At the Donetsk Airport, a handful of Ukrainian military men by Jan. 19 had been fighting off the Russian-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, orDPR, for months. Much of the airport structure had been obliterated. The once-smooth runway was a lunar landscape of debris, craters and blast marks. A small eight-rotor drone rose up form the ruin and ascends out toward the battlefield, sending live video of DPR artillery positions to the Ukrainian military. A target enemy tank was selected. The men of the Aerorozvidka (air reconnaissance) project who piloted the drone from nearby Debalcevo watched as a missile hurled toward an enemy tank like a soccer ball to the net. “We need a goal! We need a goal!” they chanted and erupted with cheers as the shell destroyed the tank in a fireball.
While drones have been an aspect of U.S. wars for a decade, the Ukrainian conflict represents the most significant use of drones in warfare on two opposite sides of a battlefield.
Groups like DPR use highly sophisticated Russian-made unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, to collect data to target missiles and artillery fire, which has proven to be an enormous advantage on the battlefield. When Steven Pifer, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and a delegation went to the front lines of the conflict to assess how the United States could help, Ukrainian commanders requested jamming equipment and radar to better intercept Russian drones. They also asked for as well as American-made military drones, like Reapers (though not necessarily armed).
Even if the Obama administration decides to supply the Ukrainian military with requested drones, the U.S. hasn’t had much success getting already approved aid out to Ukrainian forces in a timely or consistent way. The war refuses to wait. So, in garages, research labs and bunkers in places from Kiev to Debalcevo to Chicago, Ukrainian solders and citizens are trying to get military drones to the front lines.
Picture: U.S. Air Force photo by Lt Col Leslie Pratt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons