- Apr 16, 2021
- Perched on a rock in Canada
[SIZE=0.875rem]A Ukrainian soldier launches FlyEye WB Electronics SA, a Polish reconnaissance drone, which is in service with the Ukrainian army, in Kyiv region, Ukraine, Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. [/SIZE]AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File
Nearly 15 months of war has seen an unprecedented level of drone usage from Russian and Ukrainian forces, which have used the critical unmanned aircraft for surveillance, attacks, and defense, among other things. And thanks, in part, to a year-long massive fundraising project, Kyiv's arsenal of drones has expanded by thousands.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in donations, Ukraine over the past year has built what it calls an "Army of Drones" for its military, and even obtained an unusual system called the "Shahed Hunter" which can, in theory, take down the Iranian-made explosive drones that Russian forces have used to terrorize Ukrainian cities for months.
These donations are part of an online crowdfunding initiative called UNITED24 that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy first launched in early May 2022, just a couple months after Russia's full-scale invasion, as a way to raise money to help fuel Kyiv's war efforts. "Everyone can make a donation in one click from any country. These can be individual conscious citizens, entrepreneurs, and large technology corporations," Zelenskyy said at the time.
Donors could choose if they wanted their money to be distributed toward education, medical aid, rebuilding efforts, demining operations, or defense, and from there, the money was transferred to the National Bank of Ukraine before it was sent to the appropriate ministry.
UNITED24 has raised over $330 million from people in over 100 countries, Zelenskyy said in a speech on May 5 to mark the platform's first anniversary. Defense and demining efforts account for over $269 million of the total funds raised, according to Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine's vice prime minister for innovations, development of education, science, and technologies.
Ukraine's Minister of Digital Transformation Mykhailo Fedorov gestures during a news conference at the Web Summit technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022. AP Photo/Armando Franca, File
Insider communicated with Fedorov, who was tasked with setting up UNITED24, about the impact of this project on Ukraine's military and defense operations. In a written response last week, he detailed several of the ways that the fundraising platform has been used to support Kyiv's forces, including through a huge procurement of drones.
"Within a year, UNITED24 became the game changer in the world of fundraising," Fedorov said. "We use creativity even in fundraising campaigns to attract as many donations as possible."
A UNITED24 financial report and defense equipment inventory reviewed by Insider shows that Ukraine has already spent over $215 million on a whole slew of items for Ukraine's military, including everything from articles of clothing, helmets, and body armor to special vehicles, spare parts, and thermal imaging cameras.
Ukraine has even been able to purchase an advanced mine-clearing machine called the Armtrac 400, which uses a hydraulic rotor to scour the ground for explosives. The vehicle — which can be operated manually or remotely — neutralizes explosives at a depth of 21 meters and can withstand the blast from some anti-tank mines.
The machine was first used in Ukraine's northeast Kharkiv region last year and is now being deployed in the southern Kherson region, Fedorov told Insider. Both these areas were under Russian occupation for months until they were liberated by Ukrainian forces during two separate counteroffensives last fall.
"Unfortunately, after the liberation, there are a lot of lands in these regions that need to be demined," he said. "The machine helps save the lives of our rescuers, deminers and civilians."
The Armtrac 400 is made by a British company. UNITED24
Ukraine has also used funds from UNITED24 to purchase six anti-drone defense systems known as the "Shahed Hunter" — a reference to several different types of Iranian-made drones operated by Russian forces.
The most popular of these weapons is the Shahed-136, a long-range loitering munition that can fly around like a normal drone and linger over a specific area. These small systems are packed with explosives and can be aimed at targets, flown directly into them, and detonated upon impact like a missile. Since last September, Moscow's forces have been using them like cheap cruise missiles to terrorize cities across Ukraine, often attacking the country's energy grid or civil infrastructure.
The Shahed Hunter system is a network of radars and signal jammers that can detect Russian drones from around 25 miles away, Fedorov said. The system then releases interceptor drones that use heavy-duty nets to capture the incoming enemy drone, and upon capture, a parachute is released to slowly bring the drone down to earth and avoid explosions.
Fedorov published a video of the Shahed Hunter system in action to his Telegram in late January.
UNITED24 sent Insider a version of the video with English captions, which read: "The first 'Shahed Hunters' have already went hunting. These anti-drone systems can: detect enemy drones, jam GPS signals, intercept devices in the sky. Let the drone hunt begin!"
It's unclear where, exactly, the Shahed Hunter systems have been used or how many times they have been deployed. But Fedorov noted that Ukraine needs more of the systems to defend against continuous waves of Russian drone attacks. On Sunday night alone, Ukraine's air defense systems shot down 35 drones — 30 of which targeted Kyiv, according to the country's defense ministry. Each intercept drains Kyiv's already strained stockpile of air defense missiles, creating a need for alternatives.
"We constantly continue searching [and] purchasing solutions that will help defend Ukrainians from drone attacks," Fedorov said.
But on a battlefield that's featured drone usage on a scale that's never been seen before, Ukraine's inventory of unmanned aerial capabilities extends well beyond just the Shahed Hunter defense systems.
"Army of Drones"
Through the UNITED24 platform, Ukraine has built what it calls an "Army of Drones" — a project that includes the purchase of thousands of drones, repairs for the systems, training for 10,000 operators, and a push for widespread drone production, Fedorov said.
According to data from the UNITED24 equipment inventory and the Army of Drones report, Ukraine has purchased 3,839 drones and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs) systems, and 18 naval drones. 2,124 of these drones have already been sent to the front lines, where they are "already showing results on the battlefield," Fedorov tweeted on Tuesday.
This vast and diverse drone arsenal — which consists of at least a dozen different aircraft models that range in size, weight, and payload capacity — also includes civil drones donated by people to the Ukrainian military, Fedorov said. He referred to these as "dronations" and hailed them as a "key part" of the Army of Drones project.
DJI Matrice drones. Courtesy of UNITED24.
A Skyeton Raybird-3 drone. Courtesy of UNITED24.
A UJ-22 Airborne drone. Courtesy of UNITED24
With the UNITED24 fundraiser now over a year old and Ukraine gearing up for a much-anticipated counteroffensive to liberate occupied territory in the country's east and south, the Army of Drones project will continue to be a main focus for Kyiv moving forward.
Fedorov said the initiative is undergoing a "transformation" with several outcomes, one of which is the creation of the "world's first strike done units." According to an "Army of Drones" report published on Tuesday, there were already 11 strike drone units fully equipped for combat, and the goal is to eventually get this figure up to 60.
"The next step," Fedorov said, "is pushing our national drone production; to do so, we've already worked on deregulating and creating a favorable environment for innovation."
Credit for this post goes to Kath who had difficulty posting it and asked me to help out.
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