Warplanes: The Many War Drones in Ukraine


June 8, 2023: The Ukraine War saw a lot of innovations and many of them involved the innovative use of commercial UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) like the Chinese Mavic quadcopters. Ukrainians also designed and built their own UAVs or heavily modified commercial models like Mavic. Russian soldiers also use Mavic quadcopters when they can get them. Corruption in Russia makes importing Mavic quadcopters difficult. This isn’t just about Mavic because corruption became more widespread in Russia after the Ukraine War and the subsequent sanctions disrupted the Russian economy. The government bureaucracy in Russia discourages and disrupts any private efforts to design and build not merely UAVs, but private efforts to build most anything which might compete with government ways of building or doing things. Because that will interfere with government corruption. Ukrainians have noticed that one of their assets in the war is the disruptive effect the Russian bureaucracy has on the Russian military.

While there is some corruption in Ukraine, there is also a lot more popular anger and active opposition to any corruption hurting the war effort. Less corruption in wartime Ukraine means there are a lot more opportunities for innovation without interference from some corrupt official or supplier. Russian troops still had a lot of UAVs but not as many as the Ukrainians and not with all the innovations found in many Ukrainian UAVs. This made a difference and still does, even though the Russians have been quick to use new forms of jamming to disrupt or destroy Ukrainian UAVs. Both sides suffer heavy (in the thousands) UAV losses each month and Ukraine, with NATO support and unencumbered by economic sanctions, is able to maintain a UAV edge on the battlefield.

Ukrainians were particularly adept at modifying quadcopters to carry explosives. If the operator found an enemy tank or lighter armored vehicle with a top hatch open, the vehicle could be destroyed when an explosive was dropped through the open hatch. The explosives were often used against Russian troops in foxholes or open trenches. This capability is bad for Russian morale and the Ukrainians made the most of it.

DJI quadcopters are popular with military customers worldwide, as well as with gangsters, drug smugglers and Islamic terrorists. American forces were banned from using DJI products from 2017 to 2020 because of fears that DJI, which thrives, and survives by cooperating with the Chinese government, might have hidden capabilities in the control software that would enable DJI quadcopters to be monitored by the Chinese, especially in wartime. Several years of trying to prove this failed to discover anything and the American ban was quietly dropped.

The ban on military use of DJI quadcopters was not universal, even among NATO countries. But many NATO members did avoid DJI and found that alternatives were more expensive and less capable. For example, in 2021 the French military ordered 300 ANAFI USA micro-UAVs from Parrot, a French firm that is the largest European designer and manufacturer of consumer and commercial UAVs. The ANAFI USA model was developed in response to a 2019 U.S. Army order for a militarized quadcopter that was similar to the banned DJI products. That was considered difficult to do because DJI had a huge head start, especially with flight control software and reliability.

The American military determined that Parrot was best suited for this contract because there were few Western firms as capable as Parrot. The French military spent $36 million not just for the purchase of 300 ANAFI quadcopters. The five-year deal includes Parrot developing new ANAFI features to meet specific needs of army, navy and air force users.

One of the first users will be French special operations units. The ANAFI quadcopter is a militarized version of a similar, but lighter (at 300 grams), consumer model. ANAFI weighs 500 grams (1.1 pound), has endurance of 32 minutes and standard equipment is a day/night vidcam using military-grade communications. Parrot carries two 4K (21 megapixel) vidcams with 32X zoom and the ability to identify man-sized targets two kilometers distant plus useful detail in general at up to five kilometers. There is also a thermal sensor on the Parrot that works with the 4k vidcam and enables the operator to see hot spots superimposed over the video image. The flight software is as capable as DJT models and uses no Internet access. An additional security feature is the flight control software being regularly audited to ensure that no new features have compromised security. ANAFI is very quiet and is inaudible when about 130 meters away. ANAFI can be ready for use in less than a minute and is designed to be used after brief training. For experienced quad-copter users, ANAFI is very familiar and training consists of explaining the unique security and military features.

ANAFI is also built to accept accessories that generate digital maps and thermal videos. This kind of flexibility is a major feature of Parrot commercial quadcopters and one reason for its market dominance in Europe. The ANAFI is being delivered to French forces as systems, each with two quad-copters, additional batteries and operator controllers.

Parrot does have some competition in the military market. Since 2015 Israeli firms have designed and built several quadcopters for military and police use. In 2016 the Israeli military bought some locally made Roetm L UAVs for their infantry to use in urban combat. Rotem L is a lightweight (4.5 kg/10 pound) quad-copter based on commercial designs, but modified so that it not only carries the usual day/night cameras but can also replace the cameras with two 450g (one pound) grenades which can be armed and released by operator command. With 30-minute endurance and easily learned operation, Rotem L can be carried (in a case) by one man, set up and ready to go in a minute or so and recovered for reuse. The controller has a range of up to 10 kilometers but in a dense urban environment, the max range is more like 1,500 meters. The major advantage of Rotem L is that it is quiet and can be flown through open doors or windows. Carrying one or no grenades allows Rotem L to stay airborne for up to 45 minutes. The grenades can be triggered while still aboard Rotem L to provide a self-destruct mechanism. If Rotem L lands with live grenades aboard, the operator can double-check the armed status of the grenades before recharging it for another mission. Rotem L can be used unarmed by police or carry tear gas and flash-bang grenades. Rotem L is expensive, costing over $10,000 each. Military users prefer to use it equipped with vidcams and use the “cruise missile” option only when forced to. Israel firms offer less expensive unarmed quadcopters for military and police use.

