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“The Russians didn’t expect it”: Ukraine drones unit is the new face of warfare

Civilians armed with commercially available drones are a formidable part of the opposition to the Russian invasion.

By Dominic Selwood

There are not many crowdfunded tech start-ups with the punching power to halt a 40-mile convoy of military heavy armour. Yet, while the world watched Russia’s horrifying advance on Kyiv, that is exactly what happened. Working with units of the Ukrainian military, a group of civilians rigged up commercially available drones with thermal imaging cameras and high explosives, waited until nightfall, then bombed the vehicles leading the Russian convoy, creating an obstacle of mangled metal that nothing could manoeuvre past on the narrow, forest-lined road. “We are patriots,” explained Mykhaylo, a senior member of the group, “defending our country against the enemy. I can say with honour that we helped stop them reaching Kyiv.”

The organisation’s name is Aerorozvidka, or “aerial reconnaissance”. It was founded at the start of the initial Russian invasion in 2014 by Volodymyr Kochetkov-Sukach, a former investment banker nicknamed “Chewbacca”. He was killed in Donbas in 2015 retrieving a drone downed behind enemy lines, but his organisation is very much alive and is now a key player in the country’s defence.

Aerorozvidka is a non-military organisation of friends who are “technically aware citizens”. Dozens are currently active in its ranks and, including reservists, number over a hundred. They are men and women, ranging from teenagers to seniors – one is known as “Grandpa” – and include students, PhDs, teachers, scientists, drone hobbyists and business people. Their number has swelled since the February invasion, with members of the military now also joining, bringing a wide palette of combat expertise. Being such a diverse group, its members come from disparate backgrounds and all across Ukraine. Once largely Kyiv-centred, the organisation now has branches across the country.

[See also: A “strategic nuclear exchange” would offer Putin zero military gains]

Aerorozvidka operates in three divisions: reconnaissance, fighting and cybersecurity. The reconnaissance and cybersecurity units have been building a situation-awareness system since 2014. Known as Delta, it aggregates information from drones, satellites and human sources to create a multilayer map of enemy military activity. It was tested during a recent “Sea Breeze” Nato-Ukrainian exercise in the Black Sea, and proved itself fully up to Nato standards. The intelligence it gathers is passed via Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet system to all elements of the Ukrainian military, and has proved invaluable at accurately pinpointing Russian military assets for targeting by heavy artillery.

The fighting unit is centred around weaponised drones. Aerorozvidka began in 2014 with off-the-shelf commercial drones, but now also designs and builds its own from scratch, principally a formidable-looking octocopter with a 1.5-metre span that can carry and release 5-kilogram explosive devices. The fighting unit works with all parts of the Ukrainian military, and also provides training and full-service drone customisation and maintenance. They have been in the field since the start of the invasion, seeing action on day one against Russian paratroopers landing at Hostomel Airport to the north-west of Kyiv.

The third unit, cybersecurity, is no less busy than the other two, as Delta is under constant cyberattack. These are typically disguised and bounced through many countries but, on one recent occasion, the attacker failed to mask their IP address that, according to Mykhaylo, duly disclosed a location inside the Kremlin.

Aerorozvidka is technically a non-governmental organisation: effectively a not-for-profit charity. It relies entirely on cash donations via its website and active social media accounts. “We are hugely grateful to all people and all organisations that support us,” Mykhaylo, who is a board member, was keen to say. “We receive hundreds of messages with support and warm words, and people all over the world send us everything from a few euros to thousands of dollars.” The group also receives donations of drones, equipment and parts from across the globe, whether new or gathering dust in garages.

The financial spend-to-reward ratio of operations is attractive. Drones costing a few dozen thousand dollars to assemble and kit out regularly destroy high-value vehicles such as T-72 battle tanks, rocket launchers, fuel trucks and others whose costs can stretch into the millions of dollars. Aerorozvidka’s drones do get destroyed, but their ability to inflict such disproportionate damage makes them highly financially effective, and marks a significant evolution in the economics of modern warfare.

As with any organisation in the process of scaling up, central purchasing from manufacturers is now the priority as the teams require drones, thermal imaging cameras and a range of other specialist equipment. “If a relevant manufacturer wants us to test their equipment,” Mykhaylo offered in all seriousness, “please send it to us and we will give you detailed feedback on performance in the battlefield.” Though Aerorozvidka is, he was quick to add, a not-for-profit organisation fighting a brutal war of attrition to defend their country. It is not a commercial venture; it has no equipment or technology for sale.

The wars of recent years have increasingly been asymmetrical, pitting forces of strikingly different strengths and tactics against one another. The role, importance and impact that a small but highly skilled civilian organisation like Aerorozvidka can have against a country with a total military and paramilitary force of more than 3.5 million people is yet another indication that warfare has morphed forever. Aerorozvidka is proof of the democratisation of today’s military conflicts – especially in the increasingly decisive domains of technology and cyber – such that every citizen can be an effective combatant. As Mykhaylo notes of their reconnaissance and pinpoint drone attacks that were so decisive in defeating 40 miles of traditional military power, “this is the modern way to do these operations. The Russians simply didn’t expect it.”

[See also: Putin has little to celebrate in Ukraine as a key anniversary approaches]

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