Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV or drones) have been used to drop explosives for some time on Ukraine’s battlefields, but now, evidence is piling up that remote-controlled mother ships are helping smaller kamikaze drones to find and attack people.

According to state-controlled Russian media, Ukrainian pilots operating in the eastern Donbas sector in January were the first to field heavy agricultural drones, nicknamed Baba Yaga – after a character in Slavic folklore, a ferocious- old woman who fries and eats children. Previously used as a bomber dropping mortar-sized munitions onto their targets, the bombs have recently been replaced by electronics allowing distant operators to guide other, smaller aircraft in precision attacks deep behind Russian lines.

Ukrainian soldiers from 108th Separate Territorial Defense Brigade operate a heavy, “Baba Yaga” drone. Official photograph published by the brigade on Feb. 25.

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In this new, “mother ship” configuration, the drone is loaded with directional antennae, anti-jamming circuitry, extra batteries, and an on-board signal repeater. The Baba Yaga considerably extends the normal range of a cheap $500 Ukrainian killer drone, from a typical 10 to as much as 30 kilometers, according to the pro-Kremlin Izvestia news agency.

Once fielded in quantity – which doesn’t seem to be the case currently – the tech upgrade would in the future allow the Ukrainian military to use small, FPV drones at ranges commonly achieved by guns and howitzers and use them as a real alternative to artillery.

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Of the injured, four are children, two under one-year-old, while the other two are aged nine and twelve.

The in-tandem mother ship-kamikaze drone set-up has been reported in action by Russian media in the Kharkiv, Donbas, and Kherson sectors of the front. According to those multiple, but not independently-confirmed reports, Ukrainian operators are able to hit a target with a kamikaze drone carrying a mortar or shaped charge munition, and if it misses can direct more to engage the target.

FPV “kamikaze” drone assembled by a Ukrainian volunteer group is shown on display at an unidentified production facility. An anti-jamming antenna is visible on the tail of the aircraft. When flown on a strike, operators will attach a battery and explosive. Undated photograph published by the Dikie Shershuni (Wild Hornets) volunteer group.

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Independent Ukrainian sources have said the technique is technically possible without confirming its use in combat in Ukraine.

The name “Baba Yaga,” was initially coined by Russian troops as the sound of its six or eight engines when frequently operating at night in its hunt for individual soldiers on which to drop anti-personnel munitions, reminded them of the scary story their mothers told them. 

A soldier interviewed by Izvestia said the Ukrainian “Baba Yaga mother ship” can support as many as ten attack aircraft, and that troops on the ground have difficulty countering the attack drones because of their speed and small size.

“They use this giant, agricultural drone, it’s the Baba Yaga, they use it as a repeater, like a mother ship, for little FPV drones, so they fly into our rear area, twenty or thirty kilometers, you have to be really careful, it’s a very dangerous weapon. It’s not easy to shoot them down. They (Ukrainian drone operators) use them most of the time at night, during dark periods of the day. They don’t fly so fast but they have a lot of carrying capacity. Like four shots from a grenade launcher. And like I said, they use them as repeaters to extend the range of the FPV drones,” a Russian soldier told the Kremlin-controlled RIA Novosti television channel in a report aired Feb. 13.

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On Saturday, the pro-Russia mil-blogger Dva Mayora reported that the Ukrainian “Baba Yaga” enables attacks by small FPV/attack drones deep behind Russian lines, via communications links aboard a “mother ship” drone, acting as an airborne repeater station using Starlink to tie an operator to a kamikaze drone.

Image of drone control board manufactured in Ukraine. Image published by the volunteer drone production and support group Diki Shershuni (Wild Hornets) on Feb. 15.

Official Ukrainian army sources have said information relating to the Armed Forces of Ukraine’s (AFU) drones are a military secret and do not comment on technical aspects of its deep strike capabilities. Multiple Ukrainian volunteer groups have, in past months, stated work was going forward to improve communications between FPV drones and ground stations, because of deepening AFU shortages of artillery ammunition, and the need to extend the range of kamikaze drones as a stop-gap tactic.

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Ukrainian operators had been purchasing heavy agricultural drones, usually octo-copters, abroad and assembling them themselves, at costs typically ranging from $20-50,000 each since the early months of the war. In an attack configuration the aircraft can carry payloads of 15-20 kilograms out to ranges of 5-10 kilometers, the Fakty news platform reported. The equipment is operated by a crew that typically consists of a commander, pilot and bombardier.

The man-sized drones are vulnerable to ground fire due to their low speed and weight, which stops them reaching altitudes fully out of the range of small-arms fire. Russian foot soldiers usually employ machine guns against Baba Yaga drones, but some have even built improvised repeater shotguns to combat them.

“It’s not clear how much these drones are being used, but the Ukrainian Baba Yagas (acting as mother ship aircraft) at night have already drunk a lot of the blood of the Russian army, knocking out military vehicles in the rear area, thanks to their long range, thermal imaging systems and control via Starlink,” the pro-Russia milblogger Voenniy Osvedomitel reported to his 590,000+ Telegram subscribers on Feb. 23.

Ukrainian heavy “Baba Yaga” drone reportedly shot down by Russian forces in the Kupyansk sector. According to a pro-Russia source, the modified agricultural services aircraft weighed 35 kg. and was rigged to carry three cluster bombs each weighing 2.5 kg. Russian troops used an anti-drone jammer to bring the aircraft to the ground in an April 2023 engagement, the Avia.pro Telegram channel reported.

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Video reportedly recorded by a Russian soldier and republished on the pro-Ukraine military information platform Gruz 200 showed a D-30 howitzer hidden under a camouflage screen and knocked out with a precise strike smashing a fist-size hole in the breech. A Ukrainian Baba Yaga drone operating in the eastern Avdiivka sector scored the hit, a speaker said. An unexploded bomb similar in size to an 82mm mortar round is shown sticking in dirt nearby.

Kyiv Post could not independently confirm the video, however, images and audio in the video were consistent with Russian army practice and soldier language.

“It absolutely f*cked up the cannon,” the Ossetian-speaking soldier said.

Ukrainian drone pilots have, over more than two years of war, turned more and more to drones to perform battlefield tasks formerly the responsibility of conventional artillery and mortars. In a video published in May 2023, jubilant Ukrainian operators are shown recovering a heavy Baba Yaga agricultural drone after a successful “catch and keep” sortie carrying a Russian Orlan drone recovered in no-man’s land back to Ukrainian lines. Pilots used a rig with a hook about the size of a household fork and light carrying strap to snatch up the $100,000 Kremlin reconnaissance aircraft, images showed.

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Comments ( 1)

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Just wait until huge swarms of drones fly around looking for targets without anyone involved. That should be fun but at least neither side of this conflict will have to worry about it.

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