Drones in the Donbas
How Ukrainian ingenuity and cheat-code artillery is leveling the playing field.
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We’re quickly approaching day 70 of Putin’s Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in 3 Days™. After an impressive number of failed strategies and tactical errors, Putin opted to drastically reduce his Ukrainian ambitions, pretending as though everything's been going just swell since February 24, thank you very much, and Phase 2 — shifting the theatre to the southeast and trying out a more traditional (read: simple) form of grinding warfare — started right on schedule, and that if you squint hard enough, you too can see the Motherland's victory looming on the Donbas horizon.
The Donbas. It is, as one soldier said in a recent interview, “like WWII but with modern technology.” That’s an apt description. In a previous post, we discussed the terrain in this New Hampshire-sized ocean of flatlands, with its practically nonexistent aboveground cover and concealment and antipodal trench lines, and how the region requires an entirely different style of warfare, both for Russia, with its goal of securing the whole of Luhansk and neighbouring Donetsk — land that's been under partial control of pro-Kremlin separatists since a Russian-fuelled insurgency that followed the 2014 annexation of Crimea — and Ukraine, still on the defense.
Russia is far from defeated and could very well be on the verge of mobilization, thereby prolonging the war indefinitely. But I remain staunchly convinced that the Russkies will not win. It is of course possible, I suppose, that Ol' Vlad might still yet reduce his Ukrainian quest to something even less. . . presumptuous, something a bit more apropos for the apotheosis of that most contemporary archetype — a fucking moron — and a man so irrevocably tethered to the claustrophobic confines of his own thick skull that, even now, he labors under the delusion he might still snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
One can only hope for the Shakespearean solution.
I'm also not all that disposed to give much thought to Putin’s nuclear war rhetoric. For one thing, nuclear war is, at its core, nonsensical; any which way you try selling it, mutually ensured destruction isn't a pyrrhic victory—you cannot simultaneously be victorious and suffer defeat. For another, Russia just paid off a sizeable chunk of its foreign debt, and that doesn't strike me as the sort of action you'd take before inviting the U.S., or even the UK, for that matter, to wipe your nation off the face of the earth.
The Biden administration presumably agrees with this assessment, since they went ahead and announced a whopping $33 billion more in Ukrainian aid, a sum greater than the annual defense budget of all but 10 countries and only $15 billion shy of Russia's.
Concentrating forces in the Donbas is wise of Putin, relatively speaking, if only because the Russian military, still incapable of demonstrating even the most basic of combined arms maneuvers, has proven well-suited for set-piece tactics. For evidence of this, look no further than the 1,300+ missiles launched indiscriminately into Ukraine from miles and miles away. Cowardice rings true here. And since the front moved to the Donbas, Russia has showcased its long-range artillery cannons, the centerpiece of its arsenal used to devastating effect in razing entire cities to the ground.
But it’s taken no time at all for the Russian Army to hop back on the struggle bus. Resistance is stiff. The some 40,000 strong Ukrainian soldiers of the Joint Forces Operation (JFO) in the Donbas are some of the best trained and most experienced, and they've been firmly entrenched in a defensive posture since 2014
The Russian Army must now contend with a 400-mile front. A strategic necessity of this magnitude would be difficult to pull off under the best of circumstances; after a refit period of maybe a few days instead of a few months, Russian units, mangled and porous and treated like shit both in garrison and in the field, will soon reach their breaking point. I do not say that lightly.
Russia’s force on force advantages are shrinking fast; as is Putin’s window of opportunity to gain leverage at the negotiating table. But the losses remain unprecedented. Truly. Both in manpower and equipment, it’s patently unsustainable.
I get my figures from Oryx, an open-source data aggregate that tracks losses using photographic imagery. For every piece of military equipment tallied as a loss, there’s photographic evidence. Here, for example, is part of Oryx’s tally of Russian tank losses—destroyed, damaged, abandoned, or captured:
Each of those numbers is linked to a picture. For instance: #49.
So, what I’m saying is that these numbers are not only legit, they’re undercounts—this is just the stuff that’s been photographed and catalogued, and it’s impossible to photograph everything.
