Russia and Ukraine are fighting the first full-scale drone war

Volunteers learn how to operate a Mavic drone in Ukraine's Kharkiv region on Sept. 26.
Volunteers learn how to operate a Mavic drone in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region on Sept. 26. (Sasha Maslov)


KHARKIV, Ukraine — A war that began with Russian tanks rolling across Ukraine’s borders, World War I-style trenches carved into the earth and Soviet-made artillery pounding the landscape now has a more modern dimension: soldiers observing the battlefield on a small satellite-linked monitor while their palm-size drone hovers out of sight.

With hundreds of reconnaissance and attack drones flying over Ukraine each day, the fight set off by a land grab befitting an 18th-century emperor has transformed into a digital-age competition for technological superiority in the skies — one military annals will mark as a turning point.

In past conflicts, drones were typically used by one side over largely uncontested airspace to locate and hit targets — for example, in U.S. operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

In the…