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NYTimes
New York Times
30 Sep 2023
Valerie Hopkins


NextImg:Ukraine’s War of Drones Runs Into an Obstacle: China

Surrounded by rooms filled with stacks of cluster munitions and half-made thermobaric bombs, a soldier from Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade recently worked on the final part of a deadly supply chain that stretches from China’s factories to a basement five miles from the front lines of the war with Russia.

This is where Ukrainian soldiers turn hobbyist drones into combat weapons. At a cluttered desk, the soldier attached a modified battery to a quadcopter so it could fly farther. Pilots would later zip tie a homemade shell to the bottom and crash the gadgets into Russian trenches and tanks, turning the drones into human-guided missiles.

The aerial vehicles have been so effective at combat that most of the drone rotors and airframes that filled the basement workshop would be gone by the end of the week. Finding new supplies has become a full-time job.

“At night we do bombing missions, and during the day we think about how to get new drones,” said Oles Maliarevych, 44, an officer in the 92nd Mechanized Brigade. “This is a constant quest.”

More than any conflict in human history, the fighting in Ukraine is a war of drones. That means a growing reliance on suppliers of the flying vehicles — specifically, China. While Iran and Turkey produce large, military-grade drones used by Russia and Ukraine, the cheap consumer drones that have become ubiquitous on the front line largely come from China, the world’s biggest maker of those devices.

That has given China a hidden influence in a war that is waged partly with consumer electronics. As Ukrainians have looked at all varieties of drones and reconstituted them to become weapons, they have had to find new ways to keep up their supplies and to continue innovating on the devices. Yet those efforts have faced more hurdles as Chinese suppliers have dialed back their sales, as new Chinese rules to restrict the export of drone components took effect on Sept. 1.

ImageA Ukrainian soldier loads ammunition on a tank in a wooded area.
A soldier in Ukraine’s 92nd Mechanized Brigade. The unit, like many others, uses hobbyist drones as weapons of war.Credit...Emile Ducke for The New York Times

“We’re examining every possible way to export drones from China, because whatever one may say, they produce the most there,” said Mr. Maliarevych, who helps source drone supplies for his unit.

For the better part of a decade, Chinese companies such as DJI, EHang and Autel have churned out drones at an ever-increasing scale. They now produce millions of the aerial gadgets a year for amateur photographers, outdoor enthusiasts and professional videographers, far outpacing other countries. DJI, China’s biggest drone maker, has a more than 90 percent share of the global consumer drone market, according to DroneAnalyst, a research group.

Yet in recent months, Chinese companies have cut back sales of drones and components to Ukrainians, according to a New York Times analysis of trade data and interviews with more than a dozen Ukrainian drone makers, pilots and trainers. The Chinese firms still willing to sell often require buyers to use complicated networks of intermediaries, similar to those Russia has used to get around American and European export controls.

Some Ukrainians have been forced to beg, borrow and smuggle what’s needed to make up for the gadgets being blown out of the sky. Ukraine loses an estimated 10,000 drones a month, according to the Royal United Services Institute, a British security think tank. Many fear that China’s new rules restricting the sale of drone components could worsen Ukrainian supply chain woes heading into the winter.

These hurdles widen an advantage for Russia. Direct drone shipments by Chinese companies to Ukraine totaled just over $200,000 this year through June, according to trade data. In that same period, Russia received at least $14.5 million in direct drone shipments from Chinese trading companies. Ukraine still obtained millions in Chinese-made drones and components, but most came from European intermediaries, according to official Russian and Ukrainian customs data from a third-party provider.

Ukrainians are working overtime to build as many drones as possible for reconnaissance, to drop bombs, and to use as guided missiles. The country has also earmarked $1 billion for a program that supports bootstrapping drone start-ups and other drone acquisition efforts.

Ukrainian soldiers, forced to become electronic tinkerers from the first days of the war, now must be amateur supply chain managers, too. Mr. Maliarevych recounted how members of his unit recently scrounged to buy new antennas for reconnaissance drones to prevent Russian radio jamming. One friend, who lives in Boston, brought back two on a trip.

“We have to reinvent more and more complicated supply chains,” said Maria Berlinska, a longtime combat drone expert and the head of the Victory Drones project in Ukraine, which trains troops in the use of technology. “We have to convince Chinese factories to help us with components, because they are not happy to help us.”

Winning the war has become “a technological marathon,” she said.

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Drone pilots from the Ukrainian military train to use the Kazhan rotary drone, which is loaded with plastic bottles filled with sand as weights.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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The training took place in a field where the drones had space to soar and dive.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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Rotary drones at a testing site during a training for pilots.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

A war of innovation

On a hot morning in August, two dozen Ukrainian soldiers from four units trained on a new weapon of war: a repurposed agricultural drone known as “the bat.”