Since the fighting shifted to the Donbas, Russia has lost 217 tanks and 404 APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers). It’s now considered a normal day when the equivalent of a tank company is rendered ineffective. Notably, on April 24, the equivalent of an entire main maneuver element of a Battalion Tactical Group was taken out:
It therefore follows that they may have already lost up to 20% of their tanks and APCs (Armored Personnel Carriers) since the Battle for the Donbas began, and that’s if these BTGs were close to full strength (doubtful, per senior U.S. Defense officials) to begin with. Keep in mind that for every destroyed tank/APC, that includes the soldiers that were inside.
It takes the U.S. Army 22 weeks to train a tank crew. And while I couldn't find how long Russia normally trains a single crew for, there's no doubt that they've shortened that training cycle severely. When you're having 2 dudes man a 3-dude tank — which there's been a lot of examples of, and which is inconceivably stupid1 (think of a chef in a busy restaurant forced to also be the sole waiter, except in this case, if the chef makes a mistake it means death) — it leads to shit like this:
ROI Remains Negative
In return for these losses, between April 17th and April 30th (last map update), the Russkies have gained maybe a few kilometers in some areas, but progress has been virtually nonexistent.
According to the Pentagon, Russian advances are being slowed because 1) they’re still suffering significant logistical issues (they need to stay close to their supply dumps) and 2.) they still haven’t established air superiority over the battlefield.
It’s pretty incredible that after 67 days of Putin’s Special Military Operation to Take Ukraine in 3 Days™, what was previously considered the second greatest Army in the world remains hamstrung by dumpster fire-grade logistics. I mean, that’s bad. What’s more, Russia remains unable to coordinate troops despite making changes to simplify command and control. Per Pentagon intelligence, they're only capable of advancing a few kilometers or so on any given day because they don’t want to run out too far ahead of their sustainment lines—and this doesn’t even take into account Ukrainian resistance, for God’s sake. A few kilometers a day is extraordinarily little.
“I will also add that, talking about ground, as we head into spring here, you know, we know that the weather and the ground conditions -- and I mean literally the ground conditions -- are going to be an increasing factor.
It's -- you know, as it starts to rain more and there's more mud, it will force them to be ever more reliant on paved roads and paved highways and that -- that we would expect that some of their progress will be slowed by -- frankly, by mud and by weather conditions.” — U.S. Senior Defense Official
Phoenix Ghosts And Switchblades
Things are looking more and more bleak for Vladimir and his orcs. It appears that Ukraine has officially started using loitering munitions courtesy of the U.S., most notably in the form of Phoenix Ghosts and Switchblades, which the media has made much hullabaloo about because of their secretive nature. (“Loitering munitions” refers to a classification of weapon that’s capable of waiting near a target before striking.)
When pressed for more information about the Phoenix Ghosts, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said these UAVs had been in development before Russia invaded.
“The Air Force was working this. And in discussions with the Ukrainians, again, about their requirements, we believed that this particular system would very nicely suit their needs, particularly in eastern Ukraine . . . I would just tell you that this unmanned aerial system is designed for tactical operations. In other words, largely and but not exclusively to attack targets. It, like almost all unmanned aerial systems, of course, has optics. So it can also be used to give you a sight picture of what it's seeing, of course. But its principal focus is attack.” — Vice
Kirby more or less said nothing worth actually saying, so details remain light on the Phoenix Ghosts, but it’s believed that these “suicide drones” — they fly directly into a target and detonate on impact, kind of like Japanese kamikazes during WWII — can take off vertically, fly for six-plus hours searching for/tracking a target, and operate at night using its infrared sensors.
Switchblades, on the other hand, are smaller, cheaper, and tube-launched. They carry an explosive payload in the form of a fragmentation charge, and are piloted by dudes using a handheld Gameboy-looking controller.
Switchblades come in two variations: the 600 and the 300. The latter is designed to hit smaller and more precise targets, while the 600 is built to strike armored vehicles and tanks. The 300 is less than 2 feet long, weighs 5.5 pounds and can fly up to 15 minutes. The larger drone weighs 50 pounds and can fly for 40 minutes over a range of 25 miles. Both can be carried in a backpack and deployed by individual soldiers. According to the manufacturer, the drones can cruise at around 65 mph and come fitted with cameras and GPS systems. Notably, they can circle around defenses and dive vertically to destroy targets in trenches or foxholes, making most forms of cover useless, and, unlike shoulder-fired anti-tank missiles, they can hit with sniper-like accuracy from 6 miles away without giving away the firer’s location.
