KORZENIEWO, Poland — Militaries should be wary of applying lessons from the war in Ukraine and instead adapt for the battle yet to come, according to a top general in the Polish military.

While the war between Ukraine and Russia has emphasized the crucial role drones can play — and the threat they can pose to troops — Gen. Piotr Blazeusz remains unconvinced of their value during waterway crossings.

“Traditionally, you would not use drones just for a water crossing. You might use them for reconnaissance purposes to collect intelligence ahead of time, but while you are doing the actual crossing you would not really need them in the air,” the deputy chief of the General Staff told Defense News in an interview on the sidelines of the Polish-led Dragon drill held here. “You’d want them ahead, at the front, making sure there are no roadblocks, or identifying enemy positions or threats for the vehicles disembarking.”

During the March 4-5 drill, organized as part of NATO’s larger-scale Steadfast Defender exercise, drones were nowhere to be seen. A single unmanned aerial system — AeroVironment’s Puma drone — was visible during the static display portion but was reportedly not involved in the training. It had previously flown during the recently concluded NATO Brilliant Jump exercise.

In the last two years, the 2,200-kilometer-long (1,367-mile-long) Dnipro River — which flows through Russia, Belarus and Ukraine — has served as a critical part of the front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces as well as a major target for both sides.

In November, both Ukrainian and Russian officials confirmed that Ukrainian units were able to cross it and had established footholds on the east bank of the river.

Drone and aerial reconnaissance units were reportedly involved in the crossing operation, in part having provided cover for soldiers traversing and detecting Russian movements.

“Combat drones are probably of little use in a river crossing,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser on Russian military capabilities at the Center for Naval Analyses. “What’s more important is to have ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] ones flying for constant overwatch, as well as a menagerie of counter-drone and electronic warfare systems to protect personnel and equipment.”

“You would, however, need combat drones — especially tactical [first-person view drones] — if you identify an enemy position not far from the crossing trying to disrupt it with mortar, artillery and [anti-tank guided missiles], or if you locate an enemy drone unit that is using either ISR or combat drones against your attempt to cross the river,” Bendett added.

Blazeusz said one reason drones were not used as part of the Dragon demonstration at the Vistula River had to do with the smaller distance forces needed to cross.

“The Vistula crossing is only 320 meters, so it’s not that big. But if it was a longer distance, potentially you may want them, but we do have other means of communicating beyond just drones,” he explained.

In contrast, some parts of the Dnipro River in Ukraine can be nearly 1.6 kilometers long.

Some observers present at the exercise shared concerns that not everyone in the West adapts tactics fast enough to match the requirements of modern warfare, ushered in by the Russia-Ukraine war.

While countries must keep a close eye on happenings there, Blazeusz cautioned that militaries should not try to simply duplicate strategies.

“Never in history was the next war an exact copy of the previous one, so we have to be really careful about identifying lessons learnt in Ukraine and then applying them, because yes, there’s clear indications of what we need to be doing, but we shouldn’t be looking to just replicate what they’re doing over there,” he said. “We have our own set of considerations [as a country] to think about.”

Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.

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