LUHANSK REGION, Ukraine (AP) — Flying above enemy lines, a Ukrainian reconnaissance drone sends a clear image back to soldiers hiding in a basement a few kilometers away: A Russian armored vehicle is idling along a key logistics route, looking like easy prey in the artillery-scarred green landscape.
Then, in a flash, the image disappears, and the drone operator’s screen is replaced by a jumble of black and white pixels.
“Snow,” says a calm commander known by the battlefield name Giocondo, who allowed The Associated Press to follow him and his unit of drone pilots on condition of anonymity to protect their identities. High-tech warfare cuts two ways, and the Russians use electronic beams to disable the drone’s signals.
Seconds later, the drone pilot switches to a frequency the Russians cannot easily exploit. The bird’s-eye image of the armored vehicle reappears, and a second drone – this one laden with explosives – is quickly launched. It zips toward the target.
Nineteen months into the Russian invasion, and as a grueling counteroffensive grinds on, the Ukrainian government wants to spend more than $1 billion to upgrade its drone-fighting capabilities. Whether used for reconnaissance, dropping bombs or self-exploding on impact, drones save money, and soldiers’ lives. They are also more precise than traditional artillery — which is in short supply — and can deliver outsized impacts, such as real-time mapping of the battlefield, destroying tanks and ships, and bringing Russian advances to a halt.
The advantages of drones can be fleeting, however. The Russian army, which relies on Iranian expertise for its own horde of deadly drones, quickly catches up each time Giocondo’s unit gains an edge. Success, he says, lies in constant battlefield iteration and innovation.
Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, says the government is committed to building a state-of-the-art “army of drones” and that its value to the war effort will be evident by the end of this year. The country has already trained more than 10,000 new drone pilots this year.
“A new stage of the war will soon begin,” Fedorov promises.
Giocondo’s unit operates near the occupied town of Svatove, in northeastern Ukraine. It has spent months modifying drones to enable them to fly deeper behind enemy lines and to better evade Russian detection and sabotage.
His drone pilots are all volunteers, and many of them had no military experience prior to Russia’s invasion.
Hiding in a barn house haloed in morning light, a pilot who goes by the battlefield name Bakeneko pops on a head-mounted display and is instantly transported, soaring above verdant fields bustling with Russian combat vehicles and infantrymen. He is flying a drone loaded with explosives toward a Soviet-made tank spotted moments earlier by a reconnaissance drone.
Bakeneko listens in one ear to the German heavy metal band Powerful, explaining that he “can’t fly in silence.”
A few feet away, another soldier — a sales manager before the war — prepares exploding bombs. Using plastic flex cuffs and duct tape, he secures artillery shells and bulky batteries, turning an inexpensive commercial drone into a killing machine.
As the sun rises, Russian troops to the east have the advantage of good light, peering into Ukrainian positions with their own drones. But that advantage flips in the afternoon, when Ukrainian drone pilots can sometimes spot the moving shadows of Russian infantrymen.
Combing through the vast landscape to find a target takes hours. Russian troops have gotten better at hiding and camouflaging themselves in the foliage.
When Bakeneko’s target is within view, he gives the remote control a jolt, and the drone plunges. His headset shows the bucolic countryside rushing at him, and then it goes blank.
“Super, we got it,” says Giocondo, who is watching on a separate screen, which shows a plume of smoke coming from the tank.
The growing reliance on short-range exploding drones on the front line has prompted the Russians to deploy more handheld jamming devices, Ukrainian officials say. That has forced Giocondo’s unit, and others, to devise creative countermeasures.
After three months of trial and error, Ukrainian soldiers operating in the eastern village of Andriivka, south of Bakhmut, figured out how to evade Russian jamming devices that had long stymied their drones.
The fix led to the village being recaptured in early September. A spokesman for the battalion that retook the village said exploding drones were key because they forced the Russians to pull back heavy weaponry by roughly 15 kilometers to stay out of range.
But Ukrainian drone pilots say the Russians will learn from what happened, and adapt again.
“This is an interactive, two-sided competition,” said Stephen Biddle, a senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Since the war’s early days, Russia has used long-range, military-grade drones to inflict devastating damage and psychological terror in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and in other cities. Over time, the Ukrainian military has responded by launching its own military-grade drones deep behind enemy lines, targeting warships in the Black Sea, an airport in Western Russia and even buildings in Moscow, according to Russian officials and media.
The acceleration of short-range drone warfare by units like Giocondo’s is in direct response to the trouble Ukrainian forces experienced this summer using conventional weapons to try to punch through Russia’s fortified defenses. The counteroffensive that began in June has depleted money, artillery and soldiers — and hasn’t yielded as much momentum as Ukraine had hoped for.
Faced with these challenges, the leader of an elite drone squad called the Asgard Group, which oversees Giocondo’s unit, sensed an opportunity. The leader, a wealthy former businessman who goes by the name Pharmacist on the battlefield, directed his soldiers to begin targeting Russia’s large and expensive weaponry with small and inexpensive drones.
The logic was simple, Pharmacist says: Exploding drones cost roughly $400 to make, while a conventional projectile can cost nearly 10 times as much. Even if it requires multiple drones to take out a tank — and sometimes it does — it is still worth it.
The strategy had the additional benefit of putting fewer soldiers’ lives at risk.
But first they had to modify commercial drones with hardware and software to suit the battlefield, enabling them to penetrate deeper behind enemy lines without being detected or jammed. A breakthrough came through the clever use of several drones in unison.
With his entrepreneurial spirit, Pharmacist helped turn a ragtag group of engineers, corporate managers and filmmakers into an elite fighting force. He estimates that his 12-man team, assembled with just $700,000, has destroyed $80 million worth of enemy equipment.
The Russian army — which faces its own economic and military challenges as the war in Ukraine drags on — is also looking to accelerate the use of drones. Russia had stepped up production before its full-scale invasion of Ukraine early in 2021, but officials have acknowledged that they didn’t do enough. Now, as Ukraine catches up, Russian shopping centers are being repurposed into research labs and factories dedicated to drones, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based think tank.
“The enemy learns very quickly,” said Pharmacist.
The Ukrainian government has taken notice of the grassroots innovation carried out by people like Giocondo and the Pharmacist; now it wants to replicate those efforts with an infusion of cash.
The draft budget for 2024 includes an extra 48 billion hryvnias in defense spending earmarked for drone purchases.
One reason to prioritize enhancing Ukraine’s domestic drone-making capabilities, experts say, is the increasing difficulty in sourcing parts from China, the world’s leading drone maker.
“We are doing everything for businesses to invest in the production of various drones,” said Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation. He estimates that domestic production will grow one hundred times above last year’s level. Since March, at least eight new Ukrainian companies building explosive drones have been formed as part of the initiative.
Looking out over the horizon, Fedorov said advances in artificial intelligence being employed by some brigades are only likely to sharpen the effectiveness — and cost-effectiveness — of drones.
Still, some drone operators take all of the enthusiasm with a grain of salt. They are skeptical that Ukraine’s military culture, which has vestiges of rigidity from the Soviet era, can change quickly enough.
A successful drone operation doesn’t hinge on just training and procuring drones, they say. The more critical piece of the puzzle is scaling up the ingenuity and real-time adaptability of units like Giocondo’s.
“It’s a complex interaction within the unit itself,” said Pharmacist.
This story was first published on September 25, 2023. It was updated on September 26, 2023, to correct the spelling of the last name of Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation.
Associated Press journalist Susie Blann contributed from Druzhkivka.