On Thursday, the leaders of France, Germany, Italy, and Romania paid a joint visit to Ukrainian Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv. As with other meetings, the presence of foreign leaders in Kyiv emphasizes something very important: Russia lost its effort to secure the Ukrainian capital, and is still unable to control access to Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government. Every one of these meetings is a validation of the existing government, an enduring visual pledge to support Ukraine in its fight—and a giant middle finger to Putin.
It was also proof that until this war is over, Zelenskyy is never going to be able to change his shirt. The contrast between Zelenskyy in his military olive-drab tee and other leaders in their business attire never ceases to be a good reminder that in Ukraine, everything is not business as usual. Getting someone back into an uncomfortable suit doesn’t seem like much of a goal, but in this case, seeing Zelenskyy adjust a tie will be a very good signal that this war is well and truly done.
These occasions also call for the usual measured response from the Russian government.
The clock really is ticking. Except for the one deciding whether Dmitry Medvedev has any political future. That one wound down long ago.
This gathering of leaders in Kyiv followed a day after a meeting in which NATO countries gathered in Brussels to announce additional support to Ukraine in its fight against an illegal, unprovoked invasion by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Kos detailed the weapon systems included in this latest round of announcements, including a new $1B commitment from the United States, and discussed why what was pledged on Wednesday is far more valuable to Ukraine than the wild demands floating around in the media.
What’s important now is integrating these weapon systems into the Ukrainian military, keeping them supplied with ammunition and spare parts, and making sure enough soldiers on the ground have the training necessary to effectively utilize the weapons. Because we’ve already seen examples of weapons, weapons that were thought to be vital to Ukrainian efforts, sitting idle because they weren’t adequately integrated into Ukrainian tactics.
Switchblades vs. DJI
A good example of how training and experience is required to make a system effective is connected to a device that many people, myself included, expected to play a critical role in allowing Ukrainian troops to strike back against Russian artillery and other forces operating at a distance: the Switchblade loitering munition.
Way back on April 6, I excitedly wrote about the Switchblade 300 and 600 series drones as something that could fit into a gap between weapons like Stinger or Javelin missiles, and larger drones like Turkey’s Bayraktar. Meanwhile, there were voices on the right so concerned about the U.S. sending these “kamikaze drones” to Ukraine that they were convinced Putin would use this as an excuse to up the nuclear threat. Switchblades were seen as a very big deal.
However, I ended that discussion of the new loitering munition on its way to Ukraine this way: “Both the Switchblade 300 and 600 have their potential targets. How this type of weapon will work out in Ukraine isn’t clear...”
That turns out to have been much more prescient that all my details on how the Switchblade worked and how effective it had been for U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Because, according to CNN, what some of these devices are doing in Ukraine is gathering dust.
In some cases, according to one source familiar with US intelligence, Ukraine is simply opting not to use the unfamiliar Western systems. For example, despite receiving hundreds of Switchblade drones, some units prefer to use commercial drones rigged with explosives that are more user-friendly.
Ukrainian forces have modified off-the-shelf consumer drones, generally by adding a 3-D printer part and small grenades, into a remote delivery system that can surprise Russian forces from kilometers away. The bombs dropped by these units are generally too small to be effective against heavily armored units, but then, the same thing can be said about the Switchblade 300.
These consumer drones are simple, familiar to many people—especially Ukrainian soldiers who are, as in any war, often extremely young—and can be obtained in quantity at very low cost. It’s not a surprise that Ukrainian troops prefer them to a one-time-use weapon with unfamiliar controls and a less than perfect track record. Early in the invasion, Ukrainian officials even put out a call for those with experience using consumer drones.
It’s not that Switchblades aren’t still being used in the war. We know they are, because Russian forces keep posting images that show the back halves of Switchblades which have clearly reached their target and exploded. These images usually come with claims that these are “drones shot down by Russia” (claims that often involve identifying these Switchblade fragments as something else).
Switchblades of both sizes are playing a role. It’s just that some units prefer the consumer drones, not least of all because they’re one “weapons system” that they knew how to operate before the war began.
At the start of the war, Ukraine couldn’t use the consumer drones made by the world’s most popular drone company, DJI, for a very good reason: Not only were the drones getting shot down, but drone operators were getting killed. There were even accounts of Ukrainian kids, well away from any zone of combat, being hit by missiles or long-range artillery when simply playing with a DJI drone.
That’s because DJI provides a service to police and government officials that lets them locate not just drones, but drone operators.
There is a sound reason for this. Consumer drones have often interfered with operations at airports, or military bases, or conducted dangerous flights over crowds. The DJI “AeroScope” program allows police or the FAA to quickly locate drones invading controlled airspace, track down the operator, and control the situation before an accident occurs or thousands of air passengers are delayed. If you have access to AeroScope, you can see both the location of operators and drones within a range of about 50 kilometers.
