Volunteer drone manufacturer, Gleb Sivkov, assembles drones to donate them to the Russian National ... [+] Guard (Rosgvardia) in his garage in Rostov-on-Don on October 21, 2022. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

One of the oddities of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is that prominent bloggers supporting the opposing armed forces hold public discussions on social media sharing tips, frustrations, setbacks and triumphs.

On the Russian side, several recent posts on Telegram by nationalists supplying Russia’s military with drones reaffirm a long running complaint: that Russia’s government is awful at fostering innovation and procuring what’s needed to the point that it’s more hindrance than help.

And that despite officials at many levels of government agreeing more are badly needed on the frontline, where cheap, small aerial drones (SUAS) have proven highly useful for providing situational awareness and targeting artillery bombardments yet are quickly lost.

A drone operator corrects a fire of 82mm mortar used by Ukrainian Volunteer Army servicemen to fire ... [+] toward Russian position near Ugledar, Donetsk region on April 21, 2023. (Photo by Sergey SHESTAK / AFP) (Photo by SERGEY SHESTAK/AFP via Getty Images)

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Samuel Bendett, an expert specialized in Russian research into uncrewed systems and AI at the CNA and CNAS security think tanks, translated the post in a thread on “bureaucratic and logistical issues encountered by Russian drone developers.”


Bendett’s translation begins:

“If a Russian official comes running to a team of drone developers or assemblers with a promise of support and a "green light" at all levels, the team get very concerned and asks that official not to interfere with its work the team knows that this official does not understand what to do next. He basically does not know how to organize drone production and what the "green light" should mean in practice...."

“As soon as this team starts working with the official, he begins to demand strict deadlines, but he cannot arrange payment for the work and to decide who will pay for work and how. If the official is truly brilliant and was able to solve the previous (payment) issue, everything will still hinge on some old lady in accounting, who will ask for an agreement with the Chinese (for parts) and payment to Sber (Savings Bank). And if these payment arrangements don't exist yet, she doesn't know what to do and it’s not her problem.

“And even if you find an intermediary who will issue Chinese purchases in accordance with all the rules, you will run into the issue with the building for work, which will be a dilapidated wreck on the (city/town) outskirts, with rats in the basement. This is a true story, by the way."

KYIV, UKRAINE - DECEMBER 15, 2022 - Demonstration of the fragments of UAV used by Russia against ... [+] Ukraine at the Military Media Center within the framework of the briefing of the representatives of the Security and Defense Forces of Ukraine on the operational information on the frontline of the Russian-Ukrainian war and the security situation in Ukraine, Kyiv, capital of Ukraine. (Photo credit should read Yevhen Kotenko / Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

Future Publishing via Getty Images

Part of the volunteers’ dilemma is that Western sanctions have created scarcity of many kinds of off-the-shelf components needed for convenient drone production. Russians have found various channels to circumvent sanctions and smuggle parts through overseas agents and via friendly intermediaries. But under-the-table transactions apparently don’t produce the paperwork required by Russian bureaucracy.

As a result, the post claims drone-building Russians supportive of the war actively avoid working with the government and military:

“And that's why those who really do something, refuse the help. They organize themselves, make their own products, find testing areas and raw materials. Volunteers collect money and take products to the front on their own. The system is organized and operates in parallel with the state and beyond it. Sure, there are some flaws and theft, but still... More than half of ISR [Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance] across the entire front is provided by private volunteers via DJI Mavics."

Ukraine’s drone innovation machine

Volunteers and patriotic startups have also played a major, and overall more successful, role in Ukraine’s resistance against Russian invaders, with innovation minister Mikhailo Fedorov also telling me in a recent interview that roughly half of drone procurement came from civilian donations to its Army of Drones program (in terms of numbers, not financial value). In general, civilian collaboration with the military, and government support for drone innovation, appears more successful in Ukraine.

For example, the government’s Aerorozvidka drone reconnaissance/attack unit started as a civilian volunteer organization in the mid-2010s. These eventually assembled their own R18 bomber octocopters that contributed to defeating Russia’s failed war-opening offensive on Kyiv.

In a correspondence with the chief of Ukraine’s SSSCP communications security service indicated the number of companies developing new drones in Ukraine had increased from 30 to 90, each of which is building multiple types of drones. And already startups literally invented mid-2022 have by 2023 begun mass-production of deadly FPV drones.

Yet these successes shouldn’t obscure that Ukraine’s booming cottage industry in drones faced—and still faces—similar challenges. In a February 2023 article for Ukrainian Pravda, Maria Berlinska, the head of Ukraine’s Aerial Reconnaissance Support Center complained government regulations continued to make it difficult for civilian drone builders to acquire the parts they needed from overseas.

She argues Kyiv should further lift regulations restricting dual-use commodities and duties for companies supplying drones to Ukraine’s military. ““We are a country that does not produces its chips, high-precision electronics, optics. All avionics, all of the stuffing of our UAVs is imported.”

“Like everything else in war, drones are expendable,” she continues. “In practice, this means that where there are no drones, people become expendable.”