You don't necessarily need state-of-the-art drones to wreak havoc. You do, however, need a very solid internet connection. And thanks to that egotistical, juvenile, Nazi son-of-a-bitch Elon Musk — he of the companies specifically created to help the world, that selfish scumbag — the average Ukrainian probably has a better internet connection than you.
“Ukrainians are using the internet powered by Elon Musk's Starlink satellites to help target Russian tanks and trucks at night with drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras and anti-tank bombs.
When Russia first launched its invasion into Ukraine, officials asked Musk to turn on the satellites to ensure that Ukrainians had a stable internet connection. Over the past few weeks, Starlink has shipped thousands of terminals to the country, which have been used by Ukrainian officials who are providing constant updates on social media and messaging platforms like Telegram and regular people trying to document the war.” — WBZ National News
While we’re on the topic, Starlink hasn't just been integral to Ukrainian drones.
Think about that. Not Biden, not Boris, not NATO, but Musk’s Starlink—that’s what this Ukrainian grunt (n.b. - when I use “grunt,” I do so as a term of endearment) says changed the war in their favor. Sure, it's just one person's “opinion,” but I trust this guy’s opinion over anything proffered in the mainstream media's fare, and I'm inclined to agree with him. I wrote an entire post on the importance of comms not too long ago. But you and I both know, dear reader, there’s like a 95% chance that if you turn on CNN or MSNBC right now, they're probably (still) talking about how Elon Musk buying Twitter is A GREATER THREAT TO OUR DEMOCRACY THAN WHITE SUPREMACY!!!
But I digress.
During the first week on the invasion, 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 their drones for military use—the first time in history that a nation has “called up its civilian drones.”
And Ukraine has been very savvy in this regard, using low-cost hobbyist drones armed with modified VOG-17s, which are Soviet-era 30x120 mm fragmentation grenades with a kill radius of about 7m. Using a 3D-printer, they're creating fins that can be attached to the grenades, and this simple addition is enough to ensure a surprising degree of accuracy and aerodynamic performance from hundreds of feet up in the air.2
VOG-17 grenades contain only 36g (1.2oz) of explosives, meaning they're limited to anti-personnel use and can’t seriously damage armored vehicles. But Ukrainians are also using repurposed RKG-3s, old Soviet-era anti-tank grenades dating all the way back to the 1950s.
An RKG grenade has an odd strap-like lever (or “spoon”) that covers the base and runs up each side of the handle. When the pin is pulled, the spoon falls away, and, after it’s thrown, a spring deploys a four-panelled drogue parachute that stabilizes the grenade in flight and ensures that it strikes a target at a 90 degree angle, maximizing the effect of the shaped charge. The fuze in the handle activates the grenade. When the parachute deploys, its ejection throws a weight to the rear of the handle and disables the safety; upon impact, inertia causes the weight to fly forward and hit the spring-loaded firing pin, activating the primer detonator in the base.
Apparently, the “Ukrainian Mayak Plant enterprise” has been altering these RKG-3 grenades into what they now call “RKG-1600s.” They simply add tails and a delayed arming mechanism, along with a sensitive fuze that guarantees the grenade will detonate upon impact, thereby turning them into miniature bombs. During testing, these things were able to hit a target 1m in size from an altitude of 300m. At that altitude, the drone is virtually invisible and inaudible.
When they can't get their hands on any RKGs, drone operators have been using mortar rounds, which have been particularly effective against weakly armoured vehicles such as these Russian BMP-3s (with only about 10mm of top armour).
Thermal imaging and night vision equipment from the U.S. — which puts that of Russia to shame — has been priceless, especially on drones. Aerorozvidka, a tactical drone unit in Ukraine’s army with the Latin motto “Non dormies” (You will not sleep), has been hunting undisciplined Russian soldiers when the sun goes down. Using small drones equipped with thermal imagers, they've been searching for heat signals from Russian vehicles, which are often kept running at night because it's so cold. Each Russian exhaust spills its presence, white on black. They practically stand out like beacons in the infra-red.
Once located, the drone operators destroy the vehicles using either the munitions described supra, or by coordinating with artillery via Starlink satellite communications.
And remember when, during the first week of the invasion, Russia massed a 40-mile mechanized column in order to mount an overwhelming attack on Kyiv from the north, but the convoy was ground to an utter standstill, depriving units of desperately needed food, fuel, and water? That was in large part thanks to this same Aerorozvidka drone unit.
