NB The soldiers featured in this article are identified by first name or callsign only for security reasons.

Nearly two years after Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukraine aims to invest over $1 billion to enhance its drone combat potential in a military conflict with the most intensive use of drones in history.

Drones, employed for reconnaissance, bomb drops, or impact detonation, are cost-effective and intended to safeguard soldiers while reducing risks to civilians. Indeed, they offer greater precision than traditional artillery and yield significant advantages like real-time battlefield mapping, neutralizing tanks, and stalling Russian progress.

Ukraine is emerging as a key hub for drone innovation and production. Joint ventures between the private and public sectors have tailored drones for military applications. Driven by wartime necessity, Ukrainian ingenuity, and collaboration with Western experts, Ukraine has built a strong defense industry foundation. Post-war, the Ukrainian drone sector is poised to become a significant global contender, offering combat-tested systems for export.

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But far from any factories are the soldiers using drones on the front line and tinkering with them on a daily basis to make modifications and improvements.

We spoke with a soldier with the callsign “Lexus” from special unit “Kondor” of the 1st Presidential Brigade of the National Guard of Ukraine, stationed on the Svatove–Kreminna line. Lexus said “Drones, of course, save many lives. In our unit, we invest in research and development because war is evolving, and we need to keep up."

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Lexus says that it’s impossible to fight in any battle without having drones in the air. When the Russians send human waves to charge at the Ukrainian lines, drones are needed to spot the charging Russians and call in accurate artillery coordinates to take out the enemy.

If there is no drone in the air and the Russian wave manages to penetrate the Ukrainian trenches, many lives would be lost and, perhaps, the trench would be overrun.

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At the onset of the full-scale invasion, Ukrainian forces had the advantage of deploying drones freely, navigating the airspace without much issue in any direction. Initially, Ukrainian drones effectively identified and targeted Russian heavy armor, enabling swift artillery strikes against these convoys.

A drone engineer preparing an FPV drone for a mission. Photo: Kondor unit

However, the situation has changed rapidly. Drone warfare has evolved due to intensified electronic warfare. Now, Ukrainian drone operators need to operate at least 5 kilometers behind the front line for their own safety.

The need for drones is dire on the front line. The Royal United Services Institute (UK) estimates that Ukraine is losing 10,000 drones per month. Oleksiy, a Senior Lieutenant from the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade, who was fighting on the Zaporizhzhia front near Robotyne, stated that at one point, they lost 94 out of 100 drones that they had in two weeks of fighting earlier this summer.

Andriy, also from the 47th Separate Mechanized Brigade, explained that Ukrainian soldiers are often required to self-manage their supply chains. This includes the necessity of maintaining a social media presence, through which they post requests for financial support to purchase essential equipment like drones and other supplies.

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Andriy further remarked, “This is the first war in human history that can be characterized as a drone war.” The presence of drones on one side and their absence on the other creates a staggering imbalance. He noted that “If you find yourself in combat against a drone-equipped enemy while lacking similar technology, your chances of survival are near zero.”

President Zelensky in a recent interview pointed out that Ukraine is in urgent need of “drones that can attack and gather intelligence.” Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine's commander in-chief, highlighted that Russian drones now significantly fulfill roles traditionally held by manned aviation, particularly in reconnaissance and conducting air strikes.

Lexus noted that first-person view drones (FPVs) have achieved significant utility in this war. Both sides employ them as unidirectional UAVs to target enemy tanks, APCs (armored personnel carriers), and even infantry. Lexus highlighted that an FPV pilot can effectively neutralize an anti-air missile system valued at $18 million using a drone that costs just $300. Regarding the overall situation, Lexus pointed out that “Ukraine consistently maintains an advantage in drone warfare” while also noting, “The Russians remain in close pursuit.”

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“The next step is to build a neural network” for the drones to have a system that can recognize the target. So, suppose a drone flies and the enemy jams the drone. In that case, the neural autonomous system can recognize the terrain or look for targets, something that looks like a tank or like soldiers, and that it automatically acts even though you’ve lost connection.

Lexus says, “We need to be constantly evolving in our technologies.”

“Between the USSR and the US, there was a nuclear arms race,” says Lexus. “Here in Ukraine, there is a drone arms race and the key to it is the research and development that goes into it.”

Lexus touched upon the unit’s transition from using basic, commercially available or even free tools like Google Meet to transmit live video from the drones at the start of the war to now using more specialized software built by Ukrainian engineers.

Countries began experimenting with precision-guided munitions during World War I, mostly depending on human-controlled methods. Pioneers like Charles Draper, backed by significant government funding, worked on inertial guidance systems for autonomous weapon navigation. The introduction of satellite-linked GPS in the latter half of the 20th century marked a turning point in precision navigation.

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Meanwhile, Ukrainian engineers are enhancing drone technology for warfare. They've adapted open-source flight software to detect GPS jamming and switch to alternative navigation methods, including the still-nascent vision-based navigation.

Once a software engineer himself from Kyiv, Lexus boasted that “Software engineering in Ukraine is world-class. Our engineers produce efficient, user-friendly products on par with top global companies. This technology our engineers are building us is not just about efficiency; it’s about gaining a clearer understanding of the frontline to help us fight and win.”

Lexus further emphasized, “Our capacity to process information has skyrocketed. But more than that, it's a morale boost. Imagine a soldier in the trenches, feeling the weight of an entire army equipped with advanced tech behind him. It gives the confidence to stand firm in the trenches.”

“Both Ukraine and Russia have a lot of people working on the research and development problem with drones. But I believe that Ukrainians have always stayed ahead of the Russians,” he adds.

