LUHANSK REGION, Ukraine — Flying above enemy lines, a Ukrainian reconnaissance drone sends a clear image back to soldiers hiding in a basement a few kilometres away: A Russian armored vehicle is idling along a key logistics route, looking like easy prey in the artillery-scarred green landscape.
Then, in a flash, the image disappears, and the drone operator’s screen is replaced by a jumble of black and white pixels.
“Snow,” says a calm commander known by the battlefield name Giocondo, who allowed The Associated Press to follow him and his unit of drone pilots on condition of anonymity to protect their identities. High-tech warfare cuts two ways, and the Russians use electronic beams to disable the drone’s signals.
Seconds later, the drone pilot switches to a frequency the Russians cannot easily exploit. The bird’s-eye image of the armored vehicle reappears, and a second drone – this one laden with explosives – is quickly launched. It zips towards the target.
Nineteen months into the Russian attack, and as a grueling counteroffensive grinds on, the Ukrainian government wants to spend more than $1 billion to upgrade its drone-fighting capabilities. Whether used for reconnaissance, dropping bombs or self-exploding on impact, drones save money, and soldiers’ lives. They are also more precise than traditional artillery — which is in short supply — and can deliver outsized impacts, such as real-time mapping of the battlefield, destroying tanks and ships, and bringing Russian advances to a halt.
The advantages of drones can be fleeting, however. The Russian army, which relies on Iranian expertise for its own horde of deadly drones, quickly catches up each time Giocondo’s unit gains an edge. Success, he says, lies in constant battlefield iteration and innovation.
Ukraine’s minister for digital transformation, Mykhailo Federov, says the government is committed to building a state-of-the-art “army of drones” and that its value to the war effort will be evident by the end of this year. The country has already trained more than 10,000 new drone pilots this year.