Flying over a cornfield outside the eastern city of Dnipro, the devices dropped bottles filled with sand onto tarps that served as targets. The soldiers later returned to their units across the front with the drones, which carry 20-kilogram shells that can be aimed at tanks.

The hulking rotor-powered bombers were made by Reactive Drone, a Ukrainian company that owes its existence to Chinese industrial policy. The firm was founded in 2017 by Oleksii Kolesnyk and his friends after Chinese subsidies led to a glut of drone components being made there. Mr. Kolesnyk took advantage of that to source parts for his own agricultural drones, which he then sold to farmers who used them to spray pesticides in eastern Ukraine.

When the war began, everything changed. Mr. Kolesnyk, who was in Romania for business, rushed back to his hometown, Dnipro. Within days, he and his team repurposed their agricultural drones for battle.

A similar frenzy took place across Ukraine. Ingenuity born of necessity pushed many to repurpose consumer technology in life-or-death scenarios. Drones emerged as the ultimate asymmetric weapon, dropping bombs and offering bird’s-eye views of targets.

In the war’s first weeks, Ukrainian soldiers relied on the Mavic, a quadcopter produced by DJI. With its strong radio link and easy-to-use controls, the Mavic became as important and ubiquitous as the Starlink satellites made by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which help soldiers communicate.

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Oleksii Kolesnyk, the founder of Reactive Drone, at the company’s office in Dnipro, Ukraine. He sources parts from China to make agricultural drones, which have been repurposed for the war.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

In April 2022, DJI said it would discontinue its business in Russia and Ukraine. The company shut its flagship stores in those countries, and halted most direct sales. Instead, volunteers backed by online fund-raisers brought in the copters by the thousands to Ukraine, often from Europe. Russia found new channels through friendly neighbors while continuing to receive the drones through Chinese exporters.

Russian and Ukrainian soldiers also began using non-drone DJI products, including one called AeroScope. An antenna-studded box, it can be set up on the ground to track drone locations by detecting the signals they send. The system’s more dangerous feature is its ability to find the pilots who remotely fly DJI drones.

A rush ensued to hack DJI’s software to disable the tracking feature. By the end of last year, a mix of software workarounds and hardware fixes, such as more powerful antennas, had mostly solved the problem.

“The efficiency of the AeroScopes is not the same as it was a year ago,” said Yurii Shchyhol, the head of Ukraine’s State Special Communications Service, responsible for cybersecurity.

DJI’s products continued to have a life-or-death impact on the front. Each time the company updated its software, pilots and engineers raced to break its security protections and modify it, sharing tips in group chats.

In an email, DJI said it has repeatedly notified its distributors that they were prohibited from selling products or parts to customers in Russia and Ukraine.

Now the biggest issue is the quantity of drones and production capacity. At Reactive Drone’s facility in Dnipro, where technicians work on drones for the front line, Mr. Kolesnyk said he was getting components from China for now because of personal connections with Chinese factories. He has hit just one major snag — when an online video of his drones caught the attention of the Chinese authorities and the company that made the camera he used publicly cut ties.

But Mr. Kolesnyk worried about the Chinese rule changes, which he said could make it harder to get the night-vision cameras needed for a new drone that would strike in the dark.

“Even when you see labels like America or Australia on a component, it’s still all manufactured in China,” he said. “To make something that could effectively replace China, it’s really close to impossible.”

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A Ukrainian drone pilot, call sign Darwin, operates a first-person-view, or F.P.V., drone on a test flight near Kupiansk in Ukraine.Credit...Emile Ducke for The New York Times
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A 3D-printed bomb to be dropped from a drone, at a drone workshop in Kupiansk.Credit...Emile Ducke for The New York Times
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Making adjustments to drone components at the workshop in Kupiansk.Credit...Emile Ducke for The New York Times

‘More like fishing than hunting’

As the war has stretched on, Ukrainian soldiers have worked to make cheap Chinese drones more deadly. One advancement that flooded the front this year: hobbyist racing drones strapped with bombs to act as human-guided missiles.

Known as F.P.V.s, for first-person view — a reference to how the drones are remotely piloted with virtual-reality goggles — the devices have emerged as a cheap alternative to heavy-duty weapons. The machines and their components are sold by a small number of mostly Chinese companies like DJI, Autel and RushFPV.

In eastern Ukraine, soldiers from the 92nd Mechanized Brigade recently tested an F.P.V. In a field near their workshop, a 19-year-old former medical student in the unit, who goes by the call sign Darwin, leaned against a truck and slipped on virtual-reality goggles. Nearby, his spotter, call sign Avocado, flew a DJI Mavic high above to guide him.

“People wish us luck with hunting, but this is more like fishing than hunting,” Darwin said. “It can take a long time.”

