The world’s largest producer of titanium is located in the small city of Verkhnyaya Salda, Russia, about 1,800 kilometers east of Moscow. In fact, Russia is so blessed with an abundance of this tough, light, heat- and corrosion-resistant metal, that it once made whole submarines out of titanium. Unsurprisingly, Russian fighter jets like the Sukhoi Su-30 make heavy use of lightweight titanium alloys in their airframes, and more use of titanium in their engines. It may be five times more costly than alternatives, but for the best performance, it’s worth it.
Over the weekend, four of those Su-30 jets, along with a MiG-29, were destroyed by a squadron of aircraft launched from Ukraine. Those aircraft were made from cardboard and rubber bands.
The cost of an Su-30 is currently estimated to be about $40 million. The cost of the Sypaq Corvo drones that took them out starts at a reported $670. Russia claims it shot down two of the pelican-sized cardboard drones. But it didn’t stop the rest from taking out not only those jets, but—and this is kind of hilarious—a pair of Pantsir anti-aircraft guns and an S-300 surface-to-air missile battery. Even if Ukraine used a dozen of those drones to take out these targets, the cost-to-destruction ratio was about 25,000:1.
Welcome to a new world.
It’s been a long time since we cranked out the incomplete and badly outdated Field Guide to Drones of Ukraine. The Sypaq drone was not in there, which isn’t surprising. Almost everything that’s flying around the heads of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers today was absent from that list.
Battlefield evolution is fast.
When the illegal invasion of Ukraine began, the most important drones on the battlefield were large, complex, and expensive systems like the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2. At about $5 million each, these drones definitely undercut the cost of a modern fighter jet, and their long range and variety of weapons certainly give them an array of uses. Early in the war, the Bayraktar played a critical role in uplifting Ukrainian morale and generating some real (if small) victories that helped sustain the nation until it was able to reverse the tide around Kyiv.
The Bayraktar is still effective. Still impressive. Still out there knocking down targets.
But the biggest change in the past year has been the rise of two different forms of what, at the war’s outset, were known as “kamikaze drones.” That is, drones that don’t just carry bombs—they are bombs.
One of those is the type of drone most associated with Ukraine’s “army of drones,” the low-cost, first-person view (FPV) quadcopter steered by an operator wearing a set of augmented reality goggles. The most common of these drones is either of two versions of this FPV drone from China’s Shenzhen DJI Sciences and Technologies Ltd, usually known as just DJI.
A newer version of this drone came out earlier this year with some considerable advantages, but the older version is still widely available at a reduced price, so its skeletonized body is often what’s attached to a grenade that’s capable of doing this:
Ukraine is also producing FPV drones domestically, as well as sourcing them from other producers. However, the DJI drones are, for the moment, appreciated for their stability, ease of use, and for the robustness of their communications systems.
While purpose-built kamikaze drones like the U.S.-manufactured Switchblades were looked on as a potential game-changer earlier in the war, these FPV drones have turned out to be the terrors of the air. Similar small quadcopters that are controlled with a screen, rather than FPV goggles, are often used in dropping grenades into trenches or in a combination of reconnaissance and opportunistic attack. Pairing the regular quadcopters and the FPV drones has made the battlefield vastly more unpredictable and deadly for front-line forces.
At longer range, larger drones with more independent operation are vital for attacking targets like those Su-30s that were taken out on a Kursk airfield. But even there, the cost of entry has gone way down. Not only are the cardboard terrors from Sypaq cheap and easy, but their structure and low-slow flight makes them hard to spot on conventional radar, where they reportedly look much like birds. Only these birds are capable of carrying 5 kilograms of payload and ranging well over 100 kilometers.
Take one step up to reach the Chinese-made Mungin-6, which is another drone now frequently used by the Ukrainian military. At $14,500 (cheaper in bulk), these drones have electric motors to give them vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), a gas-powered motor for range, and a lifting capacity of 20 kg.
Are these drones suitable for reconnaissance, dropping bombs, or as an alternative to a precision-guided missile? Yes, yes, and yes. Just as with the smaller FPV drones, Ukraine is also making its own version of these larger drones. Those home-grown drones are likely what’s been repeatedly finding its way into the financial district of Moscow.
A review of recent losses on both sides shows over and over that the majority of vehicles and artillery are being lost to direct impact by drones, with “kamikaze” drones playing a larger role.
