The drones fighting cat and mouse battles behind Russian front lines in Ukraine
By Max Hunder
KHARKIV REGION, Ukraine (Reuters) – As a Ukrainian rocket made its way towards the Russian radar system, the soldiers in the elite unit whose drone had discovered the target waited with bated breath.
“Still about a minute left,” said the drone’s pilot, 46-year-old Soliara, before silence fell over their control van, full of screens and cables and concealed in a hedgerow in the northwest Kharkiv region.
The crew, from the 15th Separate Artillery Reconnaissance brigade, operate the “Shark”, a Ukrainian-made drone with advanced technology including a camera that can sometimes read lettering on clothes from 2 km (more than a mile) above ground.
It is part of a burgeoning domestic drone programme that has sprung up in Ukraine since Russia invaded in early 2022, producing a range of attack and reconnaissance aerial vehicles which are playing an increasingly important role in battle.
On this occasion the drone that had found the target for the artillery unit was temporarily incapacitated when Russian electronic jamming systems interrupted the video transmission.
When the picture reappeared about a minute later, the team saw a smoking crater some 50 metres short of the Russian radar system, which could be seen speeding away to safety on its caterpillar tracks.
The operation, filmed by Reuters on condition the location was not disclosed, was one small part of a complex game of cat and mouse drone warfare being played out along front lines stretching some 1,000 km.
Russia has a vast drone fleet of its own, as well as sophisticated electronic jamming systems that can disrupt the signal of drones being controlled from far behind the trenches and cause guided munitions to veer off course.
“They add electronic warfare systems that work on other frequencies, they learn to hide correctly, they move their air defences to new locations,” said Soliara, using his call sign, which means diesel.
VALUE FOR MONEY
The Shark crew managed to fly their drone back home, however, and said it had helped destroy plenty of targets, including air defence and radar systems, without detailing how they tackled the Russian electronic warfare.
“About a month after I joined, we found an air defence system, struck it, and it was a real sight,” said the crew’s commander, a 26-year-old former merchant ship navigator whose call sign is Kenobi – a reference to a character in the Star Wars films.
“That’s the one I remember the most,” he said, recalling air defence missiles shooting off like fireworks after the system was hit.
Ukraine uses an array of drones from established local manufacturers and startups as well as Western suppliers, both to locate targets and hit them directly.
The crew said Ukrainian-made drones were usually easier to repair if damaged, as they could be quickly sent back to the manufacturer.
“The Shark is like the iPhone of drones of this type,” said Soliara. “It’s very simple to service and to operate. Throughout the entire time we have not lost a single craft.”
Speaking to Reuters later the same day, the 15th brigade’s commander, Oleksandr Popov, said drones were playing a significant role on the battlefield.
“We calculated that one flight of a drone like the Shark would be worth the value of the drone, because we can destroy a high-tech weapon system worth millions of dollars,” he said. The drone is estimated to cost around $50,000.
Long-range eyes in the sky are particularly valuable in the Ukraine-Russia war, where artillery dominates the battlefield and thousands of shells are fired by both sides every day.
“Artillery has been the god of war for a long time, and artillery reconnaissance is the eyes of the gods,” said Soliara, the rumble of cannon fire audible in the distance.
“That’s what we’re called.”
(Reporting by Max Hunder; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Philippa Fletcher)
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