The drones are more accurate than artillery, but far less powerful. They are helping Ukraine to fend off Russia’s forces, at least for now

Ian Lovett

January 8, 2024

The Wall Street Journal


A VILLAGE NEAR ORIKHIV, Ukraine—From a bunker on the southeastern front, it’s easy to hear how Ukraine’s supply of artillery ammunition has dwindled. For every five or six incoming Russian shells, the Ukrainians fire back once or twice. As the war approaches its third year, Russia is on the offensive, backed by an economy on a war footing. Ukraine, meanwhile, is short on ammunition as additional aid from its main backer, the U.S., remains blocked in Congress.

With artillery shells running low, Ukrainian troops on the front lines are improvising and using explosive drones to try to hold the Russians back.  “We’re increasingly using FPV drones because we have a lack of shells,” said Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation. But, he added, “drones can’t replace artillery completely.”

Ukraine’s growing reliance on FPV, or first-person-view, drones offers a preview of what the war might look like if the flow of Western weapons to Kyiv were severely curtailed.  FPV drones can’t match the speed of artillery or blast through a concrete wall, but they are cheaper and much easier to produce.

With additional aid packages from the U.S. and the European Union stalled, Ukrainian forces are running short on ammunition, money and manpower. Many brigades are depleted from the summer counteroffensive, which failed to make a significant breakthrough.  Now, the Ukrainians are trying to make do until more resources arrive. As in the first weeks of the war—before Western weapons flooded into the country—that short-handedness has led to unorthodox tactics and MacGyvered weapons to plug holes, such as substituting FPV drones for artillery fire.

The drones can’t fly as far or fast as artillery. They can’t carry as much explosive, or blast through a concrete wall. But at just a few hundred dollars each, the drones cost far less than artillery shells and are much easier to produce—volunteers buy drones from commercial vendors and deliver them to the soldiers, who rig them with explosives.

Both sides have made increasing use of FPV drones over the past six months as they’ve shown their usefulness on Ukraine’s flat, open fields. They’re far more accurate than artillery, allowing the drone pilots to chase down moving vehicles and troops on foot. While artillery usually needs several shots to hit a target, FPV drones hit almost every time.

So far, they’re just about holding back Russian advances around Robotyne village to the south of the town of Orikhiv, since some artillery units in the area were sent to other parts of the front.

“They’re putting more and more hopes on us,” said a 33-year-old commander of an FPV drone squad, who goes by the call sign Tulayne, meaning “Seal.”  Tulayne said his drone team was operating short-handed in several ways. The Wall Street Journal observed Tulayne’s team on a recent mission in the Robotyne area, where Russian forces have been trying to win back the territory Ukraine seized during the counteroffensive. The four-man team brought 20 propeller drones, each about the size of a dinner plate, to a bunker a few miles from the front line.

The engineer attached different kinds of munitions to a few of the drones—one for hitting infantry, another designed to penetrate armored vehicles. Then he ran outside to set up an antenna, with wires running into the bunker to connect to the pilot.

A surveillance team spotted at least a dozen Russians in a network of foxholes not far away. Tulayne, who was acting as pilot, slipped on goggles that let him see what the drone’s camera sees and grabbed a controller. Then the drone whirred into the air.  Tulayne maneuvered toward the entrance to a foxhole, then slammed the drone into it. He and his colleagues watched a live feed from a surveillance drone as smoke rose from the foxhole, waiting for Russians to run out. “They’ll come out,” Tulayne said of the Russians.  The deputy commander told an engineer to get another drone, armed with a different kind of munition, ready to take off and hit them again. “He’s bandaging him,” he surmised. “We need to fly there fast.”

Although the Ukrainians are relying on FPV drones out of necessity, soldiers operating around Robotyne said the devices are transforming the front line. Because large armored vehicles are valuable, easy-to-spot targets, both sides limited their use on the front line and instead began to rely on vans, or even motorbikes.  But using the FPV drones, the Ukrainians are now hitting even small vehicles, and chasing down soldiers on foot.

The result is that the gray zone—between enemy trenches that neither side controls—has grown wider, according to soldiers in the area, making it tougher to advance.  “When we arrived a few months ago, the enemy was still bringing in people and ammunition with Jeeps,” said the 31-year-old commander of another FPV platoon working near Robotyne. “We’ve slowly destroyed all their logistics. Now, they have to bring boxes and evacuate the wounded on foot.”

Over the course of their 12-hour shift, Tulayne and his team launched 12 drones. One was jammed by Russian electronic warfare systems. Two failed to detonate. The rest slammed into the same network of Russian foxholes. The team believed they killed two and injured several more.  Tulayne said he had noticed an increase in the use of FPV drones by Russia. Still, the FPV teams said they were operating short-handed in several ways, making their job tougher.  Tulayne’s platoon should be twice as large as it is, but he hasn’t been able to recruit new men, leaving the team overworked.

And even though the drones are cheap, there’s a limit to how many can be used. The team must request special approval to hit the same foxhole over and over. During their recent shift, they requested permission and never got an answer.  Most of all, Tulayne said, the lack of artillery support is a handicap.  Though the drones are effective against infantry and vehicles, they can’t carry enough explosives to destroy fortifications, which artillery can blast through. In addition, they fly far slower than artillery—about half a mile a minute. Sometimes, by the time they reach

their destination, the target is gone.  A few months ago, the drones were supplementing artillery, swooping in after shells had crashed through fortifications and picking off softer targets. “I’d just fly toward the clouds where artillery had hit,” Tulayne said. “It’s been a few weeks since that happened.”

In addition to seeking foreign arms, Ukraine is working to beef up its production of FPV drones, including making some that are capable of carrying larger munitions.  “We will make a million drones next year,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the end of December. “I agree we have challenges. With amounts of aid, with artillery shells.”  Meanwhile, however, Moscow is trying to make the most of its resource advantage, and is building its own FPV drone army. “In the last few weeks, their use of FPV drones has increased three or four times,” Tulayne said, though he added that Ukraine was still using more. “Their artillery is working well. They have an advantage in air reconnaissance.”

Though Tulayne said the Russians hadn’t gained any territory in the area where his platoon was working, Moscow has slowly been clawing back territory around Robotyne, according to open-source analysts.


Ian Lovett is the national religion reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He is based in Los Angeles. Prior to joining the Journal, he spent five years at the New York Times, where he covered the West Coast and major breaking news across the country, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the the San Bernardino terrorist attack and the deadly mudslide in Oso, Washington.  He grew up outside Boston and received a BA in English from Amherst College.