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Between Ukraine and Russia, the ruthless drone war

The image went around the world. In kyiv, a policeman fires his assault rifle at a small flying wing swooping down towards the ground. In vain, since the machine, nicknamed “the moped” by the Ukrainians because of the roar of its engine, guts an apartment building. Four people, that day, lost their lives. In a single day, Russia can send dozens of these Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, supplied by Iran, to pound urban areas and energy infrastructure – 43 strikes, on October 18 alone. A frantic use which aims to terrorize the population, for lack of success on the southern and eastern fronts against the Ukrainian army.

Launched on October 10, this bombing campaign underlines the leading role played by drones since the beginning of the Russian invasion. From the size of a robin to the size of a small airplane, they are redefining how high-intensity warfare is fought in the 21st century.

Machines that are difficult to spot

Without its fleet of around twenty Turkish Bayraktar TB2s, Ukraine would have had more difficulty blocking the Russian offensive towards kyiv in the early days of the conflict. The laser-guided ammunition of these drones capable of flying twenty-seven hours at a stretch, invisible to troops on the ground, wreaked havoc among the columns of tanks and armored vehicles. “They turn Russian bandits into ghosts”, rejoices a now cult song in Ukraine.

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The aircraft has other feats to its credit. In mid-April, without our precise role yet being known – laser guidance of strikes or simple diversion – the Bayraktar contributed to the destruction of the cruiser Moskva, flagship of the Russian Navy in the Black Sea, by Neptune anti-ship missiles fired from land. However, these devices have limits: “Several were destroyed when the Russians were able to oppose them with a greater concentration of anti-aircraft defenses, after the reorganization of the front in the spring, indicates Pierre Grasser, associate researcher at the Sirice center of Sorbonne University. Since then, the still operational Bayraktar are kept away.”

Infographics

Infographics

Dario Ingiusto / L’Express

To give nightmares to the Russians, the Ukrainians have other armed drones. The size of a loaf of bread, the Switchblade 300s, which the United States has delivered by the hundreds, are piloted using a simple tablet and explode when they hit their target (the heavier Switchblade 600 can even pierce the armor of a tank). For their part, the Russians have Lancet suicide drones, whose attacks against enemy positions increased in October. These “prowling” ammunition also arouse general greed: noting a capacity gap, France announced that it was going to equip its special forces with them as part of an emergency procedure – the choice should be Switchblade .

Civilian drones requisitioned in Ukraine

The most used drones on the front are however civilians. These small models are used to capture enemy movements, identify a target, and then transmit its coordinates. In this game, the Ukrainians prove to be the best: “They detect and shoot faster than the Russians, making full use of the advantage of the drone”, notes a French military source, with a hint of admiration. When the Russians waste time obtaining a firing order, the Ukrainians reach a quick decision thanks to a secure application, downloadable on a smartphone, “Gis Arta”. This “Artillery Uber” assigns the nearest cannon, mortar or rocket launcher to the target identified by the drone.

The Ukrainians are also equipping these commercially available small devices with grenades to drop on enemy units, as some videos have shown – a tactic increasingly used, too, by the Russians. “Such actions sometimes lack precision, but they instill fear in ground troops,” notes the military source.

The concentration of drones on the front line is such that their “remote pilots” sometimes cause them to ram each other – a tactic that is more reminiscent of ancient galley clashes than the “dogfight” of fighter planes in the Top Gun. In fact, both sides seek by all means to neutralize small enemy aircraft. For this, they also use electromagnetic pulse rifles or heavier devices, such as the Russian Zhitel jamming systems. Result, also taking into account breakdowns and crashes, the lifespan of a Ukrainian drone on the front would be barely a week, according to British think tank Rusi.

In response to this rampant consumption, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky launched a program this summer funded through a crowdfunding platform. Called the “Army of Drones”, it should facilitate the constant delivery of drones of any capacity to the Ukrainian army, strengthen their maintenance and the training of pilots. One of its ambassadors is none other than Mark Hamill, the Luke Skywalker of the movies Star Warswhich revealed have contributed to the shipment of 500 machines.

In the drone war that opposes it to Russia, kyiv is also seeking to obtain from the West a maximum of short-range surface-to-air systems capable of destroying Shahed-136s. The urgency is all the greater as Moscow has ordered up to 2,400 copies of this rudimentary suicide device – they are programmed to reach a fixed point before their flight – and inexpensive (20,000 dollars). The authorities claim to have destroyed several hundred since September, but acknowledge that they lack missiles. Against these machines, the whole population is mobilized: a government brochure explains how to anticipate the trajectory of the machine to shoot it, while an application downloaded more than 100,000 times, ePPOallows you to signal your passage and the direction of your flight.

To find other parades, the engineers examine the Shahed or Mohajer-6 – an Iranian cousin of the Turkish Bayraktar, which Moscow is starting to use – captured in good condition. “The Russians will very quickly lose the advantage that these drones can bring them, because interception procedures will be invented by the Ukrainians, who are more reactive and more innovative than them”, estimates General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French mission to the UN. “Putin’s Russia does not benefit from such bubbling, a fine example of the pragmatism specific to open societies”, underlines Yohann Michel, researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Infographics

Infographics

Dario Ingiusto / L’Express

This technological creativity was particularly developed after the shock of the annexation of Crimea and the secession of part of the Donbass, in 2014. That year, Ukrainian engineers determined to provide better weapons to their country created UA Dynamics and Ukrspecsystems, two producers of low-cost military drones, used today on the battlefield. Also launched in 2014, Aerorozvidka (“air reconnaissance” in Ukrainian), a team made up of civilians and reservists, was integrated into the armed forces. In addition to ensuring operations on the front, this unit plays an incubator role, in training as well as in equipment, with its eight-propeller R18 bomber drone.

Infographics

Infographics

Dario Ingiusto / L’Express

This inventiveness is found on the seas. Ukrainian engineers have designed floating drones with explosive charge and remotely piloted. At least six of them were used on October 29 against Russia’s fleet at its base in Sevastopol, Crimea, as shown broadcast videos by Kyiv. The operation, coupled with the use of aerial drones, resulted in the damage of several ships, including a frigate. “This attack demonstrates the adaptability of the Ukrainians, able to quickly develop a new maritime strike capability, adding to their long-range arsenal,” saluted Australian general and strategist Mick Ryan, author of War Transformed (The Transformed War, not translated). On the Russian side, these weapons are still in the development phase. In the ruthless drone war, Ukraine is one step ahead.


Clement Daniez (with Paul Véronique)


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