In some respects, 21st-century warfare began the first time a US MQ-1 Predator UAV (that’s an unmanned Aerial Vehicle) drone flew over the Taliban’s positions to photograph the scene below. The Americans realised drones could be used for more than snooping. They could be modified for combat, armed with missiles and other incendiary devices. China, Iran and Turkey joined the arms race, and now they flood the market with their own cheap and effective drones.
For any state fighting without the wealth of the United States and China (which is everyone else), what is cheap and effective is also necessary. Out in Ukraine, the skies throng with Chinese-made DJI Mavics, Iranian Shaheds, Russian Orlan-10s and Turkish Bayraktar TB2s. Drones may not have the same payload or firepower as a fighter jet, but then again you can’t buy a fighter jet on the internet. For the price of one F-35, you can buy 55,000 DJI Mavic 3s. For less established militaries, drones offer the chance of levelling the field to at least some degree.
I spot a DJI Mavic 3 drone amid the scattered clothing, food and weaponry in the Dnipro 1 base. It’s not more than around 13×12 inches. This is a civilian camera drone — anyone can buy it online for around $3,000. If resource constraints breed creativity, then the Ukrainians are becoming artists.
When I covered the battle of Bakhmut, an officer there explained to me how his unit could take out a multi-million-dollar T90 Russian tank by simply buying a Mavic online and fitting it with a small explosive. The Ukrainians have become masters of modifying consumer drones for conflict; of weaponising the everyday into something far more potent.
There is an atmosphere of relaxed watchfulness here. The sound of shells and rockets is distant but constant. The soldiers are fighting the Russians up close with tanks, rockets, artillery, sometimes even rifles. And always drones. Some, including the Iranian-made HESA Shahed 136 that the Russians use, are designed to directly strike targets. These are generally expensive — though the Shahed comes in at around $10,000 upwards, which makes it affordable enough to be expendable (only increasing their threat). But the Ukrainians mainly use drones as “eyes in the sky” — they use the cheaper camera ones to spot enemy targets and then call in their coordinates to other units, mainly artillery, to enable them to strike them more accurately. When ammunition and equipment stocks are low, firing must be accurate. On the front, there are few second chances.
“If I had had this technology in 2014, Putin would not have been able to occupy any of our territories. Fact,” says Dnipro 1 commander Yuriy Bereza. “The most important thing now is online comms. The most important thing is that I can see the reality on the ground.” He’s whittling a piece of cardboard with a knife, which he waves it around for emphasis as he makes his point. “When soldiers are on the front they are stressed and often give the wrong information, but with a drone I can see the situation calmly on the screen… I see the reality, the truth of it all — from above. It impacts how quickly I can make a decision. And whoever is quicker wins.
“It’s incredible how drones are changing the war. If I turn on my phone — a rocket will come out of the sky and land on me. The Russians can track it and they have orders to kill me. So many things in war now are about WhatsApp, Facetime, Signal — wars are being run out of phones. And if you leave a phone on in the wrong place you can die.” …
Last night one of the tanks managed to get away but they got the other one by sending the drone up to follow it in real time and then send its coordinates to the artillery as it moved. They could direct their fire in such a way that while they didn’t hit it directly, they forced the tank onto a mine, blowing it up. The whole operation took about three minutes. How would they have done this operation without drones? “Before drones,” he replies, “the only eyes we had were of the infantry. We sucked.”
hat-tip Stephen Neil