BACK in May this year I found myself at an undisclosed military training base somewhere in Kyiv Oblast in Ukraine.

It was just before Ukraine’s counter­offensive that got under way at the start of June and the new recruits in the forest base were part of the preparations for a military campaign that is now 11 weeks in.

For reasons of security, one of the ­instructors on the base was simply known by his call sign, “Stepan”. His job was to help provide the skills for handling what has become one of the most ubiquitous weapons on today’s battlefield in the war between Russia and Ukraine.

“Drones are everywhere on the ­frontlines today – it’s hard to imagine what warfare was like before their use,” Stepan said as we stood in a forest clearing, the Mavic 3 buzzing above our heads.

Fast, small and above all – like the ­Mavic 3 – comparatively cheap, these “consumer” drones have proved an ­effective way for Ukraine to take out vastly more ­expensive Russian military technology.

Such is the widespread use of drones on the battlefield that rarely a day ­passes when footage of their deployment does not appear on social media, ­turning the conflict in Ukraine into what one ­commentator described as the first ­“bystander war”.

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But drones are a far more significant weapon these days than just those small consumer types used for surveillance or improvised to drop bombs or grenades on armour, tanks and infantry on the ground, effective as these undoubtedly are.

As Ukraine’s offensive to ­liberate ­territory from its Russian ­occupiers ­continues to gain slow but sure ­momentum, the drone wars have taken on a major importance.

That much was evident again last week in the latest attack on Moscow which caused an explosion that was heard across the city’s business district before the drone – according to Russian officials – was shot down.

With the drone’s debris falling on the city’s Expo Centre on the Krasnopresnenskaya Embankment, an area of Moscow which hosts a number of government buildings and is situated less than 3.1 miles from the Kremlin, once again the war was brought into the heart of Russia.

While Kyiv continues to deny ­involvement in the drone attacks and they pale in comparison to Russia’s assaults on Ukrainian cities, they have ­increasingly spooked Moscow’s elite which has ­hitherto been insulated from most of the war’s consequences.

Writing in the online news and ­research platform The Conversation last week in the wake of the latest attack on Moscow, two experts in political science and international security, professors ­David Hastings Dunn and Stefan Wolff of the University of Birmingham, said the attacks on the Russian capital highlight how much drone technology and its uses have evolved during the war.

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“Initially, most Ukrainian drone use involved Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2, which achieved considerable success as a ­tank-buster in the early weeks and months of the war,” explained the two researchers, noting that “the role of this system and similar systems is now much reduced because more effective Russian air defences and electronic jamming have severely impeded Ukrainian drone use”.

Most commercial drones which make up the bulk of Ukraine’s force operate on known radio frequencies, making them highly vulnerable to jamming.

Earlier this month, technology ­journalist David ­Hambling, who ­specialises in ­aerospace and defence, highlighted a report by the UK think tank the Royal United ­Services Institute (RUSI) that ­suggested Russian electronic warfare took out 90% of Ukraine’s drones in the early stages of the war.

At one point, Ukraine estimated that Russia was destroying about 1000 ­Ukrainian drones per month but other estimates including by RUSI put the loss rate at a staggering 10,000 per month. This latter figure has been hotly disputed by some experts.

That said, recent reports suggest that Ukrainian technicians might have found a way to evade Russian jamming even if for obvious security reasons details are scant.

“Now, however, things seem to have changed, and Russia’s ability to jam drones has been neutralised by smart, ­currently mysterious, technology – but this may be a temporary victory,” ­concluded Hambling.

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The battle for technological superiority is almost as intense, it seems, as the tooth-and-nail struggle currently under way on the ground between Ukrainian and ­Russian forces.

The extent of this struggle is pushing a revolution in drone warfare using artificial intelligence (AI).

As a recent in-depth report in The ­Washington Post explained, AI ­capabilities help the drone evade ­electronic ­jamming and complete its ­mission even if its ­target moves, ­representing a significant ­technological upgrade from existing drones that track specific co-ordinates.

Other improvements in speed, flight range, payload capacity and other ­capabilities are having an immediate ­impact on the battlefield.

“This is a 24/7 technology race,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for Innovation, Education, Science and Technology Mykhailo Fedorov – who is in charge of Ukraine’s “Army of Drones” programme – told The Washington Post in a recent ­interview. “The challenge is that every product in every category must be changed daily to gain an advantage,” Fedorov stressed.

WITH the widespread use of drones changing the nature of warfare, Ukraine is seen as being at the forefront of this military revolution. But many of the country’s advances in drone warfare were borne out of individual ingenuity in a country that punched above its weight in terms of tech innovation long before the Russian invasion.

In backroom workshops, small ­industrial sites and in the frontline trenches, trial and error refine the ­hardware, software and drone systems.

One example was the use of ­3D-printing harnesses to create light-activated ­mechanisms that could be fitted to the underside of DJI Mavic drones, turning the drone’s auxiliary lights into a trigger that could release grenades or bombs.

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In January, Ukraine’s defence ­ministry announced it would spend $550 million on drone technology this year, signing deals with 16 Ukrainian manufacturers.