While that’s great for airports, there is, of course, a downside to this program. Police and other authorities, especially in authoritarian governments, have used the program to locate those who were recording protests, instances of police abuse, labor camps, or other things that authorities would rather stay hidden. That same program has allowed the Russian military to precisely locate the operators of DJI drones in Ukraine and kill them.
DJI’s response to this has been decidedly mixed. On the one hand, the company was very, very far from thrilled to find their consumer products being repurposed for war. As a company that sells a substantial percentage of its products to kids, a feeling of horror in finding their products being used in combat is absolutely justified. In April, DJI suspended sales of their drones in both Ukraine and Russia—a step that has, of course, done nothing to stop the flow of drones that enter Ukraine from neighboring countries. Russia, on the other hand, is reported to be running low.
There were reports, soon after the start of the war, that DJI had downgraded its AeroScope program to give less precise positions. There were also reports that DJI has turned off AeroSpace access for Ukrainian officials, giving Russia free rein to operate the drones with impunity. DJI denied both of these claims, though it did admit that some Ukrainian AeroScope receivers were not working properly.
What seemed to have happened, after just a couple of weeks of use in combat, is that both sides learned, as those folks on the internet say, One Simple Trick: Put down the drone, walk or drive some distance away (a distance that could be measured in kilometers), and only then activate the drone and send it toward the target. Because it seems that the location of the operator reported in AeroScope isn’t based on an active GPS signal from the controls. It’s based on the starting position of the drone. Operators also learned to reverse this process on landing … and to be very, very careful about approaching those drones to retrieve them.
Despite earlier reports, DJI doesn’t seem to have turned off the use of AeroScope for either country, making the use of these drones tricky. Still … not so tricky that those with drone experience would rather switch over to the largely hands-off, single-use Switchblade. The DJI drones are easier to obtain, more familiar to operate, and open to a modification that allows them to be used in a variety of ways. That doesn’t make the Switchblades useless—far from it. It just means that the two types of drones are being used in different ways by different units.
When it comes to how effectively they’re being used, one thing seems clear: Ukraine is better. Videos have revealed multiple examples of how Ukrainian pilots have modified their drones with 3D-printed parts to make them effective in delivering grenades, some of which have also been equipped with 3D-printed fins to make them into more effective bombs.
Big warning here: The “Russian stuff blowing up” in this video is not, repeat NOT, armored equipment.
On the other hand, Russian soldiers have been a good deal cruder in how these devices have been used. Not only have there been multiple videos of Russian drone pilots missing their targets with un-aerodynamic munitions that tumble uncontrolled after being dropped, but there’s also this story about Russia using a drone that carried a bomb in a coffee cup dangling from a string. There’s a certain level of innovation there … it’s just not going to hit anything.
Right now, Ukraine is making use of more of these drones and doing it better than Russia. It would be good if DJI would disable AeroSpace in the area, but they’re unlikely to do so. Because DJI doesn’t want their drones used for military purposes, or for criminals to put together the same kind of practices and employ them away from the battlefield. They want both sides to stop using their drones.
Something else has changed since those first Switchblade 300s went to Ukraine. That’s the introduction of the “Ghost Phoenix” drone.
When the shipment of these drones to Ukraine was announced, they were a complete mystery. We’ve since learned that these drones were already in development by the Air Force before Russian tanks rolled over the border into Ukraine. However, as U.S. trainers got a chance to discuss drone operations with Ukrainian forces, they realized that the Phoenix Ghost seemed like a good fit for the tool they needed. They pushed the development ahead and started moving these drones, not to U.S. bases, but straight to Ukraine.
For the soldiers who have had time to train with the Switchblade 300, it remains an effective tool against lightly armored vehicles and personnel. Both the Switchblade 600 and the Phoenix Ghost represent tools that can be effective against more solidly armored equipment. But the DJI drones have the advantage that some of those in the Ukraine military have been using them for years before the war ever began. This is a genuine skill set, one that’s been built up with experience and muscle memory. These drone pilots were already experts on day one.
So there’s no doubt they’re going to continue using these devices, effectively, to scout out Russian positions and take out Russian troops. That doesn’t mean the Switchblade is ineffective. It just means that it’s hard to predict how any weapons system will be accepted and integrated.
If Ukraine could figure out a way to weaponize the Playstation, this war would be over.
Russian Stuff Blowing Up Theater
There are disagreements about the location of this shootdown. It may not have been in the Kherson area. At this point, I’ve heard Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and even Donetsk. Anyway …
Speaking of drones ...
The answer on where was that helicopter appears to be Donetsk. And it was almost a twofer.
Here’s one way of getting to Nova Khakovka.