Ukrainian army launches new suicide drone tactic

Commercial drones of the DJI brand are transformed into kamikaze devices by the Ukrainian army. Several videos, analyzed by Numerama and open-source intelligence experts, testify to these strikes.

The Ukrainian army continues to innovate in the transformation of commercial drones into a weapon of war. On January 20, 2023, the intelligence services indicated that they are building a fleet of kamikaze aircraft from FVP models – view of the flight in first person from a helmet – and are calling for donations from volunteers.

Videos confirm the use of these modified drones in the field. It would first be “suicide” attacks in urban environments. Concretely, a soldier operates on the edge of town to spot enemy forces and launches a device loaded with explosives against detected units or strategic buildings.

Two filmed operations allow us to observe this method. Contributors from Project Fox, an anonymous group for the promotion of intelligence in times of armed conflict, helped us analyze and identify areas of action in detail.

Weapons depots targeted by drones

The “Krela” intelligence unit — a wing, in Ukrainian — posted a series of attacks on YouTube. The operation is taking place in the occupied town of Kamianka-Dniprovska, in the Zaporizhia region (southern Ukraine), on the banks of the Dnieper. Anti-armor grenades are attached to “Combo” model drones from the Chinese brand DJI. The first part is a reconnaissance mission where we see Russian soldiers storing boxes – probably ammunition – in different buildings. The drones are then launched at full speed against these same hangars and a device posted in the sky confirms several explosions.

The location of drone strikes in the occupied Kamianka-Dniprovska commune. Source: Fox Project

The Dnieper River separates the two armies for the time being. However, these strikes testify to a Ukrainian strategy of deterioration of Russian troops on this part of the front. The price of a DJI FPV drone with the headset of first sight starts at 800 euros. The cost of the strike can be more interesting than a missile shipment, especially if it pulverizes an ammunition depot.

Direct attacks on soldiers

In a video posted on Telegram, another DJI “Combo” business model is used in the Bakhmout commune, in the east of the country, where fighting is most intense at the moment.

A shorter version of the initial video, with the strike on soldiers.

The route of the take-off of the drone in Bakhmut (Donetsk region) until its explosion in the Russian trench. Source: Fox Project

The craft takes off from the roof of a building, conducts a reconnaissance session, and then goes towards a Russian trench on the other side. The tip of an explosive, probably a grenade, appears on the screen. The Ukrainian operator then launched the aircraft at full speed against two Russian soldiers. Here the strike seems more opportunistic, its first objective being an analysis of the trench and then a neutralization in case of military force on the spot. In another suicide drone video, it is understood that the Ukrainians are targeting units with anti-tank rockets.

Several models of suicide drones have been in use since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The US military has provided Switchblade models to the Ukrainians, while the Russians have equipped themselves with Iranian Shaed-136 drones. The latter has been particularly visible in attacks against the civilian population and energy infrastructure in major cities.

Hijacked business models are an essential element in this war and demonstrate a need for reconnaissance or harassment apparatus for modern units.

Ukrainian Digital Minister Mykhailo Fedorov announced last summer that he hoped to amass an “army of drones” to help the armed forces. The donations helped buy more than 1,400 devices, according to the government’s United24 website.

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