The Ukraine drone pilot school teaching the new rules of war

The conflict marks a step change in the scale and sophistication of aerial warfare - and Kyiv is determined not to be outflanked

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Leaning in close over the monitor, the two trainees minutely adjust their drone's position over the target.

A few hundred metres from where they sit concentrating, their aircraft hovers over an abandoned lorry being used for target practice.

As they manipulate the controls, 100 metres above the snowy ground the drone's eight whirring rotors respond immediately to their directions.

Confident they are lined up correctly, the trainees release the dummy bomb. It drops silently through the freezing air before crashing noisily on to the lorry's cab.

The drone zips back to the landing site where it is reloaded and the pilots see if they can score another bullseye.

I am here in snow-covered parkland on the outskirts of Kyiv, watching trainee volunteer drone pilots learn how to master the controls of their unmanned aircraft.

Within days the young pilots may be doing this for real against Russian forces in Donetsk or Zaporizhzhia, part of a squadron of civilian-flown drones that embody one of the defining technological advances of the war.

The ominous whirr of drone rotors has joined shellfire and gunshots to form the soundtrack to the war along the country's front lines.

Both sides use hundreds, if not thousands, of drones. The Ukrainians have taken supplies of Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 armed drones. These unmanned aircraft can fly at 25,000 feet before swooping down to attack targets. Meanwhile, the Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial System is a loitering munition able to hover for up to six hours conducting surveillance before dropping and blowing up a small target ― such as a person. The US also provided 700 of its Switchblade kamikaze drones.

For its part, Russia has augmented its domestic drone forces with shipments of the Iranian Shahed 136 unmanned aerial vehicles and launched hundreds of these drones at Ukraine's cities and civilian infrastructure.

The one-way, or kamikaze, aircraft typically fly over urban areas before nosediving and detonating their 40kg warheads.

It is not only military designed or battlefield types of drones that have had an effect ― there is a makeshift fleet of re-purposed and adapted commercial drones and, on the Ukrainian side at least, bespoke home-made craft.

These unmanned civilian craft act as spies, as spotters to guide in artillery strikes, or as bombers themselves by dropping munitions on enemies below.

The Ukrainians' drone effort relies on an army of hobbyists, enthusiasts, engineers and students who have lent their skills and know-how to the military.

“War is a very dynamic story,” says Serhiy Ristenko, the instructor training the new pilots in open ground outside Kyiv.

“Now many organisations are engaged not only in the purchase of drones, but also in training.”

Before Russia's full-scale invasion in February, he was an amateur drone enthusiast using his craft to take landscape photographs around the capital.

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He has since turned his drone skills to warfare in the country's east and the south, working for a drone group called Aerorozvidka, which consists of hundreds of volunteers.

“I have dead occupiers to my credit,” he told the National.

Aerorozvidka has been operating since Vladimir Putin's 2014 annexation of Crimea and his encroachment into eastern Ukraine.

Drone hobbyists quickly saw the advantage that even cheap hobby drones could provide for the country's overwhelmed and beleaguered forces.

“Drones are important for reconnaissance because they save lives and you don't have to physically go and risk yourself,” Mr Ristenko says

“It is also the accuracy of information.

“The commander can operate on data from a distance, having images and data from the drone that he can share with a tank or artillery unit.”

Ukrainians believe the flexibility and ingenuity of their volunteer drone groups give them an edge over Russia's military. Getty Images

Drones that can drop small bombs were next, sometimes custom made and sometimes adapted from common commercially available models.

Aerorozvidka's engineers and volunteers now build its own eight-rotor craft called the R-18, which can carry a hefty payload of 5kg. Each set for the battlefield costs about $45,000, including costly thermal cameras to work at night, a control point and a ground radio station.

Soviet-era RKG-3 anti-tank grenades are fitted with 3D printed tails to turn them into bombs that can be dropped.

“We usually use this drone to destroy equipment and vehicles that cannot be reached by artillery or infantry,” he says. “Our drone is like a flying mortar.”

A Ukrainian serviceman about to launch a drone on the outskirts of Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine. AFP

Similar outfits produce other drones, or modify cheap commercial drones, such as the DJI Mavic series.

The results can be seen in a steady stream of videos shared by both sides on social media with bombs dropped on to vehicles, or into foxholes and trenches.

While Russian forces also use drones to deadly effect, the Ukrainians believe the flexibility and ingenuity of their volunteer drone groups give them an edge.

Another drone operator, Yevhen, said that while the Ukrainian military could still be hidebound and full of bureaucracy at the higher levels, individual commanders had scope to take their own decisions and were prepared to take risks and use new tools.

Units at the front often approach drone workshops and groups like Aerorozvidka. Craft were bought by donations and crowd-funding.

“The first unofficial motto of Aerorozvidka was 'We fight with our heads',” he said. “We must be super efficient to defeat the enemy.”

Small civilian-designed drones have been used in previous conflicts, including the Syrian war, but analysts say the Ukraine conflict is a step change in the scale and sophistication of their use.

The most sensitive part of the drone contest between Ukraine and Russia is electronic warfare, says Maxim Sheremet, an engineering academic who runs his own drone production line manned by his students.

The adversaries are in a battle to jam or block their opponent's remotely controlled aircraft, with the Russian side particularly adept at using electronic interference.

Back at the drone flying school, the trainees have several days more teaching ahead of them.

By the time they reach this stage, they often already have significant experience on smaller drones, but need to master the controls of the R-18, Mr Ristenko says.

“Probably the most difficult part of training is controlling a drone, because our drone has its own nuances and it differs from those drones that students previously operated,” he says.

“Usually, we spend one to two days on the theory of flight techniques, and then the practice of aiming and dropping bombs.”

The pool of skilled pilots is becoming larger and they are willing to share their expertise, he says. There is also no shortage of willing recruits.

Drones have become so ubiquitous in the war that he sees their use becoming a standard part of military tactics and training.

“Now there are talks about making training in drone control mandatory for military personnel, that is, a person who joins the army learns not only how to shoot, but also how to fly a drone.”

Updated: January 13, 2023, 6:00 PM
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