A Blog by Jonathan Low


Mar 2, 2023

The Reason For Ukraine's Continued Advantage Over Russia In Drone Warfare

Ukraine's big advantage is the technological sophistication of its highly educated populace. Ukrainian teams modify or build new drones to guide artillery and to drop inexpensive munitions on very expensive tanks. 

This distributed and often crowd-funded innovation is a major reason why Ukraine's use of drones has been more effective than the Russians. JL 

Jillian Melchior reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Ukraine has repurposed cheap commercial drones for use on the battlefield to improve the accuracy of low-precision artillery. “When the first shot goes in, you say, ‘Well, it’s 10 meters left, it’s 10 meters right.’ It makes a huge difference.” Jury-rigged commercial drones also carry small payloads over short distances; they’re cheap and can take out heavy equipment. Ukrainian fighters call it “delivering pizza.” The Ukrainian Association of Drone Owners has 18,000 members. Many have donated drones and time to the war effort, developing their own drone technology.100 volunteer teams “working like elves at night” build drones for the battlefield and protect them from Russian electronic warfare.

Discussion about the war in Ukraine has focused recently on whether the West will supply Kyiv with tanks and jets. But consider the humble drone. Even as Russia has used Iranian-made drones to attack Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, Ukraine has repurposed cheap commercial drones for use on the battlefield.

Jury-rigged commercial drones typically carry small payloads over short distances, but they’re cheap and can take out heavy enemy equipment. Ukrainian fighters call it “delivering pizza.” In September in the northern region of Kharkiv, Stanislav Zorin, a 36-year-old drone operator for Ukraine’s 80th Airborne Assault Brigade, used a Chinese-made DJI Mavic 3 drone that costs a little more than $2,000 to destroy a Russian tank worth millions. Mr. Zorin describes it as “my ideal sortie.”

Ukraine also has used drones to improve the accuracy of low-precision artillery. “When the first shot goes in, you say, ‘Well, it’s 10 meters left, it’s 10 meters right,’ until you make it in. It makes a huge difference,” says Timur Khromaev, 47, company commander of the Territorial Defense’s 112 Brigade, who spent the summer flying drones over Russian positions in the southern region of Kherson. Russia has had vastly more artillery and missile systems than Ukraine. “Every shot counts,” Mr. Khromaev says.

“Drones are fundamentally a platform that lets you do one of two things,” says Fred Kagan, director of the American Enterprise Institute’s Critical Threats Project. “It lets you look at stuff, and it lets you shoot stuff.”


The West has helped Ukraine with intelligence, but Kyiv has also relied on drones to peer into Russian-occupied territory. Drones “let poor countries do stuff that otherwise only rich countries used to be able to do,” Mr. Kagan says. “The Ukrainians have used drones to offset their own gaps in capability at a much lower price tag than they would have had to pay if they were going to do it in the more conventional military way.”


Drones can also be used in psychological warfare. Samuel Bendett, a member of the Russia Studies Program at the nonprofit Center for Naval Analyses, says a pro-Kremlin account on Telegram recently featured a post by a Russian soldier who described how Ukrainians had used commercial drones to surveil his unit and attack its men when they tried to move between shelters.

“Movement is life,” the post said. “Especially in war. As soon as you are deprived of movement, you experience the difficulties with transportation and the evacuation of the wounded. . . . The fighter then gets the idea that he was driven into a trap and the brain offers options on how to escape. Morale then drops by an order of magnitude—this leads to soldiers abandoning their positions.”

This is dangerous work for the Ukrainians. The short flying range of commercial drones means operators “have to be on the edge of the frontline to do our work,” and “we can be reached by any means of artillery,” says Ihor Lutsenko, 44, a former member of Ukraine’s Parliament who has been flying modified commercial drones in eastern Ukraine. “This is the most dangerous job after being in the infantry, but compared to the infantry you’re a priority goal for the enemy.”

Fatalities and injuries are common. Russians often begin firing at operators within minutes after a drone takes flight. Sometimes “you can hear when it’s out, then you can expect something [is] going to fall on you, you can hide,” Mr. Zorin says. But sometimes “it just comes in, and you’re just standing there. . . . It’s like an immediate explosion.”

There’s a high burn rate for Ukraine’s drones, which are at particular risk of jammers that can commandeer or down them. Civil society is helping replenish the supply. “Drones have been probably the No. 1 target for volunteer fundraising activities throughout this war,” says Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister. These efforts are nimble because they’re decentralized and don’t rely on military bureaucracy. Volunteer groups communicate with soldiers about their needs, then crowdfund the purchase and figure out a way to deliver it fast to the front.

Chinese-made DJI drones are prevalent, with the Mavic 3 model considered the workhorse of the Ukrainian front. DJI didn’t respond to my queries, but in a statement in November the company said “we stand alone as the only drone company to clearly denounce and actively discourage use of our products in combat, including suspending all business operations in Russia and Ukraine to try to keep our drones out of the conflict.”

The Ukrainian Association of Drone Owners has about 18,000 members, including developers, hobbyists, photographers and farmers who use unmanned aerial vehicles for agricultural work like crop-dusting. The association’s chairman, Taras Troiak, says many members have donated drones to the war effort.

Soon after the war began, Ukraine learned that Russians were using AeroScope, a DJI drone-detection platform, to find Ukrainian drone operators and attack them. The U.S. considers DJI a “Chinese military company” and in 2021 warned that its systems “pose potential threats to national security.” Mr. Troiak says he asked DJI to help shield drones from AeroScope detection, but the company declined. So his team designed Olga—a device that “you can connect to the drone before takeoff” that ensures “AeroScopes can’t see you.”

“It helped Ukraine a lot,” Mr. Troiak says, “because we got many reports that the situation became stable, no such reports like before, when every day there were huge artillery strikes against the military or civilians who use DJI drones.” But “after a month or two, DJI discovered that we had hacked their hardware this way,” Mr. Troiak says. “Now the system Olga doesn’t work.”

The Ukrainians are less forthcoming about their current efforts to shield drone operators from Russian detection. But Mr. Troiak says Ukrainian volunteers are trying to develop their own drone technology, and he’s aware of some 100 volunteer teams “working like elves at night preparing for Santa” to build and modify drones for the battlefield and protect them from Russian electronic warfare.

Ukraine also gets help from Western drone developers. Seattle-based Brinc Drones has donated 30 drone systems and says the Netherlands purchased an additional 30 for Ukraine. Its drones are fortified against AeroScope and can be used for close targeting reconnaissance and search and rescue. Brinc trained Ukrainian operators and got the drones to Ukraine without the help of the U.S. government.

The company is using the battlefield experience to improve its product. “We can go to the open fields and deserts in America and fly our stuff around, but when you’ve got an aggressive enemy who’s trying to interdict or thwart you, you learn a lot,” says chief of staff Andrew Coté. “We are beyond fortunate for real-time end-user feedback as Ukrainian operators engage Russian armed forces.”

The Ukrainian government has called on its Western supporters to send more military drones, which fly farther, carry heavier payloads, and are better protected against countermeasures. “If you look at the military aid of the United States to Ukraine, you will see that the amount of drones is very limited,” says Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s internal-affairs minister. “We really need more drones.”


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