Ukraine Building an Army of Drones 09/25 06:52
Flying above enemy lines, a Ukrainian reconnaissance drone sends a clear
image back to soldiers hiding in a basement a few kilometers away: A Russian
armored vehicle is idling along a key logistics route, looking like easy prey
in the artillery-scarred green landscape.
LUHANSK REGION, Ukraine (AP) -- Flying above enemy lines, a Ukrainian
reconnaissance drone sends a clear image back to soldiers hiding in a basement
a few kilometers away: A Russian armored vehicle is idling along a key
logistics route, looking like easy prey in the artillery-scarred green
Then, in a flash, the image disappears, and the drone operator's screen is
replaced by a jumble of black and white pixels.
"Snow," says a calm commander known by the battlefield name Giocondo, who
allowed The Associated Press to follow him and his unit of drone pilots on
condition of anonymity to protect their identities. High-tech warfare cuts two
ways, and the Russians use electronic beams to disable the drone's signals.
Seconds later, the drone pilot switches to a frequency the Russians cannot
easily exploit. The bird's-eye image of the armored vehicle reappears, and a
second drone -- this one laden with explosives -- is quickly launched. It zips
toward the target.
Nineteen months into the Russian invasion, and as a grueling
counteroffensive grinds on, the Ukrainian government wants to spend more than
$1 billion to upgrade its drone-fighting capabilities. Whether used for
reconnaissance, dropping bombs or self-exploding on impact, drones save money,
and soldiers' lives. They are also more precise than traditional artillery --
which is in short supply -- and can deliver outsized impacts, such as real-time
mapping of the battlefield, destroying tanks and ships, and bringing Russian
advances to a halt.
The advantages of drones can be fleeting, however. The Russian army, which
relies on Iranian expertise for its own horde of deadly drones, quickly catches
up each time Giocondo's unit gains an edge. Success, he says, lies in constant
battlefield iteration and innovation.
Ukraine's minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Federov, says the
government is committed to building a state-of-the-art "army of drones" and
that its value to the war effort will be evident by the end of this year. The
country has already trained more than 10,000 new drone pilots this year.
"A new stage of the war will soon begin," Federov promises.
Giocondo's unit operates near the occupied town of Svatove, in northeastern
Ukraine. It has spent months modifying drones to enable them to fly deeper
behind enemy lines and to better evade Russian detection and sabotage.
His drone pilots are all volunteers, and many of them had no military
experience prior to Russia's invasion.
Hiding in a barn house haloed in morning light, a pilot who goes by the
battlefield name Bakeneko pops on a head-mounted display and is instantly
transported, soaring above verdant fields bustling with Russian combat vehicles
and infantrymen. He is flying a drone loaded with explosives toward a
Soviet-made tank spotted moments earlier by a reconnaissance drone.
Bakeneko listens in one ear to the German heavy metal band Powerful,
explaining that he "can't fly in silence."
A few feet away, another soldier -- a sales manager before the war --
prepares exploding bombs. Using plastic flex cuffs and duct tape, he secures
artillery shells and bulky batteries, turning an inexpensive commercial drone
into a killing machine.
As the sun rises, Russian troops to the east have the advantage of good
light, peering into Ukrainian positions with their own drones. But that
advantage flips in the afternoon, when Ukrainian drone pilots can sometimes
spot the moving shadows of Russian infantrymen.
Combing through the vast landscape to find a target takes hours. Russian
troops have gotten better at hiding and camouflaging themselves in the foliage.
When Bakeneko's target is within view, he gives the remote control a jolt,
and the drone plunges. His headset shows the bucolic countryside rushing at
him, and then it goes blank.
"Super, we got it," says Giocondo, who is watching on a separate screen,
which shows a plume of smoke coming from the tank.
TRIAL AND ERROR
The growing reliance on short-range exploding drones on the front line has
prompted the Russians to deploy more handheld jamming devices, Ukrainian
officials say. That has forced Giocondo's unit, and others, to devise creative
After three months of trial and error, Ukrainian soldiers operating in the
eastern village of Andriivka, south of Bakhmut, figured out how to evade
Russian jamming devices that had long stymied their drones.
