Ukraine’s Aerorozvidka (“air reconnaissance”) teams aren’t the first to use small multicopters to drop bombs, but they have turned the drones from nuisance weapons into tank killers. They’ve accomplished this with simple but effective upgrades that are likely to be widely copied.
The consumer drone revolution began in 2013 with the introduction of the Phantom Quadrocopter by Chinese company DJI. The big difference between this and previous radio-controlled aircraft was a sophisticated autopilot that allowed operators to fly the drone out of the box without training or experience. Anyone can create stunning aerial footage at a fraction of the cost of a helicopter or crane with the help of autopilot’s rock-solid hovering. The biggest limitation was the flight time of ten minutes, which has increased to over 40 minutes on newer DJI models.
Users quickly experimented with carrying payloads and dropping bombs. By 2017, ISIS was routinely using consumer drones to drop improvised munitions on US-backed Iraqi forces. The bombs were generally American 40mm shells modified with tail fins and a new fuze, weighing about 240 grams. ISIS released hundreds of videos of successful drone bombings of personnel and unarmored vehicles.
Small drones are hard to spot and even harder to hit with machine guns. The improvised bombers quickly spread 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 Donbass region, typically dropping modified 30mm Russian shells. Such drones are effective for harassment and anti-personnel missions.
Aerorozvidka is a non-governmental organization of volunteers and IT specialists formed during the 2014 conflict to assist the Ukrainian armed forces with much-needed drone reconnaissance. Experimenting with consumer drones as bombers, they soon concluded that 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 equipped with a thermal imaging camera that enables it to detect vehicles with the engine running even in total darkness and behind vegetation.
Instead of a single large bomb, the R18 typically carries three RKG-1600 bombs. These weigh one kilo each and are modeled after Soviet-era anti-tank hand grenades from the 1950s. As an infantry weapon, using them required a great deal of courage, as they could only be thrown at short ranges. However, equipped with plastic tail fins, they can be precisely dropped from a drone hovering at a hundred meters or more. The shell’s shaped-charge warhead penetrates over 200mm of steel, easily penetrating a tank’s thin upper armor.
Videos show that the RKG-1600 is not the only weapon in use – a variety of other munitions, apparently from old RPG warheads or adapted rifle grenades have been deployed. All are essentially light anti-tank weapons with shaped charges, rather than the fragmentation weapons dropped by smaller drones. And the use of anti-tank drones seems to have spread from Aerorozvidka to other units: this drone attack was carried out by the 93rd Mechanized Brigade; This one here from 503approx Separate Marine Battalion.
Such attacks are very effective because, unlike their NATO counterparts, Russian tanks do not store ammunition separately. Any penetrating hit in the crew compartment can trigger a catastrophic ammo explosion, often knocking the turret far away.
Show Ukrainian videos that after dropping the first bomb, the R18 operator waits to see where it lands before adjusting the drone’s position for the next attempt. The first bomb might be off by a few feet, but tweaks allow for that second or third hit. This gives the cheap, dumb bombs a precision normally only possible with expensive, laser-guided weapons.
analyst Nick water von Bellingcat, author of the authoritative work on ISIS drone bombers, says this novel hover-based bomb aiming technique allows the operator to correct for wind or other variables, and offers a far higher chance of a hit. Much better a hit with a small bomb than a miss with a larger one, Waters notes.
Aerorozvidka usually attacks at night, which could explain why the target vehicles rarely seem to evade since the crew may not be inside the vehicle – although some videos show them fleeing during the attack. Waters says that even if the crew is present, they likely won’t see where the attack is coming from. The drones drop bombs from a few hundred meters above the ground (the height can be estimated by the time it takes for a bomb to fall), so are unlikely to be audible if any vehicle engines are running nearby. And small drones, difficult to see during the day, are invisible in the dark.
Aerorozvidka says the R18s cost them around $20,000 each. Old stock ammo is practically free. This makes the reusable drones less expensive than a Javelin missile at over $140,000 per shot. As Aerorozvidka likes to point out, her drones can do like a Javelin Take out the latest Russian T-90 tanks despite layers of reactive armor and active protection designed to intercept incoming projectiles, or bolted “coping cage” armor.
While a javelin operator needs a clear line of sight to the target, drone operators have more flexibility. Unlike missiles, the drones can find and hit vehicles hidden behind ridges or buildings, and can be operated from behind cover several kilometers away without risk of the target shooting back. Missile teams must “shoot and shoot” as the smoke and exhaust flame can be spotted. We don’t know what the maximum range of the R18 is. Comparable commercial drones can operate at a distance of 8 km or more, depending on conditions, and the R18 is likely to use military-grade communications with better range and better interference immunity.
Aerorozvidka claims their R18s destroyed around a hundred Russian vehicles, far more than the famous Ukrainian Bayraktar TB2. Russian radio jamming, usually the best defense against small drones, hasn’t been able to stop them so far. The unit is losing drones on a daily basis, but they keep replacing them – and keep asking for donations to build more. As the war continues and the Ukrainians refine their tactics, techniques, and ammunition, the drones will likely only become more effective. Recent videos appear to be showing more attacks per day, which may reflect growing confidence.
What we are seeing now could be repeated on many more battlefields around the world for years to come. Tanks may not be obsolete, but they certainly face new challenges. The future of anti-tank might have been born in a garage workshop in Kyiv.