A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 11, 2024

How Ukraine Units' Vampire Drones To Deliver Death - And Critical Supplies

As any movement around the front lines attracts attack drones, Ukrainian forces are increasingly using large Vampire drones to do double duty: attack Russian targets but also resupply Ukrainian units in need of everything from food to ammunition to medical supplies. 

It is proving to be an efficient way to get needed materials to frontline troops with less risk to soldiers and vehicles. JL 

Ian Lovett and Nikita Nikolaienko report in the Wall Street Journal:

Ukraine has begun ferrying supplies using large drones, like the delivery service Amazon  has tested but with bullets instead of toothpaste. Drone teams run attack missions using large drones, known as Vampires because they strike at night. They can carry more than 20 pounds of explosives, allowing them to destroy positions that smaller drones can barely dent. But increasingly, their work is shifting to resupply. They have flown anything a drone can carry: medicine, food, bullets, power banks, cigarettes, antenna parts and in one case a fire extinguisher. Sometimes, drone teams drop off painkillers and antibiotics, which comrades inject into the wounded soldiers.

For 48 hours, as the soldiers fought to hold a trench on Ukraine’s eastern front, their stores of water had been dwindling.

Now, they had only a few sips left. The roads to resupply them were effectively cut off—made impassable by attack drones. The Russians were just 200 yards away.

“How much water do you have?” their commanders asked on the radio.

A soldier called Grinch answered, “Enough for another day.” It was the same answer he always gave, as long as he still had at least a couple drops.

“We’ll send more,” one of the commanders said.

The question was how.

Two years into the full-scale war, resupplying the trenches at the front has become one of the most vexing problems in Ukraine.

Small, explosive attack drones swarm across the front line, making it all but impossible for vehicles—which are big, easy targets—to bring men and materiel all the way to the trenches closest to the Russians.

In recent weeks, Ukraine has begun ferrying supplies using large drones—like the delivery service Amazon.com has tested but with bullets instead of toothpaste. The Wall Street Journal accompanied a four-man team from the Achilles drone battalion, from Ukraine’s 92nd Assault Brigade, on a mission to resupply Grinch and a few others.

The effort began one recent Saturday afternoon when six zinc ammunition boxes were delivered to the team at a house in Kostyantynivka, a town about 10 miles from the front. The boxes had been packed with water and a few other goods, covered in bubble wrap and sealed with tape. Each was marked with the position it was destined for.

It was the Achilles team’s job to get them there.

Until two months ago, the team had just run attack missions using large drones, known as Vampires because they strike at night. But increasingly, their work was shifting to resupply.

“Every time infantry go in by foot, it’s very dangerous—every time, there’s shelling, mortars,” the team’s commander, who goes by the call sign Azimuth, said. “This is an easier way to supply them.”


Easier, but not without risks. First, the team had to make it to a bunker, several miles back from the front line, where they would work from. To get there, they had to cross an open field where drones and artillery sometimes struck.

At dusk, the men crowded into an armored vehicle—Azimuth up front with the driver while the rest squeezed into the back with boxes of ammunition and drones. There was Maloy, the engineer; Frodo, the pilot; and Borsuk, a trainee pilot.

At first, the mood was light. The men insisted on stopping the massive vehicle to get coffee at a roadside stand, and ribbed each other at every opportunity—especially 32-year-old Borsuk, the newest addition to the team.

“I heard you should never say goodbye” before a mission, said Borsuk. The others agreed, saying it was better to part with a kiss. If an armored vehicle hit a dog, they added, it was bad luck to use it again.

As they turned off the road onto a dirt path, the men put their helmets on—at each rut in the ground, their heads hit the ceiling. They passed the carcass of another armored vehicle, lying by the side of the path. Electronic jammers—which emit signals to disrupt communication between attack drones and their pilots several miles away—hissed on the roof, melding with the trance music playing in the vehicle.

“Can you change the music?” Maloy, 25, said. “It sounds like we’re heading off to die.” The driver switched to Ukrainian pop."

Built into a hillside in the fields west of Bakhmut, the bunker was tight—about 15 feet long, with walls made of logs, some with the bark still on, plywood benches to sit on and empty ammo boxes stacked in the middle to make a table. It smelled of pine.

Azimuth was soon on the radio with his commanders, who had spotted a Russian foxhole just 200 yards from Ukrainian trenches near Ivanivske, a destroyed town west of Bakhmut that is now mostly controlled by Russian forces.

“Go f— them up,” a commander on the radio said. Resupplying troops could wait.


With its six rotors, the Vampire drone looks like an insect grown 2 feet tall. It can carry more than 20 pounds of explosives, allowing it to destroy positions that smaller drones can barely dent. The Russians call it the Baba Yaga, after a character from Slavic folklore that eats children.

Frodo, the 34-year-old pilot, grabbed a controller and set up a tablet in front of him with a live feed from the drone’s night-vision camera. He pushed a button, and the Vampire whirred into the air and headed over the hill. Azimuth, 29, watched its progress across a map on another tablet, occasionally giving directions.

