Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka (“Aerial Reconnaissance”) teams are not the first to use small multicopters to drop bombs, but they have transformed the drones from nuisance weapons into tank killers. They have achieved this with simple but effective upgrades that are likely to be copied widely.
The consumer drone revolution took off in 2013 with the launch of the Phantom quadcopter by Chinese company DJI. The great difference between this and previous radio-controlled aircraft was a sophisticated autopilot allowing operators to fly the drone out of the box, with no training or experience. Anyone could produce impressive aerial photography, helped by the autopilot’s rock-steady hover, at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter or crane rig. The biggest limitation was the flight time of ten minutes, which has increased to over 40 minutes in more recent DJI models.
Users quickly experimented with carrying payloads and dropping bombs. By 2017, ISIS was routinely using consumer drones to drop improvised munitions on U.S.-backed Iraqi forces. The bombs were generally American 40mm grenades, modified with the addition of tail fins and a new fuze, weighing about 240 grams. ISIS released hundreds of videos of successful drone bomb attacks on personnel and unarmored vehicles.
Small drones are hard to spot, and even harder to hit with machineguns. The improvised bombers spread rapidly through Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan to the Central African Republic, Myanmar. Mexico and beyond. Ukrainian and Russian-backed forces have long used them in the Donbas region, typically dropping modified Russian 30mm grenades. Such drones are effective for harassment and anti-personnel missions.
Aerorozvidka is a non-governmental organization of volunteers and IT specialists, created during the 2014 conflict to assist Ukraine’s armed forces with badly needed drone reconnaissance. They experimented with consumer drones as bombers and soon concluded something bigger was needed to take out armored vehicles and ended up building their own from commercial components. This is the R18 octocopter, with eight rotor blades, a flight time of forty minutes and a carrying capacity of five kilograms. The R18 is fitted with a thermal imager, allowing it to pick out vehicles with their engines running even in pitch darkness and behind vegetation.
Rather than a single large bomb, the R18 typically carries three RKG-1600 bombs. These weigh a kilo each, and are adapted from 1950s Soviet-era anti-tank hand grenades. As an infantry weapon these took considerable courage to use as they could only be thrown a short distance. Fitted with plastic tailfins though they can be dropped accurately from a drone hovering at a hundred metres or more. The grenade’s shaped charge warhead punches through over 200mm of steel, and so easily penetrates a tank’s thin top armor.
Videos show that the RKG-1600 is not the only weapon in use – a variety of other munitions, apparently adapted from old RPG warheads or rifle grenades have been deployed. All are essentially light anti-armor weapons with shaped charges, rather than the fragmentation weapons dropped from smaller drones. And anti-tank drone use seems to have spread from Aerorozvidka to other units – this drone attack was carried out by the 93rd Mechanized Brigade, this one by the 503rd Separate Marine Battalion.
Such attacks are highly effective because Russian tanks, unlike their NATO counterparts, do not store ammunition separately. Any penetrating hit on the crew compartment can trigger a catastrophic ammunition explosion, often throwing the turret some distance.
Ukrainian videos show that after dropping the first bomb, the R18 operator waits to see where it lands before adjusting the position of the drone for the next attempt. The first bomb may out by a few metres, but the second or third hits. This gives the cheap, dumb bombs the sort of pinpoint accuracy that is normally only possible with expensive, laser-guided weapons
Analyst Nick Waters of Bellingcat, author of the definitive work on ISIS drone bombers, says this novel bomb-aiming technique from a hover allows the operator to correct for wind or other variables and gives a far higher chance of a hit. Much better a hit with a small bomb than a miss with a bigger one, Waters observes.
Aerorozvidka typically attacks at night, which may explain why the target vehicles rarely seem to take evasive action, as the crew may not be in the vehicle – though some videos show them fleeing during the attack. Waters says that even if the crew are present they are unlikely to realize where the attack is coming from. The drones drop bombs from a height of a few hundred metres (altitude can be estimated from the time taken for a bomb to fall), so are likely to be inaudible if there are any vehicle engines running nearby. And small drones, difficult to see by day, are invisible in the dark.
Aerorozvidka say the R18s cost them some $20k each. The munitions, from ancient stockpiles, are effectively free. This makes the reusable drones more cost-effective than a Javelin missile at over $140k a shot. As Aerorozvidka like to point out, like a Javelin their drones can take out the latest Russian T-90 tanks despite layers of reactive armor and active protection supposed to intercept incoming projectiles, or bolt-on ’cope cage’ armor.
While a Javelin operator requires a clear line-of-sight to the target, drone operators have more flexibility. Unlike missiles, the drones can find and hit vehicles concealed behind ridges or buildings, and can be operated from behind cover several kilometres away with no risk of the target shooting back. Missile teams have to ‘shoot and scoot’ as the smoke and exhaust flame may be spotted. We do not know what the maximum range of the R18 is. Comparable commercial drones can operate at 8 km or more depending on conditions, and the R18 is likely to use military-style communications with better range and more resistance to interference.
Aerorozvidka claim their R18s have destroyed around a hundred Russian vehicles, far more than Ukraine’s famed Bayraktar TB2. Russian radio jamming, usually the best defence against small drones, has failed to stop them so far. The unit loses drones on a daily basis, but they keep replacing them — and keep asking for donations to build more. As the war goes on and the Ukrainians refine their tactics, techniques and munitions, the drones are only likely to become more effective. Recent videos seem to show more daytime attacks which may reflect growing confidence.
What we are seeing now may be repeated on many more battlefields across the world in years to come. Tanks may not be obsolete yet, but they are certainly facing new challenges. The future of anti-tank warfare may have been born in a garage workshop in Kyiv.