Improvisations in air warfare with weaponized drones in the Donbas
Last week, an official from Ukraine’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, Artem Shevchenko, detailed how Ukrainian forces dropped VOG-17 munitions from a drone on Russian and separatist-controlled positions, and supposedly “in full accordance with the Minsk agreement.” Shevchenko also shared a video of the drone at work. The Ukrainian formation that carried out the attack is linked to Dmytro Yarosh, the former leader of the far-right Right Sector group.
What can we discover from close analysis of the video, and how does this use of weaponized drones fit into the four-year-old conflict?
The uploaded video showed three “bombing runs” from the drone, targeting trenches controlled by Russian and separatist forces along the M14 highway, which runs along the Azov coast between government-controlled Mariupol and Russia. Each of the munition drops can be seen in animations below, where — if you look closely — you can follow a VOG-17 grenade as it falls to the trenches.
Comparing a still from the video with Google Earth imagery of trenches between Shyrokyne and Bezimenne, along the M14 highway, revealed the location attacked. In other historical imagery available in Google Earth, the pole to the right of the cross-hair was much more visible than the November 2016 imagery seen below.
A comparison of the bombed location with the current situational control map, courtesy of LiveUAMap.com, showed that these trenches are on the western edge of Russian and separatist control along the M-14 highway.
Previous Ukrainian Development and Use of Armed Drones
Ukraine has developed armed drones since the onset of the war in the Donbas, as detailed by Patrick Tucker at DefenseOne. In November 2017, the Ukrainian defense manufacturer Antonov developed the Gorlytsa drone, which is able to carry up to four bombs, similar to the ones dropped in the recent attack on a checkpoint east of Mariupol.
However, grenade-armed drones have also been used against the Ukrainian government, most notably when a grenade was reportedly dropped from a Russian or separatist-operated drone and blew up an arms depot near Kharkiv.
The use of relatively cheap drones to drop grenades or improvised bombs — such as submunitions from cluster bombs — is not exclusive to Ukraine, and has become increasingly common in conflicts. Per the research of Nick Waters at Bellingcat, “Jund Al Aqsa, Hezbollah, so called Islamic State (IS) and Iraqi Government forces” have all used commercial drones to deliver explosives to targets, as detailed in his comprehensive investigation.
With commercial drones becoming cheaper and with Ukrainian and Russian/separatist positions becoming more entrenched along the eastern Ukraine contact line, we should expect to see both sides of the conflict use cheap commercial drones to deliver munitions against targets. A side effect of this behavior could be additional risk to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine’s drones, which monitor the conflict with both expensive long-range drones and cheaper short-range drones.
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