NewsUkraine's drone innovation reshapes battlefield dynamics

Ukraine's drone innovation reshapes battlefield dynamics

Ukrainians surprise with the level of drone usage on the front line
Ukrainians surprise with the level of drone usage on the front line
Images source: © East News | GENYA SAVILOV

23 June 2024 20:28

Ukrainians surprise with their level of innovation in the drone war. They are printing drones and optoelectronic heads. Are they slowly becoming a vital element of the war?

The appearance of military and commercial drones over the battlefield has significantly altered the situation for soldiers on the front line. They have primarily enhanced battlefield awareness. Machines 'hovering' almost constantly overhead are dangerous weapons against which it is challenging to find countermeasures.

Drones and military unmanned platforms increase the situational awareness and strike capabilities of individual soldiers on the front line for virtually pennies, observes Jakub Link-Lenczowski, editor of the Military Magazine MILMAG.

This primarily concerns the protection of individual soldiers and combat vehicles. People are utterly defenceless in the event of an attack by a small drone carrying a grenade. Combat vehicles do not possess an adequate number of effective jamming devices. More giant formations are protected by directional emitters, which work very well.

Intercepting small drones on both sides of the front, often civilian, is not a major problem. They cut off the operator's signal, and after being intercepted, the drones can be forced to land and be taken over.

"Orc killer" and Polish FlyEye

This is how, for example, the Lithuanian EDM4S SkyWiper, called 'orc killers' by Ukrainians, works. The Ukrainian Armed Forces possess over a hundred systems of this type. It sends an electromagnetic pulse with a range of 3 to 5 kilometres. The simpler the neutralised system, the greater the range. However, eliminating larger, specialised aircraft is not so simple.

Uncrewed aerial vehicles of the Polish FlyEye class, or to a lesser extent, the Russian Orlan-10, are practically indestructible by the self-propelled medium-range missile systems 9K33 Osa and 2K12 Kub.

In the autumn, an attempt to shoot down the Polish FlyEye resulted in the firing of four missiles that missed the drone and, ultimately, the operator-guided artillery, which destroyed the launcher. Put, anti-aircraft missile guidance systems do not detect such small targets.

Meanwhile, smaller systems, like the Pantsir-S1, often identify aircraft of this size as birds and do not attack in automatic and semi-automatic modes. It turns out that these types of drones are best shot down by anti-aircraft crews in manual mode, where good eyesight and soldier skills count.

- However, it must be remembered that weapon systems are still evolving. I assume that operating off-the-shelf civilian drones will become increasingly difficult. The result of the Darwinian process of evolution will be more effective portable systems for detecting and neutralising drones - explains Link-Lenczowski.

First improvisation, then 3D printing

Since the beginning of the war, both sides have used improvised weapons. During the heaviest periods of defensive combat, anyone with a drone helped the Ukrainian army conduct reconnaissance and support artillerymen. Thanks to civilian drones, stopping the advance near Brovary was possible. With their help, the fire of howitzers was directed, breaking up the armoured column heading towards Kyiv.

Over time, constructs evolved. Drones began to be equipped with launchers under which hand grenades and mortar rounds could be hung. The 'Army of Drones' programme considerably changed, creating many new drones and thoroughly modernising others.

Recently, Ukrainians used the AQ-400 Scythe to attack refineries. The drone can carry a load of 42 kilograms over a distance of 700-800 kilometres. The drone is partially 3D printed, and part of the airframe is made of plywood. According to manufacturers from Kyiv’s Terminal Autonomy, their factory alone can produce up to a thousand units per month.

Ultralight planes converted into strike drones

The problem is the small carrying capacity of such constructs. Therefore, Ukrainians converted ultralight Aeroprakt A-22 aircraft into strike drones.

Similarly, during World War II, Americans in the Army’s Aphrodite Project and the Navy’s Anvil Project converted B-17 and B-24 bombers, which were used to destroy highly protected targets like weapon bunkers.

Ukrainians mounted a flight control system based on GPS and/or INS on the A-22. In areas where the satellite signal is jammed, control can be taken over by an operator who can steer the drone remotely using a controller. He can observe the area thanks to an optoelectronic head printed on a 3D printer, probably equipped with a daylight observation camera and two infrared observation cameras.

The drone can carry an OFAB-100-120 bomb under the fuselage, which contains 42 kilograms of explosives or explosive charges of up to 100 kilograms inside the pilot cabin. In this way, a significant load can be transported over a long distance, creating an improvised cruise missile that can slip between anti-aircraft systems at low speed.

More precise targeting in Russia

Equipping the A-22 with a system that allows it to be steered remotely without depending on satellite navigation systems is also a way to bypass jamming measures. This will allow for more precise targeting in Russia.

- Military drones will likely develop, using encrypted radios for communication and resisting jamming. These platforms will likely become independent of satellite navigation, which is also susceptible to jamming - forecasts Link-Lenczowski.

He adds that drones are the only means on the battlefield and operate in an integrated system.

- However, the terrain is still captured by mechanised and armoured units supported by artillery. Meanwhile, the latter has significantly increased its capabilities thanks to drone platforms - he concludes.

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