The drone war in Ukraine has just heated up as Russian units reported a sudden spurt in the volume and consistency of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) attacks from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU).
Flushed with funding and arms supplies from the West, Ukraine also revealed the existence of dedicated suicide drone units and launching vehicles.
However, reports from the ground and Russian defense bloggers on Telegram have not reported any significant shift in the battlefield scenario as Ukrainian casualties rise simultaneously.
They nevertheless acknowledge well-coordinated Ukrainian drone tactics of using civilian UAVs for kamikaze and grenade-dropping roles, harrowing Russian ground troops in the Donbas.
Ukraine has gained tremendous experience using various unmanned aerial systems over the last year.
Meanwhile, Russia has introduced several new UAVs, including variants of the Orlan-10 reconnaissance drone, Lancet-3 loitering munition, dedicated UAVs for Electronic Warfare (EW) and radio jamming like the Moskit, and new ground-based EW systems.
Ukraine Pioneered Using Civilian Drones
Many Telegram groups quoted former Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) officer Lieutenant Colonel Andrey Marchoko, who claimed the AFU had increased the use of anti-personnel drones.
“In the zone of responsibility of the Second Army Corps of the Russian Defense Ministry, the enemy has increased the use of UAVs many times over. Favorable weather conditions and fresh supplies from the so-called Western partners have allowed the enemy in our sector to increase the use of UAVs of various modifications by 2-3 times,” Marochko said.
He added the AFU has been using both small drones and heavy hexacopters capable of carrying mortar ammunition adapted for dropping from UAVs.
Videos posted on Twitter show AFU personnel unloading a large civilian using a heavy hexacopter from the back of a pickup truck/sports utility vehicle (SUV) and attaching makeshift bomb-carrying modules under its belly.
Heavy drone-bomber of the Ukrainian border guards. Carrying capacity 12 kg, carries 3 bombs from the right to the left bank of the Dnipro River, Kherson region. 1/2 pic.twitter.com/4zTkmBnJA6
— Paul Jawin (@PaulJawin) March 30, 2023
The second part of the video showed a thermal camera view from under the drone of an unguided drop bomb being released and exploding on the ground. The concluding part showed another aerial footage of the ground from a separate UAV, showing an explosion in the distance, meaning an AFU hexacopter must have dropped the bomb on a Russian target.
Ukraine has prominently used civilian and leisure UAVs against Russian soldiers by retrofitting them with basic release mechanisms and dropping grenades on trenches and inside open hatches of tanks and armored vehicles.
Dozens of popular videos show Russian soldiers being surprised when small bombs are modified with fins for stability and ensure they fall beside them.
Some graphic recordings showed servicemen either being killed on the spot or injured severely, while others were lying maimed on the ground after collapsing and later presumably succumbing to their injuries.
Ukraine Prepares For Spring Offensive?
Russia, too, replicated the practice to a smaller degree towards the middle of last year, but not to the extent the AFU exploited commercially available drones. At one point, the AFU was also using hexacopters strapped with Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) warheads to slam them on Russian armor, as was reported by the EurAsian Times.
Ukraine, meanwhile, has been preparing for a counteroffensive in “several areas” in April-May that would also involve the German Leopard-2 main battle tanks, according to its Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov. Its Vice Prime Minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, was photographed with around 20 pickup trucks and other AFU personnel.
The picture followed a quote in several Kyiv-friendly Telegram groups, saying the “pickups, attack copters, and Starlinks were handed over.”
“All drones are Ukrainian-made. Private donors purchased equipment for the attack companies of the Army of Drones. The drones will carry out reconnaissance and strike missions,” Fedorov was quoted.
While the photo’s veracity, the accompanying information, and Fedorov’s statement could not be verified, it is unlikely to be false since he has publicized Ukraine’s civilian drone procurement efforts in the past.
Fedorov, whose portfolio is Innovation and Science and Technologies, tweeted a picture of nearly a hundred Mavic 3T drones from Chinese drone maker DJI. “300 Mavic 3T already serves in Donbas, Zaporizhizhia, and Kherson. ‘Birds’ have thermal imagers and zoom cameras to detect & destroy Russian hardware,” he said.
Big drones supply for the frontline. 300 Mavic 3T already serve in Donbas, Zaporizhizhia and Kherson. "Birds" have thermal imagers and zoom cameras to detect & destroy Russian hardware.
— Mykhailo Fedorov (@FedorovMykhailo) March 30, 2023
The EurAsian Times had previously reported that Russia and Ukraine were widely using the readily available Chinese drones for basic surveillance and reconnaissance tasks, particularly for artillery fire correction.
Keep Russians On Their Toes – Ukrainian Strategy
Another Telegram group post said that the AFU was becoming active daily, attacking everything they saw, indicating they were not taking any tactical pause and always keeping the Russians on the move.
Particularly talking about “intensifying UAV attacks,” the AFU uses swarms of drones, where a separate operator controls each UAV. “Some act as a distraction for our counter-drone guns, while others try to break through and strike,” the post said.
The post added that this “doesn’t lead to increased losses” – attesting to previous EurAsian Times analysis concluding that Russia still holds the strategic sway on the battlefield – “but it adds to the hassle.”
This indicates an AFU strategy to keep attacking Russian units without pause. Some administrative issues in the MoD have prevented dividing artillery ammunition equitably between the Wagner fighters, the regular Russian army, and the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics (LDPR) militias.
Russia Still Leads On The Battlefield
Russia, however, keeps shooting down an equal number of drones, with 20 AFU UAVs downed between March 27 and March 28 by air defense systems like the OSA-AKM, Strela-10, and Tor-M2 systems. These were in Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia, and the Kharkiv regions, according to updates by its MoD.
Industrially too, Russia has been far ahead of Ukraine, with a new version of the Lancet-3 loitering munition entering production in the middle of March. It has a new electro-optical system, upgraded software for better handling, and a more powerful warhead to possibly destroy Western tanks.
TASS also reported a series of unidentified kamikaze and “repeater” drones being tested on the frontlines by various units – the Russian Guard (the Chechen Rosvgardia), the Wagner Group, the regular Russian army and volunteers from militias of the LDPR.
The loitering munition has a payload of 5 kilograms and a range of up to 7 kilometers, and when used in reconnaissance mode, it can fly up to 30 kilometers.
But the ‘repeater drone’ is unique, as it relays data from the operator to the frontline drone, protecting the ground crew, since according to the TASS report, “UAV operators are now top priority targets for the enemy.”
How this has played out on the battlefield is unclear, i.e., whether the AFU has tracked UAV controllers using EW means and then brought them under artillery fire or their suicide drone strike.
Based on the feedback from the units, the drones will enter production by April-May this year. The EurAsian Times also reported Russia developing its own airborne thermal imaging drone with an indigenously developed camera and integrating it with an even more powerful ground-based multi-camera system.