysis of the data on a day-by-day basis is necessary to examine historical trends on the usage of FPV drones during this war.

The data on infantry strikes reveals that both sides have exhibited similar results, with the exception of a significant spike on October 6th when UA FPV drone operators were likely active around Avdiivka. During this time, the impact of the Lancet was comparatively insignificant. 

When we examine the data on vehicles, we can discern a clear difference between Ukrainian and Russian strikes, with distinct averages and minimal influence from the Lancets observable. The average number of daily strikes for Russia on this time scale stood at approximately four, compared with thirteen for Ukraine, indicating a more extensive use overall by Ukraine. Even when combining Russian FPV strikes with the Lancet strikes, this difference appears remarkable.

From August to the end of the year, Russia used 1485 FPV drones, while Ukraine used 2874. The figure below shows the total usage and allows us to extrapolate the following: 

  1. Speculation from around spring of 2023 that Russia would achieve dominance in the production of FPV and Lancet drones has not translated into numerically superior numbers of combat strikes. Despite this, some might argue that Russia is yet to use its FPV stocks and has in fact retained this weaponry in storage. Nevertheless, in an attritional war such as this one, any low-cost, widely available weapon that can destroy high-value targets should be expected to be utilized when needed by either side. This rationale was evidenced in Ukraine’s heavy use of its own FPV drones, due particularly to its notable lack of large caliber mortar and artillery shells.
  2. The Russian Lancet drone has not proved as effective as previously thought. It is clearly capable against lightly armored vehicles and valuable equipment such as radar. However, both its cost and Ukraine’s effective use of decoys to neuter this threat have seen it become a less practical strike option than cheaper FPVs.
  3. Ukraine has demonstrated the capability of consistently delivering FPV drones to the front line. However, more are clearly needed to save their own stocks of artillery shells, currently used parsimoniously, for future offensive maneuvers. It is also important to highlight that the Ukrainian army has been successful in consistently training new FPV operators, as it managed previously for operators of older drone types. This will likely lead to Ukraine’s retention of such dominance and a lower likelihood of it losing experienced drone operators, whose Russian opposite numbers are a primary target for Ukrainian FPV drone strikes.

To conclude, amongst the Kremlin’s most effective and consistent weapons in its arsenal has been propaganda and its influence on both Ukraine and her western allies. Nonetheless, a careful examination of reliable, existing, data exists as a means to counteract this particular weapon, enabling the observer to see through a fog of war which Moscow would prefer to see opaque.

The data examined suggests that Russia is still not able to outmatch Ukraine in terms of FPV and Loitering munition use. This situation could yet change in the future given recent news of Russian FPV drones being manufactured in China.  Nevertheless, news that Russia seeks China’s manufacturing support further suggests that Russia does not currently outproduce Ukraine in FPV production. It will be of crucial importance to keep track of these attacks and identify any future changes in trends, which currently favor Ukraine during a time of attritional winter warfare.

I would like to express my gratitude to @AndrewPerpetua for the sharing of his data and assisting me in its interpretation, Jonathan for his proofreading, and the entire Tochnyi team for their assistance and comments.