The Images from a UAV Provide a Glimpse of the Russian Side of the War Zone
Damaged Houses and Cratered Fields
The images captured by a reconnaissance drone sent by Ukrainian forces revealed the destruction in the Russian side of the war zone. The Ukrainian southern steppe displayed damaged houses and cratered fields. The drone also captured burned-out armor in a scorched forest. Lieutenant Ashot Arutiunian, commander of the unit responsible for the images, noted that an American-supplied cluster munition had recently blasted a jagged Russian trench along a tree line. The accuracy of the American-made HIMARS rocket system was evident in the lack of damage to surrounding buildings or a nearby church.
Aerial Reconnaissance Amidst Fierce Artillery Fire
While Ukrainian artillery fired relentlessly with deep rumbling explosions, Lieutenant Arutiunian was focused on the skies above. Both Russian and Ukrainian forces heavily rely on drones for battlefield reconnaissance and directing fire against enemy targets. Lieutenant Arutiunian, also known as Doc, commands four teams in the unmanned aerial vehicle service of the Ukrainian Volunteer Army. Operating on the southern front, these teams deploy a variety of propeller-driven drones and planes to track Russian forces for the Ukrainian military.
A Mission Close to the Front Line
The New York Times journalists were allowed to accompany one of the units on a mission near the front line. The unit sent a drone into Russian-occupied territory to survey the battlefront. For security reasons, the unit’s precise location could not be disclosed. The team, under the cover of a small copse of trees, unpacked equipment and set up four antennas to counter both Russian and Ukrainian electronic jammers that could potentially disrupt the drone’s flight.
Investigating the Terrain and Searching for Targets
The unit’s reconnaissance mission involved investigating the terrain. Lieutenant Arutiunian explained that they were looking for soldiers, warehouses, gasoline depots, or any other significant targets. The Ukrainian drone teams had to remain cautious of Russian drones as they hunted for their own targets, knowing that they themselves could become targets in the process.
The Advancement of Russian Electronic Warfare
The Ukrainian Army initially gained an advantage over Russian forces by utilizing cheap commercial drones in the early months of the war. However, military analysts highlight Russia’s sophisticated electronic warfare capability. In response, Russia has developed its own reconnaissance drones for spotting ground units and directing artillery or mortar fire. They have also deployed attack drones armed with explosives.
A Challenging Flight Across Russian-Occupied Territory
Once the drone was launched into the air, the team faced challenges, including Russian electronic warfare interference and the malfunctioning GPS system. Despite these setbacks, the pilot managed to fly the drone for 30 minutes, capturing footage of villages, empty fields, destroyed armor, and trenches along battered tree lines in Russian-occupied territory.
Analyzing Footage for Signs of Russian Military
Back at the base, the team examined the video footage on a large monitor, looking for any signs of Russian military presence. They analyzed new shapes and searched for Russian equipment concealed under foliage or camouflage netting. While many of the damages observed on the Russian side were caused by Ukrainian shelling during their counteroffensive, the presence of circular craters indicated the use of American-provided cluster bombs.
Searching for Russian Troops and Adaptation
The team meticulously searched the battlefields and tree lines for signs of Russian troops. They distinguished between old and new tracks made by vehicles, indicating Russian movements. The soldiers noted that the Russians often return to positions they had previously abandoned. Despite their efforts, the team did not find any evidence of Russian presence, which they considered a successful mission.