KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Drone camera footage defines much of the public view of the war in Ukraine: grenades quietly dropped on unwitting soldiers, eerie flights over silent, bombarded cities, armor and outposts exploding in fireballs.
Never in the history of warfare have drones been used so extensively as in Ukraine, where they often play an outsized role in life and death. The Russians and Ukrainians rely heavily on unmanned aerial vehicles to locate enemy positions and guide their hellish artillery strikes.
But after months of fighting, both sides’ drone fleets are depleted and they are racing to build or buy the kind of advanced jam-resistant drones that could offer a decisive advantage.
The urgency was reflected in the White House’s revelation on Monday that it had information that Iran was rushing “up to several hundred” unmanned aerial vehicles to Moscow’s aid. Drones supplied by Iran have effectively penetrated Saudi and Emirati air defense systems supplied by the United States in the Middle East.
“The Russian drone force may still be capable, but exhausted. And the Russians are looking to capitalize on Iran’s proven track record,” said Samuel Bendett, an analyst at military think tank CNA.
Meanwhile, Ukraine wants the means “to hit Russian command and control installations from a significant distance,” Bendett said.
Demand for off-the-shelf consumer models remains strong in Ukraine, as do efforts to modify hobbyist drones to make them more jam-resistant. Both sides are crowdfunding to replace battlefield losses.
“The number we need is huge,” senior Ukrainian official Yuri Shchygol told reporters on Wednesday, detailing the first results of a new fundraising campaign called “Army of Drones”. He said Ukraine was initially looking to buy 200 NATO-grade military drones, but needed 10 times as many.
Armed Ukrainian fighters complain that they lack the military-grade drones needed to defeat Russian radio-controlled jamming and hijacking. The civilian patterns that most Ukrainians rely on are detected and defeated with relative ease. And it is not uncommon for Russian artillery to rain down on its operators within minutes of detecting a drone.
Compared to the first months of the war, Bendett now sees less evidence that Russian drones were shot down. “The Ukrainians are on the ropes,” he said.
Adding to the defenders’ woes: the Ukrainian hero of the first weeks of the war, the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 laser-guided bomb-dropping drone, became less effective against denser Russian air and electronic defenses in the east from Ukraine. It was the star of many patriotic Ukrainian videos.
“The Russians are in a much better position because they’re flying long-range drones” designed to evade electronic countermeasures, a Ukrainian aerial reconnaissance unit chief recently told Associated Press reporters outside. of Bakhmut near the front lines.
On the ground, Russia’s most numerous electronic warfare units can cut off drone pilot communications, interrupt live video and knock the vehicle out of the sky or, if it has guidance technology, force it to retreat.
Hence the need for advanced drones that can survive radio interference and GPS jamming and rely on satellite communications and other technologies for control and navigation.
Ukraine’s most pressing need is for drones capable of helping the newly arrived longer-range Western artillery hit distant targets, the captain said. Maksym Muzyka, founder of UA Dynamics, a Ukrainian drone manufacturer.
In mid-June, a senior adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy clarified in a tweet listing various desired armaments that Ukraine needed 1,000 drones to end the war.
Russia’s stockpile of long-range military drones exceeds Ukraine’s, but Kremlin supplies are also dwindling. Russian troops also steal a lot of $2,000 off-the-shelf quadcopters – often provided by relatives and volunteers of the soldiers, according to social media posts followed by drone researcher Faine Greenwood.
A Russian deputy prime minister who oversees the Kremlin’s arms industries lamented in a TV interview last month that pre-war drone development was not more robust. Yuri Borisov also said that Russia is stepping up the manufacture of a wide range of drones “although it cannot be done instantly”.
Russia has lost about 50 of its most abundant drone model, the Orlan-10, but apparently has dozens or dozens more, Bendett said.
A new report from British think tank RUSI puts the current lifespan of a Ukrainian drone at around a week. Russian electronic warfare units “impose significant limits on Ukrainian reconnaissance in depth” – and Ukraine desperately needs radar-seeking killer drones capable of destroying them.
As it stands, Russian forces are “usually capable of bringing down accurate artillery fire on (Ukrainian) targets three to five minutes” after a reconnaissance drone identifies them.
The war is unlikely to produce more stories of civilian drone operators like the teenager whose out-of-the-box surveillance drone helped the Ukrainian military devastate a Russian armored column heading for the capital, Kyiv, in the week following the February 24 invasion. Operating these drones on today’s front lines is terribly risky.
A Ukrainian drone operator who uses the call sign Maverick said his fellow pilots often go far behind enemy lines. Otherwise, their drones lack the range to correct Ukrainian artillery fire. This constantly puts them in the crosshairs of enemy artillery.
The United States and other Western allies have shipped hundreds of drones, including an unknown number of Switchblade 600 “suicide bombers” that carry armour-piercing warheads. They can fly at 70 mph and use artificial intelligence to track targets. But their range is limited and they can only stay in the air for about 40 minutes.
The 121 advanced military drones called Phoenix Ghosts that the United States acquired for Ukraine in May are potentially more useful for reaching Russian munitions dumps and command posts.
Their specifications are mostly secret, but they can fly for six hours, destroy armored vehicles and have infrared cameras for night missions, said retired Lt. Gen. David Deptula, a board member of Aevex Aerospace, the manufacturer.
Other drones also suitable for reconnaissance and artillery spotting include the Ukrainian Furia, each of which costs $25,000.
About 70% of the roughly 200 Furia that Ukraine bought after Russia’s outbreak of hostilities in 2014 were shot down, said Artem Vyunnyk, CEO of the manufacturer, Athlon Avia. Production is resuming at a new factory, he said, but domestic suppliers alone cannot begin to fill Ukraine’s lack of drones.
The Ukrainian army general staff did not respond to questions about the unmanned aerial vehicles it is seeking from its allies. Pentagon spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell also declined to comment on Ukraine’s drone requests.
But Shchygol, the head of Ukraine’s state service for special communications, made it clear on Wednesday that priorities include “kamikaze” drones and models capable of surviving Russia’s thick curtain of electronic warfare.
The first missiles fired at an enemy by an American drone came in 2001 against the Taliban in Afghanistan. Since then, drones have become an integral part of modern warfare, including in the Syrian civil war and the brief but intense 2020 war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karbakh.
Their proliferation has given rise to an entire industry devoted to countermeasures.
Anti-drone equipment supplied to Ukraine by Western companies includes equipment that can identify not only the location of a drone, but also its make and model based on the radio frequencies it uses. He then knows how to best disable the drone.
The increasingly complex electromagnetic cat-and-mouse game makes Ukraine the world’s latest melting pot of military technological innovation.
“Everyone now wants drones, special, non-jammable drones and the like,” said Thorsten Chmielus, CEO of German company Aaronia, which has brought technology to Ukraine.
Rapid advancement leads to his nightmare: “Everyone will have millions of drones that cannot be defeated.”