Lacking artillery shells, Ukrainian soldiers had to rely on suicide UAVs
Ukrainian soldiers during a UAV control training session in Donetsk in August 2023. Photo: Anadolu

The scarcity of artillery shells forced many Ukrainian units to use suicide UAVs to hold off Russian forces, although this was not the optimal solution.

In a blockhouse on the southeastern front of Ukraine, the decline in artillery ammunition of front-line units can be clearly seen. Ukrainian soldiers could only fire one shot back after receiving 5 to 6 bullets from Russia.

The Russian army is shifting to an offensive stance and maintaining its weapons supply thanks to the wartime economy. On the contrary, Ukraine is increasingly running out of ammunition due to the decline in support from the West, with aid packages worth tens of billions of dollars being blocked in the US Congress and the European Union (EU).

Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines had to switch to using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carrying explosives to stop the enemy’s advance. “We use more and more first-person UAVs (FPVs) because there is not enough ammunition, but it is difficult for UAVs to replace artillery shells completely,” Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov admitted.

Tulayne controls an FPV UAV at the Zaporizhzhia front in photos released on January 9.  Photo: WSJ

Tulayne controls an FPV UAV at the Zaporizhzhia front in photos released on January 9. Photo: WSJ

FPV UAV is a weapon that can be controlled remotely with a handle and a head-mounted device, giving the user a realistic perspective like sitting in the cockpit. Their operating range is about 15 km, depending on the size of the payload.

The number of explosives, flight range, and speed of FPV UAVs are all much inferior to artillery shells, and they cannot penetrate many types of obstacles before exploding. In return, each FPV UAV costs only a few hundred USD and is much cheaper and easier to manufacture than artillery shells.

Moscow and Kyiv have increased the use of FPV UAVs in the past half a year after realizing their combat effectiveness on flat and large terrain in Ukraine.

They have much higher accuracy than conventional artillery shells and can pursue enemy vehicles and soldiers. Artillery often has to fire many shots to calibrate before hitting the target, while FPV UAVs have an almost absolute target hit rate.

UAVs are the main weapon of Ukrainian forces defending the strategic village of Rabotino because a number of artillery units were transferred to other fronts. “Our teammates expect more and more from us,” said Tulayne, commander of the UAV FPV squad participating in the war here.

Tulayne’s squad has 4 people, carries 20 UAVs on each mission and is stationed at a base a few kilometers from the front line.

Technicians install many types of warheads on UAVs to deal with different targets, such as concentrated infantry groups or armored vehicles. This person then left the blockhouse to install the antenna and connect the wire to the operator’s position.

Reconnaissance discovered a squad of about 12 Russian soldiers in a network of trenches nearby. Tulayne wore glasses and a controller, piloted the UAV to the target and let it crash into the mouth of the enemy bunker. A group of Ukrainian soldiers used a flycam to monitor the target from afar, waiting for Russian soldiers to leave their shelter position to launch a follow-up attack.

Ukrainian units participating in Rabotino say that FPV UAVs are radically changing the front line. Both sides limited the deployment of armored vehicles because they were easily detected and attacked, switching to using regular trucks or 4-wheeled off-road motorbikes. The large number of FPV UAVs deployed also allows both sides to target small targets, such as moving motor vehicles and soldiers.

As a result, the gray zone, the disputed area between the two sides, is increasingly expanding and blocking the advance of both Russia and Ukraine.

Tulayne and his teammates deployed 12 FPV UAVs within half a day. One aircraft was disabled by Russian electronic warfare; two aircraft did not detonate. The remainder rushed into the enemy’s trench network. Tulayne believes that the raid left two Russian soldiers dead and many injured.

Ukrainian soldiers say they still encounter many obstacles during the fight. Tulayne’s platoon should have been twice as large as it was, but they had no recruits, and every member was overworked.

Even though FPV UAVs are cheap, they are still limited in the number of aircraft deployed for each mission. Tulayne must apply for special permission to attack an enemy target repeatedly. They asked their superiors for permission during a recent combat shift but received no answer.

“The biggest problem is still the lack of artillery support,” Ukrainian soldiers admitted.

FPV UAVs are highly effective against enemy infantry and motor vehicles but do not carry enough explosives to neutralize fortified bases. The much slower flight speed compared to artillery shells also causes the UAV to miss the target many times because the target has already left by the time it arrives.

A few months ago, Tulayne’s unit often used FPV UAVs to support artillery, with the task of attacking soft targets after artillery shells destroyed the enemy battlefield. “I just need to fly the plane into the clouds of smoke rising after the shelling. That hasn’t happened for many weeks,” he said.

In addition to calling for foreign aid, Ukraine is also looking to increase domestic FPV UAV production. Late last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky set a goal of shipping one million units in 2024.

However, experts say that Ukraine still lags behind Russia in using UAVs on the battlefield due to a lack of operators, a limited number of UAVs and poor-quality equipment. On the contrary, Moscow is taking full advantage of the wartime economy to promote the production of suicide UAVs.

“In the past few weeks, the frequency of Russian FPV UAV deployment has increased 3-4 times. Their artillery works very well, and they also have the advantage in air reconnaissance,” Tulayne admitted, although affirming that the military Ukrainian team still uses more aircraft than the opponent.

Tulayne said that Russian forces have not gained any more territory in the area where his platoon is fighting. However, analysis of open source data shows that Moscow is gradually retaking the areas around the village of Rabotino, a location Kyiv won in August 2023 after suffering many losses in a failed counterattack campaign.