Apparently, about 30 of these dudes were able to approach the advancing Russian column at night by using quad bikes, riding through the forest on either side of the road and equipped with NVGs, sniper rifles, remotely detonated mines, and drones with thermal imaging cameras. And by destroying a few vehicles at the head of the convoy — just as we surmised in this here letter of news — they stopped it in its tracks.
It may seem a little underwhelming, but trust me, in addition to their value as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) assets, the novel way drones have been used in this conflict — i.e. - tracking Russian convoys and then relaying the images and GPS coordinates to Ukrainian troops — has revolutionized warfare. Even the smallest drone is an eye in the sky, the sort of thing that leaders on the ground have wanted since the inception of warfare itself—the ability to see what’s happening out of sight, perhaps in a defilade or behind a hill, or to recon a street without having to use soldiers. Now, a leader can carry on his person a foldable Mavic Mini 2 small enough to fit into a cargo pocket but able to send back HD video from three miles away for half an hour. Inestimable.
And the cost-effectiveness of these things is fantastic. You can buy an Octocopter Drone on Amazon for $435 right now. Meanwhile, a single BMP-3 costs Russia $796k—and that's without taking into account the lost crew. And while Russia has been using drones too, they're of a decidedly lesser quality and many are made in China. Perhaps that's why a woman in Kyiv was able to bring one down by throwing a jar of preserved tomatoes at it:
“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).” — Forbes
Speaking of artillery.
Russia has a significant advantage in the number of artillery pieces it possesses, but that advantage is diminishing. Fast.
The U.S. alone promised Zelensky nearly 190,000 artillery rounds, plus 90 howitzers to fire them. As of Thursday, more than half had arrived in Ukraine. It was recently confirmed that Canada is sending 155mm Excalibur rounds, which is a big deal. In all likelihood, the U.S. will be sending them too, if we haven't already done so.
These things are lethal, nation. They’re legitimate game-changers—basically a “cheat code” on the battlefield.3 An Excalibur artillery round uses GPS and inertial guidance systems to find its target, so it can be used in close support situations — within 75-150 meters of friendly troops — or in situations where targets may be too close to civilians to employ traditional artillery rounds.
The projectile’s mission computer uses an “Enhanced Portable Inductive Artillery Fuze Setter” to enter the target, platform, and other GPS-specific data. Each shell has a jam-resistant internal GPS receiver to update the inertial navigation system, meaning precision in-flight guidance is provided and dramatically improves accuracy to less than four meters miss distance regardless of range.
Ergo, Excalibur rounds should let Ukrainian soldiers capitalize on first-round effects, which basically means killing Russian targets before they can run for cover and hemming in potential squirters (survivors that make a run for it). Such precision would also facilitate an improved ability to destroy harder-to-reach high-value targets identified by drones.
Ukraine does appear to be getting laser-guided precision rocket systems, according to the State Department’s list, which could also offer an extremely impactful pinpoint capability to destroy some of Russia’s mobile command and control systems, launchers, and even moving vehicles.
The clip below comes from the Ukrainian National Guard, which destroyed a command post with “more than 30 pieces of Russian equipment” in the Kharkiv Oblast. Note the direct hit on the first shell.
It's unknown which rounds were used here, but reports say that yet another Russian general was killed in this barrage, suggesting it was a “decapitation” strike, wherein enemy leadership can be accurately targeted should commanders receive new intelligence about their movements or whereabouts. This would be the NINTH (!) Russian general taken out—an average of one a week thus far.
Update: The clip above purportedly shows an attack on the Russian headquarters in Izium that was intended to “liquidate” a specific high-value target: Chief of General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov, whom the Kremlin instructed to “get a victory for the May 9 parade.” It's believed 40 senior Russian officers were gathered at the time of the barrage, and that upwards of 20 were killed, including General Andrey Simonov. Gerasimov was wounded. Per Zelensky aide Oleksiy Arestovych, Ukraine has killed over 200 Russians (including 30 senior officers) with precision strikes on several Russian military headquarters in the past five days, so it's very possible they've already started capitalizing on Excalibur munitions.
Planning on going more in-depth on this in an upcoming post.
It kind of brings to mind a group of nihilistic prepubescents who, having grown bored with dropping water balloons on unsuspecting citizens, decide to take things up a notch and jerry-rig some fireworks to explode on impact.