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Ukraine Has Fallen Behind Russia in the Drone Production Race, Experts Say

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion, the government of Ukraine has — with a good deal of accuracy — portrayed itself as plucky and resilient, able to overcome its adversary’s overwhelming military superiority and command of the skies with homemade ingenuity, including a batch of crowdfunded maritime drones that have made life hell for the Kremlin’s Black Sea Fleet.

But on land, Melissa Haring, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who just returned from a trip to the frontlines in Ukraine, told Insider that Ukraine actually has a good deal of ground to make up before it even hopes to achieve parity with Russia.

“The Ukrainians are way behind the Russians on drones, and this is the future of the war,” Haring said. “Ukraine doesn’t have enough drone pilots, and they don’t have enough sophisticated drones.”

In early October, Haring, who also works with the pro-Ukraine advocacy organization Razom, toured Zaporizhzhia, a southeastern region of Ukraine that’s home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant — and mostly occupied by Russian forces. In a village near the frontline, she witnessed soldiers and elderly civilians alike sheltering in the basements of bombed-out buildings while living under daily shelling.

She also got to play with Ukraine’s fleet of unmanned aerial vehicles.

“[I] went to a drone school,” she said, and “I got to see a bunch of drones,” from surveillance models meant to help locate targets for artillery fire to ones meant to deliver bombs to the enemy in kamikaze fashion. She even got to fly one. But the experience was underwhelming.

“A lot of the pieces are poor quality. They’re shoddy. They’re made in Chinese factories, and there’s no attention to detail. They’re missing pieces. They’re broken when they arrive,” Haring said.

At the start of the 2022 full-scale invasion, Ukraine’s use of drones went viral: Social media was flooded with videos of Russian tanks destroyed by the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, which one Ukrainian official dubbed “super-weapons.” But Russia adapted, improving its air defenses and electronic warfare capabilities to the point that the TB2 no longer appears on the frontlines.

Russia has also stepped up its own drone game. It, too, uses cheap Chinese components — a Ukrainian official recently claimed that recovered parts suggest Moscow is buying drone engines off AliExpress — and it deploys them with lethal effectiveness, pointing to the fact that build quality may not matter as much when a drone is intended to blow up on its first flight.

Russia has also, at times, overwhelmed Ukraine’s air defenses with swarms of cheap, Iranian-made Shahed-136 suicide drones. In August, The New York Times reported that Russia is now mass producing the drone itself, calling it the Geran-2 and packing it with explosives for single-use attacks on Ukrainian forces.

Ukraine, too, is starting to produce drones in-house. Last month, a Ukrainian company claimed that its new Punisher attack drones could evade Russia’s electronic jamming technology, saying it had delivered more than a dozen of them to the country’s armed forces. Ukraine has also begun using homemade, $100,000 R18 octocopter drones to attack Russian tanks.

But it’s there — producing quality drones, domestically, at a commercial scale — that Ukraine, by most accounts, is playing catch up with its adversary, which enjoys a sizable, decadeslong advantage when it comes to military-industrial production.

“The Ukrainians are way behind the Russians on drones, and this is the future of the war,” Haring said, pointing to a shortage in drone pilots and more sophisticated UAVs. The government has pledged to spend more than $1 billion next year in an effort to build up its drone fleet. But, on the ground, there is a feeling that drones are too important to leave to the state.

“I think the disappointing part to me is that the Ukrainian government has made a big deal out of this, and when you talk to a local activist and people who are trying to fill this need on the ground, they’ll say that the government effort is not enough, and that the subsidies that the government has committed is not enough,” Haring said. “And that’s why, of course, Ukrainian civil society is jumping into the gap, again, and it’s training drone pilots and buying drones itself.”

Samuel Bendett, an expert on drones at the Center for Naval Analyses, a Washington-based think, told Insider that the Ukrainian government will have to go all-in on a few select models of drones.

“Ukraine led in the technological race at the beginning, but the size and the scale of Russia is now working in its favor. It doesn’t mean Ukraine is in trouble. It means that Ukraine has to make some choices about which specific drones it wants to invest in,” Bendett said.

“The government prides itself on working with the volunteers and the startups, and that’s great, he continued. “But what it probably needs alongside many of these volunteer efforts is an actual selection of key models for key missions — the way Russians have done with theirs — and lean heavily on that in an industrial capacity.”

Source : Insider