Small teams of soldiers control the drones from off-road vehicles near the front line, relaying location and topographic data to artillery batteries via military channels on Telegram.
“They are providing real-time information: ‘OK, guys, 100 meters to the left, 50 meters to the right,’ that kind of thing,” Iakovenko said.
Ulrike Franke, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on UAV use in conflict, said the Ukrainian military had shown greater innovation than its Russian adversary in integrating the tech into its armed response.
“We’re not looking at just drones but drones used in conjunction with other systems such as artillery,” she said.
“That’s what makes new technology potentially revolutionary, not just having it in the field but how you use it. For drones used with artillery, that’s a system used in a novel way that has a real impact,” Franke said.
Ukraine’s use of drones has gone beyond helping target artillery. Franke said the reported role of UAVs in the sinking of the Russian warship Moskva — in which Turkish-made, fixed-wing drones were allegedly deployed as decoys to trick the vessel’s aerial defense system — showed their versatility during conflict. The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Wednesday that Ukraine had used drones to attack Russian air defense and resupply ships.
“They are defending their territory, which normally makes you more innovative, and civilian volunteers are more likely to use them in a way that the military wouldn’t normally,” Franke said.
As well as providing artillery with greater accuracy, UAVs are also being used in eastern Ukraine to limit friendly fire incidents and avoid collateral damage, according to Iakovenko.
“Ukrainians are fighting on our own land. Our target is to win with the least damage to infrastructure and to avoid any possible civilian casualties,” he said. “Drones allow them to strike with the maximum precision and to limit infrastructure damage.”
He conceded, however, that Russia was also using UAVs to good effect in the conflict. Although figures are harder to come by, the more than 50 drones Russia is documented to have lost since invading suggests they are a key part of its military operation.
The surveillance and reconnaissance benefits provided by drones would mean little without the heavy artillery to back them up, and this was a problem for Ukraine in the conflict’s opening days.
Mark Cancian, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the major challenge initially for Ukraine and its allies was acquiring Soviet-standard shells to fit the D-30 howitzers that Kyiv already possessed. These shells are 152 mm in diameter and cannot be fired in NATO-standard heavy guns, which have a 155 mm gauge.
“Once you rule out Russia and China, there aren’t that many places to get it,” Cancian said of Soviet-standard weaponry.
“That’s one reason why the U.S. and others are giving Ukraine NATO-standard, because there are lots of countries around the world that make that,” he said.
In recent weeks, the U.S., France and Germany have all provided heavy artillery systems to Ukraine. Canada has provided M777 cannons, which can fire guided shells, and the U.S. is reportedly set to follow suit, Cancian said.
Cancian, a retired U.S. Marine colonel, said the heavy weapon arriving from NATO allies would allow Ukraine to regularly replenish its ammunition stocks.
“That’s hugely important, particularly if you think the war is going to last a long time,” he said.