In a scene reminiscent of the first days of the all-out war, Ukrainian forces used a swarm of drones and artillery on Thursday, Sep. 28, to crush a Russian assault by several tank and mechanized companies, launched in an apparent attempt to recapture Urozhaine in southern Ukraine.

At least eight Russian tanks and three armored vehicles were left destroyed in flames (with others damaged) after they were picked off one by one in open fields by Ukrainian drone pilots and artillery, according to Ukrainian military drone footage published online by Ukrainian volunteers and military units.

After a long day of fierce fighting that started around 4:30 a.m., Russian casualties numbered about 30 troops killed and another 100 wounded, said Dmytro Prodanyuk, a volunteer who supplies Wild Hornet attack drones to one of the Ukrainian units involved, the Bulava drone unit of the Separate Presidential Brigade.

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“Our drones were flying non-stop”

“The enemy attacked with several columns in the style of the advance on Kyiv. Their infantry were crawling in like meat,” Prodanyuk told Kyiv Post. “Our drones were flying non-stop. Our soldiers say they’re soaked with sweat. We had just delivered a new batch of drones there the day before. It was a busy day.

“All of the enemy equipment was destroyed or damaged. The orcs [derogatory for Russian soldiers] tried to drag away some of the damaged equipment, but our troops finished it off.”

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Prodanyuk’s group late Thursday rushed to deliver a new batch of Wild Hornet drones to the Bulava unit to replenish supplies and was urgently assembling more drones to send in ensuing days. (Disclosure: I help raise funds for Wild Hornet drones.)

Pilots nominated for decorations

Two of Bulava’s drone pilots have been nominated for military decorations as a result of their actions Thursday, Prodanyuk says. Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian Armed Forces Commander in Chief, gave the Wild Hornets group a signed Ukrainian flag Thursday to thank its volunteers for their efforts.

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Prodanyuk’s group has published videos showing the Bulava drone unit using Wild Hornets to strike four of the tanks and three armored vehicles – though he was quick to say other drone teams and artillery also damaged or finished off some of the same units.

“It was a record day for the Wild Hornets,” he said. “It opened a lot of eyes to what our Ukrainian drones can do.”

Apart from the Bulava unit, the Ukrainian forces involved included: the recon unit of the 3rd Mechanized Battalion of the Separate Presidential Brigade, artillery of the 58th Motor Infantry Brigade, 20th Special Purpose Battalion, the Madyar’s Birds drone unit, and the assault company of the 710th State Special Transport Service Brigade.

Ukrainian forces liberated Urozhaine in mid-August and have since been pulverizing Russian positions south of the village.

 

Drones critical for Ukraine’s defense

The battle at Urozhaine shows how critical tactical aerial drones have become to Ukraine’s defense. Most are funded by donations, including from the troops themselves, and are procured by volunteers – or hand-assembled by them in artisanal conditions in offices and garages.

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During one recent week, Sept. 4-11, drones were responsible for 25 percent of all military equipment lost by Russia in the war, including 42 percent of the tanks and 47 percent of armored vehicles, according to Ukrainian data.

Small commercially available drones are by far the most cost-effective weapon for destroying enemy equipment and personnel, according to an analysis by Forbes Ukraine reporter Volodymyr Dacenko. An FPV (first-person view) kamikaze drone is up to 30 times more cost-effective than artillery for destroying armor and gives a 175-fold “return” in terms of the cost of drones versus the value of knocked-out equipment, Dacenko found.

Shell needs would rise three-fold without recon drones

Ukraine also relies heavily on reconnaissance drones for artillery strikes, said Seth Cropsey, former deputy undersecretary of the US Navy, in a Wall Street Journal opinion essay in August.

“Ukrainian ammunition expenditure is premised on its UAS [unmanned aircraft system]-reconnaissance system,” he wrote, noting that without the precision of drone-directed strikes, the West would need to supply Ukraine with three to four times more shells per month and an additional 1,000 artillery barrels.

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Longer-range Ukrainian-made drones have also wreaked havoc in Russia and occupied Crimea, hitting airbases and other highly defended, high-value targets up to 700 kilometers from Ukraine’s border.

Western allies slow to catch on

But owing to wartime conditions, Ukraine has only limited (albeit growing) capacity to mass produce drones of its own. Ukraine makes only a tenth of the 25,000 tactical drones it needs per month, Ukrainian drone commander Yuri Kasyanov told BBC this month.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western allies have been slow to catch on to the reality of drone warfare. Ukrainian troops getting training in NATO countries have spoken repeatedly of a lack of awareness and instruction by Western trainers about drones and digital tools, which Ukrainian forces consider as critical as a rifle or shovel.

On the other hand, Russia has announced plans to build drones on an industrial scale and, according to some reports, is quickly catching up to Ukraine in tactical drone use.

The Wild Hornets team got a Ukrainian flag signed by General Valery Zaluzhny, Commander in Chief of Ukraine’s Armed Forces, on Sept. 28 to thank them for their work.

Soldiers plead for more drones

“The war in Ukraine should be a wake-up call for NATO allies,” said a report Wednesday from the Center for European Policy Analysis titled “An Urgent Matter of Drones.”

Russia’s war in Ukraine has revealed how important drones are in today’s warfare. NATO needs to adapt rapidly.”

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Back in Kyiv, where his volunteers are working around the clock to ready more drones for the front, Prodanyuk agrees. “We get calls every day from Ukrainian soldiers pleading for more drones. We need many more drones. They are saving our people’s lives.”

Alex Roslin is a Ukrainian-Canadian investigative journalist and author who is writing a book on the war and tweets at @ArmedMaidan.

Donations for Wild Hornet drones can be sent to the Wild Hornets Charitable Fund via PayPal to this email address: [email protected]

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