Ukraine's War-Critical Hobby Drones vs Russian Swarms – Pilots Warn Crowdfunding Won't Be Sustainable Much Longer

Photo by Sergei SUPINSKY / AFP

    Ukraine's most cost-effective tool on the battlefield, utilizing inexpensive drones to neutralize Russian heavy weaponry worth millions, is facing a challenge. The surge in the Kremlin's acquisition and production of similar aircraft in large quantities is overwhelming this strategy. Drone pilots in Kyiv express concerns that the country's reliance on volunteer donations and crowdsourcing may not sustain this aerial defense for much longer.

Diego Rodriguez, a frontline drone operator in Ukraine, highlighted the ongoing struggle. He described a lopsided battle where Ukrainian hobby drones, funded by grassroots donations and modified by volunteers to carry explosives, contend with Russian combat units equipped with state-purchased and industrially produced strike drones.

Rodriguez questioned why the Ukrainian military doesn't adopt attack drones on a larger scale. He emphasized that while enthusiasts contribute with personal funds, and volunteers gather donations, only the state has the capability to implement such strategies on a substantial scale.

Three additional drone operators from the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), interviewed for this article, echoed Rodriguez's observations. According to their collective perspective, in the ongoing Russo-Ukraine conflict, small explosive-laden drones operated by frontline soldiers play a crucial role in achieving success in combat and ensuring troop survival.

In the majority of ground engagements, these operators noted that hobby drones repurposed to carry grenades or execute suicide strikes with explosive charges contribute to the destruction of approximately one-third of Russian tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, ammunition trucks, and crew-served weapons in combat. This underscores the significant impact and effectiveness of these modified drones in the battlefield dynamics of the conflict.

According to Ukraine's Ministry of Digital Transformation, one of the three government agencies overseeing the transfer of crowd-funded drones to Ukrainian army operators, the period from June through August witnessed the deployment of affordable drones ranging from $500 to $5,000. These budget-friendly aircraft played a crucial role in neutralizing over 1,200 Russian heavy weapons. Myhailo Fedroriv, the Minister of Digital Transformation, emphasized in an official statement that improvised Chinese Mavic and DJI drones are likely the most effective weapons on the Ukrainian battlefield.

Originally introduced during Russia's initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014-15, civilian drones and those adapted for military use have evolved from a mere curiosity on the battlefield to a fully integrated combat system present in virtually all Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) combat units. They are consistently prioritized as key weapons in well-commanded units.

As of late 2023, nearly every Ukrainian combat brigade included at least one drone section operating modified drones equipped with explosives. These drones were acquired through donations and delivered by volunteers, showcasing the widespread integration of this technology into the country's military strategy.

Resourceful Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) brigadiers employ a clever tactic by listing drone team members on unit registers as cooks, clerks, or truck drivers. This strategy allows for the deployment of multiple drone sections within a unit.

For instance, in the highly esteemed 92nd Mechanized Infantry Brigade, renowned for its combat prowess, the drone group known as Code 9.2 recently claimed a significant accomplishment. On Monday, they asserted that their drones played a pivotal role in halting a Russian ground attack in the eastern Bakhmut sector on December 10. The drone group published video footage showcasing hobby drones dropping grenades through the hatches of recently halted Russian BTR-82 personnel carriers, providing a visual account of their impact on the battlefield.

Efforts by governments to provide small attack drones to Ukrainian soldiers through state-sponsored contracts have been overshadowed by the extensive scale of the Ukraine-Russia war spanning a 2,000 km front, where hundreds of drones are consumed daily by both sides. Instead of relying on government contracts and funding, grassroots activism and volunteers have taken on a prominent role.

Robert "Madyar" Brovdi, an army officer overseeing large-scale drone operations in the southern sector, has been instrumental in this initiative. He sources parts and equipment from as far away as the Netherlands and China, delivering aircraft to approximately 15 drone sections operating along the front. In November, accounting data he published revealed that he collected and allocated $1.5-$2 million in donations, with almost all contributions coming from individual Ukrainian citizens.

A recent video released by Brovdi's information section showcased an engagement, geolocated by Kyiv Post to a Ukrainian Marine bridgehead on the left bank of the Dnipro River. In this engagement, hobby drones, each costing less than a thousand dollars, achieved multiple hits around the thin armor of the rear engine deck of a Russian T-80 tank, which is valued between $1.5-$2 million. This underscores the significant impact of cost-effective drone operations on the battlefield.

One of Ukraine's most extensive initiatives to supply small attack drones to its soldiers is the Armiya Droniv operation. This volunteer-driven effort operates under United24, a prominent umbrella initiative designed to attract international corporate and individual donations for Ukrainian self-defense endeavors.

United24 is overseen by the Office of President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to published financials, in both October and November 2023, the group garnered between $7 million and $7.5 million in monthly donations for Ukrainian defense needs. A portion of these funds was allocated to drone construction or acquisition.

