Drones In the Ukraine War: March 26th to April 2nd, 2022
Attacks on cross-country skiing facilities, running for the bus, Russian drone-based propaganda, and more
In this post, I’ll feature some of the most interesting examples I came across in the week spanning March 26th to April 1st, from Russian de-mining propaganda with a drone assist to bombed-out cross country skiing facilities to how drones might have halted that 40-mile convoy from the start of the war.
I should emphasize: these reflections are all based on my own observations of what’s happening on publicly-available social media, and certainly aren’t meant to be comprehensive or final.
This week, we learned quite a bit more about the efforts of Aerorozvidka, Ukraine’s squad of drone specialists. An excellent Guardian piece described how the drone forces played an important part in fending off that 40-mile long Russian convoy at the start of the war.
On March 30th, the Aerovidstka crew posted a video of one of their drones dropping explosives onto Russian vehicles, using a thermal camera (which we’ve seen them use a number of times before with what appear to be their own customized octocopters). Per @UAWeapons on Twitter about the impact: “A serious toll; circa 4x Command/Comms/EW Trucks, 3x Supply Trucks, 2x BMP/MT-LB armoured vehicles, 1x BMP-2 and 2S19 Msta-S 152mm SPG (Previously posted).
In an interesting BBC News video from March 30th, Ukrainian defenders in Kyiv mark what they claim to be a Russian drone with a laser sight and attempt to take it down with a rifle. Although the drone appears to be moving relatively slowly, they’re not able to hit it - an incident that exemplifies just how hard it can be to shoot down a small drone. If you’ve been wondering why all of the drones in the Ukrainian war aren’t being instantly shot down, well…this is why.
On March 27th, the BBC posted yet another video in which a reporter accompanies a Ukrainian territorial defense group as it uses drones to monitor the movements of Russian troops. (There is a surprise appearance from a dog).
Here’s more video from Radio Free Europe from April 1st, showing pretty similar practices: commercial drones being used both for recon and for targeting.
Another stand-out drone video from this week: this one, in which Ukrainians captured a scene in which a Russian soldier appears to get left behind by a swiftly-departing truck and runs like hell to keep up. A small and weird moment, the sort of thing that drones excel at capturing.
As further evidence that the Russian army is using commercial drones widely too, consider this April 1st post by the Ukrainian armed forces, in which a pile of DJI Mavic 3 boxes sit next to an exceptionally damaged transport truck.
In this incredible drone shot from April 2nd, posted on Telegram by @Pravda_Gerashchenko, you can actually see the trajectory of the Javelin on the far left until it hits the Russian tank.
I’ve been seeing more drone video from the Russian side in the last week. One pro-Russian Telegram channel (RVvoenker) posted a drone video purporting to depict the results of a successful Russian attack on a “former ski base” that they claimed was now the “headquarters and warehouse of the formations of the 41st Battalion,” and that UAV footage showed the “destruction of a building where a large amount of ammunition was stored.” The Russians claimed that 35 “militants” were killed, and many others were wounded.
The video depicts the shattered remains of a popular cross-country skiing center and sports school in Chernihiv, which regularly hosted biathlon events.
A Ukrainian paper quoted a Instagram post by a young athlete who’d had to hide there at the start of the war:
“Biathlete Darya Blashko was stationed at the Chernihiv centre during the early days of the war. The athlete has already left the city, but did not fail to mention the sports facility destroyed by Russia on her Instagram page.
"I lived there before the war, and for 10 days of the war I hid in the basement with my coach and other people. There was some last hope that the base would not be touched. This. Is. Just. A. Sports. Facility," Blashko wrote.”
Another recent video released by the Russian Ministry of Defense - and disseminated by Chinese state media outlet CGTN - uses a series of staging drone shots to show Russian forces engaged in de-mining activities in Ukraine. The reasons why those nasty Ukrainians might have felt inclined to put mines in the ground is, apparently, an exercise left to the viewer. The reader might also consider Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s comments from April 2nd about how the Russians are leaving a trail of mines in their wake as they retreat within Ukraine.
Somewhat belatedly, Russia also now appears to be putting more effort into putting forth scare-propaganda about Ukraine’s drone capacities.
This Telegram video from March 30th, again posted by pro-Russian account @RVvoenkor on Telegram, appears to show a Russian Tor-M1 SAM taking out a Ukrainian drone near Kharkiv.
Russia also has shared video claiming to show a Strelga-10 gun taking down a Ukrainain drone, although the way it’s filmed makes it unclear if the smashed-up octocopter at the end of the video (which does resemble those used by Aerorozvidka) is really the object being targeted at the beginning.
In a post on March 31st, Russian spetsnaz posted pictures of some rather, uh, basic looking DIY fixed wing drones they allegedly captured in Vovchansk near Kharkiv Oblast. I suppose these things probably could fly, but they’re not exactly up to the standard of the custom and DIY aircraft that the Ukrainian armed forces are usually putting into the field.
On March 30th, Russia’s Ministry of Defense warned that “Ukraine planned to transmit bioweapons via drones.” Honestly, I’m surprised it took the Russians this long to try this particular scare-mongering approach.
What else have I been thinking about this week, drone-wise?
I’ve been thinking about the preservation of open-source drone footage as part of war crime investigations, and what we can do as observers and witnesses to make sure it’s preserved and sourced in a way that will make it useful in legal proceedings.
Reading the Berkeley Protocol is a good place to start if you want to better understand best practices for preserving this type of open source information. This piece from Just Security is a great overview of the current state of open source evidence preservation around the Ukraine war.
I’ve also been contemplating the need for more widely-available practical information on safely using small drones in a war zone. My recent piece for the ICRC on International Humanitarian Law and the ways small drones do (and don’t) fit into it touches on this to some extent, but there’s a lot of nitty-gritty technical advice and suggestions that I suspect too many small and commercial drone users in dangerous environments aren’t aware of.
While Ukraine is probably one of the most drone-savvy countries on the planet, there still seem to be plenty of people in the conflict area - fighters, journalists, whoever - who are just very new to using drones, and simply might not have thought of this stuff or might not have been told about in the chaos of warfare.
Much of this advice boils down to “how to ensure that the enemy doesn’t pick up on the signals your drone is emitting, via Aeroscope or some other method, to find you and blow you up.”
I know that some drone experts are privately giving good advice to Ukrainians about safety protocols like “making sure the device you connect to your drone is in airplane mode.” At some point in the near future, I think it’d make sense to put some of that knowledge into an easy-to-translate one or two page reference document. Even better if it had some illustrations (keeping in mind, of course, that that’s information that all parties to conflict can use).
Finally, I’ve been startled to see how many people managed to make it to 2022 without being aware of how consumer and DIY drones can be used in warfare. Globally, people have been experimenting with DIY and small drones in war for ages, a process that really gained speed with the introduction of the DJI Phantom in 2013 and the global expansion of DIY drone techniques around the same time. Stories about ISIS using consumer and DIY drone to drop explosives and to gather intelligence date back to at least 2014, and Ukraine also began experimenting with using drones for these purposes around the same time.
Governments and security agencies around the world have also been sweating over threats from small drones for at least as long - at times, I’d say, rather excessively, considering that a small drone is a much less handy weapon if you’re not living in a war zone with very ready access to powerful light-weight explosives.
The main point is that what’s happening in Ukraine isn’t particularly new, in terms of techniques and equipment. What’s novel about Ukraine is more the scale of the drone use we’re seeing, how extensively it’s being documented, and how many people globally are being exposed to that documentation online.
That’s all for now - see you in a few days. Don’t hesitate to contact me on Twitter at @faineg with questions.