Homemade, cheap and deadly, attack drones are vital for Ukraine
Buzzing like an oversized mosquito, a small drone took off from an agricultural field in eastern Ukraine, hovered for a bit, then sped towards Russian positions near the battle-ravaged town of Bakhmut.
“Friends, let’s go!” said the pilot, Private Yevhen. With a pair of virtual reality goggles strapped around his head, he used joysticks to steer the craft and its payload of two pounds of explosives.
Cobbled together from hobby drones, consumer electronics, and computer gaming gear, handmade attack drones like this have become one of the deadliest and most widespread innovations in more than 14 months of war in Ukraine.
Along the front line, drones extend the reach of soldiers, who can fly them with pinpoint precision to drop hand grenades into enemy trenches or bunkers, or fly towards targets to explode on impact. Self-destructing drones, in particular, are easy to build, and thousands of soldiers on both sides now have experience building them from commonly available parts – although Ukrainians say they use these weapons more frequently than their own. Russian opponents.
These small craft proliferated on the battlefield last fall, long before Russia declared two explosions over the Kremlin on Wednesday a drone strike. Kyiv and Moscow blamed each other for the incident, and if attack drones did fly over the Kremlin walls, it’s unclear what type they were, what range they had, or who was responsible.
For years, the United States has deployed Predator and Reaper drones in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost tens of millions of dollars each, and can fire missiles and then return to their bases. Ukraine, by contrast, has adapted a wide range of small craft widely available as consumer products, from quadcopters to fixed-wing drones, to spot artillery targets and drop grenades.
Explosive drones belong to a class of weapons known as wander munitions, to be able to circle or hover before diving on a target.
Russia manufactures a self-destructing drone specifically for military use, the Lancet, and it has made extensive use of Shahed attack drones purchased from Iran. The United States provided the Ukrainian military with a specially designed roving ammunition, the Switchblade.
These industrially manufactured devices have longer ranges and some have heavier payloads than the homemade weapons used in Ukraine. But the Switchblade, like the Shahed, often navigates to pre-programmed targets, a system that Ukrainian soldiers say is less effective than their hand-built alternatives, piloted remotely by operators.
Soldiers and civilian volunteers make them in garage workshops, experimenting and inventing 3D-printed materials, explosives and bespoke software to try to evade Russian electronic countermeasures.
They have produced drones that drop bombs big enough to destroy armored vehicles and can be reused, and cost up to $20,000.
Smaller, more common self-destructing drones, like those piloted by Private Yevhen, cost a few hundred dollars. They are built around a type of drone used for recreational racing, usually a model made by Chinese company DJI, with explosives attached using zip ties or tape. They are single-use disposable weapons; once armed and launched, they cannot even land safely.
“I see huge potential” for the weapon in the kind of trench fighting that dominated the war, Major Kyryl Veres, commander of a Ukrainian brigade stationed near Severesk, north of Bakhmut, said in an interview. . “Any equipment can be hit where the enemy thinks it’s a million percent safe.”
A cheap drone destroying a much more expensive armored personnel carrier is a vivid example of asymmetric warfare, used to overcome an enemy’s technological or numerical advantages. And despite the influx of Western weapons, Ukrainian forces remain underarmed by the Russians.
“The Ukrainian army should use unusual and asymmetrical tools of war,” said Serhiy Hrabsky, a retired colonel and war commentator for Ukrainian media.
He drew a parallel with the roadside bombs that insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan used, to devastating effect, against the US military, which called them improvised explosive devices. Ukraine, Colonel Hrabsky said, uses “improvised suicide bombers”.
He added that “the art of war is not static”.
The experience of flying with virtual reality goggles, providing an immersive view from the drone’s camera, is like playing a high-stress video game. The missions are far from without risk for the pilots. The short range of drones when carrying explosive charges – around four miles, typically – means pilots must fly from trenches on or near the front line, where they are vulnerable to artillery and sniper fire. elite.
Yet drones are deadly effective. The Ukrainian military has released dozens of videos recorded by the drones as they swoop down on targets with devastating precision.
Pilots chase and ram moving tanks or fly through open doors of armored vehicles to explode inside, while soldiers attempt at the last moment to jump to safety. And they regularly fly drones into bunkers, which was the intention of Private Yevhen, who was stationed near a frontline in the Battle of Bakhmut.
On a recent crystalline spring morning, the grove of trees he was operating from was a veritable drone airport: several units were operating surveillance craft while others sought to drop hand grenades on the Russian trenches.
After the drone took off with a roar, Private Yevhen let it hover for a while to test the controls. The drone fell back to earth – a nerve-wracking moment, as the explosive was already triggered to detonate. But that was not the case. He left again.
If all went as planned, he would soon see the entrance to a bunker rapidly approaching and at the last moment perhaps a glimpse of doomed Russian soldiers. His hands were shaking on the control console.
Two other drones accompanied the attack craft, flying nearby to guide and film the strike. A spaghetti whirlwind of wires, sockets and screens in a bunker connected the system.
In the moments after takeoff, the pilots announced the altitude and the passage of waypoints on the landscape below.
“Do me a favor and go to the right,” Private Yevhen said to a pilot accompanying him.
The drones have reached the critical zone where Russian electronic countermeasures could jam their signals, causing pilots to lose control and even crash.
“Stable, stable,” he said of his radio connection. Then Private Yevhen lost control.
“Where did you fly?” he asked his wingman, trying to find his bearings.
“I’m here,” said the other pilot.
But Private Yevhen’s explosive drone had descended several hundred meters from the target. Neither he nor the accompanying surveillance drones, which were out of position when he fell, could tell if he had exploded or just landed on a field. It was also unclear whether Russian jamming or a technical fault had brought the craft down.
This time, the work of constructing the explosive drone and the risk of getting close enough to be launched into artillery fire had only resulted in lessons learned, not a successful strike.
“All is lost,” he said, taking off his glasses. “He just fell.”
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Ivaniske, Ukraine.
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