Parrot was competitive with the Israeli designs and offered to build ANAFI USA in the U.S. as well as demonstrating it could incorporate military-grade security features and a quad-copter that matched Israeli and Chinese designs in flexibility, features and price. Parrot had another advantage because France was a NATO member and this made it easier for French firms to meet NATO standards that enabled all NATO members to easily purchase Parrot UAVs.

NATO troops in places like Syria, Iraq, Mali and Afghanistan found that both Islamic terrorist and local security forces were eager users of high-end Chinese-made DJI commercial quadcopters. A particular favorite is the DJI Matrice 200/210. This is an industrial-grade quadcopter costing up to $20,000 each. The DJI 210 weighs 4.7 kg (10.3 pounds) and can carry up to 1.45 kg (3.2 pounds) of cameras, additional batteries or improvised weapons. Max endurance is about 30 minutes and top speed is 60 kilometers an hour. When under user control the 210 can operate up to eight kilometers away although five kilometers is more common. The 210 can be programmed to use its GPS/GLONASS navigation system to cover a specific route and return. If the control system is lost for any reason, the quadcopter will automatically return to where it started and land. While the 210 is mainly used for surveillance and reconnaissance, some have been equipped with an explosive dispenser. Anything from grenades to IEDs (improvised explosive devices) can be used. The 210 can be rigged as a one-way “cruise-missile” but that is expensive and increasingly common with groups backed by Iran as well as other well-funded Islamic terrorists. High-end models like the 210 are favored because they are rugged and can handle wind and incorporate obstacle avoidance. This is important when operating in urban areas, forests or at night using a night-vision camera.

While popular with Islamic terrorists, gangsters and less-well equipped police and military units, Western forces tended to avoid DJI products because of fears that China may have ordered the manufacturer to include secret features that would allow the Chinese military to disable or take-control of DJI products. No one has ever found such a “back door” in the quadcopter software and these Chinese quadcopters, especially those made by DJI, are the most popular models worldwide. That’s because DJI models offered are the best value as well as being the most reliable.

Sometimes these bans were issued after troops had already obtained and were using DJI quadcopters. For example, in early 2018 the U.S. Marine Corps announced a new squad and platoon organization, based on its experience so far this century, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the unique changes to the new 12-man squad was that each one would get a commercial quadcopter. These were smaller, more compact models costing less than two thousand dollars each. The Marines had already bought 600 and ordered another 200 when the U.S. Department of Defense ordered a ban on the use of Chinese quadcopters. The Marines did manage to get an exemption to the new ban and sought government approved to purchase commercial quadcopters. These are out there but none as inexpensive as the Chinese models. The complaints about the DJI ban from military users in the United States and other NATO countries played a role in the ban being lifted in 2020.

The U.S. Army banned the use of DJI quadcopters in 2017. The troops had been encountering these DJI quadcopters in combat zones for years and some troops had bought them with their own money to use (successfully) in combat. It’s no secret that DJI quadcopters have been showing up in combat zones with increasing frequency since 2014. Initially the most popular of these was the DJI Phantom quadcopter. The Phantom 3 showed up in 2015. It costs about a thousand dollars, weighs 3.9 kg (8.6 pounds), can stay in the air about 20 minutes per flight and can go up to 2,000 meters from the operator. The operator can see (at 720p resolution) what is under the Phantom using a small display and capture a higher resolution video (“2.7k” or 1080p) on a 16 GB micro memory card on the UAV. The Phantom 3 was widely available. It is easy to operate and has flight control software that makes it easy to operate and keeps the video image stable. You can equip these with a night vision camera. Max altitude is over 500 meters (1,600 feet) but most Phantoms operate lower down because getting to higher altitude takes time. DJI kept upgrading its Phantom line of quadcopters from the moment the first one hit the market in 2013. The Phantom 1 was basically a quadcopter you could add your own GoPro wireless vidcam to. But every few months DJI added new features and major upgrades were introduced as a new model. Phantom 2 appeared at the end of 2013, Phantom 3 in early 2015 and Phantom 4 a year later. Phantom 3 was the most popular model and Phantom 4 was basically a Phantom 3 with lots more capabilities (4K video, video transmission range of five kilometers) and a higher price (about $1,500 each). New models of the Phantom continued to appear, sometimes just with a few new features and a lower price. New features include collision avoidance sensors and software. The Phantom line was replaced by the Mavic and Matrice which included low (Mavic) and high end (Matrice) models. Year by year the capabilities of the DJI quadcopters increased and the troops were not happy that they could not use them but the enemy could and did.

For combat troops cost is an important feature because something low-cost and capable in the combat zone equipment is quickly worn out. This is especially true with quadcopters. As a result, the troops have become accustomed to buying commercial products whenever they can get away with it.




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