It’s been that way for weeks now. Even where drones aren’t the direct cause of loss, they’re the primary means by which artillery, and even aircraft, are identifying targets at range. Cheap, ubiquitous drones mean that even when they are not being used as guided missiles or to drop grenades onto troops, they are providing precise coordinates for artillery strikes and immediate feedback on targeting efficiency. Drones aren’t just becoming more deadly by the day, they are also making every other ranged weapon on the battlefield more effective.
There’s another factor in addition to the falling cost/rising capability curve that is making drone swarms so deadly: ease of training. It takes much less time to make someone a proficient user of an FPV drone or quadcopter than it does to train them in driving a tank or performing most traditional military roles. Both sides are making increasing use of drone operators who have limited combat training, but who have skills with drones which, unlike many pieces of military hardware, can be easily learned and drilled in small groups away from military bases. Drone schools are operating apart from other military training, and volunteers—even those who may have physical issues that keep them from shouldering a pack—are signing up.
Handing a new recruit a rifle and sending them to the front line with less than a month’s training is likely to end with a dead recruit. Putting that same recruit at the control of a drone may keep them out of harm’s way as they acquire skill and real-world experience. They may lose a few drones in the process, but that’s a low cost for a better-trained operator.
Ukraine is showing a future in which the most effective agents of death are not large, complex, hard-to-maintain systems, but systems that are cheap, plentiful, and operated by troops with minimal training. Both Russia and Ukraine are struggling to integrate this into their tactics.
It’s not clear that this democratization of discount destruction is a factor that anyone should welcome. But it’s certainly one that will be difficult to stop.
The State Department has announced a new package of military assistance for Ukraine.
It includes AIM-9M missiles for air defense, munitions for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, 155mm and 105mm artillery ammunition, mine-clearing equipment, Javelin and other anti-armor systems and rockets, over 3 million rounds of small arms ammunition, ambulances, demolition munitions for obstacle clearing, as well as spare parts, services, training, and transportation.
Ukrainian deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar says that Ukraine’s military has captured “dominant heights” around Bakhmut, leaving the Russian army “trapped” in the city.
This statement follows news in the past few days that, in addition to Klishchiivka, Ukraine has moved to capture the nearby towns of Andriivka and Kurdyumivka. However, at last report Russian forces are still on the heights northwest of Bakhmut at Dubovo-Vasylivka, and Russia has uninterrupted access to defensive lines to the east so … “trapped” would seem to be overselling Ukraine’s gains in the area.
If Ukraine moved north from the position at Berkhivka, it would seem possible to cut off those Russian forces on higher ground, but positions in the area northwest of Bakhmut haven’t shifted much in the past two months.
Ukraine’s holding of the ridgeline running west of Klishchiivka gives them strong tactical advantage and fire control over the lower ground to the east. Why Ukraine is expending effort at this point to occupy towns in the lower area, and to liberate positions to the south, isn’t clear. It may be a matter of trying to keep Russia engaged in the area to prevent Russian forces from relocating to the southern front. It may be exploiting weakness generated by Russian forces that have already left.
Because I was out of pocket for several weeks,, the upkeep of maps and the details behind those maps have suffered. At this point there are several sources with a better grip on deployment of units and placement of defensive positions who are providing regularly updated maps. I will likely switch to one of these sources soon rather than continue to try and modify my out-of-date maps.
However, before I hit the big “off” button on Google Earth, here’s something of a look at how things have changed over the previous week in the area around Robotyne, because I don’t think the news of marginal gains here and there really reflects how much has happened.
The first map shows where things were about a week ago, shortly after Ukrainian forces had broken through Russian positions and entered the northern part of Robotyne.
The second map shows where things are a week later—and it’s probably conservative.
Ukraine has not just taken Robotyne: They’ve advanced along a 15 km section of the front, occupying tactical high ground, clearing defensive positions, and holding their advances against multiple Russian attempts to counterattack. That little finger of blue reaches out toward the dragon’s teeth and large tank trench to the south, which represents the next obstacle. There are sources out there that have Ukraine already engaged in clearing those defenses. This is unconfirmed, though Ukrainian drones are certainly working against Russian vehicles parked behind the next set of Russian defenses.
This map from analyst Def Mon provides a better sense of where Ukraine is now relative to Russia’s prepared defensive lines.
There are also reports that Ukraine has advanced to the southeast, reaching the outskirts of Verbove. This is also unconfirmed (and it’s hard to believe that they would make such a move without pausing to broaden any breach of Russian defenses).