Since Russian forces stormed their country last year, Ukraine fighters have continually stunned Moscow with their remarkably innovative and effective use of consumer, enterprise, and military-grade drones in attacking invaders’ positions and compounds. Now sources offer DroneDJ insights on how Ukraine’s planners are working to muscle-up UAVs for increased strikes inside Russia itself – activities that may have been behind explosions above the Kremlin in early May.
People involved in Ukraine’s work in longer-range drone strikes inside Russia gave DroneDJ a peek behind those preparations – a necessarily fragmented view created by multiple layers and the different military and intelligence units participating in the secret operations. Indeed, sources describe an effort with many moving parts that bring Ukraine officials together with domestic and foreign UAV companies in projects whose ultimate execution – or not – are decided late in the game by unknown authorities.
Kremlin drone bombing: One of several in the works at once?
The best-known drone strike inside Russia thus far was the May 3 explosion of two craft over the Kremlin. US intelligence services have reportedly tied those to Ukraine, while doubters speculate it was staged by Moscow to claim it was an act of war by Kyiv against the Russian people.
Even sources aiding Ukraine’s cross-border UAV operations aren’t entirely sure who was responsible.
No matter who authored the blasts, the attention they generated resulted in Moscow upping its defensive assets around the capital, which considerably complicated a major objective of drone techies supporting Kyiv at that time: making a mockery of Russia’s May 9 military celebration of victory in WWII by landing a Ukraine drone amid the parade of tanks and rockets the Kremlin now uses to attack its neighbor.
That challenge arose from Monobank cofounder Volodymyr Yatsenko offering half a million dollars to anyone who managed to disrupt that beloved Russian holiday by setting an Ukraine UAV down in Red Square during the festivities. Even attempting the exploit became a virtual non-starter, however, after Moscow dramatically reinforced its air defenses in response to the May 3 Kremlin explosions.
Yet Francisco Serra-Martins, cofounder of US drone tech startup One Way Aerospace that’s now working with Ukraine, says the panicked reaction by Moscow to that enigmatic attack was nearly as valuable as any destructive results that less publicized UAV missions have inflicted on Russian targets.
“The hope is Russian Armed Forces will relocate their strategic air defenses to sites within Russia rather than Ukraine,” explains Serra-Martins of the various long-distance Ukraine drone operations his company has joined others preparing.
Read more: Startup One Way Aerospace exits stealth with details on its FPV drone production for Ukraine
He notes a big advantage provided by domestic and foreign tech firms backing Kyiv’s drone campaign against targets in Russia is the combination of high performance and low costs of their UAVs, making them far more expendable in highly risky operations than military-grade assets. Though the planned May 9 drone landing in Red Square may have been called off due to the minimal probability of success, the performance-cost ratio of new UAVs has allowed Ukraine to attempt – and often complete – other strikes in Russia knowing any losses involved will generate desired results.
“Reallocation and increased air defense deployments in Russia are strategically beneficial to us,” Serra-Martins says. “The cost of our systems like our AQ 400 Scythe is so low that even if they shoot them down, economically it’s a win, and it works to exhaust their air defenses.”
Returning Russian offenses to sender – by air
Not surprisingly, most projects planned by Ukraine’s armed forces and its intelligence service, the GUR, involve Russian military targets. Among those have been two air bases hit deep inside Russia last December, and recurring strikes on positions in occupied Crimea.
In preparing missions like those, sources say, the GUR requests drones and operating tech from partnering companies. They then test those assets according to the specifics of various attack scenarios, with startup representatives acting as observer-advisors. That was the case in the planned May 9 Red Square drone landing – which was abruptly aborted by higher-ups the very morning of the launch after having received the go-ahead the previous day.
Similar collective preparation work was also underway in the weeks before the May 3 Kremlin drone explosions. No one involved knows for sure whether there was a cause and effect relationship between the two, even if details of the craft that had been tested make that a possibility.
“Our system was a 40 kg maximum takeoff weight, 4-meter wingspan system,” Serra-Martins says of the project One Way was involved in around that time. “It was also equipped with a combination of a few systems to permit flying under jamming.”
So was that or a similar platform used in the Kremlin attack by Ukraine intelligence?
Sources who did not want to be identified commenting on the topic say they’re fairly sure the May 3 Kremlin drone strike was the work of the GUR and its suppliers. But as had been the case in earlier projects, they add, the GUR may have assembled a craft using the most effective components from several systems contributed.
If so, they note, it would be very difficult to determine which companies’ tech was involved in the spectacular Kremlin strike – even if Ukraine officials eventually copped to having staged it. If that were to happen, meanwhile, discovering precisely who gave the orders to carry it out would remain difficult to nail down.
Read: Ukraine reportedly assembles half of its 1,000 FPV drone fleet for attacking Russian targets [Video]
Due to the multiple actors involved at various levels in Ukraine’s planning of drone strikes in Russia; the secrecy and sleight of hand necessary to thwart espionage; and chains of command that remain murky to outsiders, assigning exact responsibility for most covert UAV actions will probably be impossible. Indeed, according to media reports, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelinskyy himself is not necessarily briefed on certain stealth operations likely to provoke greater bursts of fury and denunciation from Moscow than usual – either to ensure plausible deniability, or due to insufficient only-need-to-know factors.
Ukraine drone strikes of Russian turf likely to proliferate
Perhaps leaving Zelinskyy out of those aerial loops is just as well, given the looming multiplication of longer-range, harder-hitting missions – including strikes inside Russia.
Read: Was a Russian oil refinery attacked by a ‘Ukraine’ drone bought online?
Both domestic and foreign UAV companies have already begun production of brawnier, smarter, and more effective drones capable of flying tens or hundreds of kilometers while transporting heavier munition payloads for those attacks.
For example, Serra-Martin says One Way will be providing drones with 750 km flight capacities for long-distance strikes planned for June – possibly in support of a much-anticipated Ukraine counter-offensive coinciding with the scheduled presence of a NATO delegation in Zaphorizhzhia.
One Western startup official who preferred not to be identified said his company is one of several developing drone systems capable of over 200 km flights. Mass manufacturing of airframes and engines for those UAVs is already underway, as is production of an integrated warhead for future craft.
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