The Russians try to down the Vampires in a variety of ways—electronic jammers cut communications, while smaller attack drones fly into the Vampires or dangle chains into their rotors. Azimuth said they lose a drone every two days or so.

This time, the sky was clear. After 15 minutes in the air, the drone had reached the Russian foxhole. Frodo hovered it over the target. First, he dropped a bottle of water, testing the wind. Satisfied, he dropped the antitank mine.

“If someone was in there, they’re f—ing dead now,” a voice on the radio said.

The team in the bunker didn’t react at all. Only once they had gotten the drone safely back to the bunker did they allow themselves a small celebration—fist bumps all around.

Then the resupply runs began.

When the team first started doing resupply, two months ago, they just dropped off boxes of ammunition to soldiers in the trenches. They have since flown in almost anything a drone can carry: medicine, food, bullets, power banks, cigarettes, antenna parts and in one case a fire extinguisher.

Azimuth asked what the troops needed this time. “Water,” the commander said. “They really need water.”

Outside, Maloy attached one of the packages to the drone, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. A hint of adolescence clung to him—his blond beard patchy, a bit of acne on his temple, fingernails overgrown and filthy. His call sign means “Little One.”

But he was the most experienced member of the team, having first joined the military at 19 and served two years. When the full-scale invasion began, he fled his home in the eastern city of Mariupol—and his job at the Azovstal steel plant, which later became the site of a prolonged siege—and was soon fighting in the infantry around Kyiv. His mother remains in Mariupol, which Russia captured in 2022, where she takes care of his grandmother.


As he worked, machine-gun fire rattled over the hill, then a massive explosion lighted up the horizon. He paid no attention, grabbing a couple of small blue glow sticks and taping them onto the package.

They help the guys find the parcels,” he said. “Before that, about 30% of them were never found.”

A few minutes later, the drone lifted into the air again. As it approached the Ukrainian trench, Azimuth watched the live feed on the tablet and saw a figure emerge from a shattered tree line, waving. He had heard the drone.

On the radio, Azimuth warned the guys to take cover, then the drone dropped the box.

Grinch, 29, stepped out of the foxhole to collect the parcel.

“It’s hard to overstate the impact of delivering packages this way,” he said in an interview several days later, after returning from five days in the trenches. “People don’t have to risk their lives to bring stuff in.”


Before the drone resupply missions, he said, he had to hike the last couple miles to the trenches carrying nine liters of water, which weighed him down when he needed to dive for cover. Now he carries in a third as much.

Still, at the front even a few moments outside the trench are dangerous. A couple of weeks before, one of his comrades stepped out to collect a resupply package—but didn’t hear that a Russian drone was hovering above the Vampire. It dropped a grenade but missed, leaving the soldier unharmed.

On Saturday night, Grinch said, the parcel contained four 1.5-liter bottles of water, plus some energy bars, canned food and tea.

The water is essential, he said. But he hardly touches the food—anything that makes him need to use the bathroom is dangerous, because then he has to leave the trench. Instead, he takes pills to constipate himself before heading to the front, and eats jerky while there.

“By comparison, it’s easy to pee in a bottle,” Grinch said, adding that, in the dark of the trenches, it was sometimes hard to see which bottles were water and which were urine. “Nobody would confess to messing up which is which, but it’s happened.”


After the Vampire returned from the first resupply run, the team had five more packages to deliver, and soon settled into a rhythm: Commanders on the radio gave new coordinates; Maloy attached the next package to the drone; then it took off again.

Though the bunker was relatively safe—on the far side of the hill from the Russians—there were regular reminders of the dangers around.

Once, a series of explosions over the hill shook the bunker. At another point, Azimuth stopped midsentence: He heard something buzzing and worried it could be a Russian attack drone.

“It’s a Mavic,” Maloy said, referencing a Ukrainian surveillance drone. The attack drones, he said, “sound like mosquitoes,” and he began imitating the different drone sounds.

At one point, they heard over the radio that Russians had hit some Ukrainian trenches. Troops were calling for casualty evacuations.

With vehicles unable to make it to the front, wounded soldiers can languish in the trenches for days before their colleagues are able to carry them out. Sometimes, drone teams drop off painkillers and antibiotics, which comrades inject into the wounded soldiers.

“Sometimes it works. Sometimes people die,” Azimuth said. “You hear it in real time. After those nights, you feel so bad.”

Over the course of the shift, the team conducted three strikes and delivered five packages. A mission to deliver a sixth package was aborted when Russian forces began shelling the troops the drone was headed toward. No drones were lost on their shift.


Compared with the guys in the trenches, Azimuth said, he effectively has an office job—he can stop the armored vehicle for coffee on the way in and leave at the end of the night.

As the sun was coming up, he radioed for a ride out: “Please bring us a taxi,” he said.


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