Military volunteer Maria Berlinska bids farewell to military commander Dmytro Kotsiubailo, Kyiv, ... [+] Maidan nezalezhnosti, March 10, 2023. Thousands came to say goodbye to Kotsiubailo, who was killed at March 7 near Bakhmut, Donetsk region at 28 years old. (Photo by Oleksandr Khomenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

NurPhoto via Getty Images

Berlinska was especially mad over 500 Mavic 3 drones that were delayed by Ukrainian customs at the Polish border. Her complaints eventually spurred a policy change on importation of dual-use parts.

Russia’s Kamikaze Drone Hogwarts

Another logistical chokepoint when it comes to fielding cheap drones on the frontline are the number of personnel trained in operating them. This is especially true with the rising use of FPV kamikaze drones controlled by operators wearing 3D goggles. The speedy, explosive-laden racing drones can be lethal even against tanks and infantry fighting vehicles, and can be built very cheaply at a few hundred dollars apiece. But they require a high degree of operator skill to pilot accurately to target.

KYIV REGION, UKRAINE - MAY 20: Marta, flies a First-Person-View (FPV ) DJI drone, formally with ... [+] the Ukranian national police uses her advanced pilot skills teaching others on May 20, 2023 in Kyiv region, Ukraine. Drones are used for both reconnaissance and fighting. The Female Pilots of Ukraine is the country's first school dedicated to teaching women this important new skill, both civilians as well as military. (Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

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While Ukraine staked a lead in mass adoption of kamikaze FPVs, Russian nationalists have been trying to catch up, taking it upon themselves to create FPV operator training programs offered outside of the hidebound regular military.

Bendett points to an incident where Russia’s private sector, rather than its government, sabotaged an initiative known as Project Archangel.

Nationalist volunteers asked aranged a deal to rent a two-story building at the Myachkovo airfield in southeastern Moscow to support a free training program for military FPV drone operators. The rent was arranged at a rate of 250,000 rubles (currently $2,800 USD) monthly.

But just a few days before Russia’s kamikaze drone academy opened, the airport terminated the agreement forcing the organizers to scramble and find 60 hotel beds plus means for transit to the airport, where they eventually began instruction.

But then they were also told they couldn’t actually use the airport to practice flying drones, or give instruction in military uniforms there either. In a zeitgeisty epilogue to this incident, however, the outcry raised on social media over the airport’s flip-flopping eventually allowed the academy to resume instruction there after all.

That’s of course unfortunate for those opposed to Russia’s invasion, bombardment and occupation of Ukrainian territory.

Why do governments and militaries struggle to integrate small drones?

Small, civilian-style drones bring effective capabilities to the battlefield at remarkably low costs in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars. However, armed forces across the globe have been slow to adopt them systematically, continuing to rely on more established platforms.

DNIPRO REGION, UKRAINE - APRIL 18: A Ukrainian military drone is loaded with dummy grenades for ... [+] target practice, as members of the volunteer Dnipro-1 Battalion of the Ukrainian National Guard prepare for an expected spring counter-offensive against Russian invasion forces in the region of Dnipro, Ukraine, on April 18, 2023. Ukrainian forces have limited the gains made by Russian troops and Wagner mercenary units during a Russian winter offensive in the eastern Donbas region, but Ukrainian officials say that - despite relatively pessimistic assessments made by the Pentagon about Ukrainian chances, recently revealed in a trove of leaked documents - they recognize the need to reclaim lost territory and gain battlefield momentum to ensure continued American and Western military and economic support in their defense against Russia. (Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

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To be fair, military systems sometimes can do things flat out impossible for most civilian drones due to greater range or payload capacity, and may resist countermeasures that cause unhardened civilian SUAS to drop like flies.

But focusing only on more capable drones also means many units go entirely without affordable ‘eyes in the sky’ they desperately need to improve survival odds.

Traditional military procurement bureaucracies were developed around the assumptions of large, complex armored vehicles, warships and aircraft; or somewhat simpler ones like trucks or Humvees built in massive quantities. These may take years to develop, cost large sums to produce, are subject to stringent oversight, and can only be undertaken by defense-industrial giants, to which smaller companies attach themselves like remoras on a shark.

But small drones can be developed, iterated upon and ultimately mass-produced much faster and at lower cost than a warplane, and obviously present smaller risks for lack of an onboard crew (though not none, due to danger of crashed drones impacting civilian objects or starting fires etc.)

Volunteer drone manufacturer, Gleb Sivkov, assembles drones to donate them to the Russian National ... [+] Guard (Rosgvardia) in his garage in Rostov-on-Don on October 21, 2022. (Photo by AFP) (Photo by -/AFP via Getty Images)

AFP via Getty Images

And in this arena a smaller amount of funding can go a longer way, a dynamic which has allowed Ukrainian non-profit Escadrone to begin mass-producing thousands of lethal kamikaze drones monthly, each costing just $400-500 dollars. Compare that to the cost of a single $80,000 Javelin anti-tank missile.

Thus, procurement processes intended for exquisite jet fighters costing tens of millions of dollars that will require well over a decade to safely develop have difficulty shepherding much cheaper, cost-efficient systems into production despite intense demand for them from below.

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