Early in the morning of August 25, a group of drone developers headed to a launch site in southern Ukraine to conduct one of the most daring air missions yet over Russian-controlled territory: an attack on a military base deep in Crimea.
It was a test launch, with many drone association prototypes being experimental. But some did their job. There were explosions inside the base and several dead, wounded soldiers flocked to the local hospital, according to local sources.
That was the sad culmination of a miserable week for the Kremlin, which was already struggling to provide an explanation for more than a dozen drone strikes in the heart of Moscow, repeated closures of major airports, and mysterious explosions at weapons factories, airfields, fuel depots and railroads.
Risky test start at the Russian border
A source close to the developers of Morok (“dark spirit”), one of the prototype drones used in the Crimea operation, says Ukraine’s new airstrike capability is the result of “seeds planted many months ago.”
During the development work on Morok, a “miraculous” event occurred: after a risky test launch a few kilometers from the Russian border, the developers escaped the incoming Russian missiles by a hair’s breadth. Now they want to push series production.
The Morok is fast and can carry a heavy payload hundreds of miles. It is among the promising fixed-wing kamikaze drones shortlisted by Ukraine.
The project has made it through largely without government funding, relying on hard work and a few well-wishers. However, like other developers, the Morok team faces the difficult task of raising the resources to scale up the project.
Old anti-aircraft missile S-200 now used as a surface-to-surface missile
The Ukrainian drone program was born out of necessity. Russia, a missile superpower, entered the war with a clear superiority in long-range missile capability.
Later, Russia bought cheap, effective Shahed kamikaze drones from Iran. Ukraine, on the other hand, was not allowed to use the weapons supplied by the West in Russia, so it looked for other ways to retaliate.
Part of the answer lies in developing new missiles or converting old ones: the old S-200 anti-aircraft missile is now being used as a surface-to-surface missile.
The upgraded S-200 missiles have been responsible for some of the recent attacks in Russian-controlled areas. Meanwhile, a network of volunteers and government groups are striving to develop better domestically-made drones.
The drone action is now being intensified for a number of reasons. The attacks on Moscow, which made headlines, are intended to have a psychological impact and bring the reality of the war closer to ordinary Russians. However, Ukrainian military insiders say most of their operations are simply supporting the three-month-old counteroffensive.
Ukraine has developed algorithms
Much of this is too commonplace to make headlines. Drones are targeting “fuel depots, logistics, ammunition dumps and delivery routes,” says Detective, the pseudonym of a drone coordinator for Ukraine’s military intelligence.
“We are responding to calls from our brigades. They tell us they know where Russian weapons are stored but have no way of destroying them and they are asking us for help.” Detective says much of his work lately has focused on airfields near the Ukrainian border. This “could” include the recent attack that hit a Tu-22M strategic bomber stationed near Novgorod, he adds with a wink
Russia’s extensive air defense and electronic warfare capabilities require careful planning for any Ukrainian attack. Ukraine has developed algorithms that seem to work.
The operators take off early in the morning (when the defenders’ concentration may have slipped) and use a specific attack order to keep the air defenses occupied. They collect intelligence information (often from Western partners) on radars, electronic warfare and air defense installations. Russia cannot lock down its entire vast territory.
Bureaucracy, corruption and self-interest in Ukraine’s defense industry
“Once you get past the 60-kilometer jammers at the border, you’re in the Russian hinterland and the game begins,” the Morok source said. About 35-40 percent of drones make it within close range of the target. Feedback on the success of an attack is collected from satellites, tracking devices, social media reports, and local agents.
Unusually, Ukraine’s drone program does not have a unified command or procurement structure. Several state organizations, including all secret services, have their own drone programs. Freelance developers are also involved. These components are organized into cells that do not communicate with each other.
This is for security and competition, but can make optimization and mass production difficult. The central government, particularly the Ministry of Digital Transformation, has tried to streamline funding and cut bureaucracy.
But bureaucracy, corruption and self-interest in Ukraine’s defense industry continue to hamper development. Some of the Moscow-focused operations seem more like PR projects designed to draw the attention of procurement agencies to a prototype than have any military value.
Russia is likely to stockpile
Funding is not the only obstacle to expanding production. Cheap components and electronics are hard to come by. The same applies to aviation specialists. Russia is better off in this respect: although slow to take off, it has now started mass production.
With unlimited budgets, Russian state companies have made the war’s most effective weapons their top priority. These include versatile Kh-101 cruise missiles, wings to convert free-fall bombs into glide bombs, Lancet strike drones capable of knocking out Ukrainian armor and anti-aircraft defenses, and Iranian Shaheds reportedly being manufactured at a new factory in Tatarstan.
A senior source in Ukraine’s intelligence service said Russia is likely to stock up for another attack on energy infrastructure next winter.
On the front lines, Russia has wiped out Ukraine’s initial three-to-one lead in tactical drones. According to a source close to Ukraine’s supreme commander, the two sides are now level.
New electronic warfare jammers attached to tanks and other high-value objects, meanwhile, are limiting the ability of Ukrainian FPV drones to direct their payload to the most vulnerable areas of a target.
Both sides learn from each other
A source in Ukraine’s general staff says the technological lead his country once had was bound to be temporary. Both sides are learning from each other, he says, and the reverse engineering is accelerating: “We had the experience defending against Russian drones, and we got better quickly. They will too.”
Ukraine will have to come up with new asymmetric methods of using drones, including using artificial intelligence to improve accuracy. The government has earmarked a new budget position of 40 billion hryvnia ($1.1 billion) for drones – a huge sum for Ukraine.
Detective says he regularly receives calls from the front lines thanking him for his last successful attack. “The callers say how much they appreciate not having been hit by Russian bombs for two or three days,” he says. “Calls like this make up for the difficulties that the job entails.”