The fix led to the village being recaptured in early September. A spokesman
for the battalion that retook the village said exploding drones were key
because they forced the Russians to pull back heavy weaponry by roughly 15
kilometers to stay out of range.
But Ukrainian drone pilots say the Russians will learn from what happened,
and adapt again.
"This is an interactive, two-sided competition," said Stephen Biddle, a
senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Since the war's early days, Russia has used long-range, military-grade
drones to inflict devastating damage and psychological terror in Ukraine's
capital, Kyiv, and in other cities. Over time, the Ukrainian military has
responded by launching its own military-grade drones deep behind enemy lines,
targeting warships in the Black Sea, an airport in Western Russia and even
buildings in Moscow, according to Russian officials and media.
The acceleration of short-range drone warfare by units like Giocondo's is in
direct response to the trouble Ukrainian forces experienced this summer using
conventional weapons to try to punch through Russia's fortified defenses. The
counteroffensive that began in June has depleted money, artillery and soldiers
-- and hasn't yielded as much momentum as Ukraine had hoped for.
Faced with these challenges, the leader of an elite drone squad called the
Asgard Group, which oversees Giocondo's unit, sensed an opportunity. The
leader, a wealthy former businessman who goes by the name Pharmacist on the
battlefield, directed his soldiers to begin targeting Russia's large and
expensive weaponry with small and inexpensive drones.
The logic was simple, Pharmacist says: Exploding drones cost roughly $400 to
make, while a conventional projectile can cost nearly 10 times as much. Even if
it requires multiple drones to take out a tank -- and sometimes it does -- it
is still worth it.
The strategy had the additional benefit of putting fewer soldiers' lives at
But first they had to modify commercial drones with hardware and software to
suit the battlefield, enabling them to penetrate deeper behind enemy lines
without being detected or jammed. A breakthrough came through the clever use of
several drones in unison.
With his entrepreneurial spirit, Pharmacist helped turn a ragtag group of
engineers, corporate managers and filmmakers into an elite fighting force. He
estimates that his 12-man team, assembled with just $700,000, has destroyed $80
million worth of enemy equipment.
The Russian army -- which faces its own economic and military challenges as
the war in Ukraine drags on -- is also looking to accelerate the use of drones.
Russia had stepped up production before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine
early in 2021, but officials have acknowledged that they didn't do enough. Now,
as Ukraine catches up, Russian shopping centers are being repurposed into
research labs and factories dedicated to drones, according to the Institute for
the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank.
"The enemy learns very quickly," said Pharmacist.
The Ukrainian government has taken notice of the grassroots innovation
carried out by people like Giocondo and the Pharmacist; now it wants to
replicate those efforts with an infusion of cash.
The draft budget for 2024 includes an extra 48 billion hryvnias in defense
spending earmarked for drone purchases.
One reason to prioritize enhancing Ukraine's domestic drone-making
capabilities, experts say, is the increasing difficulty in sourcing parts from
China, the world's leading drone maker.
"We are doing everything for businesses to invest in the production of
various drones," said Federov, Ukraine's minister of digital transformation. He
estimates that domestic production will grow one hundred times above last
year's level. Since March, at least eight new Ukrainian companies building
explosive drones have been formed as part of the initiative.
Looking out over the horizon, Federov said advances in artificial
intelligence being employed by some brigades are only likely to sharpen the
effectiveness -- and cost-effectiveness -- of drones.
Still, some drone operators take all of the enthusiasm with a grain of salt.
They are skeptical that Ukraine's military culture, which has vestiges of
rigidity from the Soviet era, can change quickly enough.
A successful drone operation doesn't hinge on just training and procuring
drones, they say. The more critical piece of the puzzle is scaling up the
ingenuity and real-time adaptability of units like Giocondo's.
"It's a complex interaction within the unit itself," said Pharmacist.