Death From Above: Drones Are Changing the Landscape of War

On the third floor of an abandoned factory in Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine, 39-year-old “Rem” struggles to light a cigarette while holding the remote control of his Chinese-made drone. He swears. Several feet behind him, clad in a bulletproof vest and helmet, a soldier known as “Duke” is surveying a map of the eastern approach to the city on his tablet. A dozen Russian positions have been marked with red crosses, bearing such evocative names as “mattress,” “putin,” and “machine gun.”

The ping of a notification coming from Duke’s phone finally breaks the silence. “Fire,” says Duke in Ukrainian, staring intently at the screen of his tablet. A loud bang rattles the walls and windows, followed by a whizzing sound rapidly rising above the building, getting fainter, and then stopping. A couple of seconds later, the live feed from the drone’s camera shows the shell landing right on a Russian position. “That’s perfect,” exclaims Rem, also in Ukrainian. “Exactly where we needed it.” The two men rejoice. Thanks to their store-bought DJI Matrice drone, the accurate fire from a Polish-made Krab self-propelled howitzer has silenced a Russian automatic grenade launcher.

Both from the eastern Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Rem and Duke have been serving in the Skala intelligence battalion since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Created and led by Iurii Skala, a veteran of the Donbas war, this battalion is made up of mostly inexperienced volunteers like Rem, who was a car dealer prior to the invasion. 

For three weeks, he and Duke have been surveying enemy movements and directing artillery fire from their position, somewhere in the center of Bakhmut. This small salt-mining town of roughly 70,000 inhabitants has been devastated by months of shelling and gruesome trench warfare that has prompted comparisons to the First World War and the battles of Verdun or Passchendaele. But even as exhausted soldiers shoot at the enemy from mud-filled trenches and men perish by the dozens every day from unending artillery fire, the ever-growing use of drones has revolutionized the nature of the fighting in Bakhmut — and in Ukraine at large.

In the basement of a residential building located a few blocks from their position, a portly officer is bent over a table, listening intently to a walkie-talkie. Facing him is a flat screen television that transmits live footage from a drone circling above the city. The air is thick with anticipation. When word of a successful strike finally comes through, the officer triumphantly throws his fist in the air before slumping back in his chair. “Now we can move easily,” he says, grinning. Guided by one of the Skala battalion’s drones, artillery fire has silenced a Russian position.

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Author: HP McLovincraft

Seeker of rabbit holes. Pessimist. Libertine. Contrarian. Your huckleberry. Possibly true tales of sanity-blasting horror also known as abject reality. Prepare yourself. Veteran of a thousand psychic wars. I have seen the fnords. Deplatformed on Tumblr and Twitter.

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