by Robert Beckhusen. Robert Beckhusen is a freelance writer who contributes regularly at War is Boring. He’s also written for publications including C4ISR Journal, Wired, The Daily Beast and World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter.
On Oct. 29, a Ukrainian drone flew towards the remains of the 32nd Checkpoint. Two days prior, Ukrainian troops still controlled the outpost, which blocked a road leading from rebel-held Luhansk, about 10 miles to the east. The soldiers didn’t control it now. The drone was heading to see what was left. Ukrainian troops had evacuated after nearly two weeks of clashes with the Army of the Don Cossacks, a pro-Kremlin rebel group. More than a hundred Ukrainian troops had “been pinned down and almost surrounded” at the 32nd Checkpoint, The Interpreter reported just after the evacuation. Most of the Ukrainian soldiers survived the retreat.
As the drone flew overhead, its cameras focused on the ground. Three oily, black smears — what appears to be the remains of armored vehicles — marred the road. The fields surrounding the road were pockmarked with shell craters, according to imagery released by Army SOS, a fundraising group for the Ukrainian army.
“32 checkpoint. It is no longer on the map,” Yuri Kasyanov, an activist and coordinator for Army SOS, wrote on his Facebook page. He reacted with a blistering condemnation Ukraine’s generals. “I’m happy for them [the soldiers]. But I am ashamed of the generals.”
In recent weeks, drones flight such as these have become more common in eastern Ukraine, as troops loyal to Kiev have used crowdsourcing to purchase small unmanned aircraft. The word drones might also be a misnomer — the ones seen in recent weeks are small, civilian quadcopters and R/C hobby planes. But they have very much become involved in Ukraine’s intelligence gathering. Specifically, Ukrainian troops of the Dnipro Battalion are using DJI Phantom quadcopters and FPVraptors — made by R/C company VolantexRC — equipped with GoPro cameras, according to photographs released by Army SOS.
The FPVraptors have a PVC fuselage, which makes them pretty durable, and a wide 79-inch wingspan. The drones cost around $480 and $190 at the low end, respectively. The Ukrainians are also using several small, swept-wing carbon fiber drones. But according to Army SOS, one of these has already crashed.
A day after the flight over the 32nd Checkpoint, Army SOS released drone imagery of the Donetsk Sergey Prokofiev International Airport (see image above). The airport has been shut down since May 26 and besieged for weeks by pro-Russian separatists supported with Russian tanks and artillery. The battle for the airport is clearly a nightmare. The main terminal building is badly damaged from shell fire, and destroyed Antonov transport planes can be seen littering the airport like giant, smashed birds.
When the war in eastern Ukraine began, Kiev had few serviceable drones. The army reactivated at least one mothballed Tupolev Tu-141 drone left over from the Soviet era. The Tu-141 — now painted with a Ukrainian coat of arms on the tail wing instead of a red star — was originally built during the 1970s and 1980s, with the Soviet Union basing many of them in western Ukraine, where they could hop into the Warsaw Pact satellite states in case of war with NATO. Although obsolete by modern standards, the missile-shaped drones can zip overhead at an impressive speed of 1,000 kilometers per hour, clicking away snapshots with a high-powered, analog film camera. You just need the ability to process the film.
But during one of the reactivated Tu-141 missions over rebel-held territory, separatists on the ground opened fire with their machine guns. The drone deployed a parachute and crashed. But it’s unclear if the machine gun fire was responsible for downing the drone.
Separately, the Ukrainians launched a fundraising campaign — much of it over the Internet — to buy supplies, weapons and equipment. There were shortages of everything: Medical supplies, spare parts, helmets, radios — you name it. Including drones. But while the limited numbers of UAVs give the Dnipro Battalion another asset to use against the separatists, it won’t fundamentally change the direction of the conflict. No single technology does, and certainly not R/C planes with GoPros. Kasyanov’s dispatches are taking a bleak turn. He bemoans the gaps in the Ukrainian defenses. “There is no visible sign of the promised more in-depth defense, there is no solid front line,” he wrote.
Their scouting is bad; so is their organization. They don’t have the artillery and armored vehicles to launch offensives. Worse, the enemy — made up of Russian shock troops and separatist mercenaries — “are prepared for war,” he wrote on Oct. 31. The destruction of the Donetsk airport is also trying down Ukrainian troops — and a premonition, Kasyanov believes, of a major Russian offensive to come.