Inside Ukraine’s scramble for “game-changer” drone fleet
By Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) – At a modest industrial estate in northern Ukraine, two former Microsoft executives and a team of engineers are producing military drones that can travel long distances and carry large payloads.
AeroDrone, which made wax-dust drones before the war and now supplies Ukraine’s armed forces, makes unmanned aircraft that can carry up to 300 kilograms or fly several thousand kilometers in certain configurations.
As Ukraine seeks to close the yawning gap between its own military capabilities and Russia’s, Kyiv says it is expanding its drone program for both reconnaissance and attacking enemy targets over an increasing range. It is hoped that local drone manufacturers such as AeroDrone will help it achieve its ambitious goals.
The government is now working with more than 80 Ukraine-based drone manufacturers, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Reuters. He said Kiev needs hundreds of thousands of drones, many of which come from a rapidly growing domestic industry. Currently, the military operates dozens of models of domestic and foreign drones that fulfill a “broad spectrum” of roles, Reznikov said in written responses to questions.
“Drones are potentially a game-changer on the battlefield in the same way that precision Western MLRS became last year,” Reznikov said, referring to Multiple Launch Rocket System weapons.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) and other drones are only one element of a war currently dominated by artillery, infantry and missiles. Moscow could hit targets across Ukraine with long-range missiles, which Kiev does not have.
“It’s not worth expecting parity in the near future,” Reznikov said of closing the armaments gap. He added: “Russia is also working to improve its UAVs.”
In the coming months, Kiev hopes to use Western supplies of battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles to launch a counteroffensive to retake parts of the occupied territory in the south and east.
For Ukraine, whose economy has been battered by the war and whose government is now reliant on international financing, drones are a relatively cheap way to fight back against Russia’s vast military. Ukraine has said it will spend nearly $550 million on drones in 2023 and has established drone strike units within its armed forces.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, told Reuters that unmanned vehicles that crash into their target and explode – so-called kamikaze drones – will be a particular focus for Ukraine in 2023.
Drone warfare specialist James Rogers, a professor at the University of Southern Denmark, said Ukraine’s UAV capability still lags behind Russia and its Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drones, which have been used by Moscow to target Ukrainian energy facilities for months. to target.
Ukraine has received significant supplies of UAVs from its partners, from Turkey’s missile-equipped Bayraktar TB2 to the Norwegian-made Black Hornet reconnaissance drone, which weighs less than 33 grams.
Kiev is now increasing its own production. Taras Chmut, a Ukrainian defense specialist, says the country’s domestic production of drones has grown three or four times since the start of last year’s invasion. His assessment was that the country’s production of such drones was “several thousands” per year if funding and spare parts supplies were steady.
Chmut heads a non-governmental organization called Come Back Alive that says it has raised tens of millions of dollars in crowdfunding to provide equipment to the military, including aerial drones. He added that the size of Ukraine’s overall drone fleet has increased “tenfold” since February 2022 due to new supplies from both foreign countries and Ukraine, as well as those donated by organizations such as his.
Reznikov said Ukraine had increased its drone production capacity “several times” since Russia’s invasion in February last year and that it was now able to make drones that operate in the air, on land and at sea. The Ministry of Defense declined to provide drone production figures.
One area of focus is on developing drones that can travel longer distances, Reznikov said. Kyiv has sought longer-range missiles from allies that can hit targets several hundreds of kilometers away, but has so far been rebuffed.
AeroDrone says one of its models, called Enterprise and based on the framework of a light aircraft, can fly more than 3,000 kilometers under certain conditions.
The company is run by Dmytro Shymkiv and Yuriy Pederiy, who met while working at Microsoft’s Kyiv offices, where Shymkiv rose to become country manager and Pederiy was responsible for a large division.
They said their military contracts strictly limit what the company can reveal, but they said the Enterprise and another model called Discovery could be used for a wide variety of tactical purposes thanks to payloads of 300 kilograms and 80 kilograms, respectively. One of the company’s planes can cost between $150,000 and $450,000, depending on the model and configuration, which can include features such as an anti-jamming system to counter Russian signal interference.
During a late February visit to AeroDrone’s workshop, engineers in blue coats bustled around the metal carcass of a light aircraft that forms the skeleton of the Enterprise drone. “It can carry 200 kg for 1,200 km,” Shymkiv said of the Enterprise.
Pointing to the cockpit designed to house a pilot, he said, “Now, that will be the payload.”
The Ministry of Defense said AeroDrone had contracts for the supply of two types of long-range drones, but declined to disclose further details.
The ministry declined to specify the maximum range of Ukraine’s current drone fleet, but a major state-owned Ukrainian arms company announced in December that it had successfully tested an attack drone with a 75 kg warhead and a 1,000 km- waived.
The range and strength of Ukraine’s drones is a sensitive issue. Russia has said some Ukrainian drones were able to get behind the front lines, though Ukrainian officials usually deny responsibility for suspected drone activity in Russian territory.
In December, Russia said Ukrainian drones attacked two Russian air bases housing long-range bombers deep inside its own territory, killing three Russian air force personnel.
The Ministry of Defense in Kiev said: “Ukraine has no connection with the events happening on Russian territory.”
Russian officials have reported at least six incidents in recent weeks in which drones have been shot down or carried out attacks on the country’s territory, some of which have been publicly blamed on Ukraine.
Asked by Reuters whether Ukraine was using drones to strike targets in Russia, the defense minister said: “Everything that happens on the territory of Russia is a question for Russia alone. Ukraine is not a terrorist state or not an attacker.”
Danilov, head of the National Security Council, said of strikes in general that in theory some strikes on Russian soil could be justified under certain circumstances.
“If there is a facility that is causing damage to our country … we must destroy these facilities. This is war,” Danilov told Reuters in February. “And it is not our fault that it (the target) is located on the territory of Russia.”
BARRIERS TO EXPANSION
But challenges to expanding domestic production remain. Chmut, the defense specialist, said one barrier to mass production was the reliance on foreign-supplied parts, such as engines and communications systems. He and AeroDrone also said getting parts through customs can be challenging.
The process for obtaining certification for military use was also a problem. Reznikov said the ministry has streamlined the process, reducing it to a few weeks, whereas it previously took up to two years.
AeroDrone’s Shymkiv said a separate government decision easing regulations on importing dual-use items, including drones and drone parts, has made life easier for manufacturers. However, he added that there remains room for improvement in the elimination of bureaucratic obstacles in general.
The defense ministry said it was working with domestic drone manufacturers to both increase production capacity and standardize output to simplify service and training.
Danilov, head of the National Security Council, recognized Ukraine’s dependence on other countries for more high-tech drone components.
“We are trying to fulfill our needs in this sector with domestic production, but we realize that it is unlikely that we will be able to fulfill everything,” he said.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White and Cassell Bryan-Low)