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The Russians underestimated Ukrainian innovation: “Their assumptions didn't account for our unique approaches, born out of necessity. This led us to think unconventionally, propelling us to utilize drones. Recognizing the potential of DJI, we modified Mavericks to be more discreet. As demonstrated, we built different types of drone drop systems for various payloads. We consistently outpaced the Russians in drone advancements: from pioneering night drones, dropper systems, to FPV bombers. Our goal remains to stay ahead.”

Whenever Lexus’ Ukrainian unit makes a battlefield innovation, the Russians usually take about 2-3 months to reproduce the same function for their drones. Lexus remarked that the only thing Russians are better at is digging trenches, and recommended that Ukrainian soldiers need to learn from the Russians.

The Kondor unit collaborates closely with other Ukrainian units. By watching the live drone feed from other units in the area, and using Discord to communicate with other groups, they observe successful strategies that everyone employs. The different drone units also watch who is working ineffectively and coach one another on how to improve.

A community of volunteers also works closely with the drone units. These volunteers study drone usage and tactics and help the different drone units implement new learnings. “We're constantly learning, aiding each other. Every week, we receive briefings – documents discussing new features and updates. They liaise with the soldiers, compile learnings, and disseminate the information. Their work fosters a deep sense of camaraderie and mutual respect among us” said Lexus.

Norman, a unit leader from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Forces Brigade Company of Strike Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (CUSUAVS) also stated the Russian side has the same volunteer networks supporting their war effort and they too have dedicated schools built for how to operate drones.

Norman pointed out that volunteers contribute around 70 percent of the drones used by his unit. However, he acknowledged that Russian forces possess significantly more resources, including a larger number of drones.

“They are very professional soldiers on the Russian side, those who have been fighting all their lives. Russia has always been fighting, they always need people fighting and they get paid well,” remarked Norman. Both sides are constantly on the hunt to identify artillery, drone operators, heavy amour and soldiers. He also emphasized that Ukrainians are always staying ahead of the Russians in drone warfare.

According to a Russian military reporter named Filatov on Telegram, the Russian Ministry of Defense prefers using FPV-drones for capturing “spectacular footage” rather than using the drones to provide assistance on the battlefield. Filatov pointed out that Russian drone operators are unwilling to use drones that might affect their statistics, prioritizing impressive visuals over practical military support.

Norman further noted that if Ukrainian forces repeatedly make errors and lose drones on the battlefield, these are then captured by the Russians. This allows Russian engineers to study and replicate the drone modifications and innovations produced by the Ukrainians, quickly nullifying their advantage. 

However, Lexus believes strongly in the value of having a technical background when working with drones. “To truly thrive in this domain, one must immerse oneself in the underlying technology. A profound grasp of the back-end tech, maps, and communication tools is indispensable,” he stated.

Moreover, to truly excel, an adeptness with computers and being able to problem solve on the fly are crucial skills to have, Lexus believes. It's common to encounter the need to troubleshoot software or fine-tune hardware components. The world of drones demands a thorough understanding of the drone's mechanics, the transmitter's intricacies, and to the nuances of camera operations.

Ruslan from the 109th Separate Territorial Defense Forces Brigade Company of Strike Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Systems (CUSUAVS) showing how they attach grenades from drones that are dropped. Photo: David Kirichenko

For those primarily interested in basic drone operations, proficiency in video games, particularly platforms like PlayStation, can be beneficial. Such skills can offer a rudimentary understanding of drone controls and the ability to use a controller to fly a drone effectively.

Individuals with a technical background can swiftly modify drone hardware to enhance its performance, including adapting the kind of payloads they can attach. Beyond the hardware modifications, being able to program software to customize drones is also helpful.

On the front line, daily adjustments are a necessity. As the battlefield dynamics shift, so must drone strategies, down to the minutest details. Both Russia and Ukraine are perpetually refining and innovating their drones to gain an advantage on the front line.

For Ukraine, the path forward is clear. “We aim to be pioneers, the first to integrate auto-recognition systems in drones for better target identification,” Lexus declared. To truly gain a significant edge on the front line and overcome the comprehensive Russian trench defenses, deploying autonomous drones capable of self-target identification and coordinated swarm attacks is imperative.

Lexus expressed concerns over the development of autonomous weaponry, mentioning that”"there are significant challenges tied to this advancement. One of the primary issues is ensuring the accurate identification of targets. Even with the latest technology, there's the haunting possibility of a drone erroneously targeting a civilian vehicle.” Lexus further emphasized how the Russian army would evolve, “As these drones become more proficient,” he noted, “I fear that Russian soldiers would simply use civilian vehicles to escape drone detection, putting civilians at risk of being killed.”

Paul Lushenko, PhD, who teaches at the US Army War College and is a Senior Non-Resident Fellow at Cornell University’s Tech Policy Institute, highlighted that the “development of armed and networked drones” can provide “asymmetric advantages to the militaries of lesser states.” He also noted that In Ukraine, “We’re seeing that drones are being used by Ukraine to level the playing-field with Russia and drones are being used by Russia to kill Ukrainian civilians.”

Lexus made a poignant historical comparison: “Think back to World War II when the Americans used nuclear bombs. The civilian casualties were devastating but arguably saved many soldiers' lives. Warfare often presents these agonizing dilemmas where difficult compromises are unavoidable.”

Highlighting the urgency of the drone arms race on the front, Lexus concluded, “The stakes are monumental. If we lag in pioneering these autonomous drones, adversaries like the Russians might outpace us, and they do not care how many innocent people they kill.”

 

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Eastern Europe. He can be found on the social media platform X @DVKirichenko.

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