A $400 drone killing a $2M tank – POLITICO

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KYIV — Sergeant Yegor Firsov, deputy commander of a Ukrainian army strike drone unit, sounds exhausted in a voice message he sent to POLITICO from Avdiivka, an industrial city at the center of intense fighting on the eastern front.

Russian troops have been storming Avdiivka relentlessly for more than two weeks in an all-out effort to encircle the Ukrainian forces there.

“The situation is very difficult. We are fighting for the heights around the city,” Firsov said. “If the enemy controls these heights, then all logistics and roads leading to the city will be under its control. This will make it much harder to resupply our forces.”

Facing an enemy with superior numbers of troops and armor, the Ukrainian defenders are holding on with the help of tiny drones flown by operators like Firsov that, for a few hundred dollars, can deliver an explosive charge capable of destroying a Russian tank worth more than $2 million.

The FPV — or “first-person view” — drones used in such strikes are equipped with an onboard camera that enables skilled operators like Firsov to direct them to their target with pinpoint accuracy. Before the war, a teenager might hope to get one for a New Year present. Now they are being used as agile weapons that can transform battlefield outcomes. Others are watching, and learning, from a technology that is giving early adopters an asymmetric advantage against established methods of warfare.

“It’s hard to handle the emotion when a drone pilot hits a tank. The whole group and the whole platoon are happy like babies. Infantry units are rejoicing nearby. Everyone is screaming, and hugging. Although they do not know the guy who gave them this happiness,” Firsov wrote in a Facebook post.

A typical FPV weighs up to one kilogram, has four small engines, a battery, a frame and a camera connected wirelessly to goggles worn by a pilot operating it remotely. It can carry up to 2.5 kilograms of explosives and strike a target at a speed of up to 150 kilometers per hour, explains Pavlo Tsybenko, acting director of the Dronarium military academy outside Kyiv.

“This drone costs up to $400 and can be made anywhere. We made ours using microchips imported from China and details we bought on AliExpress. We made the carbon frame ourselves. And, yeah, the batteries are from Tesla. One car has like 1,100 batteries that can be used to power these little guys,” Tsybenko told POLITICO on a recent visit, showing the custom-made FPV drones used by the academy to train future drone pilots.

“It is almost impossible to shoot it down,” he said. “Only a net can help. And I predict that soon we will have to put up such nets above our cities, or at least government buildings, all over Europe.”

Contagious technology

Commercial drones were first weaponized in Azerbaijan’s — ultimately successful — campaign to retake the Nagorno-Karabakh breakaway region from Armenian separatists. Their use has expanded rapidly in the 20-month-old Russian war in Ukraine.

And, earlier this month, Hamas militants flew drones to knock out Israeli border defenses during a surprise attack in which they massacred more than 1,400 people and took around 200 hostages. For Ukrainians, the video clip of a Hamas drone destroying an Israeli main battle tank by dropping a grenade was a film they had seen before.

Ukrainian drone experts and intelligence officials are convinced that Russian specialists have trained Hamas in the art of drone warfare — although Moscow denies this.

Some experts worry that militants across the world will soon learn how to use FPV drones to sow terror | Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP via Getty Images

“Only we and the Russians know how to do this — and we definitely did not teach them,” Andriy Cherniak, a representative of Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Directorate, told POLITICO.

Ruslan Belyaiev, head of the Dronarium military academy, shares that view. He warns that other militants will soon learn how to use FPV drones to sow terror.

“No one is immune from such attacks,” said Belyaiev. “In theory, a specialist with my level of expertise could plan and execute an operation to liquidate the first persons of any European state … Pandora’s box is open.”

Secret training

While NATO militaries hesitate to use commercial drones that are mostly made in China, or made from Chinese components, some Western democracies have already shown interest in learning from Ukraine’s experience of drone warfare.

Several figures in Ukraine’s drone community, granted anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, told POLITICO that special forces and anti-terrorist units of two NATO countries bordering Russia have taken courses from Ukrainian drone operators over the past six months.

Their focus is on countering small kamikaze drones and commercial drones that can be successfully used for reconnaissance, correcting artillery fire and video signal transmission, one person with direct knowledge said.

Basic training for a drone pilot takes five days. Learning how to pilot a kamikaze drone takes more than 20 days, Tsybenko said.

Battlefield experience has led the Ukrainian government to shift its preference away from conventional military drones, which are miniature fixed-wing aircraft with a long enough range to strike targets inside Russian territory. The effectiveness of FPV drones at closer quarters has led Defense Minister Rustam Umerov to simplify approvals for new models to be deployed.

“FPV drones are effective tools for destroying the enemy and protecting our country. The Ministry of Defense is doing everything possible to increase number of drones,” Umerov said in a statement on Wednesday.

Team players

Every FPV drone pilot works in tandem with aerial reconnaissance units, who fly a DJI Mavic or other type of drone with video and audio transmitters to observe their mission. “An FPV loses its video signal close to the target. So, the other drone helps the pilot and supporting units to understand the target was indeed hit,” Tsybenko said.

Firsov confirmed that in a Facebook post from the front. What looks simple on video in fact requires close coordination between dozens of people.

“Everything seems so simple, put on glasses — and “Bam!” you destroyed a tank,” said Firsov. “In fact, aerial scouts spend hours looking for targets. A decryptor looks at video and finds targets that the enemy has carefully hidden. A navigator who is nearby helps the pilot to fly along the route. An engineer attaching explosives, a sapper, who twists standard ammunition for drones and many, many others.”

Russian forces use FPV drones to target single soldiers | John Moore/Getty Images

Most FPV drones are kamikaze, Tsybenko said. And their effectiveness has changed the stakes. The Russians, who at first lagged behind Ukraine in mastering drone warfare, have learned from their mistakes. And now they are scaling up Ukraine’s methods of drone warfare.

Russian forces now have “countless” FPV drones that they now use to target single soldiers.

Russia has also launched its own production lines and is devising new tactics to deploy drones in swarms. “One manager and all the others will repeat the movement. This controlled pack is a very big threat on the battlefield,” Tsybenko warned.

China factor

However, neither Ukraine nor Russia are able to produce drones for warfare by themselves. They still source crucial parts from China — the leading maker of commercial drones. Earlier this year the Chinese Ministry of Commerce imposed restrictions on drone exports to both Ukraine and Russia out of “fear it would be used for military purposes.”

Still, it’s possible to obtain components and drones via third countries. “Yes, China can either stop or stall the export of parts if it sees ‘Ukraine’ in export data. But it can’t control what we buy in Europe. Russia has fewer problems and a common border with China, and that makes drone imports way easier.”

With Russia allied to China, the preference of Ukraine’s military for Chinese technology raises concerns among Kyiv’s Western partners. They fear that Beijing might pass sensitive military data to Moscow.

“Every lock has its key. Indeed, the commercial drones we buy in stores are synchronizing their data with a server. But we learned how to create user logins that are completely anonymized. Even the drone might think it is flying somewhere in Canada — and not in Donbas,” Tsybenko said.

“When we talked to Europeans, they were amazed at how easy it is to hack and anonymize Chinese drones. It is safe to use them, we tried to persuade our partners,” Tsybenko said, adding that Ukraine did not have the luxury of time to independently develop and certify its own drones.

“If we waited, the war would be over when they finally arrived.”

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