In October 2023, the last month for which data is available, drones provided to Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) units through volunteer donations to United24 reportedly led to the destruction of 208 Russian tanks, 272 armored personnel carriers, and 331 artillery systems, among other heavy weapons.

If these claims are accurate, they represent one of the most significant imbalances in cost-to-kill ratios in modern warfare. Theoretically, for every dollar donated to the purchase of a Ukrainian attack drone by United24, at least $100-$150 worth of Russian military equipment was destroyed, showcasing the effectiveness and efficiency of this volunteer-driven initiative.

Drone operators interviewed by Kyiv Post have raised concerns about the Ukrainian government's prolonged dependence, even after two years of war, on volunteers and public donations to supply strategically crucial small attack drones to frontline combat units.

They highlighted the Kremlin's extensive acquisition of Chinese hobby drones, numbering in the tens of thousands, and their conversion for military use in state-run factories. The operators emphasized that unless the Ukrainian state takes decisive action, Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) drone teams could be overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of Russian drones.

According to Brovdi, Russian drones in his sector currently outnumber Ukrainian drones seven to one, as stated in a Monday announcement. A pilot operating in the Donetsk sector under the call sign "Potter" underscored the urgency of government intervention, stating, "It's high time for the Ukrainian [government] to address this – allocate funding, import parts and all components at a state level, and establish mass production."

Potter emphasized that volunteer organizations lack the capacity to meet the demand for the required number of drones, asserting that a significant portion, at least 80 percent, of the war's trajectory depends on the effective deployment of this type of weaponry.

The shift in the Kremlin's approach, slowly adapting to the Ukrainian advantage in small drone operations, had been noticeable for some time. However, in recent weeks, the situation has taken a turn for the worse.

In a petition submitted to the office of President Zelensky on December 4, activist Roman Cherednichenko emphasized the urgency of intervention by the Ukrainian state. He particularly stressed the need for legal changes allowing government funding to support volunteer drone operators and implementing regulations to complicate the import of drone parts.

Cherednichenko highlighted, "Recent events show that the longer the war continues, the more difficult it is for us to get weapons from our Western partners. Problems with the allocation of funds for weapons from the West are also increasing." This underscores the growing challenges faced by Ukraine in sustaining its military capabilities as the conflict persists.

"A substantial number of drones are utilized and destroyed daily. The military requires large-scale procurement and internal production, including FPV drones. Ukraine needs tens of thousands of new drones each month, yet the Ministry of Defense has only announced the purchase of a few thousand in six months," wrote Cherednichenko.

In an interview with Kyiv Post, Andriy Shtepa, the director of AirUnit, a Ukrainian company specializing in drone and drone parts import, expressed concern that the Ukrainian government's inaction is inadvertently aiding the Kremlin. He noted that regulations on drone and drone parts import have remained largely unchanged since the days before the Russian invasion.

"They [the Ukrainian government] seem absolutely uninterested in helping the volunteer effort," Shtepa stated. "I get the impression the government doesn't consider the civilian market a proper source for support for military drone operations."

Shtepa mentioned attempts to engage Ukrainian government contractors in German anti-jamming systems that his company could swiftly deliver, providing advanced protection to Ukrainian drone communications. However, these efforts have been met with indifference, reflecting a perceived lack of interest from the government in leveraging civilian resources for military drone operations.

Ukroboronprom, the Ukrainian state agency responsible for military equipment acquisition and production, responded in writing to a Kyiv Post request for information about Ukrainian FPV (First Person View) manufacturing and progress on developing means to counter the increasing Russian drone capacity. The agency stated that it was unable to provide comments due to national security concerns.

A drone section commander with the call sign Nazar cautioned, "Our adversary has the capability to re-equip their drones, unfortunately. These capabilities are likely at an industrial level, unlike our situation where we rely on individual volunteers, organizations, and people. We are better, but quantitatively, we are not superior. Unfortunately, this is a situation where quantity can exceed quality." This underscores the challenges faced by Ukraine in maintaining a balance between the quality and quantity of its drone capabilities.

Austrian aerospace commentator Tom Cooper, in a post on December 18, issued a warning:

"The Ukrainians are manufacturing qualitatively better drones and training better drone pilots, no doubt, but: The Russians are both learning and flooding the battlefield with small killing machines...

"The West is still snoring in deep sleep in this regard.

"Until there is a fundamental change in the way not only the GenStab-U in Kyiv (Ukraine’s General Staff), but also all the similar instances in the West (see the Pentagon, NATO HQ in Brussels)… comprehend the gravity of this fact, the AFU are on the best way to being, literally, overwhelmed by the Russian capability to manufacture and deploy immense numbers of mini-drones," Cooper emphasized. This underscores the need for a significant shift in approach and recognition of the evolving threat posed by the Russian deployment of large quantities of small drones on the battlefield.