Tandems like Darwin and Avocado have become a regular feature of the war. Avocado, the Mavic pilot, gets a higher-altitude view so she can talk the F.P.V. pilot, Darwin, along the path to a target. With a virtual-reality headset, Darwin sees little more than the landscape speeding below him. Often he must fly eight kilometers or more by sight, evading Russian jammers. Successful missions, where a $500 F.P.V. takes out a $1 million weapon system, are trumpeted across social media. Yet less than one-third of attacks are successful, pilots said.

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Members of a special forces group of the Ukrainian National Guard gathered kamikaze drones to use for a drill.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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A dummy shell attached to a kamikaze drone. The drones act as human-guided missiles.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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Members of the special forces group prepared a kamikaze drone for use. The machines and their components are sold by a small number of mostly Chinese companies.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Far from the front, volunteers and companies work to acquire as many F.P.V.s as possible, with Ukrainian suppliers saying soldiers probably need as many as 30,000 a month. Ukraine’s government has plans to secure 100,000 of the devices for the rest of the year, said Mr. Shchyhol, the Ukrainian official.

Ukrainians compete with Russians to buy F.P.V.s from Chinese firms that are willing to sell directly. Russians often have the advantage because they can bid higher and order larger batches. Selling to Russians is also politically safer for Chinese companies.

Escadrone, a Ukrainian drone supplier, has long sourced components from China to assemble the flying vehicles. The company’s founder, who gave only his first name, Andrii, for fear of being targeted by Russia, said the profit incentives for Chinese companies lead them to sell to both sides.

“I have Chinese companies tell me they hate the Russians, Ukraine is the best,” he said. “Then I see their engines on Russian drones, too.”

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Andrii who gave only his first name, is the founder of Escadrone, which transforms racing drones into kamikaze drones for the Ukrainian military. He said Chinese companies sell to both Ukraine and Russia.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

A drone industry of its own

In an office building barricaded with sandbags, the man behind Ukraine’s efforts to build a drone-industrial complex slid his phone forward. On it was a photo of the newest addition to a secretive Ukrainian program to strike deep inside Russia: a long-range drone with a pointy nose and swept wings.

“Yesterday the new Bober, modernized, flew to Moscow,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, referring to a class of heavy kamikaze drone that had struck Moscow the day before.

All summer, the long-range drone program had terrorized Moscow. In an interview in August, Mr. Fedorov, 32, took credit.

He has led the effort to revamp Ukraine’s military-technology base since late last year, using deregulation and state funding to build a remote-control strike force that the country can call its own. That includes helping fund the Bober program, as well as seeding a new generation of Ukrainian companies to build a drone fleet. Part of the idea is to diversify away from foreign suppliers like China.

“The state must create the best conditions, provide funding, so we will win the technological war against Russia,” said Mr. Fedorov, whose Ministry of Digital Transformation is overseeing the government project to spend $1 billion on drones this year.

He acknowledged that some smaller companies faced issues from Chinese suppliers, but said that overall it had not been a major holdup.

“Of course, they are facing problems,” he said. “But to say that there are some supercritical problems that prevent development — there is no such thing.”

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Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s digital minister, in his office in Kyiv. “The state must create the best conditions, provide funding, so we will win the technological war against Russia,” he said.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Around Kyiv, the activity is palpable. Young companies are inventing homespun flying craft in hidden workshops. Ranges surrounded by fields of sunflowers and rapeseed are abuzz with new contraptions, which undergo a battery of tests before being cleared for the war.

The start-up spirit has its limits. Makers complain about small-scale contracts from the government, shortages of funds and a lack of planning. Skeptics said the government was running a high-risk experiment that business would come through in the lurch, even though there was no replacement for Chinese drones.

Replacing China as the source for drones like F.P.V.s and Mavics may be difficult, but tentative signs show Ukraine finding parts from Europe, the United States and others like Taiwan for some advanced drones.

Ukrspecsystems, a company in Kyiv that makes fixed-wing reconnaissance drones, said in a statement that supply chain issues with China had led it to look beyond the country.

“Today, we virtually do not use any Chinese components because we see and feel how China deliberately delays the delivery of any goods to Ukraine,” it said.

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Racing drones purchased and modified by Escadrone to function as kamikaze weapons.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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A rotary drone sent back to Reactive Drone for repair. Ukraine loses an estimated 10,000 drones a month.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times
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Reactive Drone’s manufacturing workshop.Credit...Brendan Hoffman for The New York Times

Olha Kotiuzhanska contributed reporting from Kyiv, Dnipro and Odesa; Aaron Krolik from London; and Dzvinka Pinchuk and Evelina Riabenko from Kupiansk. Mark Boyer contributed video production.