“Ukraine is Israel but size XXL,” was how Oleg Rogynskyy, the Dnipro-born founder of the software company, summed it up in an interview with the Financial Times.

Given such a commitment during ­wartime, some predict that post-war Ukraine will emerge as one of the world’s most dynamic technology centres. But those days are some way off yet and the emphasis for now remains on the use of drones as an instrument of war.

Not that the use of drones is new on the battlefield, having been part of warfare for years. They were employed ­extensively by the United States during the “War on Terror”, and they have played important roles in other conflicts including in Iraq and in Nagorno-Karabakh. But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marked a pivotal ­moment in drone deployment.

“The size and the scale of drone use in Ukraine supersedes all the previous conflicts,” said Samuel Bendett, a researcher in uncrewed military systems who is an analyst with the Centre for Naval ­Analyses (CNA) Russia Studies Programme.

“The war has shown that ‘small... ­tactical drones’ are absolutely essential – at every unit, every platoon level, every company level,” Bendett told the news service Agence France (AFP).

Drones for military use come in many forms and differing capacities. Some are able to travel for hundreds of miles, fly for a whole day or even reach an altitude of up to three miles.

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The list of drones being used in ­battle is extensive, and now includes the ­Turkish Bayraktar TB2, the American ­Switchblade 300 and 600, and the Iranian Shahed 136, to name but a few.

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, for example, were initially seen as a game-changer for Ukraine when ­videos showed the Bayraktars destroying valuable Russian hardware with baseball-bat-sized “micromunitions” during the ­chaotic first days of the Russian invasion.

So famous were they that a song about the Bayraktars became a popular tune for buskers on the streets of Ukraine, but as the Russian invasion slowed and layers of air defences were established in occupied areas, the drones became increasingly vulnerable. Today they are largely used for special long-distance reconnaissance missions.

Then there is the Ukrainian-made R18 octocopter which is ­specifically designed for bomblet drops and can fly without lights in the dark for total visual stealth, while using thermal-imaging cameras to spot enemy troops and vehicles.

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Both sides, Ukraine and Russia, have also used loitering munitions sometimes called “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones. These self-destructing devices can circle around targets for hours before ­attacking. The American-made Switchblade 300 weighs just 2.5 kilograms, and the entire system can be carried in a backpack.

Switchblades are deployed from a ­mortar-like tube that pops them into the air before their wings flick into place and their propeller kicks to life. The ­Iranian-made, Russian-branded Geran-2 suicide drones meanwhile are launched in small “swarms” of five or more that can be enough to overwhelm some air ­defences.

As researchers at the University of Birmingham pointed out in an online study in The Conversation, some of these drones have the advantage of being able to be directed in real-time through first-person view devices – a tablet or a ­virtual reality (VR) headset – and are both highly manoeuvrable and very fast.

They are also invulnerable to GPS jamming ­because they are hand-operated in real-time using their cameras.

BUT it’s not just on land that drones have been deployed in Ukraine. Sea drones have also been a feature of this war and used to attack Russian ports on the Black Sea, naval vessels and the Russian-built Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Crimea to the mainland.

According to Cesar Pintado, a professor at Spain’s International Campus for Security and Defence, drones are now “at the apex of a military revolution, a technological revolution, and a revolution in the way war is fought and understood”.

Speaking recently, he described how drones have made an instrument that was only available to some armies now accessible to almost anyone, even private individuals. With design innovation as well as the mass spreading of handling and piloting know-how, this is giving cause for concern as drones are used far beyond the war in Ukraine.

Globally, separatist militias, terrorist groups and drug cartels will all seek to gain a technological edge posing a threat to governments in many places, experts conclude.

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“With tens of thousands of people ­going through drone training on both sides of this war, it is very likely that this experience is spreading far and wide, including to nefarious actors,” The Washington Post recently cited Bendett at CNA as warning. Meanwhile, back in Ukraine itself, the use of drones as a weapon as Kyiv’s offensive rolls forward is more indispensable than ever.

As Maria Berlinska, a frontline Ukrainian drone operator who heads the country’s Victory Drones project, observed in a recent documentary on Ukraine’s tech sector: “We have to be innovative … you know why? Because we would like to survive.”

Back at the forest training base I ­visited in May, drone-handling instructor code sign “Stepan” likewise underscored the importance of drone innovation as a weapon after I asked him what he thought of the many social media posts that often graphically show captured footage of drones “hunting down” individual ­Russian soldiers in the trenches or when cut off from their lines or units.

“I admit it can be difficult to watch, but much of the footage is released as part of psychological operations (Psyops) – it helps break down the morale of the enemy and strengthens that of our own soldiers who know our drones are busy targeting the enemy,” he told me.

Whether they be targeting Russian forces or bringing the war to the heart of Russia in Moscow as last week’s ­attack did, this morale-boosting plays out well in Kyiv. For that reason, the drone will ­remain a crucial weapon of this war ­whatever its conclusion, as it will sadly for those wars of the future.