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War ‘low cost’: how Ukraine is using drones against Russia

The Ukrainian military is using drones to drop small bombs, sabotage convoy lines, defend borders and explore the terrain.

Julian Estevez Sanz

JULIAN ESTEVEZ SANZ Professor and researcher in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, University of the Basque Country / Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

Do you have any drone? Give it to an experienced pilot! Do you know how to pilot it yourself? Then join Unit 112 of the Kyiv Special Brigade!”

With these words, on February 24, the Ukrainian Defense Minister called the population to arms, through a Facebook message. The president was referring to those drones that any hobbyist can buy in many online stores and supermarkets. The Ukrainians were preparing for a guerrilla war, quick and surprise attacks, with weapons that cost about 100 euros. Even neighboring countries are making donations of these devices without the intermediation of any government. And they work.

This is not the first time that Ukraine has used this technology against the Russians in recent years, and not with little success. Since the initial conflict in Donbas, soldiers have skillfully piloted and manipulated these devices to inflict small damage on enemy troops. In addition, they are so small that defense is difficult.

Today Zelensky’s army is using them to drop small bombs, sabotage convoy lines, defend borders and explore the terrain. In the game of fear, the Ukrainians have developed a small fixed-wing drone with these characteristics, which they have baptized The Punisher (the Punisher).

Drone baptized as The Punisher (The Punisher). /

UA Dynamics

In addition, this technology is helping the propaganda machine and in the war for the narrative of the conflict, since most of these pilots are continuously uploading videos (true or false) to YouTube and Twitter, and trying to confuse the enemy and demonstrate that there are hundreds of eyes looking at them from the sky.

A new way of waging war

However, not everything is positive for the Ukrainians. This technology poses totally unthinkable war scenarios until now. One of the main manufacturers of this type of aircraft is the Chinese company DJI, which, using GPS, can perfectly geolocate any inexperienced pilot at all times.

Perhaps, seeing the bad publicity that the company may receive for the use of its products in this conflict, DJI could decide to disable the flight capacity of these drones on Ukrainian territory. Or maybe you want to know precisely those positions and use them with evil intentions.

Not only are these expensive toys flying the skies in Ukraine today, but there is a much bigger weapon: Turkey’s dreaded TB2 Baykraktar drones. Since the conflict began, Zelensky’s country has claimed numerous successful strikes carried out with these drones, attacking convoys of trucks and tanks.

These aircraft have already participated in numerous war conflicts, giving an overwhelming advantage to the attacking side. Although the Russians provided only rudimentary defenses to Armenia, these were crushed by drones in the recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Therefore, Ukraine has not thought twice and is acquiring the largest number of these weapons. Right now he is estimated to be in his twenties.

Unlike modest radio-controlled drones, this weapon flies much higher, almost invisibly, and is capable of dropping much more powerful bombs. So much so, that a Ukrainian song circulates on social networks with images of attacks by these drones shouting Baykraktar.

Apparently, the advantage these Turkish drones are giving is not the one seen in other conflicts. These aircraft are slow, heavy, controlled by a human operator and, most importantly, each one costs approximately one million dollars, a very low price compared to other weapons. That means they are not invincible to highly sophisticated anti-aircraft weapons, which Vladimir Putin’s army does have.

However, the fact that attacks from the sky continue to be made shows that this environment has not yet been dominated by either of the two armies and that these heavy drones, together with the small radio-controlled devices, may be greatly slowing down the Russian advance.

Surely we should be aware that the art of war and its economics are changing. We are facing the first TikTok war, in which we have a great abundance of false and true information, and that many of the attacks occur out of our sight, through cyber attacks. All this and the boom in the use of drones and robots may lead to the reflection that we are inevitably headed for automated wars of the future, low cost and, therefore, with a much easier trigger.

This article has been published in ‘The conversation’.

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