On February 25, Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense put out a Facebook appeal to consumer drone owners and pilots to come to the aid of their country. Amateur operators were asked to donate drones to the military effect, and skilled pilots to offer their services. This is the first time in history that a nation has called up its civilian drones, but insurgents around the world have shown how effective they can be.
First deployed by ISIS in Iraq, consumer quadcopters were initially used for propaganda videos, then for tactical reconnaissance, before being adapted to drop grenades. These improvised drone bombers proved highly effective against U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces, with multiple drones in action at any time. During the battle for Mosul in 2017, one report said the drone bombs ‘fell like rain’ on the front line.
Since then, consumer drone bombers have been used widely by many groups in the Middle East and have spread worldwide to Mexican drug cartels, militants in Myanmar and rebels in the Central African Republic. They have reportedly been used by both sides in the longstanding conflict in east Ukraine.
But they have other uses.
“I can readily see drones being used for ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] and also for propaganda—social media narrative posting—value,” analyst Robert Bunker of C/O Futures, told Forbes. (Like this drone video allegedly showing a Javelin missile destroying a Russian tank).
We are already seeing infra-red consumer drone videos of attacks on Russian forces, and reports of such drones used to locate Russian forces. Drones are documenting the damage to Ukraine’s cities by Russian shelling. They might also be used in a more active way, to locate artillery batteries so they can be targeted by Ukrainian forces. The Ukrainians are having some success with counter-battery operations but is it not known if these are guided by drones.
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Ukraine is likely to deploy such drones in increasing numbers. One Ukrainian supplier says their entire stock of 300 quadcopters had been sent to the defense forces. While it may be difficult to get any more large Bayraktar drones into the country, smaller drones are much easier to transport, with 140 being supplied in one shipment from Finland alone.
Weaponizing them is fairly easy. In 2020, Kiev Arsenal developed a simple drone bomb by attaching aerodynamic fins to the Soviet-era RKG-3 anti-tank grenade. This was demonstrated in a military exercise and said to be able to hit a target a meter across from an altitude of 300 meters, high enough for the drone to be virtually invisible and inaudible. Pictures have emerged of newly made RKG-1600 grenades apparently produced using 3D -printed parts.
“Nicely done IMO,” Nick Waters of Bellingcat, a leading authority on drone bombs, told me. “That’s a pretty good combo.”
The RKG-3 is effective against light armored vehicles and throws out lethal fragments. It is considered obsolete and Ukraine likely has large stocks that can be converted. Although at three pounds this is too heavy for smaller drones, the Ukrainians may follow the example of others and adapt Vog-17 grenades for drone use. There is already an unverified video purporting to show an RKG-1600 drone bomb hitting on a Russian supply truck, in line with Bunker’s advice for the best use of such drones.
“I would suggest that the Ukrainians use consumer drones for the aerial bombardment of targets that cannot easily be hit by ground forces with infantry arms,” says Bunker. ”They should be prioritized for going after Russian fuel and munitions dumps, targeting Russian senior military officers, and other high value targets.”
How could the Russians counter such tactics? In Mosul, the U.S. successfully defeated ISIS drones with electronic jamming. However, Russian electronic warfare capability has so far failed to materialize as expected in Ukraine.
“I don’t see the Russian forces going in with specific anti-consumer drone capabilities as part of their force protection packages,” says Bunker. “The Russian response would have to be small arms and air-defense fires.”
Small drones are extremely difficult to take down with machine guns and similar weapons — in Iraq one soldier described attempts to counter a drone attack as being like a wedding celebration, with everyone firing into the air without hitting anything. The Russians may also attempt to locate the radio transmitter controlling the drone.
“The worse case scenario is Russians firing indiscriminately at the supposed C2 [command and control] where these drones originate, causing more civilian causalities,” Samuel Bendett, an adviser to the CNA and CNAS told me. “I would be concerned about Russian reaction to such civilian [drone] efforts.”
Bendett says the Russian military may bring their own tactical quadcopters to the fight.
“It started widespread acquisition of such UAVs [uncrewed aerial vehicles] in 2019,” says Bendett. “The drones are likely domestic from companies like ZALA, and possibly imported like Chinese DJI models.”
This leads us directly to the story of the Kyiv woman who reportedly brought down a Russian drone by throwing a jar of pickled cucumbers at it. It is a nice illustration of the Ukrainians’ will to resist and using any weapon that comes to hand, but not quite accurate. For a start, it was a jar of preserved tomatoes.
The story was tracked down by Ukrainian news site Liga.life, who interviewed the woman involved. She did not wish to be identified and is referred to only as 'Elena.'
According to Elena, she was sitting on her balcony when she heard the buzz of an approaching drone. Elena had some jars of preserved plum tomatoes under her chair, and pitched one at the intruder, bringing it to the ground. Elena and her husband then smashed up the remains to ensure the drone was properly destroyed, then cleared up the debris including the broken glass. (Even in wartime Kyiv, Elena was worried about cutting dogs paws).
Elena says the drone was probably not operated by the Russian military, but by looters looking for empty apartments to ransack.
“The neighbor noticed suspicious young men, and when she began to ask loudly who they were and where they were from, they quickly fled. Peaceful people wouldn't do that," Elena told Liga.
She says purported pictures of the incident are fakes, and she has no idea why the story was changed to pickled cucumbers.
(It might be added though that at least one Russian saboteur has been apprehended with a small drone, along with grenades and a sniper rifle).
“As counter-drone systems though, it's probably not the best,” says analyst Zak Kallenborn who advocates the use of consumer drones to defend Ukraine. “It's hard to hit a small flying object, especially if it's moving about. That's true whether you're using guns or pickle jars.”
Like Bunker and Bendett, Kallenborn notes that electronic warfare may be Ukrainian drones’ chief enemy, but it will be difficult for the Russians to use such systems without interfering with their own drones and other systems. There are also ways to minimize its effects.
“Civil resistance can take protective measures, such as flying at low altitudes, flying complex flight paths, and disabling GPS to prevent jamming,” says Kallenborn. “The Ukrainian military should provide civil drone operators with training or guidance to reduce the risk of operator identification.”
Fighting is likely to shift to Ukraine’s cities in the next few days. Small drones could be vital eyes and ears, as well as effective fighters in the urban battlefield. They may also provide some of the best records of what is happening on the ground, both for current news reports and for the historical accounts to follow.