Inside an overnight mission with a Ukrainian drone unit stalking Russian troops

The soldiers drove up to an abandoned holiday home, somewhere along the Oskil River in northeast Ukraine in late February. The night was clear and still — a sharp contrast to the daylight hours filled with the near-constant boom of artillery fire. 

The only interruption to the darkness was the flash of a Russian airstrike somewhere in the near distance, painting the horizon with a flood of orange light for a brief second.

The slow whir of a descending drone overhead broke the silence. “Is that one of ours?” one of the soldiers asked another. The reply: “I sure hope so.” 

As Ukraine sits outgunned and outnumbered, these men — part of an elite drone unit searching for Russian troops in the dead of night — are playing an ever greater role in its defence.

Ukraine is now using an enormous amount of drones — by some counts, it is acquiring as many as 50,000 first-person view (FPV) drones per month.

Ukraine on Tuesday launched a series of long-range drone attacks into eight regions of Russia, hitting at least two oil facilities, according to Russian officials. 

With Ukraine’s ammunition stocks running low, drones — such as the ones operated by these men near Kupiansk — are playing an ever more important role.
With Ukraine’s ammunition stocks running low, drones — such as the ones operated by these men near Kupiansk, Ukraine — are playing an ever more important role. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

The country’s minister of digital transformation stated recently that Ukraine aims to build one million drones this year, in addition to those it buys from abroad. 

Last month, Canada’s defence minister, Bill Blair, announced that the federal government would be donating 800 drones to Ukraine. 

But Russia has ramped up its drone production even further: the highest estimates placing its monthly acquisitions at 300,000.

Russian advances

It’s no secret that the past few months have been difficult ones for Ukraine. As Western aid has lagged, with a U.S. military package held up in Congress for months, Russian forces have pressed the advantage. 

They recently conquered the fortress town of Avdiivka, in Ukraine’s southeast, forcing the beleaguered defenders to withdraw in the face of overwhelming firepower and handing Moscow its most significant battlefield victory since the capture of Bakhmut last May. 

All eyes are now on what will be the next Russian target. 

One likely candidate is Kupiansk, a previously occupied town in Kharkiv province, where the Russians have allegedly amassed over 40,000 troops and 500 tanks for an assault. The intensity of Russian attacks in the area has steadily ramped up in recent weeks, portending a larger battle to come.

It’s against this background that Ukraine’s drone operators, like the unit along the Oskil River, have grown in importance.

Drone manoeuvres in the dark

As the half-dozen men under his command began their silent preparation for the night’s first mission, Roman, the unit’s commander, pointed across the river.

“Just down there, maybe a kilometre away, are the Russians,” he whispered. “They are close enough that it is dangerous to even smoke a cigarette out here. There are snipers working, and they can see the light.”  

All of the Ukrainian soldiers interviewed only identified themselves by their call sign or first name, as per the army’s restriction for active-duty military personnel.

Men attach equipment to a drone under red lighting in a dark room.
A Vampire night vision drone is outfitted with bombs and grenades. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

Roman’s men steadied the drone on a clearing outside an abandoned home. This particular drone, sporting six rotors, is known as a “Vampire” for its night vision optics. Four bombs — three 82-mm mortar rounds and an incendiary grenade — were affixed to it before it quietly whirred into the air.

“We must head to the bunker now,” Roman said, gesturing to a cellar entrance a few metres away. “The Russians will send their own drones soon.”

In the cellar, four men sat fixed on an array of tablet computers. Each one displayed a different video feed, flittering between live drone imagery and satellite maps of the location being surveyed.

“One of the other drones working in the area has spotted a Russian trench,” Roman said. “Now we will go to work on it.”

Inside a drone attack

The art of drone warfare is a subtle one. The operators must contend with a host of obstacles, from Russian small arms fire to inclement weather and electronic countermeasures, particularly signal jamming. With each Vampire drone carrying a price tag of $30,000 US (around $40,500 Cdn), conditions have to be carefully prepared to minimize losses.

In the bunker, one of the drone operators called out to his squad mates when the smaller reconnaissance drone he was operating found the trench in question. His black-and-white video feed showed several bright figures in motion: Russian soldiers taking cover.

A call crackled in from the radio: orders from headquarters to strike the targets. Roman issued commands to his men before turning with a grin.

A Ukrainian drone operator with an array of tablets showing video feeds and satellite imagery.
A Ukrainian drone operator with an array of tablets showing video feeds and satellite imagery. (Neil Hauer/CBC)

“I hope this can be another one for our highlight reel,” he said, referring to several videos from his phone shown to CBC, each depicting graphic black-and-white scenes of precise strikes on Russian positions obliterating a half-dozen enemy soldiers each.

With the Vampire drone in position, it dropped the first mortar bomb, which spends 20 seconds falling to earth before missing the trench by a few metres. While the Russians hunker down, a second mortar bomb is dropped — another miss.

“Plan B. Light them up,” Roman ordered. The drone dropped the incendiary grenade engulfing the trench in a blaze of fire. There was no visible movement when the flames subsided.

Their first mission complete, the drone began its return flight to the base. It will conduct anywhere from 12 to 18 missions over the course of the team’s 12-hour dusk-to-dawn shift.

‘Eyes in the sky’

Vitaly, one of the drone operators, has been in Ukraine’s military for nearly two full years now. He has watched the evolution of his role — and its importance — in real time.

“In 2022, in the beginning, it was a normal war: artillery, tanks and all that,” Vitaly said. “But over time, we came to understand how necessary drones are. Now, it’s a war of drones and artillery: We correct their fire, spot targets for them, even drop bombs ourselves.” 

Artem, in his early 20s, joined the unit after living under Russian occupation near Kyiv at the start of the war. He went even further in describing the crucial importance of Ukraine’s drones.

“We [drone operators] have to be the eyes in the sky for the infantry,” Artem said. 

“Without us, they can only sit in the trenches and wait to die. We can tell them if they have a window to attack, if Russians are coming at them, if they have Russian tanks on top of them, everything.” 

Short on soldiers, Ukraine considers lowering conscription age

Up against Russia’s advantages in weapons and manpower, Ukrainian draft officers patrol the streets for fighting-age men while the government is considering lowering the age of conscription from 27 to 25.

Once the Vampire drone had arrived back at base, another mission for it had already been queued up: a Russian tank had been spotted manoeuvring along a road nearby. The Vampire was loaded up with an anti-tank mine, to be placed along the tank’s likely path.

As it lifted off again, Roman expanded on his squad mates’ comments — and the unsaid implications of Ukraine’s declining ammunition stocks.

“They are right that this is a drone and artillery war,” he said. “Our part of this is still working well. But without the other element, we will struggle.”

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