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Drones and war in Ukraine | “We are trying to help our country”

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At the start of the war, a Ukrainian offensive halted the advance of Russian tanks north of Kiyv. A team from a civilian agency boasts of having played a “significant role” in spotting and destroying the Russian supply chain with its small drones equipped with cameras and bombs.

“We helped break their plan for Kyiv”, explains to The Press Mykhailo, reached around the capital by web telephony.

The man, who refuses to reveal his last name for security reasons, confides as a spokesperson for Aerorozvidka, a group of a few dozen drone specialists. The former military unit, created in 2014, is now a non-governmental organization, which acts in support of the army.

Important role

Drones, small or medium, have played an important role in Ukrainian strategy since the beginning of the war, both for gathering information and for combat.

Ordinary citizens put their flying machines at the disposal of the war effort. Aerorozvidka also has its own model, the R-18. With its eight propellers, the drone can be held by one person. It can fly for 40 minutes, within a radius of 4 km, and carry 5 kg explosive charges, claims Mykhailo.

A performance far from the military drones of the great powers, but which remains affordable, at around US$20,000 per machine. The money is raised through crowdfunding.


PHOTO PROVIDED BY AEROROZVIDKA

Aerorozvidka notably uses the R-18 drone. However, the authenticity of this photo could not be verified by The Press.

In 2014, when Russia launched its offensive in the east of the country and in Crimea, it then used its drones “very effectively”, notes Vikram Mittal, associate professor at the American military academy West Point.

“The Russians used reconnaissance drones with great success in 2014, spotting a location before bombing it heavily,” he explains.

This time, the Ukrainians seem to have adapted to new methods. “The Russians aren’t as efficient as they were in the past, it looks like they haven’t been updated, they’re using the same tactics as in 2014 and similar technology, while the industry has continued to move forward,” he said.

Ode to Bayraktar

Besides commercial drones, Ukraine also relies on combat aircraft, such as the Bayraktar TB2.

“He turns Russian bandits into ghosts”, praises a song written a few weeks ago in tribute to this Turkish drone used by the Ukrainian army.

Ukraine would have a few dozen Bayraktar TB2, according to the specialized site Oryx. The 12m craft looks like a small plane. Its use by Azerbaijan had been decried by the Armenians during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, in 2020.


PHOTO BIROL BEBEK, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES

A Bayraktar TB2 aircraft flying over a military base in Cyprus in 2019

This drone continues to demonstrate how such a device, without being the most powerful, can create a turnaround in a conflict, illustrates Paul Lushenko, lieutenant-colonel in the American army and specialist in drones.

“We are seeing more and more states – Ethiopia, Libya, Azerbaijan, Armenia and now, Ukraine – adopting these small or medium drones,” he says.

Less expensive, more accessible, they democratize, in a way, military strategies once reserved for the great powers.

The use of drones, for surveillance as well as for combat, “has enabled Ukraine to achieve parity with Russia”, adds the soldier.

Cat and mouse game

There are ways to neutralize drones, by blocking communications or by destroying them altogether, for example. But the counter-means can also be circumvented by other tactics.

“It’s a game of cat and mouse”, illustrates Vikram Mittal, underlining the high speed of adaptation of the sector.

There is a lot of disinformation in wartime, and it remains difficult to know what is really happening on the ground, he warns, even if specialized sites do serious cross-checks.

Russia may have been unsettled by the tactics used by Ukrainian forces. But she may not be the only one to underestimate accessible means like drones, Lushenko believes.

The smallest drones [en opposition aux drones militaires] have been identified as the number one threat by the United States, at least to forces deployed in the Middle East.

Paul Lushenko, Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and drone specialist

“Drones give an asymmetric advantage to smaller armies, irregular or non-state forces – like al-Qaeda or the Islamic State group – and the technology quickly outweighs countermeasures, so it creates a vulnerability gap for great armies,” explains the lieutenant-colonel.

A change in the global order on which it will be necessary to look, he launches.

Mykhailo, for his part, continues, with his team, to support the army with his drones.

“Every day we have difficulties with our mission, we have to repair, buy parts, find commercial drones for reconnaissance operations”, he underlines.

He finds it important to do so.

“We are trying to help our country. »

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